I don’t know why some of us are fascinated with archaeology, but I feel the urge on a biological level. I’ve gone well out of my way for every old bit of rock strewn from here to Syria and from Hadrian’s to Hannibal’s. So that’s basically the whole Roman empire… if we are not quibbling over bits of Persia which came and went between battles. I´ll get there one day if they let women drive cars, the taliban all die and the foreigners in fatigues go home. Rant over.
I don’t think it’s the same as a genealogist´s quest, but I sense these ancient peoples as though we are related. I think my curiosity has something to do with discovering the essence of lifestyle (pretentious little name for a quest, n’est-ce pas quoi?), taking notes from a time when ideas of democracy and philosophy were new and shiny, and the first time people were leisurely enough to lie under a shady olive and contemplate beauty. Just look at Roman house design (excellent examples at Conimbriga) and you get a clear shot that the Romans new how to live and had a taste for beauty. (Look at Portuguese houses by comparison – rooms without windows? Hello, are we dead yet?)
And although the class divides were enormous and lives were most often cruel and short, these great empires still set an example. Could we ever again build monuments so awesome as the Temple of Luxor or even the Parthenon, staring down on Athens as a constant reminder to how far civilisation has fallen?
Anyway, the Sepulturas of Midões are today’s subject and they are medieval graves, certainly not of Greek or Roman origin. But nonetheless intriguing and mysterious if only on a more personal scale.
One of the nice things foreigners bring with them to a new country is their curiosity. And I suppose, their perspective. I was tickled when a gaggle of forum punters started gabbing about a tiny medieval site hidden away in some local scrub. It’s not in the guide books, it’s not on the internet. The local council don’t promote it. There’s just one brown sign pointing vaguely in the general vicinity and all it says is “graves”.
But you know, for us people drawn to bits of old rock, this is enough. Someone raises the question and in an instant, a team of Indiana Jones´ are on the case. I just get the feeling that archaeology, history, and grave robbing is built into human DNA. Or as Jose Franco at Remax Viana once wisely told me: the stones speak to us.
The Sepulturas of Midões are interesting, not just because they are old (maybe as old as 8th century or perhaps as young as 12th Century) but because they are individual and isolated. They are obviously graves, but they are not in a graveyard, and they are not adjacent to any site of worship, Christian, pre-Christian, pagan or Muslim. While variously referred to academically as Roman, after the 3rd Century AD you have to concede that the Romans had little or no influence in Portugal, and Coimbra having been controlled by Islamic Moors from the 9th Century, the idea that Christianity was holding sway, even in the countryside, is unlikely. And these graves support this idea. These appear to be private burials with no particularly religious aspect. Small family groups, or village groups, close to farms and houses. Also close to fontes, or basins and small tanks: in the midst of things, to be visited frequently.
There are a few other sites around the River Mondego of similar age where people have appeared to have been buried privately, in groups of twos or threes or fours, outside of cemeteries and away from places of worship. Somewhat uncharacteristic of Christian burials, or Islamic burials (although the Moors also built graves by carving out the rock). It seems the country folk, despite regular interruptions by marauding hordes of Vikings, Normans and Whosits were essentially left to their own devices. Bless their atheist socks. The other interesting thing is the graves’ design which is uncommon and typical only to this area; the holes have heads and shoulder spaces carved into them. The peoples of the Mondego were travelling between villages and sharing their burial rituals. And this suggests community. Independence. Cooperation. Peace.
And so we wander away in search of cake to discover the very interesting modern history-mystery of Midões. This tiny town /big village has not really any shops to speak of, a couple of cafes, no banks. But there’s a whopping cathedral-like church and a collection of Palacetes. Signs of serious wealth! Yet the public squares, while pretty, are not on the same scale, so it’s not the town that appears to have had the money, but a few individuals. A brief chat with some locals and a quick look around and one could conclude it’s the usual olive oil and wine money. But unlike say, Castaneira de Pêra with its many big fat country houses – these are actual palaces, with statuary, parapets and overt decoration – which makes them way-more-curiouser, dude.
Did I mention yet the pastelaria yet? Of course, it’s way above standard and will provide satisfaction in large helpings with cheery hospitality, even on an especially hot and still Sunday afternoon. This Midões place sounds just like a day trip.
Local Big Richard has invited me to an afternoon of boring local history tête-à-tête. And I say, put the kettle on Dick, I’ll bring the cake.
And of course, if you have an uninteresting brown sign near you, or even a rumour of history about your place, please cough up. We should all be eternal travellers, and the bigger our world gets the more curious it becomes.
For a little more, in Portuguese, and to credit my sources:
where it all started, and thanks to Sophie