You know how I feel about old stones. I can’t keep away. I wanted to visit Citânia de Briteiros since I first came to Portugal as a tourist in… 2006? But after getting rooted in Cú de Judas it just seemed too far away. Braga wasn’t too far though. Go figure.
I always thought Citânia de Briteiros was an early middle ages Celtic settlement but it is nothing of the kind. Part of what makes it interesting is that archaeologists, past and present, don’t really agree on who the people living there were. Plus, despite being studied for more than a century there is still a large amount of mystery and much yet to be discovered.
As many archaeological sites are, Briteiros is beautiful. It helped that we were there in the late afternoon when the soft light and long shadows added to the quietly abandoned atmosphere. For me, what else makes it beautiful is the masonry work on some of the houses; semi square stones of similar size are set on the diagonal in a circular beehive-like way. I’ve never seen that style before. Perhaps it is engineeringly obsolete, but the light granite diamonds look rather pretty.
The story is this. From 1874 Francisco Martins Sarmento began excavating the site every year which led him to buying the land and discovering most of what is now above ground today. He restored some of the walls and recreated two of the round houses (but apparently he wasn’t happy with the results). Francisco was a pioneer of scientific photography in Portugal, so there exists a set of pre-20th century photos. Very cool. As well he left us a topographical study done in 1892, and tonnes of notes and a book, so there’s a good record of what was initially discovered. The site was named a national monument in 1910 – so therefore Francisco’s find was recognised as genuine and historically important.
During the 1930’s to the 60’s more of the site was excavated and a lot was restored; I’m really dubious about restoring archaeological sites, even if it’s just putting back what was found originally. There are some horrible restorations to ancient ruins in the world. They don’t look right. Like what’s that thing at the base of Conimbriga meant to be? Was it a forum which now looks more like a basketball court? On the other hand there’s Abu Simbel in Egypt, saved from the dammed waters of the Nile in the 60’s and astonishingly reassembled 65 metres uphill, surely as great a feat as building the colossal thing in the first place.
But I digress. More excavations were made at Citânia de Briteiros in the 1970’s and then more detailed studies were done during 2002-2006. The issue now is how to apply Francisco’s findings with what has since been learnt and with current scientific approaches.
Francisco, for example, was adamant that the Castro Culture, whose persons built and occupied Briteiros, was not of Celtic origin, but current theorists disagree. They believe that this extended tribe were possibly from the first wave of Celtic expansion in Europe around 800 BC and by settling in Portugal became more isolated from other Celts thus forming their own distinctive culture and traditions. It is thought that were about 100 oppida (hill forts) built in Northern Portugal and about 50 have been discovered.
Each community was completely self-sufficient, not only in terms of food supply but of manufacturing as well. Each of the family compounds at Briteiros included a work shed or shop which might be a iron age forge, or a timber mill, a pottery, or a place where grains from wheat and rye crops were processed into flours. However there is also evidence of trading from as far away as Carthage on the African Mediterranean coast.
What makes Briteiros distinctive from other hill forts is its size. The population is imagined to be somewhere between 600 and 1500, comprising of 150 families. Archaeological evidence such as jewellery and grooming products suggest there was a wealthy ruling elite. Remarkable too is the presence of a public space where a council may have met. It’s thought that Citânia de Briteiros was one of the longest living hill forts of the Castro Culture. Most oppida of the Castro Culture are thought to have been abandoned by 2nd century AD, when had been occupied by the Romans and in the end used mostly for religious purposes. Briteiros, however, was possibly populated up to the 5th Century, well after the Romans have gone and up to the arrival of German barbarians, who came without a war, a rape or a pillage and set us all an example by learning the local language. Despite not apparently being quite as bad as the Romans it looks like everyone ran away and Briteiros was abandoned.
(I have to note, under the subject What Did The Romans Ever Do For Us, that Briteiros has rather notable plumbing. While not every house had a water supply, there was certainly ample public water and exceptionally lovely drainage of the streets. And what about the two bathhouses? Steam rooms fired by underground furnaces, with cold water baths. Sounds pretty Roman to me.)
It can’t have been in bad condition when 500 or so years later it was populated again by a middle-aged crew. This bunch added a church and started burials – the Castros had been cremation-oriented and they kept the ashes under the family compound’s walls, or in urns in the front yard.
That’s sort of the end of the Briteiros story. Now for question time. While on our tour, my fellow archaeologist/geologists and I (The One, Tiny Art Director) disagreed on several aspects on the site. How high were the walls originally? – Francisco has the reconstructed walls at about two metres high, and that seems wrong. There are Celtic dwellings with little 1 metre high walls (and less) and many round houses (a worldwide phenomenon from Mongolia to Central Africa, Australia & Scotland) have foot-high walls in stone with the upper part in clay or wattle & daub.
Why are most of the wall heights level? If the walls were two metres high then surely the existing wall heights would vary, now that they are less than a metre. I put forward that ruined sites are a excellent source of stone for builder hunter-gatherers or thieves as they are known today. Perhaps they were tidy, responsible thieves who took a course from each of the walls, leaving the next course completely intact and even. But then again this site was excavated, so therefore much of the walls must have been underground… maybe the site (underground) was levelled to the tops of most of the walls and any stones poking above-ground were rolled downhill/ pinched / offloaded off-site by the medieval JCB. Also, these houses are really tiny, barely enough room for two beds, really, these people could have done with some interior design help. I’m guessing proto-historic cooking took up heaps of space so was one shed of the family compound devoted to cooking and not to the grandparents or the horses?
If you know the answers
or have a Briteiros anecdote,
or can correct me on something
or have questions of your own
go ahead and put it in the comments.
I’d be much obliged.
Our questions may have been answered if we hadn’t stupidly forgotten to go to the Francisco Martins Sarmento Museum, where all the little trinkets, iron spear heads and engraved stone pieces are kept. And it probably would have saved me months of research afterwards. Oh well, sometimes the call of cake is just too strong, or maybe there were other pressing matters on our itinerary. Like Guimarães, for instance. Like the Pousada-Mosteiro de Santa Marinha da Costa and the Monte de Penha of Guimarães too. You’ll have to read the next posts for explanation of these glories.
Portugal is so full of lovely things to discover. It’s hard, but someone‘s got to do it.