The future of Spain’s dolmens uncertain

From Reuters:

Spain’s pre-historic burial chambers have survived invasion, war, a long dictatorship and a property bubble which paved over vast tracts of the country.

But the economic crisis which ended the building boom that buried some of the country’s greatest archaeological treasures under shopping malls and new housing may also be bad news for those hoping to provide lasting safeguards for Spain’s remaining tholos dolmens or passage tombs.

The Aljarafe region outside the city of Seville in southern Spain, with a rich Arabic and Christian history, is believed to house Europe’s most extensive grouping of tholos dolmens, dating back some 5,000 years.

Many of these archaeological treasures were buried under new construction during a decade-long building craze that swept across Spain and left 1.5 million vacant homes when it ended.

A debt crisis ravaging Spain’s economy has saved some of the dolmens by freezing funds for construction. But the credit crunch also means scarce money to explore these little-known Copper Age settlements and turn them into tourist centers.

“It’s as if we had a gold mine under our feet; all we need is the investment muscle to reap the benefit. I don’t see this latent potential in any other industry or sector,” Juan Manuel Vargas, a local archaeologist said.

Vargas is head archaeologist in Valencina de la Concepcion, a small town outside of Seville and home to many dolmens, two of which — La Pastora and Matarrubilla — are open to the public and receive about 10,000 visitors a year.

Dolmen constructions are large stones stood upright to support a large flat boulder like a roof or gigantic table. They were erected around Western Europe, from Ireland to the Baltics, starting about 7,000 years ago. Human remains have been found in or near many of them, leading to the theory that they are tombs. In the passage dolmens, the stone structure forms the entry way to a burial mound.

La Pastora dolmen in Valencina boasts the longest corridor ever discovered in a passage grave in Europe, while its sister Matarrubilla houses a stone altar inside its burial chamber offering clues into the funerary rituals of early settlers.

Driving along a dirt road to La Pastora past rolling hills dotted with olive trees under a brilliant sun it is easy to imagine the centuries of civilizations who have inhabited this mystical land. But the visitor is catapulted back into the present upon reaching the dolmen.

The chamber sits beside a giant telecommunications tower, and empty beer bottles are strewn inches from an archaeological site which provided a range of ancient artifacts before excavations were halted after the funds ran out.

“It’s a problem of mentality. After seeing it every day, our residents aren’t aware of what they’re living next to,” Vargas explained.

The youth are not the only ones who have failed to recognize the historical value of the land underneath their beer bottles.

The Montelirio dolmen, a unique two-chamber structure in neighboring Castilleja de Guzman, was nearly suffocated by plans to build a supermarket and a retirement home.

In 2007, archaeologists discovered the remains of what they thought was a chieftain in Montelirio, and to their surprise, 19 women believed to have drunk a poison in a ritual to accompany their leader on his journey to the netherworld.

The remains of the women sit in a circle in a chamber adjacent to the bones believed to be of their chief.

“Montelirio offers important clues into these societies and their possible burial rituals,” archaeologist Vicente Aycart said, adding: “Who knows? Maybe this was a matriarchal society and that one man was their favorite eunuch!”

Aside from the archaeological wealth yet to be unveiled, these little-known prehistoric sites may prove a profitable tourism mine for a country that needs fresh growth drivers to battle sky-high joblessness and the threat of another recession.

Economists agree that Spain would do well to draw on its rich history and culture to promote itself as an all-season tourism destination and fuel a sector worth about 11 percent of gross domestic product.

“Spain has enormous opportunities to further boost cultural tourism linked to music, history, architecture and archaeology,” said Jose Luis Zoreda, CEO of Spanish tourist lobby Exceltur.

“But given autonomous communities’ financial difficulties right now, I don’t know if this kind of investment will be on the top of their list in 2012,” he said.

Spain’s indebted autonomous regions, which invested heavily in the construction boom, are now at the heart of financial market concerns that the country may miss its budget deficit target and need a bailout just like Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Plans to create an archaeological park in Aljarafe with a visitors’ center, museum and a route taking visitors from the dolmens to the nearby Phoenician artifacts of El Carambolo and the Roman city Italica are at a standstill.

Once money starts to flow again, archaeologists and non-profit associations warned that steps must be taken to protect this triangle of ancient history while developing controlled and sustainable tourism.

“The real gem of these places is the scientific depth that we don’t even know yet. First we need to create a cultural site. The tourism will come later,” said Jorge Arevalo, vice president of a dolmen protection association said.

“If we don’t take care of it, future generations won’t be able to enjoy it. We have a responsibility to history.”


A whistle language – El silbo gomero

From Transparent:

There is a tiny little island in Spain called La Gomera. It’s one of the Canary Islands, situated off the northwestern coast of Africa. The population is 22.000, and they have a very special way of communicating with each other. The aboriginal population, the Guanches, used a whistle language to convey complex messages across the deep valleys. Because whistle can be heard from longer distances, it was way more effective than shouting, and much faster than traveling across the jagged landscape. When the Romans arrived in the islands, they documented this language, which in Spanish is known as el silbo gomero, or simply el silbo.

In the 16th century, after islands were colonized by Spanish settlers, this language was adapted to Spanish, and it has survived until modern times. Thanks to a local government initiative, el silbo gomero is now taught at every school in the island, to ensure that future generations will still remember it and use it.

In the following video, you can listen to a silbador (whistler) talking about the island and follow the subtitles in Spanish. If you listen carefully, you will notice that the silbo is actually phonetic, and you can identify the Spanish vowels and consonants for each word.

Pitch, intensity, length, and intermitent or continuous sounds (staccato and glisando, for musicians) are used to distinguish the different phonemes and syntactic structures. The grammar and vocabulary of the silbo are exactly the same as Spanish.

In the next video, the subtitles are in English, and there is a link to a language learning website where you can find out more about the language.

From Transparent.

Seville World Heritage Site in danger?

From Telegraph:

The city has approved plans for a controversial tower designed by Cesar Pelli, the Argentine architect, despite objections from UN culture chiefs who fear the new construction will have a detrimental effect on the city’s historic centre.

Seville secured a place on the World Heritage list in 1987 for its Cathedral, Alcazar and the Archivo de Indias, a monumental complex dating from between the 13th and 16th centuries.

The complex includes the Giralda minaret, which at 320ft was at one time the world’s tallest tower in the world and the vast gothic cathedral containing the tomb of Christopher Columbus.

But the skyline is threatened with the construction of the new headquarters for savings bank Cajasol less than a mile away on the opposite bank of the Guadalquivir river.

Work began at the site early this year and is scheduled for completion by end of 2011 after planning chiefs ignored a request by Unesco to delay construction until a thorough impact report could be completed.

The city is likely to be put on the World Heritage site endangered list when the organisation’s committee meets in Brasilia next month and could be removed all together if the proposal for the tower is not modified.

“We are not very optimistic. Work has not stopped. There has been no change,” said Victor Fernandez Salinas, of ICOMOS-Spain, the advisory arm of Unesco in Spain, which visited Seville this week.

“A realistic scenario would be for Seville to enter the list of endangered World Heritage Sites after the Brasilia meeting. And in the worst of cases, Seville could be kicked out,” he warned.

It would be only the second time that a city has lost its prized status since the World Heritage list was created in 1972. Last year the German city of Dresden was taken off the list after constructing a bridge over the river Elbe that ruined its beautifully conserved river landscape.

From Telegraph

Spanish bullfighting should be given UNESCO protection?

Esperanza Aguirre has called on UNESCO to offer bullfighting protection – similar to that given to sites and attractions such as the Terracotta Warriors in China.

The move comes as the Catalan parliament is to debate whether to put a stop to what Spaniards call the “corrida”.

It also provided an opportunity for, Mrs Aguirre, one of Spain’s most prominent conservative politicians, to portray herself as a champion of tradition.

“Bullfighting was a source of inspiration for Goya, Picasso, Garcia Lorca, Hemingway and Orson Welles,” said Mrs Aguirre, who political commentators say harbours ambitions to lead the main opposition Popular Party, as she posed with a pink matador’s cape.

“It’s an art that has been in our culture for as long as we can remember,” she said, calling on UNESCO to declare bullfighting part of the world’s cultural heritage.

The Catalan debate began after a petition by animal rights activists, and has already provoked passionate argument. Speaking in the Catalan parliament, philosopher Jesus Mosterin compared bullfights to “the primitive and abominable custom” of female circumcision.

With Catalan regional elections due in the autumn, the issue has been picked up by some politicians who favour independence from Spain.

“Esperanza Aguirre takes any opportunity she can to jump on the populist bandwagon and wave the Spanish flag. These gestures play very well with PP voters,” said Justin Burn, a historian at New York University in Madrid.

Bullfighting has been losing popularity for some years in Barcelona and the northeastern region of Catalonia, which already enjoys considerable autonomy and strongly promotes its own culture and language.

The corrida still retains a big following in other parts of Spain, and big festivals each year in Seville, Madrid and Pamplona are packed.

But, while leading matadors are treated as celebrities and major newspapers carry pages devoted to the day’s events, bullfighting’s popularity is now dwarfed by that of other activities such as soccer.


World’s oldest “map” discovered in Spain

map_1457227cA stone tablet found in a cave in Abauntz in the Navarra region of northern Spain is believed to contain the earliest known representation of a landscape.

Engravings on the stone, which measures less than seven inches by five inches, and is less than an inch thick, appear to depict mountains, meandering rivers and areas of good foraging and hunting.

A team from the University of Zaragoza spent 15 years deciphering the etched lines and squiggles after unearthing the artefact during excavation of the cave in 1993.

“We can say with certainty that it is a sketch, a map of the surrounding area,” said Pilar Utrilla, who led the research team.

“Whoever made it sought to capture in stone the flow of the watercourses, the mountains outside the cave and the animals found in the area.”

map2_1457228c“The landscape depicted corresponds exactly to the surrounding geography,” she said. “Complete with herds of ibex marked on one of the mountains visible from the cave itself.”

The research, which is published in the latest edition of the Journal of Human Evolution, furthers understanding of early modern human capacities of spatial awareness, planning and organised hunting.

“We can’t be sure what was intended in the making of the tablet but it was clearly important to those who populated the cave 13,660 years ago,” said Ms Utrilla. “Maybe it was to record areas rich in mushrooms, birds’ eggs, or flint used for making tools.”

The researchers believe it may also have been used as a storytelling device or to plan a hunting expedition.

“Nothing like this has been discovered elsewhere in western Europe,” she said.


Treasure hunters ordered to return £250m of loot to Spain


The Spanish government has won a two-year legal battle against commercial marine archaeologist firm Odyssey, which Spain accused of plundering its national heritage.

The Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration recovered 17 tons of gold and silver from a sunken vessel they code-named the “Black Swan” in March 2007. The Nasdaq-listed company refused to reveal the location of the wreck insisting that it had been found in international waters and therefore beyond the legal jurisdiction of any one country.

But when the record haul was announced Spain came to suspect the treasure had been looted from the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate laden with bullion from the Americas that sunk by the British off the coast of Portugal in October 1804.

Spain branded the Odyssey team “21st century pirates” and sent its navy to intercept vessels owned by Odyssey as they explored the waters around Spain. They seized equipment and records but failed to find the salvaged coins which had already been secretly flown out to a warehouse in Tampa, Florida.

In May 2007 the Spanish government launched legal proceedings with the US courts against Odyssey arguing that the wreck was protected by “sovereign immunity” which prohibits the unauthorised disturbance or commercial exploitation of state-owned naval vessels.

In a landmark ruling on Wednesday a judge at the Federal Court in Tampa found against Odyssey and ordered the treasure to be returned to Spain.

Angeles Gonzales-Sinde, Spain’s minister of culture, welcomed the decision. “The Judge saw that the ship and its contents belong to Spain. It’s a hugely important ruling and one that will set a precedent for future claims.”

The ruling could have an impact on future finds by the company, which is in talks with the British government over salvaging the wreck of the HMS Sussex, an 80-gun warship believed to be carrying 10 tonnes of gold when it sank off the coast of Spain during a storm in 1694.

Odyssey said it will appeal the court’s decision. “I’m confident that ultimately the judge or the appellate court will see the legal and evidentiary flaws in Spain’s claim,” said Gregg Stemm, the CEO of Odyssey. “We’ll be back to argue the merits of the case.”