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Arade 1 Project

Historical Background (back)


The mouth of the Arade River has been inhabited since at least the Iron Age.  It is believed that during the 6th century BC this area possessed a fairly important harbor -Portus Hanibalis - built by the Carthaginian general Amilcar - the father of Anibal - either on the very mouth of the Arade River, or on the nearby small inlet of Alvor.  Later, a predominantly rural Roman occupation of this area is well documented by the ruins of several Roman rural villas.

During the subsequent Arab occupation of this territory - from AD 715 to 1250 - the village of Silves, a few miles upstream, became an important urban center, and traffic on the Arade River intensified.  In AD 966 a fleet of 28 Viking ships was sighted of the coast of Portugal.  A Muslim fleet left Seville as soon as possible and engaged the "infidels" in the Arade River.  According to the chronicler many Vikings were killed and many vessels sunk.  The remaining enemies fled, and the Arab prisoners that had been already taken were rescued.

Fig. 1 - The west coast of Algarve showing Portimão and its surrounding area.

Portimão was certainly not more than a small settlement, or even just a number of scattered houses on the landscape.  An account of the conquest of Silves by an anonymous crusader who took part in it in 1189 mentions the destruction of Alvor, where the castle was burned and the entire population - 5.600 people - was put to death, and the burning of a number of country houses at the mouth of the Arade River.  There the land was well cultivated, but nobody was in sight at the time of the crusader fleet arrival.

Fig. 2 - Mouth of the Arade River in 2002.

In the 13th century the Portuguese conquest - the so-called Reconquista - of the southern portion of today's Portugal, named Algarve, brought new settlements and new settlers to the mouth of the Arade. 

From a small settlement in the mid-13th century, it became a village with about 40 households in 1463, named São Lourenço da Barroza, and possibly dedicated to the fishing of tuna, an ancient activity in the region. On a curious note, the remains of this early settlement are said to have been exposed on November 1st 1755, after a series of tidal waves - which are said have been

Figs. 3 and 4 - Fortress of Santa Catarina / Fortress of São João.

over 10 m high, and followed the earthquake that stroke Portugal on that morning - hit the mouth of the river.

Because it was very exposed to pirate incursions, the village was fortified with walls in the second half of the 15th century.  By 1615 there were 1802 inhabitants in Portimão, which was only one of five settlements situated nearby: Alvor, Silves, Estombar, and Ferragudo.

Two fortresses were built in the first decades of the 17th century in order to protect the river from constant incursions of Muslims and Protestants.  By 1622 the mouth of the Arade River was protected by the fortress of São João on the left margin and the Santa Catarina fortress on the right margin of the river.

In spite of the two small sand banks that divided the river into three channels until the early 20th century, this river was navigable upstream past the city of Silves as late as the 17th century.  The 1755 tidal waves are said to have caused major changes in both the course and the shape of these channels.  The river course is said to have shifted about 1 Km west after November 1755's earthquake.  In spite of the progressive silting of the river the largest channel - the eastern one - was still 4.8 m deep on the high tide periods as late as the 18th century.

All these centuries of occupation and maritime activity made the mouth of the Arade River an enormous garbage dump.  Many artifacts were thrown, abandoned or lost in the river during the more than 25 centuries of documented human activity on this area.

After the first major dredging works, carried out in this area between June and November of 1970, the mouth of the Arade River fell under the attention of beachcombers and artifact collectors.  The sand removed from the river was deposited on the nearby beach, called Praia da Rocha.  Since 1970 perhaps thousands of artifacts were found there by tourists, fishermen, local beach restaurant owners, and interested collectors.  Some made it to the museum of Portimão, some were lost for lack of conservation treatment, and some were sold in the antique markets.

More important than loose artifacts were however the several hull remains which are reported to have been hit by the dredges in that year.  Five or six shipwrecks were exposed during the dredging works in 1970.

Fig. 5 - 17th-Century map of the mouth of the Arade River.

Then, in 1980, dredging works were responsible for the complete destruction of at least another shipwreck.  The decade of the 1990s would witness more dredging works at the Arade River mouth, but this time the sediments were deposited in the sea, making it impossible to know what or how much was destroyed.  Finally, dredging for the construction of a sports harbor - which was followed by a team of archaeologists - lead to the destruction of another three shipwrecks that laid buried on the left margin of the river, although of quite recent origin and allegedly of no archaeological interest.

The balance of the dredging interventions on the Arade River estuary in recent times looks quite sad.  Mostly when we consider the attitude of the port authorities in the last three decades of the 20th century, ignoring the popular pressure to stop the destruction of the local cultural heritage, and carrying on the destructions arrogantly in total disregard of the press and the local groups of pressure. 

One of these groups, named Grupo de Estudos Oceânicos or GEO as it is generally referred to, has been very vocal in their protests against the destruction of Portimão's underwater cultural heritage.  After the creation, in 1997, of the Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática (CNANS), a state agency for nautical archaeology, the status quo changed substantially in Portugal in what pertains to the protection and study of its underwater cultural heritage.  In collaboration with GEO the state archaeologists promoted and organized a campaign of survey and excavation of the Arade shipwrecks, starting in 2000.

Some of the Arade ship remains may have been destroyed forever, and some have yet to be located again.  However, others were already located in the survey carried out by the GEO team during 2000 and 2001, which covered an area close to 1,000,000 m2.

In the summer of 2001 a team of CNANS and GEO - in which I was included, after an invitation from Dr. Francisco Alves, director of CNANS - initiated the excavation of several sites located by GEO in the previous two years.  The results were extremely promising, and another field season was planned for the following year.

Four sites were excavated and recorded during the summer of 2002 by a team gathering divers and archaeologists from four different institutions:  the Portuguese Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática (CNANS) and Grupo de Estudos Oceânicos (GEO), the Brazilian Universidade de São Paulo, and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology / Texas A&M University.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08