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citânia de briteiros

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.


circular remains of houses in a family compound

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.


holes for inserting vertical struts?

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.


broken quern stones for milling cereals

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.)


the large town hall in centre bg, with built in benches for the councillors to sit on

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.


house with a front courtyard

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. 😉



  1. Helder January 20, 2011 6:23 am Reply

    Fascinating as usual.
    Thanx for sharing

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  2. Ad January 20, 2011 7:05 am Reply

    I love an old stone too, and those are some beauties.

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  3. Jennifer January 20, 2011 9:10 am Reply

    Oi Emma! Marivilhoso! Story e photographs! Can’t wait to visit Portugal later in the year~It’s calling me…

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  4. Vern January 20, 2011 3:14 pm Reply

    Emma, Your Blog is stunning and I was really fascinated by your description of Portugals ancient villages. The photographs are also great – what type of camera are you using?
    I have never been to Portugal but, have often wanted too, and have also thought of living there and renting a bed-sitter arrangement in a rural area. To my mind it would be a cheap way of living and most interesting.
    Do you have any knowledge about Fado music ?
    I have recordings of Francisco Fialho & Matilde Larguinho singing sad romantic stories about runaway husbands, lost loves and cheating wives, as they walk around cafes after 10PM at night, strumming guitars and crooning their hypnotic magic to devoted customers. I adore these heart trembling songs which bring tears to my eyes.
    Of course these singers belong to the past and sometime in the 1930s I believe. A modern version is Mariza who once came to Sydney for one day. I didn’t know about her visit otherwise I would have attended her performance at the Sydney Opera House. When I mention this music most people never seem to have heard of it.
    In reality Fado is a Portuguese version of the Negro Blues.
    Do you ever stream music on your computer and listen?
    I frequently do so and have heard Blues music from the period 1910 – 1925 that is astonishing in clarity and reception from the USA. The fiddle players from that period were stunning. Talk about Bessie Smith, she was an oldie!
    Keep up the good work on this blog.

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    Emma   Reply: January 24th, 2011 at 6:14 am

    Fado is all about and I’ve seen it performed live several times. It is still very much part of portuguese culture. I also love Mariza but nothing beats the legendary Amália. x

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  5. Maria Silva January 20, 2011 9:11 pm Reply

    Hi Emma, Loved to read your blog. Very informative and interesting as usual ! Oh! How I miss Portugal … can’t wait to visit later in the year !! 🙂

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    Emma   Reply: January 24th, 2011 at 6:16 am

    Thanks maria!

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  6. lhancock January 23, 2011 9:04 am Reply

    Porque e que o seu blogg tem a magia de me fazer sentir tantas saudades de Portugal? Estas fotografias do sol de inverno com as longas sombras….
    Obrigada por me fazer ver Portugal assim…
    E parece que nao sou a unica pessoa Portuguesa,no estrangeiro, a gostar…

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    Emma   Reply: January 24th, 2011 at 6:11 am

    Sim, estou orgulhoso de que meu blogue está gostado pelos Português no estrangeiro e também aqui. Está uma honra. Obrigada.

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  7. tomás January 25, 2011 4:50 am Reply

    Olá Emma
    thanx you for another great digital travel
    I’m Português, and i live in the Azores for the past 3 years and I can assure you that this is the most beautiful place to live in.
    But I miss “mainland” and it’s in your blog that I discover parts of Portugal as I used to do.
    I will be watiting for you to go to Alentejo (Évora, Monsaraz, sleep in Flor da Rosa, eat in Urra, Vila Viçosa, Mértola…)

    best regards from Faial, Açores

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  8. sam January 29, 2011 12:34 am Reply

    Reading this article makes me want to travel, now! We used to travel a lot, like years at a time, but then came the ruin in Portugal and subsequent renovations. For the past 7 years I feel I have intimate knowledge of the whereabouts of our local building yards and hardware shops but nowhere else. Then came the babies…..and even getting to the builders yard seems like an adventure. Time to dust off the old backpacks and buy two small ones! Boa fim-de-semana.

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  9. Gabriel December 16, 2011 10:35 am Reply

    I am a lover of Castros culture. I can see Briteiros from my window as well as other 3 former castros locations in the mountain tops nearby.

    You probably already know this but i will correct some stuff so that eventual readers can know more about this site and culture.

    Briteiros is in Guimarães council and not Braga. Down the mountain, in the village, you can also visit the house where Martins Sarmento lived. There, you can see many stone carved items from the citânia and Castro Sabroso (2km from Briteiros). This is where the PEDRA FORMOSA, the most exquisite artifact of this culture is kept.

    After that, of course, you should go to Guimarães ans check the museum , near the main Square (Toural) were the most vast collection of this antique civilization can be appreciated.

    The Castros culture is probably the last pearl of European archeology. It was a huge civilization only present in the Northwestern Iberia. Northern Portugal and Galicia.

    One thing i must correct is the number of Castros and Citânias and (large Castros, probably a regional tribal capital) of the northwest:

    There are between 3 THOUSAND and 5 thousand sites.

    Comparatively, the number of visitable ones is, of course, ridiculously low.

    Many cities, towns and villages were born because of the Castros. Mainly because Romans made the natives live in the valley where they could be watched.

    Also, almost all mountain sanctuaries of Northern Portugal are in old Castos sites. Places like Sameiro in Braga, Penha in Guimarães, Falperra (Braga-Guimarães), Santa Luzia in Viana are only the most famous examples. People never forgot the old pagan rituals in those places. With Catholicism came the Christianization of those places and the building of churches over the old citadels.

    This culture IS from what can be considered “Celtic”. There is not one Celtic culture. There were many. They had different languages, the older ones had dark hair, some used tunics (origins of the Kilt) like Castro habitants (Statues from the Castros are a proof and some still have the decorative pattern carved) and Irish, other used pants like “French” tribes.

    What we can see in Briteiros is a decorative art, God’s names and burials that are purely Celtic. Of course, the old academics thought that Celts came from central Europe during the 4-5 century. We know today that this is false. Celts were all Atlantic Western-Central Europeans.

    One of the most amazing and anecdotic things about the actual panorama of Castros culture is that this ruins are there in sight of everybody.

    You can take a walk to any mountain of the NW and walk over the stones without no one caring. You can even take the stones and build your own house with it. So many villages were made this way.

    Most of the sites are totally abandoned.

    Only in Portugal you could have a civilization 500 to 300 years older than the Roman empire laying around without any supervision. Most of them are considered National Patrimony but are vandalized by whoever. People use to go there with metal detectors and proceed to their own amateur digging bringing home objects of huge value.

    This absolutely true.

    Anyway, any other country would kill to have this resource. An ethnic Celtic derived civilization, in panoramic places of great beauty waiting to be worked and sold to the tourists world wide.

    But we don’t need money. We don’t need to take care of our heritage…

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: December 27th, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    wow gabriel, what a contribution! Thanks for all that!

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  10. amanda February 21, 2012 10:09 am Reply

    this website is greeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeat!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!:))

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  11. Susan Miller June 16, 2018 12:47 am Reply

    Amazingly interesting Emma! I fell over your blog today as I was researching ‘interesting sites like castles, Romans etc…’ for my grandson who is 12 going on 112!! He like me loves history…and as even I haven’t visited the Cîtania yet (despite living in Amarante for nearly 9 years!) I thought I’d check them out online.

    I am not sure exactly how I would find what constitutes the entrance .. or how close one can get with the car, as I walk with a stick? The grandchildren are coming over in July and am trying to be prepared! Many thanks once again!

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    Emma   Reply: June 24th, 2018 at 2:50 pm

    @Susan Miller, there’s a modern building at the entrance as I recall, a visitor’s centre type thing. I remember walking up to the site, but I’m sure they’ll be close by parking for buses etc. It’s not a huge tourist attraction but I remember it being reasonably well equipped…

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