The Great Dolmen of Zambujeiro



For the last little while the road has been following some kind of watercourse, in a wooded gully bordering the meadow to the left, and when we reach the village of Valverde and turn left down the main street, there is a bridge at the bottom. We park and get out to inspect the little river, which is broad and shallow at this point, divided picturesquely into three or four streamlets between beds of reeds and tall bamboo. When I walk a short way along the bank to have a closer look at some yellow irises, the shrill shriek of the frogs is abruptly replaced by a watchful silence, punctuated by a series of discreet plops as they take refuge.

A kilometre past the bridge, we turn left among a collection of industrial-looking farm-buildings and park beside the final sign for the dolmen, planning to walk the rest of the way. In Portugal all sites of any touristic interest are announced by these brown and white signs. Those directing you to prehistoric sites show a stylised image of something like a wonky three-legged stool. These are called antas (dolmens in English), and are made of big flat stones balanced on other big flat stones, but that’s all I know.

The last kilometre is along a muddy cart-track. We are glad we decided not to attempt this by car, because at two or three points the way is blocked by wide khaki puddles whose depth can only be conjectured. The biggest runs the width of the track, and we have to make our way along the narrow grassy verge down one side, clinging to the fence. It is only on the way back, in an hour’s time, that I notice the sturdy white plastic loops attached to the other side of each fence-post, and the wire which runs through them. The reason for the electrified inner fence must be the short-statured, long-horned bullocks which are grazing on either side of the track, each with its own yellow-beaked cattle-egret picking about by its hooves. One of the egrets is drinking from a cattle-trough near the fence, but before we get close it flaps away, neck tucked in primly. The bullocks regard us blankly.

The track comes to an end at a little wide place where there are a couple of broad-crowned oaks, with space beneath for a couple of cars to park. To my relief no cars are there. Also, the Portuguese aren’t great walkers, so with the track in the state it’s in, nobody is here but us. In single file we cross a rickety footbridge over a swollen stream, flowing brown and dimpled between high brambled banks. The meadow beyond rises gently to the left, towards a low rocky hillock set among mature olive-trees. The land is otherwise flat pasture as before, studded with cork-oaks and more olives.

From a distance there seems to be a farm building set into the hillock, under a pitched corrugated-iron roof, but as we approach it becomes clear that there are no walls, just the high spindly-legged roof, under which is what looks like a mound of huge boulders. Close to, the site resolves itself. The middle of the hillock has been hollowed away on the nearer side, leaving thinly-grassed, shallow banks around a kind of sloping amphitheatre. At the back of this, its rear half set into the steepest part of the bank, stands a massive hollow structure made from eight huge slabs of roughly-fashioned granite, leaning against and supporting each other in a way that reminds me of a house of cards. The stones at the back are almost vertical, while those at the front are inclined about forty-five degrees. The structure is fifteen or twenty feet high and approached at the front by a kind of corridor made from irregular shoulder-high standing stones, some of which have gone missing. Most of this corridor is open to the sky (or rather, to the prosaic pitched roof high above our heads), but the last two or three metres are still roofed with bulky slabs, which are offered extra support by a sturdy wooden structure which also prevents access to the rest of the passage. Peering through, we can see that the passage ends at a small triangular entrance. The floor beyond is sunlit, grey and gravelly.

I scramble up round the side of the dolmen where it is set into the bank, stopping half-way to peer through a slit between two menhirs at the tall, level-floored space inside. Craning my neck upward, I see that Mick has already got to the top from the other side, and is leaning over and surveying the entire chamber from above. When I join him, he shows me where the chamber’s broken capstone lies, on the broad space behind us at the top of the hillock.

After a little while we gather near the front of the dolmen, where there is a fallen menhir to sit on in the sunshine. There is unbroken silence for a minute or two.

“So it’s a tomb,” I say.

“A massive funerary and megalithic monument,” Veronica reads off the information-board. “The biggest of its kind in Iberia. Its purpose was to receive the bodies of the deceased, laid inside it together with several ritual and common use objects. That last bit isn’t quite right.” She rummages in her bag. “Does anybody want their sandwich yet?”

All around us, the colours of the alentejano early spring: yellow sunlight, vivid pasture, pale boulders, the sooty-red trunks of cork-oaks stripped of their bark, the dusty sea-green of olive-trees.

We munch our sandwiches, studying the stones.

“So they didn’t bury the person in the ground,” I say blankly.

Jane, who has been looking at something on her ipad for a few minutes, now speaks. “Ah, well yes they did, in a way. This was a passage-tomb, it says here. When the roof-stones were on the burial-chamber and the passage, it was all covered over with a big mound of earth, with the burial-chamber in the middle and the passage leading to it.”

“So it was all underground, under a barrow, like in The Lord of the Rings.”

“I never saw that.”

“It was only in the book. But anyway.”

I am thinking, these ancient stones are a skeleton themselves, from which the flesh has gradually fallen as it fell from the bones of the dead who lay here.

All the way back down to the stream and over it, past the munching cattle and the water-trough, the puddle and the electric fence, the one bare tree shrill with sparrows, all the way driving home while the others nap, I am wondering how they did it and what they were like, these people who built the burial chamber, the passage and the mound. They must have found the huge rocks for the building-slabs to hand, but even so. Each slab must weigh over twenty tons (I work it out when I get home). They didn’t have the wheel, but would they have known about rollers, and then maybe tipped the menhirs up into holes they’d dug for them?  Getting the capstone on the burial-chamber would have been a tougher challenge. I start sketching out one idea of how they might have done it, but that would have entailed building the mound before the dolmen, and they didn’t have such a thing as a block and tackle, because they hadn’t invented the wheel yet, let alone the axle…

The questions outnumber even the tentative answers. Would this have been only men, or would everybody have been involved? (I imagine the latter.) Was fetching the earth and raising the mound a job for the young ones, then? Maybe once the stones were up, the adults would have pitched in too. Even so the mound would have taken a lot of people a lot of time. A cubic metre of earth weighs about a ton and a half, and the mound would have needed to be six or seven metres high at the highest point, and around twenty metres in diameter, if it was round. I don’t even try to work this out, because it’s got pi in it somewhere, but it’s hundreds or maybe thousands of tons. Could so many people all have been local, or did some of them have to travel? How far, and what did they have to bring? Did they have animals? Did the children moan and ask to be picked up? (I doubt it). If they stopped for a meal in the middle of the day, what did they eat? How big were the settlements they lived in? Was it just extended families, or was there some kind of politics? What might the size of the tomb tell us about that? Did they have slaves? Was there war? What did people wear? Would it all have been based on animal skins, or had they learnt to weave cloth? What did they look like, anyway? In my mind’s eye I see low-set, strongly-built people, with long, tangled hair, square battered hands with chipped nails, bare shins, tough capable faces (for the men I add beards as well). *

By this time we are in the queue for the bridge back over the Tagus, and will be home in twenty minutes or so. This evening I will have the dazed, after-the-magic feeling I get after returning from bright days like this one, my eyes still drenched with the colours of the alentejano palette. I’ll go back another day.


*   I did some web-research over the next day or two. I didn’t find as many answers as I was hoping, but I know now that cave-paintings, mastodons and all that belong back in the Mesolithic and Palaeolithic periods (Middle and Old Stone Age), along with a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle (in Europe at least). These two periods together lasted for about three-and-a-quarter million years (or thirty-three thousand centuries) and go back to the earliest pre-human hominins like australopithicus. In comparison, the Neolithic period, with the beginnings of agriculture and permanent settlement, was the blink of an eye, a mere five or six thousand years, beginning about 10,000 BC in Mesopotamia (but a lot later in western Europe) and ending with the invention of bronze. The fullest, most interesting and readable source I could find about everyday Neolithic life was a section in HG Wells’s ‘The Outline of History: A Plain History of Life and Mankind’. Wells bases his description on archaeological study of a site discovered in 1854 in Switzerland. It’s not proper history, and Wells uses words like ‘barbaric’ too freely for a modern sensibility, but I recommend it if you’re interested (link below).  If you’re not bothered, here is a summary of some things Wells says.

  • Neolithic peoples in Europe lived in small communities, from animal-herding and basic agriculture. They also did a bit of hunting and gathering, and fishing with nets.
  • They had stone tools, axe-heads, and arrow-heads.
  • They lived in simple huts with thatched rooves, inside which they also stabled their animals. The floor of the huts was stamped earth or dung.
  • They had oxen, goats and sheep, but not chickens. Towards the end of the Neolithic period they got pigs.
  • They had dogs, but not cats.
  • They hunted and ate deer, bison and wild boar.
  • They cultivated wheat and barley, from which they made flour and a kind of bread, but not oats or rye.
  • Most clothes were made of animal fur and hides, but Wells’s people knew how to make a flax-based cloth.
  • They did not have tables or chairs, but may have had simple beds.
  • They had well-fashioned stone knives for cutting, and increasingly well-made pots (a nicely-decorated bowl, probably from a later time, was found in the dolmen of Zambujeiro, and is now displayed in Evora museum.)
  • Since they had the bow, they almost certainly made music as well.
  • They had no writing.

The Almendres cromlech was raised by such people between 6,000 and 4,000 BC, the dolmen of Zambujeiro sometime over the following few hundred years.  Europe, particularly Iberia, was probably a bit behind the times. At about that time Sumer, in south Mesopotamia, was well into its Bronze Age, had invented cuneiform writing and had the wheel. Uruk, its greatest city, had been founded around 4,500BC and was the biggest walled city the world had ever seen, with 50,000 residents. Iberia didn’t have the wheel, writing or bronze yet, though copper artefacts dating from 3,000 BC have been found near Palmela.



Menhirs, cromlechs, dolmens and all that (1)


It’s a bright early-spring morning as we head east along the A2 motorway. When it curves south for the Algarve, we take the A6 towards Évora and Spain. Straight away, things feel different. The traffic is light as we take it more slowly across the green, tree-covered plains of central Alentejo, and when we stop for coffee and a bite to eat, the plentiful staff in the service-station cafeteria are jaw-droppingly slow and disorganised. Opposite the counter, so many alentejano products are on sale that it is difficult to get about without knocking something over. There are maps and hats and sheepskin gloves and the usual tourist tat, but also wine, cheese, olives, conserves, big dry-cured hams, and a huge variety of items made from cork. One is a beautiful, well-made umbrella, which I seriously consider buying until I find the price-tag.

After ten minutes back on the motorway we take exit 5 for the N114 and Évora, and almost straight away we turn right again for the village of Guadelupe. Now we really are in the Alentejo. I slow down and lower my window, and the others do the same. We are with my brother Mick and my sister-in-law Jane, who are visiting from England. We are going to visit three of the neolithic sites to be found in the region of Évora, which is as good a pretext as any for spending a day in the Alentejo in early Spring, my favourite time of year to be there.

This little road is a pleasant drive on such a sunny morning. On either side is gently rolling pasture, thinly-grassed and so well-cropped it is a surprise to see not sheep but small-statured, square-rumped cattle grazing among the olive trees, or beneath the broad bushy crowns of cork-oaks.  At the foot of some of the trees are picturesque piles of whitish-grey boulders, some the size of small cars, which must (somehow) have been put there long ago when the ground was cleared. The undulating terrain, cropped grass and widely-spaced trees are park-like in the warm yellow sunlight, the quietly grazing cattle the final Capability Brown touch.

In Guadelupe we turn right, following the sign for the cromeleque dos Almendres. We are now on a dirt road, which will take us to two of the three sites. The road is very uneven but by no means impassable. We go cautiously, and after two or three lurching kilometres come to a wider place where we park under a cork-oak. There is a track, and a sign indicating that it leads to the menhir of Almendres, our first destination.

We make our way down the narrow path in single file. Just beyond arm’s reach on each side are paige-wire fences on stumpy wooden posts, ubiquitous in the Alentejo. It is one of those tracks which double as a watercourse in wet weather. A deep irregular gulley has been scoured in the sandy earth, so that we are forced either to straddle the gap and work along splay-legged, or mince slowly down the middle, placing one foot in front of the other like a model on a cat-walk. At first I adopt the latter method but keep losing my balance, half-falling to one side or the other. Soon my hands and the knees of my trousers are smeared by the damp pinkish-brown earth, and I go the rest of the way in a wide-legged waddle. Beyond the fence it is mixed alentejano woodland: olive trees, cork-oaks and bramble-bushes, with the ground smothered in the bright green and astringent yellow of Bermuda buttercups, which run riot at this time of year but fortunately have the good taste to die down when the indigenous spring flowers begin.

All around is the piping chatter of chaffinches, attracted by the dusty-pink quinces on leafless trees, which remind us that the menhir is within a long stone’s throw of farm-buildings, on private land – though it still feels odd to read later, on the Evora Tourism website, that having fallen in 1964 it was put up again by its owner.  It doesn’t seem quite right for possession of farmland to confer private ownership of a stone raised sixty or seventy centuries ago, though when pressed I can’t explain why.

After a couple of hundred yards we reach the menhir, in the middle of a circular, fenced clearing like the frying-pan to the path’s handle. It is three or four metres high, of pitted grey granite speckled with yellow and ochre lichen. In writings about standing-stones, the word ‘phallic’ is used freely, but this looks more like the top two sections of a giant forefinger, fingernail and all. A small tourist-information notice informs us that there is a shallow-relief carving of a shepherd’s crook high up – crosiers are a frequent motif for animal-herding Neolithics. We peer at the stone from all angles, but none of us can find it. I run my hand over the cool pitted surface of the menhir, while my brother rolls and lights a cigarette. On the other side of the stone, I catch the first fragrant whiff as tobacco smoke drifts by. It is a quiet, still, pleasant spot amongst the olive trees, and the gentle sunlight is warm. We stand gazing for a time, but there is nowhere to sit. After a while we return to the car and drive on to the Almendres cromlech.

The road is now still more uneven, and brown puddles of uncertain depth oblige us to go very slowly, but after two or three kilometres it ends at a rough-and-ready car-park, also with its complement of puddles. Four or five cars are already parked there. We park, get out and walk the remaining hundred yards or so along a broad track which runs through an olive-grove, emerging to find ourselves at the top of a spacious, east-facing clearing on gently sloping ground. Standing on this bare slope are scores of rough, generally egg-shaped stones, each about the height of a person, arranged in two approximate concentric circles. Like the menhir, the stones are of granite.

This is the largest stone circle in the Iberian peninsula, a more famous site than the menhir and far more beautiful and impressive than I was expecting. It is also much busier. There is a large, detailed tourist-information board, and close to a dozen people wander about as if not sure why they have come nor what they are expected to do. It is now mid-afternoon, and this is the post-Sunday-lunch drive and stroll, soon to be followed by a stop for coffee somewhere and possibly a pastry. In the meantime, and without much else to do, young people are taking photographs of themselves and each other, adopting seductive poses or smiling winningly beside the seven-thousand-year-old stones.*

We do much the same for half-an-hour, enjoy the long eastward view, then head back to the car for a sandwich.  Our next stop will be the Great Dolmen of Zambujeiro. (To be continued).


* Not everyone takes the cromlech so casually for granted. It is much pored-over by enthusiasts of prehistoric astronomy, who have discovered among other things that a line traced from the cromlech to the Almendres menhir points towards the sunrise in the winter solstice (or the summer solstice, depending on your source).

The site Neolithic Studies adds that it is ‘very popular today with New Agers, Pagans, neo-Druids and neo-shamans’. Unsure what Pagan means in this context, I look the word up. Merriam-Webster offers ‘one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods’, but that doesn’t sound quite right. It’s hard to see this person lasting more than two minutes at the cromlech (I am reminded a little of the young people I saw this afternoon). The site has ‘a member of a religious, spiritual or cultural community based on the worship of nature or the earth.’ This definitely seems to be on the right track, but I feel I haven’t got there yet. It is not until I try the ever-enjoyable Urban Dictionary that I feel I have a really clear picture: ‘a group of religions made up by silly  white guys in the Romantic period when they were playing at being wizards and druids and shit. They all claim to have a really old history but they’re lying cuntbags like any religious group.’  So that’s Pagans.

If like me you are now wondering with some misgivings what neo-shamans might be, I am given a clue by Neolithic Studies with the following report, delivered without irony: ‘A menhir on the south edge of the enclosure has been carved with a large semi-circular cupmark. A local neo-shaman respondent claimed that she and her students (sic) have experienced visionary journeys when they placed their head inside this indentation’.

That probably sums up neo-shamans, but anyone keen to know more would probably enjoy a visit to the http://www.reconnections site below, which is as nutty as they come. I add two other sites I looked at.