Vilarinho da Furna, Gerês
Vilarinho da Furna, Gerês

Drought reveals ancient relics


The only good thing about this year’s extreme droughts that have been causing reservoirs in Europe to dry is that they have been exposing relics of great interest to archaeologists, historians and sightseers.

In Portugal’s northern district of Braga, the village of Vilarinho da Furna, believed to have been founded by Visigoth settlers in 1st century Roman times, was destroyed by the state in the early 1970s to build a reservoir supplied by the area’s river waters. The submerged village ruins surface only during particularly dry times like the present. They become a nostalgic sight to former residents and a tourist attraction.

In the late 18th century, a German visitor marvelled at the cleanliness and comfortability of the village house he stayed in. His peasant compatriots back home would be envious, he said. The Vilarinho da Furna community became almost entirely self-sufficient with its economy based on cattle farming. But it eventually had to make way for a hydroelectric dam. Villagers protested, but the population of about 300 in 80 homes were paid to move. The last resident left in 1971.

Warships in Danube, Serbia Photo Twitter (@khalediskef)
Warships in Danube, Serbia
Photo: Twitter (@khalediskef)

A museum dedicated to the village was built in nearby São João do Campo with stones from two houses of the old village. Opened by Prime Minister Cavaco Silva in 1989, the museum contains a collection of clothing, agricultural tools, and paintings depicting daily life in the now lost village.

In 1992, the residents of a village on the Spanish-Portuguese border were forced to evacuate their homes before flooding commenced to create a new reservoir. Recently, visitors have been flocking to Aceredo to view the village ruins and mementos, including rusted cars and beer bottles.

Dolmen of Guadalperal, Spain
Dolmen of Guadalperal, Spain

The local mayor blamed not only the dire shortage of rainfall for the very low level of reservoir water but also the Portuguese EDP power company and what she called its “quite aggressive exploitation” of the reservoir where the company runs a hydropower plant. EDP acknowledged that reservoir levels were low because of the drought but claimed it ran its water resources “efficiently” and above the minimum requirements.

Elsewhere in Spain, a Bronze Age megalithic monument has fully emerged from the dried-up Valdecañas reservoir on the River Tagus near the town of Peraleda de la Mata between Cáceres and Toledo. This historic treasure, officially called the Dolmen of Guadalperal, is a striking circle of 150 upright megalithic stones, rather like Stonehenge in the UK, that may have existed for 5,000 or maybe even 7,000 years. It was first discovered by German archaeologist Hugo Obermaier in 1926 before it became flooded in 1963 due to a rural development project under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

'Atlantis' in Edersee reservoir, Germany
‘Atlantis’ in Edersee reservoir, Germany

In Italy, the foundations of a 2,000-year-old bridge in Rome showed up in the River Tiber. Meanwhile, in the north of the country, World War II shipwrecks have emerged from the River Po, the country’s longest river that flows 652km from the north-western city of Turin to Venice.

In western Germany, the Edersee reservoir is the second largest in the country, but its water levels have plummeted during this year’s heatwaves to reveal what is known as the region’s ‘Atlantis’, complete with ruins of a bridge, three villages and gravestones of long-gone locals.

The area was originally flooded to make way for the reservoir, a project built more than 100 years ago to provide water for the Weser River and the Mittelland Canal. This major waterway was intended to ensure ships could travel on it during drier summer months. German Emperor Wilhelm II paid a personal visit to the construction site in 1911. Now, the sunken villages have turned into a tourist attraction.

Aceredo, Spain
Aceredo, Spain

The Danube River is running so low that the wreckage of more than a dozen German warships, sunk in 1944, has resurfaced.

So-called hunger stones have also resurfaced this summer in European rivers such as the Rhine and the Elbe. The stones had already resurfaced in 2018, a year marked by similar climate conditions. They carry engravings from years past when water levels dropped, and the local populations knew the harvest would be bad and the ensuing year tough. One stone found in the Czech Republic reads: “If you see me, weep.”

Plenty more relics have appeared recently in other drought-stricken places, including the United States where memories of the distant gold rush days have surfaced.

Needless to say, all this has to do with man-made climate change. Archaeologists, historians and sightseers have had just enough time this summer to have a close look and appreciate these and other exposed relics. It’s very sad but perhaps critical that the relics are soon submerged again.


Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current affairs in Portugal on his blog: