The plan for our second day in Evora was to visit two nearby megalithic monument sites. At 10 A.M. we met up with our tour guide, Andre, who had run into Dan at the cafe next to the hotel before coming up to meet us. He had arranged for a van and a driver to take us to two well-known sites about 10 kilometers outside of town that are part of a cluster of several other cromlechs and dolmens in the area.
Our first stop was the Almendres Cromlech, which is believed to be one of the oldest stone circles in Europe. This monument consists of about 95 menhirs (standing stones) arranged along a northwest-to-southeast axis that aligns with the sunrise on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. The formation is made up of a smaller, older circle on the eastern end, and a larger oval to the west, covering an area of about 40 by 70 meters. The construction of the cromlech (a Welsh word meaning a circle of standing stones) likely spanned three millennia, starting around 6,000 B.C. The stones in the larger ellipse seem to have been repositioned around 3,000 B.C to align with astronomically significant positions.
Most of the stones show remnants of carvings, with circular and spiral motifs, as well as shepherd’s hooks and anthropomorphic shapes. Some have dimples at the top, into which small stones may have been placed in order to conduct observations of celestial events.
After finishing here, we drove the short distance to the Great Dolmen of Zambujeiro, the largest megalithic dolmen in Europe. It was built around 3,000 B.C. and given its large scale and central position in relation to the megalithic cultural sites of this region, it is likely that this dolmen was created for an important person or family. The dolmen is built into a hillside, with seven granite orthostats (slab-shaped standing stones that form part of a larger structure) that are about eight meters high forming the funeral chamber. An entry corridor made of 15 smaller orthostats leads to the chamber, and these are braced by piles of flat rocks on either side. The pieces of the large capstone for the chamber lay on the ground near the dolmen, and the capstones for the corridor are mostly missing.
It’s very difficult to grasp the age of these structures, and it is intriguing to imagine how they were used, what drove their creation, and what meaning they held for their makers. Contemplating these ideas, for me, connects right to the essence of what it means to be human: to make things with our hands, to make them beautiful, and to make meaning from our experiences and the world around us. Not to mention, it boggles the mind to consider that each one of us is descended from humans who lived at the time these were built, and stretching back to the time of the earliest cave paintings, and back even further to the initial migrations from the African continent. These stones carry a lot of weight, both literally and metaphorically.