lots of new questions for a bunch of new answers...
The splendid profile of Serra do Risco, the "fossilized wave", according to the poet Sebastião da Gama
The geologic environment of Lapa da Cova
The phoenician route, from Sagres to Espichel, facing straight north, towards Lapa da Cova
Lapa da Cova as seen from the sea, like the mytological Cyclops Cave of the Odissey
Lapa Cova is located on the southern escarpment of the Serra do Risco, an area of quite difficult access, with some sections quite dangerous, especially with the rainy weather.
One of the upper accesses to the Lapa da Cova, located some 20 m below.
The presence of ceramic fragments in the Inner Room of Lapa da Cova was registered, for the first time, by the team of Neca (Group of Speleology of Costa Azul); the site has been observed by the team working on the Archaeological Map of Sesimbra, in 2007; that visit has been headed by Francisco Rasteiro (Neca).
The results of the Archaeological Map of Sesimbra surveys have been recently published
The observation of the surface pottery, in Lapa da Cova, allowed us to assign the main occupation of the cave to the Early Iron Age, which, at the outset, was a novelty in the archaeological scenario of Arrábida; in fact, there were already known several caves with traces of human presence, from the Paleolithic to the Middle Age (and later), but none between the Bronze Age and the Roman Epoch.
The Lapa Cova is a cavity formed by a main gallery, about 30 m deep, with a sharp irregular ascending floor (over 10 m gap between the opening and the upper deck). Actually, the gallery floor is formed almost exclusively by a chaos of blocks of "megalithic" dimensions.
The entry, like a gothic arch, is about 15 m wide, by as much high.
On the eastern corner of the Upper Deck there is a narrow passage, descending to the Inner Room; this one, measuring about 6 m in maximum diameter, is where we found concentrated most of the archaeological material (especially ceramics) identified.
In terms of interpretation, given the uniqueness of the place, absolutely unfit for daily life purposes (the access is too difficult and dangerous; the floor is very uneven, in the interior of the cave; there is absolute lack of water in the vicinity...), it might have been used for ritual practices. A priori, only attending to the landscape features, we could be in presence of a cemetery or a shrine.
Again, the issue of deployment, seriously hindering the possibility of access to children, old and sick people, would make unlikely the funerary use of Cova da Lapa.
It remained, by elimination, the use of the cave as a sanctuary.
In a brief passage, the literature on the Early Iron age, in Portugal, proved silent on the presence of shrines, in the context of caves.
However, outside the national level, the picture seems to be a little more interesting: along the shores of the Mediterranean, there are known several Phoenician sanctuaries located, as the Lapa da Cova, in caves open to the sea. Or not the Phoenicians were a seafaring people ...
The closest of all is, apparently, the sanctuary, currently under study, of Gorham's Cave, in Gibraltar Rock. There is also a monumental entrance to the cave, almost at sea level and, in this aspect, unlike the Cova da Lapa, easily accessible by that side.
In the process of evaluation of the data generated by surveys from 2007 to 2009, Lapa da Cova - along with the Janelas caves - is profiled as one of the most interesting sites of the archeology of Sesimbra and, in particular, among those who had been identified in this work. However, the logistical difficulties involved in its excavation, have formerly excluded it from the list of sites to excavate.
Admittedly, however, the Lapa Cova is an integral part of the landscape of the Serra do Risco, home to some of the most exceptional sites of the county, with a particular focus on the Chalcolithic funerary structure, reused in the Late Bronze Age, of Roça do Casal do Meio, as well as the village, of unusual size, adjacent to the monument.
The gold fever
The fortuitous discovery of a gold earring, by a spelunker amateur of Sesimbra -though in all likelihood it is not a deposit, but just a lost object - has drawn to the risk of disturbance of archaeological remains by metal detectors, especially since the discovery of golden jewelry came quickly in the public domain.
Gold earring, found by chance by João Luz.
João Luz showing the exact place, in the main room, where he found the earring.
As we know, the problem of illegal use of metal detectors, at archaeological sites, has grown in recent years, with serious and irreparable loss for heritage.
In most cases, as the recent example of the Coroa do Frade, in Évora, the robberies occurred in places where gold objects were not known to have occurred...
In the case of the Cova da Lapa, the problem was compounded by the fact that the site is located in a parched and uncrowded area. Note that, despite this, the site is known to many climbers, and there are even Web pages with sketches of the access to the grotto where, in fact, there are several climbing routes installed. The cave is also used regularly by scouts.
Moving to the cave
Given the situation, we broke out to the preparations and procedures for emergency intervention in Lapa Cova which, in practice, is now in a early stage.
It was, of course, necessary to create a team and overcome a series of logistical and technical difficulties: the installation of basic equipment was completed on 9 January (thanks to the help of CEAE), which was followed by the linkage of the cave to the national geodetic network, with the departure station in the v.g. Píncaro, and orientation using the v.g. Sesimbra.
Details of the instalation of the basic logistic in the cave.
This operation has been greatly hampered by adverse weather conditions (rain and wind) and was completed on 17 January.
The next phase began with a survey of the surface plan (1: 40) in the Inner Room.
Drawing the plan of the Inner Room.
The strategy of intervention has been based on the assumption that we should completely excavate the inside of the Innner Room (Sector 1) and the Upper Deck (Sector 2), reserving, however, a testimony of about 2 m2 in each of these areas. In addition, sections will be made in other areas of the cave, according to preliminary geophysical surveys.
Methodologically, we decided to excavate, with full seeving of the sediments, following the method designated by Barker/Harris, which consists mostly of open area excavation, identification of stratigraphic units, and the documentation of their tops in plan and photography. To ensure, where possible, the recovery of archaeological information, it was decided to collect individually (with geodetic coordinates) each ceramic piece, in order to control taphonomic processes and random or intentional distribution of pieces, within the respective strata.
The spot for sieving the sediments, in the opening of the cave. The buckets are driven down by a system of cable and pulley (on the left of the image).
In practice, the excavation began by stripping the surface layer , which consists mainly of dung and goat bones, but containing also some artifacts.
Plan of , in the Inner Room.
The removal of the surface layer revealed two very different situations, in terms of appearance and origin of sediments: in the north side of the room, there was a stratigraphy that, while it contains on its surface plenty of archaeological materials, it shows colors and textures of much geological matrix, possibly relatable to the change and the shedding of debris from the base of a suspended stalagmite plate, partially covering that side of the room.
The south side, however, is covered by organic sediment, possibly anthropogenic, filling, apparently, a depressed area, comparable to an apparent "sink" Karst, on the basis of the conduct that connects this room with the main one, in the Upper Deck.
From the standpoint of cave exploration, it is important to evaluate the real meaning of this "sink", where it seems to have penetrated some of the archaeological sediments, indicating the continuity of the cave in that direction. This hypothesis is reinforced by the very topography of the stalagmite plate that formed over sediments already sloping in direction of that "sink" and that have been subsequently dragged into it.
Schematic model (plan) to explain the possible room, behind the Upper Deck, and connected with the Inner Room through the "sink" spot. The straigh lines stand for main diaclases and where they cross could be a hidden room.[Based on sketches by Rui Francisco (Loia)]
Schematic model (cut) to show the possible relation of the Inner Room (on the right) with an eventual hidden cavity, filled with sediments. [Based on free-hand sketches by Rui Francisco (Loia)].
Inside that quite inclined conduct, connecting the Sectors 1 and 2, was recorded, under the , a thick layer composed of ashes and coals, containing proto-historic materials, which was individualized as .
The conducted, filled up with sediments (mostly ashes) coming from the Upper Deck to the Inner Room. On the bottom right, the "sink" area.
The conduct (on the left) and the stalagmit plaque (on the right) converge to the sink point.
The  represents probably the "ashtray" from cleaning the fireplace (or fireplaces) set on the Upper Deck; it remains to check the extent to which this layer is introduced in the "sink" which, it seems, absorbed the sediments deposited in the interior room and is located precisely on the basis of that conduct.
For now, it is assumed also the possibility that this ash layer corresponds to an operation of cleaning the manure of goats, in an indeterminate phase.
This layer was photographed, drawn, and excavated. It remains to dig the part that seems to dive in the "sink".
Plan of layer , in the conduct connecting the Upper Deck and the Inner Room.
At the eastern end of the room, it has been exposed, under the surface layer , a large amount of pottery fragments (and necklace beads), wrapped in a dark sediment, with many clasts. This layer  has not yet been excavated.
Surface of layer , with plenty of potery shards.
We are currently in the final phase of excavation of a layer of grayish brown sediment, with many materials , covering the most of the southern half of the room, under the . This stratigraphic unit seems, in any case, be more or less affected by recent disturbances, induced by the use of the cave as a corral of goats, and can even just stand as the base of the , corresponding to a process of higher organic matter mineralization .
Plan of , in the Inner Room.
We began, meanwhile, the etching of the surface layer, in Sector 2 (Superior Deck), consisting almost entirely of compressed goat manure . Under this layer, we identified the remains of a mattress fabric, filled with straw, in combination with 2 bone buttons and scraps of leather. It corresponds, of course, to a relatively recent episode of herding; indeed, it had already been documented by the discovery of some artifacts of bone and wood, hidden in the recesses of the walls of the Upper Deck.
Shepherd's artifacts found inside holes in the Upper Deck
Note that along the coast between Serra do Risco and Espichel, several caves have been used, in modern times, as shelter for domestic goats and, upon termination / retraction of this practice, it seems that they have been used by stray goats, living in a state of complete "wilderness". There must have been this last episode the responsible by the abundant skeletons, more or less connected, observed in the surface layer.
After the dismantling (and sampling) of the traces of the mattress , we defined a possible structure (basement of adobe construction?), separating the Sector 2 from the narrow passage that links it to Inner Room (Sector 1). This is an alignment of medium-sized blocks, across the eastern extremity of the Upper Deck and it is perpendicular to a longitudinal alignment which, at this stage, seem to be of geological nature.
We wonder whether this last feature corresponds to the remains of the natural geologic floor, quite fragile, but "protected" by an overlapping structure in adobe or mud.
The structure on the Eastern side of the Upper Deck. Remains of an altar built on adobe?
The feature of geological nature, perpendicular to the structure on precedent image.
Actually, some remains of a reddish sterile layer – not yet excavated - observed in this area, may be evidence of the erosion of that presumed structure in raw clay.
It should be underlined that in Sector 2 – the Upper Deck - are totally missing the archaeological materials, although, as we have seen, these were relatively abundant, mixed with ashes, in the “pipeline” which links this space and the Inner Room. Activities have forcely taken place in the Upper Deck…
Eu tenho três mil anos: sou Poeta
(I am 3000 years old: I am a Poet)
Sebastião da Gama, Arrábida (6.11.1943)
The hypothesis that, in the Early Iron Age, has worked, on the Upper Deck, an altar of fire, is very suggestive, given the many parallels known in urban or domestic contexts in the South West of Iberia (Cancho Roano, La Mata, Coria del Rio, Cerro de las Cabezas de Valdepñas, Espinhaço de Cão...). On the other hand, the complete absence of material (and their presence in the adjacent duct) necessarily means that the site was intentionally and systematically cleaned, while in use.
Not forgetting the physical structure of the cave that serves as a natural staircase, between the entrance and the upper deck, recalling some examples of altars with stairs, like in Cadiz. In the cave, we can actually define 3 levels, eventually used in ritual terms, according to the access to light: openly iluminated in the largest part of the cave, close to the entrance (the logically most puiblic part of the santuary); twiglight zone, on the uppermost part of the space, where the public cereminies would probably take place; dark inside the Inner Room, supposedly used for more restricted purposes.
Schema of the different light ambiences in the cave (light, shadow, dark).
The entrance of the cave as seen from the Upper Deck (twilight zone).
The most iluminated sector of the cave, by sunrise.
Schematic hypotesis of the ritual use of the different spaces in the sanctuary
Furthermore, the existence of an altar of fire is suggested by the thick layer of ash in the side conduct; another possible indicator is the fact that the roof of the cave on the upper deck, being very fractured, functions as natural chimney. An experiment with a small bunch of rosemary, burned on a shovel, clearly proved that the smoke is actually absorbed into the cracks in the ceiling.
João Luis experimenting the natural chimney in the Upper Deck...
In the Inner Room, which seems to have worked as a true container of archaeological materials, stratigraphy appears to have 2 types: one of them, with, ashes, food remains and discarded materials from the Upper Deck that are present, without a doubt, in the pipeline which links the two spaces; the other, as the deposit of containers (storage of products or offerings), apparently over the surface of the room.
Following the logic of some oriental shrines, the Inner Room could have been used as a bothros, a place for storage of sacred offerings that, because they belonged to the god (or goddess), had to be carefully guarded.
The way up
Another line of research initiated meanwhile, with encouraging results, was the survey of the only viable access between the Lapa da Cova and the inlet of Calhau Cova, about 260 m, almost vertically, below the cave-shrine. This path comes down from the cave entrance, veers west at the top of the dejection cone that unites the two more vertical sections of the slope, and follows down by the crest of the spur of the Calhau da Cova.
In this inspection, not yet completed, 3 sites were identified, with materials from Late Bronze / Early Iron Age, consistent with parameters that we have in the cave.
Schematic view of the location of Lapa da Cova, in relation with the presumed access from the sea.
The team of speleology of the CEAE (LPN), started, in the vicinity of the Lapa da Cova, detailed surveys in order to identify any entries in the same karstic system. 3 o them have already been identified, more or less filled with geologic sediments; after a slight clearance, one of them proved very interesting and complex. In none of these cavities were, however, observed archaeological materials.
The material collected so far in ,  and  consists of several hundreds of ceramic fragments, mostly wheel made, with light clays, quite compact, and with excellent workmanship, but also with an appreciable lot of hand made ceramic, with dark pasts. There are represented some ceramics painted with red and black bands, as well as the widespread gray pottery, frequently polished, and even a few polished ornaments (ornatos brunidos) on wheel made shards.
Containers are present in good number, including jars of type R1 and pithoi / urns.
In parallel with excavation, we started the washing, marking and restoration of the collected materials.
Washing and organizing the material collected in the excavation.
Fragments of Phoenician painted jar (s)
Contrary to what the golden finding, certainly fortuitous, might suggest, were only collected, in the digging, 3 fragments of metal artifacts, namely bronze.
Two of the bronze artifacts found on axcavation
Bronze artifact found on surface, before excavation
The necklace beads are, however, a relatively common occurrence, with different types and materials, but with a predominance of carnelian and glass paste.
Some examples of beadsWaiting for the Future
Available data is telling us, already with relative safety, that we are excavating a Phoenician cave-shrine – or, at least of Phoenician inspiration - the westernmost of those which are currently known.
Its very position, overlooking the sea, on a notorious Phoenician passage point between Gibraltar and the Tagus / Sado, controling (and controlled by) the South-North route that borders the Portuguese coast, coming from Sagres, speaks for itself.
The Lapa da Cova dominates, from above, the whole scenario of the arrival of Phoenician to Setubal, Alcacer or Abul; on a clear day, one sees clearly, from the entrance of the Lapa da Cova, the tip of Sines and beyond it, to the South. The difficulty of access suggests that it is a sanctuary for sailors, related eventually with protection of the journeys, used on the arrival and return.
We are on the trail of a deity...
Carlos Wagner (geral)
Mireia Lopez (ritual)
Francisco Nuñez (cerâmica)
Em busca dos Fenícios
Escacena (Los Fenícios...)
Contactos pré-coloniais (A. Mederos)
Contactos pré-coloniais (A. Mederos)
Colonização inicial (A Mederos)
Escrita (A. Mederos)
Espadas Huelva (A. Mederos)