Archaeologists unearth ‘new piece of history’ in Silves
They started out as normal urban rehabilitation works but quickly unearthed intriguing finds which had been hidden under the historical town of Silves for centuries, namely a “structure that had been dug in the rocks” where the body of a human child had been ‘dumped’ along with several animals.
The discovery was made in November 2017 near the local church but has only now been revealed.
Archaeologists believe that the scene dates back to the end of the 13th century, when the Muslim rule over Silves was nearing its end.
Says municipal archaeologist Carlos Oliveira, “at first it looked like an archaeological find like so many others” in the town.
But his team quickly realised that something was different.
“This was a structure that had been dug in the rocks and filled with rocks, construction materials and other trivial objects. But as we dug through it, we started finding an unusual amount of bones at a depth of around one metre and a half.
“We quickly reached the conclusion that many complete animal skeletons were there, which is an uncommon find,” said Oliveira.
“First we found a horse, still with its horseshoes and some fragments of leaded iron rings, which we believe were part of its harness. Then we found either a sheep or a goat, we cannot say for sure”.
But what really took the archaeologists by surprise was the discovery of a “human skeleton which was beneath the horse”.
“It belonged to a child who shouldn’t have been more than a year old. Due to his/her tender age, which we estimated after examining the teeth, we were not able to identify his/her gender. The bones were removed and studied by anthropologist Ana Curto, as by law, archaeologists are not authorises to remove human remains.
“After finding the child we also found remains of at least two bovids. Unlike the other animals, their skeletons weren’t complete. We believe, as some cut marks are evident, that they had been used for food. Lastly we found a small equine, maybe a donkey or a foal, as well as a feline animal (possibly a cat) and a bird”.
Even though the findings are still being investigated, Oliveira has no doubts that the pit was filled up sometime during the end of the ‘Almóada’ period (end of the 13th century) when the Muslim reign over the town was almost over.
“It is a safe estimate, judging by the ceramics that we found. It even suggests that they were destroyed in a post-catastrophic scenario and were thrown away in this pit and in another one three metres away where archaologists also made similar findings but in a smaller quantity.”
In fact, the archaeologist reveals that they found the head of an arrow underneath the child’s skeleton.
“Although we know that the bone was not affected, we can suspect that the arrow was lodged in the muscle. However, it will be hard to know if this was the cause of the child’s death or not”.
Oliveira believes that the evidence of the weapons that were used shows that the scene is a result of the violence that ensued during the reconquest of Silves.
“The child was, surely, collateral damage. It became clear that the child was not buried. There was no care in how he/she was put there. The child was face down and had one of his/her hands underneath his/her body. Thus somebody threw the child into the pit with all the other animals and objects we found”.
Maria João Valente, a zooarchaeologist and an assistant professer at the University of the Algarve, explained that she had never seen anything quite like this.
“I was surprised because it isn’t very normal to see nearly whole animals in a pit like this, stacked on top of each other. I can’t remember any other situation like this in Portugal.
“There are no signs of an epidemic, because it wouldn’t have affected all the animals in the same way. The presence of a child is strange. This appears to be evidence of a situation of horror, war or slaughter. Whoever was behind it, or whoever found it, had to dispose of the bodies. Or the survivors didn’t even realise the child was there in their haste to dispose of the bodies”.
As Valente points out, “this is a town that was conquered and conquered again many times by Christians and Muslims during many battles. If this is proven in the lab, it is evidence that there were barbaric episodes in Silves. We are used to seeing these things in movies, tales of violent attacks. But in Portugal, what we are told about ourselves are many times fairytales.
“The truth is throughout our history there were cases of immense brutality that can only be revealed through archaeology. Personally, I believe that is one of those cases.”
Original article by Bruno Filipe Pires from Barlavento newspaper.