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The Museum Town of Mértola


A cultural project of integrated development

Cláudio Torres

When the project known today as “Mértola – Museum Town” was initiated at the end of the 70’s of the last century, its objectives were not very different from that which now happily, is already commonplace: the involvement of the population in an attempt to consolidate its identity and to contribute to local development. After a few initial difficulties, the turning point happened when recognition came from the outside: when the people of Mértola verified that the slow and miniscule work of the archaeologists and museum technicians was recognised by the exterior, with constant references and reports beginning to be seen in the media.

It was very clear to us from the beginning that it would not be at all easy to do scientific investigation away from the large institutes and universities, adding the further fact that we would be based out in the sticks, completely far from road and institutional networks. In order to survive, and furthermore, to be credible within the scientific circles, in order to have access to investigation grants on an equal footing and in the same field as the laboratories and universities of the whole country, we were obliged to lay our bets on our team of investigators and so on the maximum quality of the scientific results. Amongst the almost three-dozen technicians and investigators that make up our team today, there are eight doctorates from the Universities of Madrid, Lyon and Lisbon, some of whom began their technical and academic careers amongst us.

The results of the various investigation projects have come to be edited autonomously or published in the annual Medieval Archaeology magazine edited by CAM (Mértola’s Archaeological Site) over the last 15 years. This magazine, specialising in the scientific divulgation of the latest available results in Medieval and Islamic investigation to the whole of the Iberian peninsula, has come to assert itself by its regularity and quality.

Our effort to make facts known has also gone through a pedagogic interest in the creation and support of the local delegation of the Bento de Jesus Caraça Professional School, which has trained dozens of young people as archaeological, tourism and traditional architecture technicians over the last ten years. In 2006 we began another cycle in our pedagogic activity, by launching a specialised higher education training.

At the same time as this pedagogic endeavour and especially with this activity of historical/archaeological investigation, the main option at the base of our integrated project was also to lay our bets, above all, on the making known of results locally, which, of course, passed through the process of making the museums.

Apart from the scientific divulgation, codified in its own language and directed to a specialized public, the only convincing form to justify the work in process locally is to talk clearly and accessibly, to be capable of identifying the strongest cultural references and consequently consolidate potentials from within. Within the museographic dynamics not only are the results spread in the most efficient way to the public in general, especially to the local public, but it also became possible to attract another type of visitor as long as this offer is duly advertised. Thus Mértola has become a known destination for cultural tourism.

These visitors are not really looking for exotic things or monumental spaces but rather for a dynamic, ambitious project that manages to involve the local population, constructing scientific and museum proposals of great quality in an isolated area, far from the large centres.

All this effort of investigation, investment and making facts known has been in the greater part led by Mértola’s Archaeological Site, in partnership with the Association for the Defence of Heritage (Associação de Defesa do Património) and with the support of the Municipal Council. More recently the local delegation of the Bento de Jesus Caraça Professional School and the Guadiana Valley Nature Park have joined this project; the latter, naturally destined for the management of Nature and environmental education of a vast territory of about 70 000 hectares.

The urban fabric of Mértola’s historic centre is shown as a highly valuable collection, in terms of heritage, historically, sculpturally and even experientially. Thus it has been a fundamental part of CAM’s teamwork (Mértola’s Archaeological Site) to give incentives, support and to develop activities and projects that give value to the heritage associated with it.

Lasting work in this area, in collaboration with the teams of the Local Technical Office, has led to projects of architectural intervention, the crossing of information coming from archaeological and documental research work assuming particular relevance, namely in the case of the recovery of some parts of the Town Walls, the Early Christian Basilica, the prison building, today the Municipal library, the six-hundred-year-old ruins of the ancient granaries of the house of Bragança (where the museum’s Islamic Art is to be found installed) and some dwellings. In this way, one looks for certain built upon spaces that can be integrated components of the Museum collection, so also responding to social necessities and making use of daily life that the locality contains within itself.

Within this context, the Local Museology Project is inserted within a philosophy of intervention that, above all, aims to plan the social and heritage recovery of the historical centre, known as the Old Town (Vila Velha).

Although the most important vectors of the town’s expansion today are outside the Town Walls, it is the original nucleus that has remained the distinctive image of the registers of the past and in a certain way continues to be the symbol and the motor of its own tourist development.

This picture helps to understand how the museum is the town itself. In fact the streets, the organization of the public spaces, the structuring and use of façades, architectural volumes, materials and construction techniques as well as a supported re-qualified housing are as important historically as the archaeological finds that fill the show cases. Here, museology cannot be removed from urban rehabilitation.

Thus, it is easy to understand the principle that has presided over the project “Museum Town”: that of poly nuclei, that is the organization/installation of museum spaces in distinct points of the historical centre, organized in a thematic way and always, whenever possible, in the place of the archaeological find itself or directly or indirectly related to the intended pedagogic objective.

In this way the interpretation and the knowledge of specific historical contents is provided, avoiding the concentration of exhibitions and overloading of information, at the same time allowing access to a visit with a historical trail that interpenetrates the urban spaces and traces of the town, even itself being understood as a space of aesthetic fruition. One of the objectives of this museum walk and which has been crowned with success, is to encourage a variation of the circuits, taking the tourist to increase the time spent with evident benefits for the restaurant and accommodation services.

Having arrived here we now find ourselves at a turning point: resources , including the tourists, have to be planned and managed, so not to be too cautious. It is necessary to define objectives and strategies. And these appear to point to a better management of theme visits, more circuits organized outside the town, making use of places with environmental and landscape quality, namely for the ethno/anthropological and nature tourism sector.

Apart from these aspects we are now committed to improving the quality of the service offered, giving training to those who have direct contact with the visitors, involving the population in a more participative way with tourist activities and above all that the planning, apart from allowing better functioning, reduces the negative impacts to the minimum. We are aware that the success in the tourist factor is in the excellence of the service without being subservient, in the quality of information available and in the variety of complementary entertainment. All these aspects, duly structured and solidly linked to the interests of the inhabitants, can be an obstacle to growth but without rules and without control it could sooner or later lead to agony and death by massification as in some of the more sought after tourist destinations.


Completed museum nuclei or those in the process of being completed (the circuit to be visited)

1 - The Visitor Centre and tourist information

This space, situated right at the entrance of the Old Town, functions as the hub of the activities to spread information and to attend to the tourists. As all the other museums, this Visitor Centre is the responsibility of the Municipal Council. (CAM – Archaeological Site – has only the technical and scientific responsibility for the finds exhibited and deposited there)

Furthermore this Centre is the place to buy tickets, publications and visitors’ guidebooks.

2 - The Castle

Occupying the area of the ancient Roman constructions and a small fortified neighbourhood from the Islamic period, the castle dominates the whole settlement and serves as a reference point to the shots of ancient battles, to the memory of other events.

The keep, still imposing with its formidable volume, marks the period in which Mértola, was the national headquarters of the Order of Santiago for the duration of a century. In the armoury whose ceiling is a cross vault, there are some architectural elements collected from the town and the surrounding area and attributed to the transition period between the VI and IX centuries, a period dominated by the decorative forms of Visigothic taste.

This display, apart from being a thematic catalogue, has a didactic panel referring to the topographic implantation of the exhibited objects.

Another exhibition programme is planned to be set up in a recently restored upper room, one dedicated to the history of the fort itself.

In the castle enclosure, whose walls have been recently mended, access is at present restricted due to the restoration works. Another space will be available at the end of 2007 for temporary exhibitions.

3 - The Roman Acropolis and the Islamic neighbourhood

Archaeology has opened the first doors to the past. Year after year, other forms and objects have been discovered that give value to the museums and give answers to the many doubts about history that sometimes is still told badly. Interrupting the north incline of the Castle slope, the possible forum of the Roman city creates an artificial platform, the most imposing support of the monumental collection of the old Myrtilis.

All this artificially levelled space lies over an underground gallery – the crypto-porticus –about 30 metres in length and 6 metres in height that was used as a food store and later as a cistern.

In the Islamic epoch, in the course of the XI and XII centuries, all this area was occupied with a housing neighbourhood which, after the Christian Conquest in 1238, was completely flattened to be adapted into a cemetery. It will be possible to visit this enclosure in the future, at present access is limited, travelling along a metallic passageway that will take the visitor to the more interesting places. Amongst these there are the ruins of a VI century baptistery, surrounded at that time by a beautiful set of polychrome mosaics of which some significant fragments remain.

4 - The Church/Mosque

Directly inserted in the acropolis enclosure and integrated within the circuit of monuments, towers the Parish Church (former mosque). Mértola’s parish church is situated today in the area where a Roman temple, and later a Early Christian one, would have existed and where at the end of the XII century a mosque was constructed from scratch. Two capitals remain from the ancient Almoahad mosque, re-used in the five-hundred-year-old works, four doors with outdated arches and the Muslim altar or mihrab. The decorative language of this epoch is still clearly perceptible in this small niche. The mosque was Christianised straight after the conquest and the Order of Santiago imposed its symbol on the façade. The church was completely reconstructed in the middle of the XVI century.

Its five naves, initially covered with polychrome wood have been substituted by a beautiful set of vaults: the multiple moulded support of the altar should be highlighted here. In contrast to the vaults and the external pinnacles from the Mudejar to the last Gothic, the main door of the church follows the models of the Italian Renaissance.

On the way to the set of monuments localized in the southern point of the Old Town, the descent should be made by Afreita Street where an ancient blacksmith’s workshop was situated.

5 - The Blacksmith’s Forge

This workshop, no longer in use, aims to keep the memory alive of one of the many professions from our past that did not manage to hold out against new technologies. Apart from the anvil and the forge with its bellows, all the tools necessary for working the iron are on exhibition. An explanatory board describes the place and the main undertakings developed by the craftsman.

6 - The Islamic Art collection

Making use of the space and volume of the former granary of Bragança House, a modern architectural and museum project houses, within its two floors, the most important collection of Islamic art in our country.

The ceramic exhibits stand out, especially an exceptional set of artefacts decorated with glaze in “cuerda seca”. This Eastern decorative technique, perfected in the potteries of al-Andalus, will be later spread by the five-hundred-year-old tile workshops. The animal and vegetative decorative motifs pass to geometric or epigraphic motifs, reaching a strong ornamental baroque.

8 - Centre for Islamic and Mediterranean Studies

Various organisms depending on Mértola’s Archaeological Site are to be found in a beautiful, partially restored building, bordering the Islamic Museum. A library specializing in Islamic Civilization with more than 20 000 volumes, the Association Multiculti’s headquarters, the headquarters of the Portuguese network of the Anna Lindh Foundation, a double space for temporary exhibitions and above all a Higher Education Training Centre destined for teaching masters degrees and Ph.Ds versed in the Mediterranean Islamic civilization and culture.

9 - Religious Art – The River Doorway

Constructed in the XVI century above the doorway that gave access to the ancient Medieval port, the Church of Mercy, today partially out of use for religious services, holds an interesting collection of Christian Religious Art. The body of the church, the sacristy and other annexes are today used as exhibition spaces. Over the last twenty years the collection of statues, paintings and religious vessels was gathered from some churches in the district that had been abandoned and offered little security. Amongst the set of three-dozen artefacts sculptured in polychrome wood are some that belong to the great European schools of the XVI century and the great majority were made in regional workshops.

The first part of the exhibition refers to all the parochial churches, as well as a film of the annual procession to Our Lord of the Steps. Some artefacts from the old Church of Mercy and three monumental boards that belonged to the five-hundred-year-old ancient altars from the Parish church are also exhibited. Amongst the liturgical vessels on exhibition, three important artefacts in chiselled silver from the XVI century; a small chest/pyx, a processional cross and a monstrance are highlighted. From the XVIII century, a set of chalices and other small liturgical vessels stand out.

10 - A Walk along the Banks of the River

Going through the River Doorway in the direction of the River, leaving the ancient Roman town walls behind (indicated by local signs) the still imposing piers of a bridge are lined up that in the late Roman period gave access to the River Tower. Apart from allowing access to the water without going out of the Town Walls, this construction was an important point of support in the defence of the port, not only in that it could house a military garrison but also that it could control an iron chain that stretched from one bank to the other thus preventing enemy vessels from going up the river. Powerful breakwaters resisted the violence of the waters during the winter months. Due to its constructive technique and functions it is a unique monument in our country.

The area around these ruins was renovated and a garden was made. A paved walkway takes the visitor to a system of tunnels and wells that in former times led the water from the river to within the Town Walls. Climbing the stairway to the Clock Tower you arrive at the Town Hall Square.

11 - The Roman House

The Roman part of the Museum is to be found installed under the Town Hall. Prior to work being carried out in the basement, an archaeological intervention discovered the ruins of a Roman dwelling. Turning this place into a museum allowed a set of architectural fragments, suggesting forms and functions of the period in which the house was inhabited, to be installed. Objects found in the place itself are on exhibition plus others associated with the same cultural context and finally a reproduction of glass and sculpture of the period that since the end of the XIX century was deposited at the National Archaeological Museum. This small, on site museum, although integrated within the Town Hall building, has the same opening hours as the other museums.

12 - Jewellery Workshop

Reconnected to ancient traditions and making use of old artistic motifs, the jewellery workshop produces replicas of some archaeological materials coming from the excavations. Archaeological memories are also the starting point for the creation of artefacts where creative imagination opens new horizons to contemporary aesthetics. The same techniques and craftwork gestures model the silver and gold in a profusion of forms and motifs inscribed within the Islamic Mediterranean tradition.

13 - The Weavers’ Workshop

Weaving woollen blankets is certainly one of the oldest traditional arts of the region. Within this workshop, where continuous training takes place, a cooperative of weavers is responsible for making this tradition survive. The decorative motifs of these blankets are like an ornamental grammar affiliated to the ancient Berber tradition and that we also find stamped on archaeological materials. Within the space of the workshop itself there are examples of ancient instruments linked to the activity of wool and linen as well as an exhibition of materials made in the workshop and in the settlements found in the district’s mountaineous areas.

14 - Early Christian Basilica

Under the bare covering of a modern building are hidden the ruins of a large Early Christian Basilica, open for religious services from the V to the VIII centuries. Of the three naves and opposing apses, all that rests of this funeral temple is today valued by a museography that only suggests the main architectural lines.

Of the dozens of tombs studied only one yielded a bronze buckle with a chiselled decoration and a glass lachrymal vase. The exceptional importance of this museum is the Early Christian tombstone collection, made up of six dozen inscribed tombstones, thirty of which are found on exhibition in the locale. Antonia, Festelus or Amanda, were inhabitants of the city of Myrtilis and contemporaries of Andreas choirmaster of the church. This funeral basilica was constructed over a Roman Necropolis where there had already been burials from the Iron Age (6 centuries before Christ) and in a later period also made use of a vast Muslim cemetery as a base.

15 - The Saint Sebastian Hermitage and Necropolis

The most significant part of a large necropolis from the Roman and late Roman period, above which a small chapel dedicated to Saint Sebastian was implanted in the XVI century, was excavated in the secondary school playground and turned into a museum. The cemetery excavated in the rock can be visited via a small metallic walkway and has an explanatory notice board. The hermitage that was completely reconstructed in a pedagogic operation with the help of the archaeology students from the Bento de Jesus Caraça School, houses a small on site museum where amongst other artefacts a gold Chrisma medallion from the V century found in a child’s tomb can be admired.

16 - A Complementary Trail: The Guadiana watermills

In the vicinity of this school complex, the River Guadiana is cut by a dam where five watermills are implanted. Two of them, solidly vaulted to resist the river’s large flooding were adapted to the tidal regime.

We can conclude that all of society, any one community tries to keep, to protect, its most precious property, its proofs and identity-giving documents, its objects and artefacts, carriers of a mark or sign of collective memory. This place of shelter can and should be the museum. A place made sacred, capable of concentrating and synthesizing the soul of a place or territory, capable of dignifying a community’s deepest character. The gesture that transforms the insignificant piece of clay or the small buckle into an object of culture, into an artefact that has been made sacred, is a demiurgic gesture, an act of collective affirmation that reinforces self esteem and local pride. The local museum becomes more significant when it is divided into various thematic nuclei and when these gradually include areas of protection, access routes, doors and stone benches, walls, vegetable gardens and orchards. And above all when inside there is to be found a population interested, collaborating and supportive. This is, little by little, the Museum of Mértola.