Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

Start Over

Antiquarianism, archeology : Portuguese

  • Antiquarianism, archeologyPortuguese
  • Cultural Field:
    Texts and stories
  • Author:
    Gomes, Sérgio
  • Text:

    Portuguese intellectuals evinced a growing interest throughout the 19th century in the country’s antiquities; societies and associations were founded with the aim of safeguarding and studying them. Some of the most notable were the <em>Sociedade Archeologica Lusitana</em> (1849), <em>Real Associação dos Arquitectos Civis e Arqueólogos Portugueses</em> (1863), <em>Sociedade Martins Sarmento</em> (1883), <em>Sociedade Carlos Ribeiro</em> (1890), and <em>Sociedade Archeologica da Figueira</em> (1898).

    The study of antiquities also caught the interest of the state: the <em>Comissão Geológica do Reino</em> (1857) began to integrate the study of pre-history into its remit, and Estácio da Veiga was commissioned to inventorize the archeological material uncovered by a flooding of the Guadiana River in the Algarve. Veiga, an employee of the kingdom’s postal service, had previously worked on an inventory of the antiquities in the region, which he could now expand into the 4-volume <em>Antiguidades monumentais do Algarve</em> (1886-91). Government support, albeit intermittent, aimed to integrate the salvage and inventory of the country’s heritage into the much greater project of the modernization of the state.

    These 19th-century activities prepared the first national monuments registry (1904); simultaneously, a large archeological body of knowledge was developing, including the work of Carlos Ribeiro (1884) on human prehistory during the Pleistocene, and that of Augusto Filippe Simões on Iberian antiquity (<em>Introdução à arqueologia da Península Ibérica</em>, 1878). This involved the recognition and appreciation of Roman archeological sites; the protection and valuation of medieval churches, monasteries, and castles; and the possibility of constructing a narrative about the history of the Portuguese nation based on archeological remains.

    Archeologists also began to show an interest in studying pre-Roman remains in reaction to the historian Alexandre Herculano, who undertook the study of the origins of Portugal among the nations as a political phenomenon rooted in the complex feudal organization of the Middle Ages. Refuted by Herculano, the mythic lineage which had believed the Portuguese to be descendants of the Iron-Age Lusitanians became problematic, an issue addressed in the work of Francisco Martins Sarmento and José Leite de Vasconcellos. Sarmento was fascinated by the Iron Age <em>castros</em> (“walled enclosures”) of north-eastern Portugal and invested his personal funds in excavating the <em>castros</em> of <em>Briteiros</em> and <em>Sabroso</em>. The study of these sites, and the link he saw between them and nearby megalithic monuments, allowed the construction of a homogenous material culture he saw as correlating with a specific ethnic group. Comparing the archeological materials with classical literature, epigraphs, and language led him to associate the material culture with the pre-Celtic migrations of Indo-Europeans. Through this connection between a population, a territory, and a material culture, the idea of “Lusitania” was given shape as an ancestral ethnic and territorial formation providing a Portuguese ethnogenesis.

    For Sarmento, the material culture of the Lusitanian world was a singular and harmonious confluence of a people and a territory. As he understood it, this had forged the essence of an identity that resisted later influences (e.g. Celtic and Phoenician-Carthaginian) and invasions (e.g. the Roman invasion), to resurge and claim its independence in a medieval political context. In the work of Sarmento several traits of Romantic Nationalism are evident, primarily the essentialist idea of the nation understood as a continuum between territory, population and cultural expression. It was these ideas that supported the interpretation of the archeological data which allowed the re-creation of the traditional lineage linking the Lusitanians and the Portuguese.

    Sarmento’s ideas inspired Leite de Vasconcellos who, in 1893, founded the <em>Museu Ethnografico Português</em> (nowadays the National Museum of Archeology) in Lisbon. Opening to the public in 1906, its purpose was to exhibit the antiquity and traditions of the Portuguese people; special importance was given to the inventory of antiquities and the recording of traditions on a national scale. Vasconcellos’s major works were the <em>Religiões da Lusitânia</em> (3 vols, 1897-1913) and <em>Ethnografia Portuguesa</em>, a 10-volume series, of which the first three were published during his lifetime (1933, 1936, and 1941), the others posthumously. He also founded <em>O Archaeólogo Português</em> (1895), a journal dedicated to Portuguese archeology.

    In his research, Vasconcellos contextualized archeological data within ethnographic, linguistic, geographic, and historical studies. This increase in the quantity of data used in his work allowed him a better understanding of the complexity of the questions pertaining to the nation’s origins. Hence, he was faced with a much more complex and heterogeneous reality than the one proposed by Sarmento. Even so, the impossibility of gathering sufficient evidence eventually led him to move away from the discussion around the pre-Roman origins of the Portuguese nation.

    Despite the cautions of Vasconcellos, attempts to trace the Portuguese nation back into prehistory continued during the first half of the 20th century. Manuel Heleno, Vasconcellos’s successor as head of the Museum, and Mendes Correia, professor at the University of Porto (and founder, in 1918, of the <em>Sociedade Portuguesa de Antropologia e Etnologia</em>), questioned the association between megalithic monuments and the Iron-Age <em>castros</em> proposed by Sarmento, demonstrating that the monuments were from the Neolithic rather than the Iron Age. Nonetheless, they continued to associate the monuments with the emergence of the Portuguese nation in prehistorical times. In 1943, Mendes Correia, in the collection Raças do Imperio<em></em> (1943), attributed the megalithic monuments to a prehistoric Atlantic Empire, thus underlining the primordial roots of Portugal’s colonial calling.

    Sarmento and his 20th-century followers tried to establish a direct link between contemporary Portugal and the archeological remains found in its territory, interpreting archeological data in order to establish an ethnic permanence throughout history. Vasconcellos, although initially inspired by these ideas, moved away from them and prepared a more systematic understanding of the materiality of the antiquities and traditions of the nation. The heterogeneity of this material, organized and displayed in the Museum and in his books, would eventually contribute to an interest beyond ethnic essentialism and an attempt to come to terms with the diversity of historical processes underlying a Portuguese national identity.

    Word Count: 1097

  • Article version:
  • DOI:
  • Direct URL:
  • Campos Matos, Sérgio; “História e identidade nacional: A formação de Portugal na historiografia contemporânea”, Lusotopie, 10 (2002), 123-139.

    Fabião, Carlos; Uma história da arqueologia Portuguesa: Das origens à descoberta da arte do Côa (Collector’s edition of the Post Office Club; Lisbon: CTT, 2011).

    Fabião, Carlos; “José Leite Vasconcelos (1858-1941): Um archeólogo português”, O arqueólogo Português, 4.2 (2008), 97-126.

    Martins, Ana Cristina; “Protohistory at the Portuguese Association of Archaeologists: A question of national identity”, in Schlanger, Nathan; Nordbladh, Jarl (eds.); Archives, ancestors, practices: Archaeology in the light of its history (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), 287-303.

    Pimenta, José Ramiro; Geo-historiografia da cultura castreja: 3 ensaios (Porto: Figueirinhas, 2007).

    Sarmento, Francisco Martins; Dispersos: Colectânea de artigos publicados desde 1867 a 1899 sôbre arqueologia, etnologia, mitologia, epigrafia e arte prehistorica (Coimbra: Coimbra UP, 1993).

    Simões, Augusto Filipe; Introdução à arqueologia da Península Ibérica (Lisbon: Livraria Ferreira, 1878).

  • Creative Commons License
    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Gomes, Sérgio, 2022. "Antiquarianism, archeology : Portuguese", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 03-04-2022, consulted 07-12-2023.