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Authoritarism and Archaeology in Portugal


Leandro Infantini ,

University of Algarve, PT
About Leandro
PhD Student
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Rita Poloni

University of Algarve, PT
About Rita
PhD Student
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This paper aims to address the relationship between Portuguese archaeological production and the employment of authoritarian policies during the dictatorship and the democratic period in two specific fields, those of colonial archaeology and underwater archaeology.

تهدف هذه المقالة إلى معالجة العلاقة بين الإنتاج البرتغالي الأثري , وتوظيف السياسات الاستبدادية خلال فترة الديكتاتورية والديمقراطية في مجالين محددين ، وهي الآثار الاستعمارية والآثار تحت المائية.

How to Cite: Infantini, L. and Poloni, R., 2010. Authoritarism and Archaeology in Portugal. Present Pasts, 2(1), p.None. DOI:
  Published on 19 Aug 2010
Infantini and Poloni: Authoritarism and Archaeology in Portugal

Authoritarism and Archaeology in Portugal


الاستبداد وعلم الأثار في البرتغال

Leandro Infantini and Rita Poloni


لياندرو انفانتيني و ريتا بولوني

University of the Algarve


جامعة الجرف

This paper aims to address the relationship between Portuguese archaeological production and the employment of authoritarian policies during the dictatorship and the democratic period in two specific fields, those of colonial archaeology and underwater archaeology.


تهدف هذه المقالة إلى معالجة العلاقة بين الإنتاج البرتغالي الأثري , وتوظيف السياسات الاستبدادية خلال فترة الديكتاتورية والديمقراطية في مجالين محددين ، وهي الآثار الاستعمارية والآثار تحت المائية.


This paper discusses the authoritarian political agendas in Portuguese archaeological production during the dictatorship and the democratic periods in two fields, colonial archaeology and underwater archaeology. First, we will try to assess the relationships between the forms of political, economic and social oppression of colonized indigenous peoples, the dominant discourse of the superiority of the colonizer and its civilizing mission, and the articulation and development of archaeological research in the colonized territories. The time period for this assessment is between the 1930s and 1960s in Portugal, that of Salazar’s dictatorial government. Finally, we will examine the connections between the institutionalization of Portuguese underwater archaeology since the 1970s, and the maintenance of authoritarian politics that has its origin in the relations of dominance established during the dictatorship, in order to understand the emergence of social and political concern about the research and conservation of underwater cultural heritage. This focuses mainly on the approach of the Portuguese state in regard to the legislation and institutionalization of underwater archaeology, and the impact of these actions on this scientific field and on society in general.

The Anthropological Missions during Salazar’s dictatorship

Between the 1930s and the 1960s, Portugal started a series of scientific missions in the colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Timor and Guinea, the aim of which was to get to gain a better understanding of these territories and their peoples, thus optimizing the colonization process. Within these scientific projects, the so-called “Anthropological Missions” stand out as one of the most valued, and these included not only physical anthropological activities, but also ethnographic and archaeological ones.

Such missions, developed during the “New State” or Salazar’s dictatorship (1932-1968), and funded by the government, were managed by the Junta das Missões Geográficas e de Investigações Coloniais,1 later renamed “do Ultramar”. They were staffed by researchers connected to state education and research organizations, who were tasked with examining the colonies’ territories in successive studies, carrying out research on the indigenous people relating both to their present and their past.

Research was conducted in fields as diverse as blood collection and classification, physical measurement of local populations, as well as the surveying and collection of rock art and lithic artefacts. Anthropological missions documented the physical and cultural characters and classification of the colonized populations.

This investment in scientific research in the colonies had some important political goals: a better use and understanding of the territories by the colonial populations, and their defence from both foreign and internal threats. The independence wars that followed World War II made knowledge of these populations and territories increasingly important for the government in its efforts to maintain control.

Another important concern was ensuring the wellbeing of the Portuguese who lived in the colonies, by avoiding any situations that might endanger them. This is suggested in the text of the 1962 ordinance 19.210 that created the Centro de Estudos de Antropobiologia,2 an affiliate of the Instituto Superior de Estudos Ultramarinos:3

In the rather vast field of human sciences, there can be found other complex problems closely connected to the survival and the acclimatization of Portuguese in the territories where they live or want to live; the geoclimatic and social constraints of the tropical regions in particular are greatly focused on the population and, according to the laws of genetics, it may involve significant somatic and physiological changes in the natives and immigrants, compromising the vitality of their possible descendants. (República Portuguesa, 1962, trans. authors)

In the context of the scientific world at the time, on one hand there was a significant development due to the impact of the theory of evolution, in terms of knowledge of human anatomy, physiology, and of mechanisms of biological and cultural adaptation. On the other hand however, such knowledge was also deliberately used as a way to justify the so-called superiority of the colonizer over the colonized. Such expeditions were thus both a great source of scientific knowledge about the native populations, but also an excellent resource for continuing the domination relationship established with those populations.

While the scientists working in these missions strived to use the proper scientific methods in the fields they were working in, and also strived to record accurate statistics and descriptions of their research, at the same time their political convictions concerning the colonized territories and the social differences between the natives and the colonizers were openly displayed.

In the report of the second campaign of the Anthropological Mission to Mozambique (1937-1938) its author, Dr. J. R. dos Santos Júnior expresses his expectations concerning the creation of the Portuguese Colonial Museum:

The Portuguese will go there, in pilgrimage and in the sincerest national spirit, to appreciate the grandeur of the Lusitanian effort in the World, and the merit of their heroes, attested both by the discovery of new lands and by the civilization and christianization of barbarian and primitive people. (Santos, 1938: 90-91, trans. authors)

One can clearly see that Santos’ personal convictions about the people whose physical, cultural, historical and archaeological features he studied, are that they are primitive human communities who must be benevolently civilized by their fellow colonists. Not only are the social and political differences between the sides justified, but he also rejects any challenge to European superiority, as we can see in the same report:

The mullatos, with rare and honourable exceptions, are bad elements for colonization. At least this was the opinion of many white people with whom I exchanged views about the subject. According the opinion of some experienced colonialists with whom I talked to, mullatos are lazy, sloppy, pretentious and thieves. Among the black people it’s frequent to find extreme dedication, especially if they are treated with justice. With mullatos, friendship towards the white folk is rare. (Santos, 1938: 77, trans. authors)

Racial mixing is regarded negatively by the colonizer, maybe because it represents the merging of the carefully delimited spaces enjoyed by the Europeans with those to which the natives were confined, both politically and ideologically. This may also have represented a kind of threat to the European “civilizing mission”, perhaps because mullatos represented a bigger section of European culture in the colonies (having been born to a European parent and having lived longer in the Portuguese communities), due to which they held more potential to defy the authority of the colonizer.

Opinions in which the colonized and their progeny are described unflatteringly, racial mixing is strongly condemned, and forced labour and the delimitation of differentiated rights are favoured in order to “evolve” and “civilize” the colonies, appear frequently in countless texts published between the 1930s and 1940s.

In time, such attitudes were replaced by the ideology of the famous Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre. Termed “Lusotropicalism”, this held that Portuguese colonial methods involved integration, exchange of experiences and racial mixing, resulting in an experience that was both specifically Portuguese and harmonious, through which the colonizer coexists peacefully with the natives without abandoning his own civilized culture (Castelo, 1998: 38).

Over time, the reasoning and practices of colonialism came to be considered unacceptable and inadequate and the Portuguese government adopted a new approach to its civilizing mission, which allowed it to assert its uniqueness when compared to other European colonization methods. This was also used to justify its permanency in territories that were no longer regarded as colonies but overseas provinces. For example:

As a reasoning that celebrates the colonial genius of one people, making them stand out in the history of relations between peoples by the conversion of what was once a domination relationship, now politically indefensible, into a relationship of friendliness and love… Gilberto Freyre’s reasoning, irrespective of its origin, couldn’t be more respectable. It came from an outsider impartial to foreign judgements and simultaneously from someone who could represent Brazil as an example of the Portuguese colonization effort. In doing so, he replaced Portugal both internally and externally in the centre of the imperial imaginary, or Portugal imagining the centre through its empire. (Ribeiro, 2004: 157, trans. authors)

The reasoning of a representative of a former Portuguese colony, justifying and exalting the colonization method, becomes both a justification of the maintenance of the domination relationships with the colonized peoples and a way of projecting a positive self-image towards the other European countries. This was particularly important at a time in which Portugal found itself internationally weakened economically due to its poor adaptation to the developments of capitalism, and politically, because of its strong insistence on keeping the colonies regardless of its weak international position.

The processes of racial mixing and adoption of local cultures had once been regarded as a weakness, or as symbols of the ineffectiveness of the State’s action in a colonization process which obligated settlers instead to only gain an understanding of the local networks of power and knowledge. These now however come to be seen as strong features of the Portuguese colonial model, representative of its unmatched adaptation to the tropics and of its unshakable civilizing mission. The exaltation of racial mixing, rather than being used to fight against racism, was regarded at this point more as a part of the process of affirmation of the political and social disparities to which the colonized peoples were subject to, as a justification to perpetuate the colonial system:

As an expression of racial democracy, mullatos contributed, against their own interests, to legitimizing the social racist disparity. The de-racialization of social relations allowed colonialism to exonerate itself of its particular way of producing social inequities: “he’s black because he’s poor” became the believable alibi for those who acted under the assumption that “he’s poor because he’s black.” (Santos, 2001: 61, trans. authors)

The thinking of Freyre and of many other theorists of that period, regardless of their initial positions or personal convictions, started being used as propaganda and justification for the perpetuation of the political and social disparities between the metropolis and the colonized peoples (Frank, 2004: 40).

This highlights the importance of scientists and other intellectuals at this time. As both politicians and scientists, they were connected to the state apparatus, helping to generate knowledge and ideas about the colonies that they researched. But they were also part of society as a whole, absorbing and reproducing hegemonic thoughts from a wide variety of sources. On one hand, they accepted the guidelines of the State of which they were part, in the interest of safeguarding and progressing their professional careers, while on the other they were subject to influences from within the scientific fields in which they worked, including approval of their results by the scientific community.

In a dictatorial context such as the Salazarist, characterized by an extremely centralized and hierarchical state apparatus with a tendency to personalize power in one great political figure, the owners of strategic positions in the State’s ranks were not only endowed with great power, but they also absorbed a kind of spirit of superiority and authority from the positions they occupied. The relationship between scientists and the State as their superior was on a bureaucratic and ideological basis that placed them in an extremely submissive position towards the government, requiring them to maintain a web of contacts and friendships with officials that might allow them to occupy high places, and often to proceed according to their own personal agendas.

Analysing the correspondence between research institutions, such as the Centro de Antropobiologia,4 for instance, and its subordinate the Junta de Investigação do Ultramar,5 important aspects of that web of subordination and authority in which the scientists come to act politically become clear. As director of the Centro de Antropobiologia and the scientist responsible for the Anthropological Mission of Timor, Dr. António de Almeida needed to ask the permission of the Junta for every conference, including those at the Academia de Ciências de Lisboa.6 This is evidenced in article 10 of ordinance 12215 dated the 26th December 1947, quoted numerous times in correspondence between the two bodies:

All the elements collected by the employees of the missions during the time that they work in the said missions are deemed property of the State and it is not permitted to make use of, or to publicize them without express authorization of the Minister of the Colonies, with regard to each case submitted to him. (República Portuguesa, 1947, trans. authors)

Meanwhile in 1973, still under the dictatorship but no longer that of Salazar’s government, de Almeida was questioned by his superiors about money destined for the Anthropological Mission in Timor that had instead been deposited in his personal account. He alleged that this had been affected with authorizations issued by the Governor of Timor and other bodies of the Overseas Administration, with a series of documents issued in 1969 and 1970. In this case, lost in a sea of bureaucracy, the normal hierarchies and legalities had been circumvented through the use of the webs of power and personal acquaintance described above.

Through the institutional and private correspondence of de Almeida, now stored in Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical7 we can see how he understood his own professional position. The personal correspondence between friends with high positions in the colony of Timor is also of interest. In several letters Dr. de Almeida writes about his assistance in resolving personal problems, such as transfers, licensing, and promotions. Many letters regard personal requests made in order to permit those friends and officials of the colony to take part in fieldwork for his project “An Ethnic Chart of Timor” (a work that was never to be published).

These are examples of the complex network of knowledge and power that is part of any society at any time, maintaining itself more through opportunity than repression, as described by Focault:

If power was only repressive, if it didn’t do anything else besides saying no, do you believe it would be obeyed? What makes power endure and be accepted is simply the fact that it doesn’t work only as a force that says no, but also because it permeates, produces things, induces pleasure, creates knowledge and produces speech. (Foucault, 1984: 8, trans. authors)

It should not however be forgotten that in this case these webs of power and knowledge contributed to the maintenance of colonial policies and to the preservation of the dictatorial regime, which was supported in great measure by an ideology that proclaimed the grandeur and strength of the Portuguese Nation through its pioneering and effective conquest of new worlds.

The emergence and support of this mode of scientific practice has to be analysed in terms of the objective relationships with the system in which it is integrated, as Bourdieu states:

One cannot do a sociology of the social conditions of production of “colonial science” without first studying the appearance of the relatively autonomous scientific field and the social conditions of the autonomization of this field. A field is a universe in which the producers’ characteristics are defined by their position in relations of production, the place they occupy in a particular space of objective relationships. (Bourdieu, 1995: 51)

This “colonial science” was created largely by Portuguese born and raised in Portugal, something reflected clearly in their works where views in favour of the keeping of the colonial system and of the social differences connected to it are scattered amidst descriptions of scientific procedures. Contrary to what might be expected, while these works were financed by the Portuguese government in various situations of internal and external conflicts, they were often not widely publicised, if at all.

On one hand these facts are very important for understanding the relationships between science and state policy in support of the regime. On the other hand they help to explain how scientists saw themselves as holders of power positions in a system that emphasised strong authoritarian relationships between those who held knowledge or exercised power and those who were less favoured.

Archaeology appears to have responded in the same way to the complexity of this political and social situation as did the other branches of “colonial science” during the Portuguese dictatorial period. Generally it seems to have been secondarily included in the anthropological missions, very often being restricted to surface collections or pictographic reproductions obtained along the roads between the cities where the physical anthropology and ethnology were done. Sites were often discovered through information given to colonial officials by natives and conveyed to the scientist responsible for the mission. These missions were mostly directed by scientists who had graduated in medicine (archaeological qualifications were not common in those times).

The data obtained from this archaeological research was used, although poorly disseminated, as the base of a range of important scientific knowledge, and as an aid in expressing the colonizers’ pride in their territories. Many of the texts that resulted from archaeological research done in colonies began by exalting the pioneering nature of both Portuguese colonialism and consequently of its studies of the colonized territories. It is only subsequent to this that the texts describe the places and artefacts found in a specific mission. Despite long descriptions and numerous reproductions of pieces and pictographic sets, at no point is that knowledge used to express appreciation of the peoples who made them. It is employed instead to legitimize Portuguese pride in the importance of the territories they had in Africa an Asia (Alberto, 1951; Barradas, 1948 and 1956; Santos, 1937, 1940b,1947 and 1950).

Even though these scientists strove to produce studies that followed scientific theories, methods and techniques, the results of their research were essentially aimed at understanding the colonized peoples and territories as well as possible, both their present and their past, in order to ensure better development of colonial policies. This was to enable the retention of the territories, and to enable the transformation of them and their peoples according to the aims of those same policies (Santos, 1938, 1939, 1940a, 1944 and 1946).

The scientific studies described above, and particularly the archaeological ones, alert us to the real driving forces that are often behind those we see as being most important in each field. As well as following scientific principles that were approved by their peers, the results of these government-funded projects also supported authoritarian policies directed toward vast portions of the population. This in turn deepened the power relationships inherent in the system of Salazar’s Portugal.

Transition to democracy and the maintenance of authoritarian
relations of power

The end of the dictatorial period in Portugal did not represent the end of the authoritarian structures that had dominated the country for over forty years. As in all cases where long dictatorships have been in power, the consequences of highly centralized and repressive regimes are perpetuated for a long time, even though these countries have become democracies.

During the dictatorship, Portugal faced a government that tried to continue with the maintenance of its overseas territories as a way of reasserting its position as a pioneer in modern colonialism and thus retaining status among its peers. In this it aimed for the resurrection of an imagined and glorious past:

The cornerstone of this resurrection is the mystification of the nation through the evocation of a past imperial heritage, which itself had used the image of the greatness of the country to urge recovery, and thus became “our story”, always with the themes of crusade and evangelization. (Ribeiro, 2004: 119, trans. authors)

This was an attempt to rally around a common ideal and distract from domestic problems. Internally, the government was characterized by protectionism in agriculture and inhibiting the development of industry and commerce, and externally as a politically closed system with an institutionalized and heavily centralized administration (Ribeiro, 2004: 118).

This situation of deprivation and repression was offset by a speech in praise of the civilizing mission of the nation overseas, in which science, and particularly social science, played a role of great importance. According to Santos social science had the responsibility for taming the environment and human populations, and for leading them forward on the march of civilization, progress and development:

From the dichotomised polarization between the white man and wild black, this civilizing mission requires the colonized to assume a dual dynamic identity: of colonial anthropology and colonial assimilation. Anthropology seeks to learn the habits and customs of the natives in order to better control them politically, to manage them and extract taxes and forced labor… Assimilation produces a constructed identity based on a combination of distance and proximity between colonized and colonizer, where the colonized… leaves the wild stage. (Santos, 2001: 70, trans. authors)

In this context, the concepts of progress and development represented a belief that humanity, society and economy can be classified into lower and upper groups, where the upper end of the scale corresponds to white western capitalist society. Transforming native society into a reproduction of European society, and the native himself into something as close as possible to a European, was considered an act of kindness on the part of the colonizing country:

In the case of French, British and other colonizers, what gave them a consciousness of belonging to Europe was that conviction that embodied science and technology, and the belief that this knowledge allowed the societies they subjugated to progress and become civilized. (Ferro, 1996: 39, trans. authors)

In 1974 the dictatorial regime came to an end, and a year later Angola and Mozambique, the most important Portuguese colonies at the time, became independent. With them, the Portuguese “civilizing mission” for “less developed peoples” came to end, and it became necessary to turn to the European scene. In 1986 Portugal joined the European Union, inaugurating a new phase in its history.

Portuguese academic fields underwent profound changes with the process of democratization. The end of repression and the opening of the country to the European Union strengthened the various scientific fields, with openness to new ideas and the discussion of different points of view creating groups that were self-regulating, self-critical and with a constant renewal of approaches.

This led to progress and scientific development in many areas in Portugal. This time scientific theory was no longer related to biased concepts of the hierarchy of cultures but rather related to the consolidation of the principles of science itself, with the creation of a scientific community that consistently sought to review, confirm and challenge the knowledge produced. The implementation of this progress was complicated by a tendency of the new government to perpetuate authoritarian habits, especially with regard to hierarchies, the power given to those in positions of power and excessive bureaucracy.

The institutionalization of Underwater Archaeology in the democratic period is thus an interesting case study of an academic discipline at a time of post-dictatorial authoritarian power relations. As a new scientific field, it had no opportunity to become established on the university campus before being seized by the state, which demonstrates the way that science can be subjected to domination and limitation by the structures of power, even within a society that enjoys political and social freedom.

The nationalisation of underwater archaeology in the democratic

The New State regime paradoxically presented itself as being against state valorization of archaeological heritage, unusual given the fact that its value as a symbol national identity had been, to say the least, postponed due to many factors. According to Vítor Oliveira Jorge:

One of the questions… is why Salazar didn’t want, unlike other European dictators of his time, to value archaeological heritage as a legitimation factor of the regime’s ideology. (Jorge, 2000: 172, trans.

There are two issues that are fundamental for understanding the development of Portugal’s heritage. The first of these is the long period of cultural restriction, which made it very difficult for people to immediately relate to the issue once there was a political opening that made change possible. This restriction had also made it particularly difficult for the human sciences (and especially archaeology) to develop within the university system up to that point. The second issue was that stratification of society, excessive state coercion, and highly centralized and bureaucratic structures had created a strong pattern of subordination to political and social hierarchy. To a certain degree this situation has perpetuated until the present time, with frequent overregulation that tends to paralyse the bodies it is meant to control. The stagnation in this area has caused a lack of dialogue between the various social and governmental institutions, compromising not only social and political, but also scientific freedom and growth.

The 1974 uprising that established democracy in Portugal and came to be known as the Revolução dos Cravos8 or “April 25th”, gave the country a new dynamicity in both politics and society, altering the isolationism, authoritarianism and stagnation that had until then defined the old regime.

For archaeology, the creation of the Instituto Português do Património Cultural (IPPC)9 by decree number 46/80 was of the utmost importance. This was part of a process of defining a new cultural policy which involved the consolidation of government services and a commitment to staff specialization. The decree created a series of departments within the IPPC, including Archaeology, Conservation and Restoration, Architectural Heritage, Plastic Arts, and Ethnology, as well as boards and regional services and inspection units.

However between 1985 and 1995 the right wing came to power with Prime Minister Cavaco Silva. This was the beginning of a period known as cavaquismo, which was characterized by considerable authoritarianism, and also a strong focus on economic development, in comparison to which culture and heritage were less favoured.

The cavaquismo was not, however, accompanied by a humanistic sense of government or by an important cultural policy… The temptation of authoritarianism and a despotic tendency toward clientelism and the confusion between state and ruling party was also a feature of the period 1985-95, especially its last term. Those values very typical of the New State and reactionary catholics appeared again to be openly protected and defended… (Marques, 1996: 722, trans. authors)

These policies were then reflected in archaeology, as can be seen in figure 1, which shows the evolution of the publications O Arqueólogo Português, edited by the National Museum of Archaeology and Trabalhos de Arqueologia, originally edited by the IPCC, IPPAR10 and IPA.11 In both journals it is possible to see gaps in publication during this period.

These events led to a very particular situation in the history of Portuguese archaeology, completely changing the relationship between the state, society and heritage. This was the construction of a dam on the River Côa by the state electric company EDP, which would subsequently submerge an entire set of important rock art, mainly from the Upper Palaeolithic. The situation began when an environmental impact assessment in the area detected the presence of the rock art in the region and informed IPPC. After the closing down of the IPPC in 1992 and the subsequent assignment of archaeology to IPPAR, the latter signed an agreement with EDP in 1993 to deepen the study of the embankment the dam would create. In the summer of 1994, archaeologists found more Palaeolithic rock art. Despite such findings and as investigations continued, EDP started building the Côa dam in October of the same year. This resulted in protests by the scientific community both nationally and internationally, causing a scandal of enormous proportions that would have repercussions internally and externally, in both the scientific community and in the media.

bar chart comparing publications

Fig. 1: Comparative framework of the publications O Arqueólogo Português and Trabalhos de Arqueologia between the years 1983 to 2007.

Due to the enormous national and international relevance of this matter, many support groups emerged in defence of the rock art, comprised of both archaeologists and the general population, which applied political pressure to prevent the submerging of the site. This was clear evidence of strong support for heritage by various sectors of society, including politicians, creating a wave of instability also in that sector.

Just one year before the Côa dam case, the government had also approved Law 289 of 1993, which created regulations concerning underwater cultural heritage. These also defined exploration and recovery operations, determining that such operations would be assigned by concession, clearly allowing for commercial operations and encouraging pillaging and “treasure hunting” practices. Decree 289/93 and the protection of underwater archaeology hadn’t been socially questioned in the way that the subsequent case of Côa Valley was, as can be seen in the distribution of reports in the national newspaper Expresso (see figure 2). It was only due to the Côa Valley case that consciousness of underwater heritage and its protection increased, leading the state to create a management model for underwater archaeology, to be administered by the CNANS.

The cavaquismo came to an end a year after the rock art scandal had begun, with a general election in October 1995 that elected the socialist António Guterres. The new government suspended the work on the dam and also created the new Instituto Português de Arqueologia (IPA) out of IPPAR, which took over general responsibility for archaeological heritage. Decree 289/93 was also revoked and replaced by decree 164/97 a new law concerned with the conservation and valorization of underwater cultural heritage. The decree that created the IPA also created the Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática or CNANS,12 and the Centro Nacional de Arte Rupestre or CNART,13 making them autonomous departments answering to the IPA through a process of regulatory approval.

bar chart comparing publication subjects

Fig. 2: Contrast between the number of reports on Underwater Archeology and the Côa Valley case in the weekly newspaper Expresso in the 90s.

The first intervention in underwater archaeology in Portugal had occurred as early as 1958, at the archaeological site of Tróia in the Sado river, and the first laws regarding the subject were established in the 1970s, but it was with the creation of CNANS that underwater archaeology became officially instituted in the Portuguese state context. CNANS has been involved in numerous interventions since 1997, involving the investigation, monitoring and rescuing of a range of sites, including the 15th century vessel “Ria de Aveiro A” and the “ProArade” project. It has also invested in technical qualifications with the professional training of staff in underwater archaeology, as well as the establishment of an infrastructure for the study and conservation of artefacts collected in that context.

All of this work was done within CNANS and its associated bodies however, and did not involve the creation of underwater archaeology departments at universities or in the private sector. Thus with CNANS conducting most underwater archaeological monitoring work, the number of private companies involved was quite low compared with other fields of archaeology. According to the Directory of Businesses and Professionals in Archaeology and Heritage (Raposo, 2005), of a total of 95 companies listed, only 5 played a role in underwater archaeology, only 5.25% compared to the companies working “on land” in 2005. CNANS also exhibited a clear preference for investigations within maritime and Roman archaeology, leaving other areas at a disadvantage or completely unexplored, as in the case of prehistoric archaeology. Research was thus limited to these areas as there were no other private sector or university groups available to take up the others.

At the same time, very few scientific publications were produced in the field of underwater archaeology in Portugal, when compared to other archaeological approaches, during the period of operation of CNANS. That happened largely because institutionalization effectively mean a setback to the creation of Underwater Archaeology as a scientific field, as it narrowed down the amount of research and researchers connected with it. One reason for this was that the state’s bureaucratic and hierarchical nature, with a permanent body of employees, tends to restrict innovation. The university environment in comparison involves a greater turnover of researchers and ideas, as well as increasing the number of institutions and departments involved. The decision not to create new underwater archaeology departments in universities also greatly restricted the creation of new professionals and lines of research in this area. State institutionalization of protection against economic exploitation of underwater heritage effectively ended up suffocating the field.

The Côa valley scandal thus created a significant social reaction with legal consequences leading to the institutionalization of CNANS, and to the rise of a group of professionals who took upon themselves responsibility for protecting, studying and publicising underwater heritage, even though from within the state apparatus. The fields of prehistoric and Roman archaeology in contrast, which involved established scientific groups at several universities, maintained a higher level of publication (see figure 3), scientific dialog, and social visibility.

pie chart comparing subjects of papers

Fig. 3: Distribution of papers in Revista Portuguesa de Arqueologia edited by IPA since 1997.

This was essentially a period of interruption or delay in the process of creating a scientific (and social) community in the field of underwater archaeology, as described by Morin:

First and foremost, it is an epistemological community connected by common fundamental principals – the principle of objectivity, the principal of verification and, in fact, of falsification – that therefore accepts without difficulty the rules of the game we’re talking about. It strongly aligns itself with one and the same historical tradition and with the same knowledge ideal, a community factor, sometimes with an entire transtheoretical or transdisciplinary common arsenal, i.e. subjects that inspire different theories. (Morin, 1982: 45, trans. authors)

There was thus no establishment of a group of scientists in Portuguese underwater archaeology that was broad enough to create a vital community with innovative dialogue and vision. The institutional period represents a gradual disconnection from the social basis that had legitimized it, like the Arqueonautica Association that was at the centre of the evolution of the field, and the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia.14 From this perspective, one of the most important causes of the decline and dismantling of the field was the limitation on the number of professionals able to work within it. This has led to the current situation, where the old Centre of Underwater Archaeology is now only a division of the “Management Institute of Architectural and Archaeological Heritage” (IGESPAR), which was established in 2007. This institute is marked by an increasingly limited number of collaborators and, in relation to underwater archaeology, the continued lack of support for scientific innovation, which has not been helped by the fact that university departments are still not being set up to provide independent voices and scientific dialogue. This is once again an example of state authoritarianism taking control of a scientific field and effectively repressing thought and action.


State authoritarianism has continued as a pervasive influence in Portuguese society since Salazar’s dictatorship. The webs of power that were created during the dictatorship were typified by a government based around a central figure and of ruling classes who considered themselves worthy of the awe and respect of all society, with a right to exercise broad powers that allowed them to circumvent the bureaucracy to the benefit of themselves and their friends. Despite continuing efforts to eliminate this system since the end of the dictatorial regime, it can still be all too easily recognized in modern Portuguese politics.

In the case of scientific development and its relationship with the State, political motives and government ideologies become mixed with the personal interests of individuals within scientific fields to create a kind of science that, besides working on the theories, methods and techniques connected to it, also cemented the thoughts, prejudices, privileges and relationships that resulted from domination by certain sectors of society. Archaeology has been involved in such situations during several periods and in various countries, demonstrating that the field has not only developed from mankind’s physical past, but as a result of the exercising of power relations by scientists in the present.

During the Salazarist dictatorship, research conducted specifically on the native peoples of the overseas colonies served the purpose of colonial politics – i.e. ensuring the retention of the colonies and their development to the benefit of the colonizers. The archaeological research carried out within the anthropological missions also fitted this mould. The ideology of a superior European civilization dominating so-called primitive peoples for their own benefit was reproduced throughout the social fabric, so that it also benefited those in high positions, both within politics and science. Such authoritarian ideas left their mark in post-April 25th democratic society, and may be detected in the case of the creation of the Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática (CNANS). Given the fact that the field of underwater archaeology was a more recent development than other areas of archaeology, once it fell into the state bureaucratic web its scientific productivity was immediately damaged by the interests of a smaller group of scientists who were intimately connected with the stratification and statization of the field. Controlling the employment possibilities and scientific production of the field, they thus also determined the focus and intensity of scientific productivity of it, in accordance with their own goals and politics.

Although the democratic system presupposes the right to scientific involvement for anyone, free from the typical impositions of authoritarian regimes, in this case a government department has been given total control of underwater archaeology, along with the ability to dictate the involvement of scientists with it. In this system, research that does not conform to the accepted focus and researchers who are not included in the friendship network of the group are excluded from it, leading to minimal debate and progress, and ultimately to the stagnation of the discipline.

The relationship between archaeological production, and the political and social context within which it has developed, is important to understand. In Portugal the authoritarian state system and its interests have also been a pervasive force in science, not only in determining the content of research, but also the kind of work permitted at all. This has resulted in a hegemonic kind of thinking becoming imbedded in scientific disciplines such as archaeology, whereby its consolidation is the same in different contexts, such as the exploitation of subject peoples under the colonial system, or the development of new scientific approaches during the democratic period.


We thank the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) for subsidising our research, the Tropical Scientific Research Institute (IICT), the National Centre for Maritime and Underwater Archaeology (CNANS) for supplying data, and the Centre of Archaeology (UNIARQ) at Lisbon University and Professor Nuno Bicho at the University of Algarve for advising us on this research.


1 Council for Geographical Missions and Colonial Research, later renamed the Council for Geographical Missions and Overseas Research

2 Centre for Anthropobiological Studies

3 Superior Institute for Overseas Studies

4 Centre for Anthropobiology

5 Council for Overseas Research

6 Academy of Sciences of Lisbon

7 Institute of Scientific Tropical Research

8 Carnation Revolution

9 Portuguese Institute for Cultural Heritage

10 Portuguese Institute of Architectural and Archaeological Heritage

11 Portuguese Institute of Archaeology

12 National Centre of Maritime and Underwater Archaeology

13 National Centre of Rock Art

14 National Museum of Archaeology


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