Côa Museum

As you walk down the cement canyon, the walls close in on you and the blue sky dwindles. Darkness encloses you and it seems like you are traveling into the bowels of the earth and back in time. Within, you are surrounded by art and artefacts of life as it was tens of thousands of years ago. Immerse yourself in the paleolithic, here in the centre of one of the most important paleolithic sites in the world.

The Côa Museum was built in 2010, on a hilltop overlooking the place where the Côa River meets the Douro. Designed to fit into the landscape by mimicking a rocky outcrop, it is a perfect complement to the “real” museum: the open air sites throughout the Côa valley where paleolithic rock engravings stand after tens of thousands of years.

The museum has multiple rooms: the first few are for temporary exhibits (when we visited, it was an exhibition of work by a contemporary Portuguese painter, Paula Rego) and the rest are devoted to the archaeology of the Côa Valley. There are exhibits showing artefacts from various sites (stone tools, bones, etc.), exhibits showing the different engraving techniques, and more. (All exhibits are labeled in both Portuguese and English, with translation cards available in French and Spanish.) The final section includes examples of the evolution of rock engravings from paleolithic to modern times, and finally a video (in Portuguese, with English subtitles) depicts the fight against the building of the dam which would have flooded the valley (“The carvings don’t know how to swim!” was the battle cry).

Throughout the museum, there are various replicas of some of the actual stones. The most impressive is the huge rock #1 from the Fariseu site. This rock, which is submerged most of the time, was excavated in 1999 when the water level was particularly low. At least one section from the top of the rock had fallen and was found within a layer of sediment that could be dated back 20,000 years: this proved that the engravings were that old.

There is also a room full of portable rock art: small stones with engravings that were created in order to be moveable. While the majority of the art in the valley was engraved onto vertical stone faces and intended to be seen in place, possibly from far away, these were intended to be carried with individuals or groups of people.

There is also an exhibition showing the different techniques used: from pecking (hammering holes into the rock with a harder stone), to abrasion (carving lines into the rock, often by joining pecked holes), and filiform or fine-line engraving. These were often combined: a fine line was carved, then holes were pecked along the lines, and finally the holes were joined by abrasion, resulting in a thick line carved into the rock.

Exhibits talk about the different theories about the purpose of the art: was it art for art’s sake, something beautiful to look at? Or did it have some religious purpose? Many archaeologists (and several guides I met) reason that the carvings served a communicative purpose: creating some kind of language using animal shapes as symbols, carved in locations that could be seen from a distance. Were they territorial markings? Communications on paths to follow (taking a lead from the directions the animals were looking)? We’ll likely never know for sure.

The museum is well worth a visit to better understand and appreciate the carvings in the valley and the lives of the people who made them so many millennia ago.


The Côa Valley Archaeological Park is in the northern part of Guarda district, in Central Portugal. It’s in the municipality of Vila Nova de Foz Côa. The Côa River is a tributary of the Douro River, which runs east-west from Spain to Porto in Northern Portugal. The Côa River is in the western part of Portugal, near the Spanish border.

The museum is just outside the town of Vila Nova de Foz Côa, in the Guarda district of Central Portugal. There are many signs in the town directing you to the museum – it’s easy to get to.


Admission to the museum costs €7.50 for adults, with reduced prices for children, students, seniors, and families. (Prices are on a PDF linked to the museum’s visit page.)

The museum is open from 9:00 to 17:30 from October to April, and 9:00 to 18:00 from May to September. It’s closed Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and May Day (1 May), and it’s closed every Monday from November to March.


  • Website (in English) for the museum
  • Video (language neutral) by the Côa Museum showing the setting and exhibits
  • An older video (in English) by the Côa Museum explaining the museum


There are several visitable rock art sites in the Côa Valley Archaelogical Park. You can arrange visits at the museum. Outside the park, there is the Chalcolithic/Bronze Age site of Castelo Velho de Freixo de Numão about 12km away. Slightly further is the chalcolithic Pala da Moura anta, about 28km away.


  1. Pingback:Fariseu Rock Art Site - Prehistoric Portugal

  2. Gail Hamp-Adams

    I am absolutely fascinated by history and so glad I found this article.
    So well written – thank you.

  3. Pingback:Penascosa Rock Art Site - Prehistoric Portugal

  4. Pingback:Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley - Prehistoric Portugal

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