The quick-thinking of a British expat has saved the Algarve’s oldest kiln from certain destruction. The ancient site at Olhos, S. Bartolomeu (Castro Marim) – discovered over 120 years ago but left to abandon – was about to be ploughed up by a builder, intent on construction of some form of warehouse.
Fortunately, the Brit – who may wish to remain nameless – knew the site had archaeological relevance as he lives next door to it.
He is a man who frequently attends talks on archaeology promoted by the Algarve Archaeological Association and must have decided something needed to be done.
He contacted the University of the Algarve, where archaeologist João Pedro Bernardes specialises in the Roman period, and Bernardes got in touch with the regional board of culture (Direcção Regional de Cultura do Algarve), which swung into action – despite being hampered by the usual obstacles.
“No one knew anything…” the board’s own archaeologist Cristina Garcia told Público.
But it soon became very clear that the works were being done “in a rush, at the weekend, to hide any eventual archaeological finds”, said the paper, reporting that the unlicensed site was swiftly shut down and earthmoving stopped until a full archaeological investigation – paid for by the landowner – went ahead.
The excavations – “carried out by Eliana Goufa and Francisco Correia with the help of local residents and the landowner” – ended with the delivery of a report to the DRCA, though this hasn’t yet been ‘appreciated’.
As the project’s scientific coordinator, João Bernardes received 40 boxes of ‘fragments’ that will now be studied and analysed during the next academic year.
The material definitely has ‘some scientific value’, Bernardes told Público, but, more to the point, it will add to expert knowledge about the incredible heritage within a region that isn’t always this lucky.
Said Bernardes: “So many sites will have been destroyed, particularly along the coast. Economic interests speak so much louder than archaeological interests. I am quite convinced we still have sites to discover in places that haven’t been affected so much by construction, like in the interior.”
But now there is another shadow hanging over archaeologists’ ambitions: vast monoculture projects which are moving into the unspoilt interior and (quite literally) leaving no stone unturned.
Said Bernardes, these massive undertakings – currently the vogue is for plantations of avocados and olive trees – are “moving large portions of land, and many archaeological sites are being destroyed this way”.
The tragedy is that in dealing with agricultural land, there is literally “no legal impediment for the work” to go forwards. Unless archaeologists know for a fact that damage is being done, it can all be ‘too late’.
Super intensive olive farm sees Roman bridge irreparably damaged
Hammering this dilemma home, Público reports that one of the largest Roman bridges in Portugal – a so-called national monument in the Alentejan parish of Vila Ruiva, near Cuba – was severely compromised last summer when the owner of an olive plantation drilled holes in its pillars to push irrigation tubing through from one side to another.
Trucks apparently drove across the ancient bridge – “something that is prohibited”, says the paper.
By the time the local authority got wind of the destruction, it was a ‘fait accompli’.
Mayor João Português was described as “aghast by the lack of respect patent in the interventions” but stressed that if these kinds of assaults on national heritage sites continue, it is because “they are backed by the Ministry of Agriculture” which he criticised for “its limp hand where infractions to the law are concerned”.
This was perhaps the most recent case, and it came to Público’s notice because of others “at various points of the territory covered by the Alqueva (dam) system of irrigation”, in the Alentejo.
“The most serious of all occurred in Beja, between April and August 2017, when almost 20 archaeological sites, duly identified in the town plan and the nation’s archaeological inventory were bulldozed” to make way for a monoculture of almond trees.
Kiln operated by potter with initials L.F.T.
But back to the Algarve’s ‘oldest kiln’, saved from obliteration by a British expat.
We’re told the amphora and objects coming out of it all bore the initials L.F.T. which will have been the first letters of the name of the potter, said Bernardes.
The amphorae all had a distinctive shape, different to those produced in other nearby kilns.
The site was discovered in 1896 by the founder of Portugal’s national museum of archaeology José Leite de Vasconcelos.
It sits alongside an area with a number of other slightly later kilns – and here comes the one blot in this ‘upbeat story’ of heritage-saving: one of the other kilns has been totally destroyed, to make way for the house of the ‘hero expat’.
Said Bernardes, the man may have no idea that his property sits on top of what was once a third century kiln. “He may simply have bought the house and had nothing to do with its building…” But the fact remains, that even the hero in this story has played a part in Portugal’s propensity for archaeological vandalism.
By NATASHA DONN