Castelo De Cuncos: Archaeology in the Alentejo

By: Alex Elliott

I am a first year PhD student in the School of Classics at St Andrews. Alongside my studies, for the past five years I have also worked on various archaeological projects in the Alentejo region of Portugal in a variety of roles working my way up from field student to excavation supervisor. In 2019, I co-founded an archaeological field school, the Castelo de Cuncos Archaeological Project, (with local archaeologist Rui Mataloto) which aims to better understand the history and seemingly sudden abandonment of a walled settlement in the late Roman Republican period. After two successful seasons, we were preparing for our 3rd season of work this June to July. However, due to the unexpected disruption caused by Covid-19, we have unfortunately had to cancel our 2020 summer season (a predicament most archaeologists can currently relate with). Although our upcoming season has been cancelled, the current situation has left me with plenty of time to reminisce and plan for future seasons. As a result, I have decided to write up this brief blog entry discussing archaeology and life in the Alentejo.

View across a town of white buildings with reddish rooves, and farmland in the distance

Region

Like most students coming from the anglosphere, I knew little about the Alentejo before first coming as a field student in 2015, or even how to properly pronounce the region’s name (Alen-tay-zhoo, not Alen-tay-ho). Unlike the major centres of Lisbon and Porto, the Alentejo is dominated by a rural and sparsely populated landscape. Évora, the largest city in the region, has a population of just over 50,000! Climate wise, the area is dry and warm throughout most of the year, with summer days often reaching around 40 °C. Due to this warm climate, its even possible to comfortably excavate during the winter months. Personally, I prefer digging in the winter months and avoiding the heat. Naturally, due to this combination of warm temperatures and open landscape, agriculture is the main industry in the Alentejo. The region specialises in a variety of cured meats, cheeses, and (especially for archaeologists) wines. The area is also one of the major centres for cork production in the world, with cork trees being a prominent feature of the landscape.

Selection of breads, cheeses, olives and tomato salads, all laid out in white crockery on a wooden counter top

Time Period

Although the Iberian Peninsula was a part of the Roman Empire for over 500 years, it does not get nearly the attention in academic circles or classrooms as other areas like Egypt, Greece, or Italy itself. One of the main reasons for this lack of focus is due to the relative peace and prosperity of the Iberian Peninsula throughout the history of the Empire. Sitting far from the borders, Iberia almost never had to deal with barbarian invasions, political upheavals, or military uprisings common elsewhere. However, this was not always the case, as Iberia’s incorporation into the emerging Empire was marked by intense resistance and warfare from the indigenous Iberian tribes. In our area of West Iberia (modern central Portugal) warfare occurred sporadically throughout the 2nd – 1st centuries BCE, well over 100 years! Eventually the Romans would prevail, and the area of our site would be rearranged into the Roman province of Lusitania.

Trees in a gently sloping verdant landscape.

Our Site

During the 2nd – 1st centuries BCE, the pre-Roman Iron Age settlements in West Iberia were either abandoned, destroyed, or “Romanised” and redeveloped in a manner similar to the Romans. Castelo de Cuncos appears to have been one of the unlucky sites which underwent a sudden and violent end. The entire area of the site is littered with burnt clay and pottery, with even some of the surviving stone walls showing signs of intense heat. Even more interestingly, none of the identifiable surface pottery dated beyond the later Roman Republican period, the same period in which the Roman – Lusitanian wars occurred. For these reasons, we decided to start a field school concentrated on the site to investigate its history of habitation and seemingly abrupt end. Although still early in our work, our first two seasons have led to some amazing finds ranging from pottery, coins, and even Roman weaponry! While the current situation may force us to wait, hopefully one day we will come closer to unravelling the mysteries of Castelo de Cuncos.

Aerial view of archaeological dig site among trees. Two people sitting viewing exposed remains of a building

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