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IACAM Project – Archaeological Intervention in Cercas das Alcarias de Mesquita (Mértola).

The archaeological intervention in Cercas das Alcarias, coordinated by CAM – Campo Arqueológico de Mértola (Mértola Archaeological Field) and the University of Granada, is taking place from 23 August to 17 September 2021, in the village of Mesquita (parish of Espírito Santo, municipality of Mértola), funded by “Proyectos de investigación e intervención arqueológica española en el exterior”, of the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Spain and with the support of the Municipality of Mértola, the CEAACP (Centre for Studies in Archaeology, Art and Heritage Sciences), the Sociedade Recreativa Mesquitense, the Comissão Fabriqueira da Ermida de Nossa Senhora das Neves (Mesquita) and Mesquita Turismo de Aldeia.
This project, which includes a team from CAM and from the University of Granada, shall welcome researchers and students from universities in Portugal and Spain in two turns. The intervention will take place in a settlement located near the Ermida de Nossa Senhora das Neves (Mesquita) dated between the 8th and 13th centuries. This intervention seeks to attain significant findings for the study of rural communities in the Gharb al-Andalus, with particular focus on the area surrounding Mértola/Martulah, and to understand time continuity processes related to Arabisation and resistance in these territories. The aim is to gather significant archaeological evidence (surface remains are visible at the site) and materials to place the different excavated and identified structures in context, and which may also point to trade routes with the rest of Al-Andalus and the Mediterranean.
On the Archaeological Charter of the municipality of Mértola, the site is identified as “Cerca das Alcarias”, located in the village of Mesquita, with a late Roman and Islamic occupation and an area of approximately 40,000 m2 This place is near the Ermida de Nossa Senhoras das Neves, located on a hill that borders the village of Mesquita.
“The village of Mesquita and the small chapel in honour of N. Sra. Das Neves, which stands in its immediate vicinity on a hill neighbouring it, have a long historical and cultural tradition. The small chapel is, in fact, the last remnant of a secular process of construction and reconstruction of temples that goes back to the pre-Reconquest period.
This historical continuity is connected to the site’s prime location and the strategic position it holds on the River Guadiana, a natural road through which people and goods of different origins have travelled, in a traffic that has lasted for thousands of years. It was at Mesquita that the navigability of the “great southern river” met its first obstacle, forcing the transhipment of all the cargoes that were loaded into the holds of the larger ships. It was also here that one of the few fords between banks was located, made possible by a landmark bridge that functioned until the beginning of our century [20th century].
(…) The first clear signs of the sacralisation of the site date from the 8th-9th centuries. This is attested to by the marble column that has survived from the building erected at the time, an architectural piece of refined sculptural and decorative work that has no known parallels in Portugal [on display at the Mértola Museum ]. There seems to be no doubt that it would belong to a Christian building. On the other hand, the existence of an early Palaeochristian community should not be ruled out, although there is no evidence to support it.
During the Almoravid or Almohad period, the temple was certainly adapted to become a mosque, a phenomenon that apparently did not leave any structural or other type of marks, but which is clearly denounced by its name, which has lasted until present times. Following the Reconquest, it was again consecrated to Christian worship, receiving the title of “Santa Maria das Froles”, as it was still called in 1482.
The first detailed information about the Ermida de Sta. Maria dates back to 1515. According to the description made that year by the visitor of Santiago, it was “a house with character, all very small”, built “in stone and clay and covered with old tiles”. By then nothing remained of the structures of the temples that preceded it. As a matter of fact, as the visitor also reports, based on information given to him by “ancient men”, it had been rebuilt by a certain “Joham Lourenço”, many years before, because it had been “damaged AND torn down”..
In 1535, the small chapel was already called “nossa senhora da mizqujta”, losing the old name of Stª Maria das Flores, which would no longer be remembered. A few years earlier, it had undergone consolidation and restoration works and its interior had been enhanced. It then had “two more altars”, with paintings alluding to its patron saints: São Bento, São Bartolomeu and a crucifix surrounded by Nossa Senhora and São João. At the main altar stood “the great figure of Our Lady with her son on her lap (sheltered) in an alterpiece with colourful doors”.
This precious set would not reach our days. In 1565, the steward of the small chapel was ordered “to have the images that are painted on the walls erased”. Likewise, the 16th century image of the patron saint did not make it to our days, nor did the building itself, which would be structurally remodelled in the 17th/18th centuries. It should, however, be pointed out that the chapel was placed under the protection of N. Sr.ª das Neves, a Marian devotion that experienced, from the end of the 16th century, a notable expansion.
The current Temple bears the marks of those centuries, although it has already undergone a restoration in this century. It has a single nave, with an inscribed chapel and strong buttresses supporting the walls. In its extremely poor interior, there is an image of N. Sr.ª das Neves, of popular design, dating from the first half of the 18th century.”

Bibliography:
BOIÇA, Joaquim, Imaginária de Mértola – Tempos, espaços e representações, Mértola, Campo Arqueológico de Mértola, 1998.
PALMA, Maria de Fátima (coord.), Carta Arqueológica do Concelho de Mértola, Mértola, Campo Arqueológico de Mértola, 2012.

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