During our few days in Evora, Portugal, we wanted to take a side trip to see the Almendres Cromlech megalith. The standing stones weren’t accessible by public transit and we didn’t want to rent a car if we didn’t have to. Luckily, our hotel owner was extremely helpful. He hooked us up with a friend of his who could give us a private, guided tour out to the standing stones.
The Almendres Cromlech megalith is about a half-hour drive west of Evora. The stones are around 2000-3000 years older than Stonehenge, which is thought to have been constructed between 3000 BC and 2000 BC. The Almendres Cromlech consists of two distinct circles. The smaller ring to the east was constructed around 6000 BC during the Neolithic period.
A few things about this site really stood out for us: the fact that there was no admission fee or even fences around the site; and the amazing realization that, except for one lone fellow riding through the area on his bicycle, we were the only three people there. It was so peaceful and serene.
As a side note, a cork tree forest surrounds the standing stones. Our guide for the day gave us a short lesson about the cork trees.
Portugal produces over 50% of the world’s cork. A cork tree can’t be harvested for the first time until it’s at least 25 years old. Afterward, a tree can be harvested every 9 years for the remaining life of the tree, which is around 300 years. This makes cork a highly sustainable industry. The cork from the first few harvests, however, isn’t of good enough quality to use as wine corks. Cork harvesting typically takes place between May and September, when the warm weather expands the cork, making it easier to strip.
Mark and I noticed that many of the cork trees had numbers on them. Our guide explained that the number indicates the last year a tree was stripped. In this case, the 1 is for 2011:
Cork strippers, called tiradors strip the cork by hand using axes. It’s very hard, hot work, but tiradors earn a pretty decent wage, which includes health care and other benefits.
The cork is dried in the sun for several months, then boiled to kill any bacteria or insects. Then it’s separated into batches depending on quality and thickness for various industries. This was a great side lesson for us, as we had no idea how cork was harvested and processed!
Anyway, back to the standing stones themselves.
The Almendres Cromlech site consists of 95 granite standing stones forming two rings, the smaller round ring being the oldest. The larger ring is oval and was built later, around 5000 BC. Over all, the site measures around 70 meters by 40 meters. Originally it started as a horseshoe shape opening to the east, but it was modified over time.
Amazingly, it seems people used the site almost continuously until 3000 BC. As with Stonehenge, it seems Almendres was built as a ceremonial calendar, dedicated to a celestial religion. There are other megaliths in the area, but this one appears to be one of the oldest and largest in Europe. It might also be one of the first public monuments humans ever built.
Around 3000 BC, people rearranged some of the stones to align with celestial bodies such as the sun, moon and some stars. In fact, there is a lone megalith approximately 1km away called the Menhir of Almendres. If you draw a straight line from the Menhir to the center of Almendres Cromlech, it points towards the sunrise on the Winter solstice.
After the site fell out of use, centuries passed and people largely forgot about this site. A geologist named Henrique Leonor PinaIt rediscovered it in the 1960s. Many of the stones had toppled over through the centuries. Mario Varela Gomes, an archaeologist, conducted research to determine their original positions and righted them during a reconstruction program.
Approximately a dozen stones had carvings on them, however they’re difficult to discern due to erosion. Luckily, we were able to photograph a few of the clearer images. This one had circles carved into the face:
I found these semi-circular carvings particularly interesting. What do you suppose they represented?
No one really knows what these anthropomorphic images represented. But theories suggest that they could be the first sculptural representations of guardian deities. Whatever they represent, there’s no denying that Almendres Cromlech is a very special place.
Unfortunately, there are no buses that take you to Almendres Cromlech. Taking a taxi can be expensive, so I would recommend either renting a car or hiring a local tour guide. Almendres Cromlech is approximately 18km from the pretty little town of Evora. The fastest route is via the N144, then taking the CM1075 to the R. do Cromeleque.