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A brief history of archaeology in Lisbon

The genesis of an Archaeology in Lisbon, long before being considered a scientific discipline, is found in the studies developed by scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, imbued by a strong tendency for contemplation and collection. The literature left by humanist scholars such as Damião de Góis (“Description of the city of Lisbon” — 1554), Francisco d'Holanda (“From the Factory that dies at the city of Lisbon” — 1571), Rodrigo da Cunha (“Ecclesiastical History of the Church of Lisbon, 1st vol. “from the foundation of Lisbon until being conquered (sic) to the Moors by El Rei D. Afonso Henriques” — 1642) or Luíz Marinho de Azevedo (“Foundation, antiques and grandeur of the distinguished city of Lisbon” — 1652), reflects the search for material elements that illustrate the antiquity and grandeur of Lisbon. Notably through the epigraphy inscriptions of the ancient Roman city of Olisipo (actual Lisbon).
Among these authors, for the specificity of his work, which seeks to bring urban innovations based on the classic example, we highlight Francisco d'Holanda. From the time he spent in Italy studying, between 1538 and 1547, forming part of the intellectual circle with the likes of Michelangelo, he brought in-depth knowledge and ingenuity to a series of projects that he could not carry out in his home town. The study of Italian antiquities and the Roman remains still present in Lisbon, allowed him to outline the recovery of the road system and bridges, construction of fortresses and water supply to the city (the first project of a free water aqueduct inspired by the remains of the ancient Roman dam and aqueduct) [1].


In the 18th century, the Foundation of the Royal Academy of History (1720) brought a new framework to the historical and archaeological research. To study the ecclesiastical and secular history of the kingdom, the academics who worked in it advocated the first legislation to safeguard the national cultural heritage: the Royal Decree of 14 August 1721. This avant-garde law in Europe gives specific importance to material remains as historical sources, prohibiting the demolition of monuments, statues and marble works, protecting ancient medals and coins, and entrust city councils the task of preserving all antiques. This law was renewed in 1802, assigning the responsibility of guarding all antiques or rare items found to the Royal Library of Lisbon.
However, in 1749 the lack of effectiveness of this law was shown when the remains of what appeared to be an important Roman building was discovered during the construction work of a building on Largo da Magdalena. Except for a brief circumstantial description and four Roman inscriptions that are still engraved into the wall facing Travessa do Almada, all the remaining ruins were obliterated and destroyed [2].

A few years later, the earthquake of 1755 and the subsequent Pombaline reconstruction led to the discovery of numerous Roman remains and the beginning of an early “urban archaeology”.

The performance in the field of scholars such as Thomaz Caetano de Bem, Frei José de São Lourenço, Frei Manoel do Cenáculo de Villas-Boas and Architect Francisco Fabri, showing concern with the contextualized collection of artefacts, surveys of plans with measures and the treatment of information, resulted in the identification and registration of some of the most significant archaeological remains of the city today. Examples of this are the Roman epigraphic inscriptions collected and copied mainly in the disablement of the Arch of Our Lady of Consolação between 1758 and 1763 (present-day Largo de Santo António da Sé); the building was known as the “Roman Bath of the Cássios” in 1772 (Rua das Pedras Negras) [3]; the cryptoporticus, popularly known as the “ Roman Galleries” of Rua da Prata in 1773 [4]; the Roman Theatre in 1798 (Rua de São Mamede/Rua da Saudade) [5].

It took more than sixty years for another archaeological intervention in the city. In 1859, when the installation works of sewage collectors in Rua da Prata and Rua da Conceição were undergoing, Francisco Martins de Andrade (assistant curator of the National Library) and José Valentim de Freitas (designer) took over the execution of the works and carried out a new survey of the “Roman Galleries”. In the site, they found part of the underground building in the dug ditches but also had to deal with institutional obstacles to developing their work, originating the first “archaeological emergency” in the city [6].

If until that time the archaeological research in Lisbon focused essentially on the remains of the ancient Roman city, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the birth of Portuguese Archaeology occurred leading to the diversification of the research scope beyond the Roman period.

Contributing to this was the creation of the “Sociedade Archeologica Lusitana - SAL” (1850), the restructuring of the “Geological Commission of the Kingdom” (1857) and the creation of the “Royal Association of Portuguese Architects and Archaeologists”, with an objective centred on the classification and protection of monuments (1863). The publication of works such as the “Elementary Notions of Archaeology”, by Possidónio da Silva (1878), or the “Introduction to the Archaeology in the Iberian Peninsula”, by Augusto Filippe Simões (1878), introduces new concepts and the scientific approach to the history subject.

In this “golden age” of Portuguese archaeology, archaeological interventions took place from North to the South of the country: the excavation of Tróia by SAL (1850-1856); the works of Estácio da Veiga in Mafra, Mértola and Algarve (1866-1891); the beginning of excavations in Citânia de Briteiros, by Francisco Martins Sarmento (1875); the works of the “Geological Commission of the Kingdom” in Extremadura and Vale do Tejo, by Pereira da Costa, Carlos Ribeiro and Nery Delgado (since 1857). These last works, the start of the Portuguese prehistoric archaeology, which sought to support the scientific demonstration of the evolutionary theses, were crowned with the realization of the “IX International Congress of Prehistoric Anthropology and Archaeology”, in Lisbon (1880), where Carlos Ribeiro presents his alleged discovery of the “Tertiary Man” [7]. 

The archaeological richness of this period had to be represented in the National Museum of Archaeology. One of the capital's most important institutions, the Ethnological Museum created in 1893 and set up in the Jerónimos Monastery in 1900, resulted from the tireless willingness of José Leite de Vasconcelos, a major figure of Portuguese archaeology. To gather in Lisbon the national collection of antiques and resulting ethnographic pieces, with the major part resulting from its excavations and collections made on the continental territory and islands.

Simultaneously with the archaeological activity in this period, a movement called Olisipografia started in Portuguese historiography. It was founded by Júlio de Castilho, with the publication “Old Lisbon – Bairro Alto” (1879), followed by volumes dedicated to the “Oriental Neighbourhoods” and the “Ribeira de Lisboa”. It aroused the interest of the public and other scholars for the various themes of the city, leaving disciples that throughout the 20th century studied the history of Lisbon. Scholars such as Gomes de Brito, Eduardo Freire de Oliveira, João Pinto de Carvalho, Luís Pastor de Macedo, Gustavo Matos de Sequeira or Norberto de Araújo are part of a list of authors whose works, sometimes with the archaeological aspect included, recover fragments of the city's history. 

Augusto Vieira da Silva stands out from this group. He completed a degree in Military engineering, which emphasises his solid knowledge of the history of Lisbon, and published reference works, still essential today, for archaeological research in the city. While his studies on the castle and the urban walls reveal his competence in the analysis of ancient fortifications of the city, in his “Epigraphy of Olisipo” (1944), among others smaller documents, he shows his Latin sentiment and avid researcher of the Roman city [8].

However, archaeological research has not been able to keep up with urban growth, especially since l875. The expansion of the city, largely designed by Ressano Garcia, took place without any archaeological experts, resulting in the destruction of traces in areas between city and rural locations, collecting only a few, albeit sometimes important ones. Episodes such as the destruction of prehistoric remains in Rabicha, at the exit of the Rossio tunnel, which indicates the Paleolithic landscape of the Alcântara Valley, scarcely recorded at the time by geologist Paul Chofat [9], or the Roman findings in Entrecampos reported by Leite Vasconcelos, are dramatic examples of an irreversible loss of a collective heritage. On the other hand, throughout the first half of the 20th century, restoration works on major monuments of the city, such as the Castle of St. George and the Cathedral, were carried out without the needed archaeological interventions that would allow us to learn the long history of these buildings and the places where they are located [10].

Still, there is a remarkable amount of activity regarding archaeological classification of prehistoric remains in the region of Lisbon, especially in areas not yet urbanized and bordering the municipality. Carried out by archaeologists such as Vergílio Correia, Abel Viana, Camarate França, Leonel Ribeiro, Afonso do Paço, Eugénio Jalhay, among others, archaeological works are carried out by exploring and excavating, as is the case of the last three works in the prehistoric site of Montes Claros (1944) [11] [12], in Monsanto, not forgetting Irisalva Moita at the site of Vila Pouca in 1959. Henri Breuil, an eminent French scholar on prehistory and Georges Zbyszewski, geologist and archaeologist of Russian origin, were prominent figures for the methodological approaches they used in archaeological research, particularly about the lithic industries.


In the absence of adequate legislation that framed archaeological findings and the safeguarding of heritage, the archaeological activity took place more by the will of its promoters than by an informed institutional policy that would define the strategies for action.
The first significant intervention of Urban Archaeology in Lisbon occurred in the 1960s. During the construction of the metropolitan network, the excavation of Praça da Figueira executed, taking into account the findings and recording of archaeological remains that otherwise would inevitably be destroyed by the advancement of the works. In the first phase, the Lisbon City Council assumes responsibility for the intervention. The first modern excavation of the city initially driven by Irisalva Moita of the Lisbon City Council takes place the digging for the Royal Hospital of Todos-os-Santos [13] [14] and part of the Roman necropolis discovered there (1959-60), and continued by Fernando Bandeira Ferreira, of the National Board of Education (1960-61).

In the following years, the interest in the study of the Roman Theatre, whose remains had fallen into oblivion since the surveys carried out by Francisco Fabri at the end of the 18th century, reignites. Fernando de Almeida, in 1964 and 65, surveyed the building that had been built over the ruins, alerting the Lisbon City Council to its interest in expropriating and demolishing this new building to continue the excavation work and study of the old building of the 1st century. Irisalva Moita was in charge of the archaeological excavation in 1966 and 67, when the systematic excavation of the theatre took place, which can be called the first projected archaeological intervention [15].

The notion of urban archaeology, as an area of investigation of the historical evolution of city urbanism, and archaeology in urban areas, as a rescue of vestiges before the existence of the city or carried out in areas not covered by the ancient town but now assimilated by it, would begin to form and bring new perspectives to approach the archaeological heritage of the city. Distanced from academic archaeology, oriented to individual projects of seasonal and chronologically particular scope, the concepts of English urban archaeology, associated with the perception of the fragility of urban soil, began to influence the Portuguese urban archaeological practice. The need for custom archaeology that would minimize negative impacts on heritage and safeguard archaeological information in cities, which was theoretically beginning to be established through international charters and conventions, became urgent, but would never be effectively achieved.
In the 1980s, after a decade of lethargy, the Law of Bases of Cultural Heritage” (Law 13/ 85, which would be updated by Law 107/2001), together with greater professionalism of Archaeology, leads to increasing awareness among public and private promoters of the importance of archaeological remains. Two stakeholders stand out in Lisbon: the Technical Office of the Roman Theatre of Lisbon, dependent on the Lisbon City Council, and the Portuguese Institute of Cultural Heritage, which is the dependent of the central administration. The first, constituting a permanent team of archaeologists, focuses on the continuation of systematic excavations in the Roman Theatre (currently with a dedicated research project and Museum), but unfolds its performance by the numerous cases of “archaeological emergencies” that were taking place in the city. The second, in the same line, satisfied public and private requests for intervening in scenarios such as the rehabilitation of Casa dos Bicos in 1981 [16], or the area of the Castle of Saint Jorge and the Cloister of the Cathedral, from the following decade onwards.

Archaeology in Lisbon from the 90s to the present day, despite traditional constraints, thrives in quantity and quality, mainly due to new legal framework for safeguarding heritage. The publication of the Municipal Master Plan in 1994, recently updated in 2012, emerges as an essential tool for the protection of archaeological remains, given the increase in the number of applications for licensing works primarily in the historical areas of the city. This document is about the definition of intervention levels, presenting itself as a risk chart that maps areas with higher archaeological sensitivity and classified heritage, defining strategies for safeguarding heritage.

Also, the creation of the Portuguese Institute of Archaeology, in 1997, gave autonomy to the Portuguese Institute of Architectural and Archaeological Heritage, extinct and recreated in the ephemeral Institute for Management of Architectural and Archaeological Heritage and meanwhile assimilated by current Directorate General of Cultural Heritage, brought the regulation of archaeological activity and the concept of “preservation by registration”.

The boom of archaeological interventions, from the ditch of sanitation infrastructure to the underground car park [17] [18], through the parietal interventions on the historic building, in the last two decades has made the intervention capacity of public, municipal or central administration entities, leading to the emergence and exponential growth of new practices, namely commercial archaeology. Urban archaeology and design, both in public and private works, becomes a sector of business activity, leading to an emergence of new questions about the role to be developed by the State, in which the importance of the management of dispersed information gains weight.

At the local authority level, the Lisbon Archaeology Centre, created in 2013, after the extinction of the Archaeology Service of the City Museum, which since the 1990s had assumed the control of archaeological interventions in municipal works and the support for the requests of various urban projects, becomes the municipal cultural equipment centralizer of the management of archaeological information on what concerns the city, space of multidisciplinary investigation and archaeological dissemination to different audiences.

AAVV – “Lisboa Subterrânea”, Catálogo da exposição, Electa/ Museu Nacional de Arqueologia, Lisboa, 1994.

AMARO, Clementino – “A Arqueologia Urbana em Lisboa - Balanço e reflexão”, In Actas das V Jornadas Arqueológicas, Associação dos Arqueólogos Portugueses, Lisboa, 1994, pp. 219-225.

CARDOSO, João Luís – “Como nasceu a arqueologia em Portugal”, in O Estuda da História, nº 4, Associação de Professores de História, Lisboa, s/d, pp. 9-30 

CASTELO BRANCO, Fernando – “Breve História da Olisipografia”, col. Biblioteca Breve/ vol. 47, Instituto de Cultura Portuguesa, Amadora, 1980. 

FABIÃO, Carlos – ”Uma História da Arqueologia Portuguesa”, CTT Correios de Portugal, Lisboa, 2011.

FABIÃO, Carlos – “Para a História da Arqueologia em Portugal”, in Penélope, nº 2, Edições Cosmos e Cooperativa Penélope, Lisboa, 1989, pp. 10-26.

FABIÃO, Carlos – “Ler as Cidades Antiga: Arqueologia Urbana em Lisboa”, in Penélope, nº 13, Edições Cosmos e Cooperativa Penélope, Lisboa, 1994, pp. 147-162.

MARTINS, Manuela; RIBEIRO, Maria do Carmo – “ A arqueologia urbana e a defesa do património das cidades”, Forum Universidade do Minho, nºs 44-45, Braga, 2010, pp. 149-177