Azores pyramids puzzle

Archaeologists from the Portuguese Association of Archaeological Research (APIA) believe they have discovered new archaeological evidence that suggests that the strange protohistoric pyramidal rock structures situated around the vineyards in Madalena, on the island of Pico in the Azores, were constructed before the 15th century.

If substantiated, their claims mean human occupation of the mid-Atlantic archipelago predates the arrival of the Portuguese by many thousands of years.

The collection of structures, made of black basalt stone and some as high as 13 metres, is clustered in and around the Madalena area, and characterises much of the surrounding landscape.

APIA archaeologist Nuno Ribeiro, speaking to Público newspaper, insisted that the ‘pyramids’ were present on Pico long before the Portuguese made the first recorded landfall in the Azores in 1427, and were constructed by ancestral occupiers of the islands.

The structures could have acted as places of worship, or had funeral ritual purposes, he speculated.

The APIA has been present on the island since January. The new evidence comprises an additional variety of these structures, known by locals as maroiços.

The archeologists noted that around 70 of these maroiços appear to have been built according to an oriented plan, aligned with the summer solstices and therefore constructed with an intended purpose.

They also pointed out that the Madalena maroiços are comparable to similar protohistoric structures found in North Africa and the Canary Islands that are known to have served ritual purposes.

The APIA’s findings were published in the recently launched Estudo Histórico Arqueológico (Historical Archaeological Study), a journal outlining the association’s work thus far.

However, the publication has drawn criticism from scientists, academics and fellow archaeologists, who said the APIA’s conclusions are premature and even fanciful.

Detractors argue that the new evidence offered up by the APIA ignores the findings of UNESCO, which carried out a thorough archaeotechnological and ethnographic investigation in the area before designating the vineyards a World Heritage Site in 2004.

The Azores remained uninhabited until the mid-15th century and at no time during its evaluation did UNESCO suggest that the pyramidal structures pre-dated this timeline.

While conceding that UNESCO’s mapping of the Madalena landscape and the description of the area is correct, Ribeiro still maintained that from an archaeological standpoint, the pyramidal structures have not been interpreted correctly.

The traditional explanation as to how these structures were formed is that villagers in the 17th century constructed them by stacking volcanic rock into piles as they cleared land for agriculture, a practice carried through to the 19th century.

But this scenario is incomplete, insisted Ribeiro. “Why form pyramids, some up to 10 metres high? It doesn’t make sense.”

He also pointed out that some of the maroiços have “narrow corridors, chambers and doors” which “indicate” possible use as burial sites.

Referring to traces of artifacts including what might be vestiges of the floor of a hut, scrapers, metal tips and weighted lines, Ribeiro added: “These items are all incompatible with post-Portuguese construction [techniques].”

Meanwhile, in the wake of its published findings, APIA said it will present new data to confirm its investigation on Pico but will not recommence its work until the end of the year.