Discovering Ancient Societies in Portugal

Expedition Briefing


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The Research

Around 8,000 years ago, Central Portugal underwent a dramatic shift in lifestyles from hunting and gathering to farming and herding (e.g., Bailey and Milner, 2002; Erlandson, 2001; Renouf, 1998). Globally, this transition was much more than a mere shift in where food came from. It was a change in the way people lived on the land, which, in turn, allowed them to stay in one place longer than previously possible. That led to shifts to more permanent housing, the emergence of true villages, and increases in social structure. In short, this transition is about when we became “us”.

Usually thought of as one culture (the “more advanced” agriculturalist) replacing another (the “more primitive” hunter/ gatherers), there is increasing evidence to suggest these cultural systems existed at the same time and place (Bicho et al., 2013; Price, 2015).

The Mesolithic-Neolithic transition remains one of the most controversial issues in prehistory archaeology, attracting significant archaeological debate and extensive research. The common-held belief is that hunter-gatherers disappeared from Central Portugal around 7,000 years ago, and later, farmers and herders settled the area. But now, archaeologists are uncovering clues contradicting this.

By analyzing bone tools, shells (and other evidence of food-types consumed), ornaments and human remains, researchers will trace the transition between these periods to better understand the complex changes not only in technology and subsistence, but also in how people thought about themselves and the world around them, as well as the nature of their social interactions.

Due to its diversity of artifact assemblages, excellent faunal and human bone preservation, evidence for multiple site functions and the presence of a newly discovered wet context (e.g., Bokelmann, 2012; Conneller et al., 2009; Milner et al., 2011) Cabeço da Amoreira and Cabeço da Arruda are an ideal location to study the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and their probable integration into the newly arrived exogenous Neolithic societies coming from the Mediterranean sea. At the same time, researchers will be looking to understand potential climatic drivers that have precipitated this shift, as well as the impact of these food-producing societies on the natural environment, regional ecology, and cultural background.

Research Aims

Researchers seek to understand how individuals changed culturally and physically, how tools and technologies changed during this time, and how burial practices, rituals, and land use differed between the Mesolithic and Neolithic populations.

Researchers have already discovered several sets of human burials at the project site—key findings that have provided insights to the genetic continuity at the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, enabling a better understanding of past human diets and mobility.

The goals of understanding and defining the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition process in the region are grounded in providing answers to the following set of research questions:

  1. Is it possible to identify cultural and physical alterations in the local population, based on DNA and diet? And how are these possibly related population movement and integration?
  2. Was there a differential use among Mesolithic and Neolithic populations (e.g., burial contexts, funerary rituals, prestige items and land use)?
  3. What were the changes and/or continuities in technology?
  4. How did the apparent changes in subsistence strategies impact social changes and the regional ecology?

How You Will Help

Citizen scientists will be involved in both excavation and laboratory activities.

The fieldwork is based on the following tasks:

  • Excavation:
    • total station and data recording
    • software operation
    • sediment screening
    • sample collection
  • In the field laboratory, participants will be involved in:
    • washing, sorting and labeling archaeological materials
    • floatation and processing of paleobotany samples

During the laboratory work hours there will be specialists in different research areas conducting sample analysis and citizen scientists are encouraged to watch and experiment in these tasks. All processes will be accompanied by in-depth explanations of their importance to the project in particular and for the preservation of past cultural heritage in general. 

Life in the Field

Every day, the team will rise early and prepare for the field. After breakfast, everyone will be driven to the research site where you will receive a daily briefing regarding the activities to be carried out that day, both at the field and the laboratory.

Excavation activities will take place during the morning, from 7:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., followed by lunch break, where you can take a rest, socialize and talk about the work you are doing. During the excavation, participants are encourage to ask questions about the materials and the techniques that are used. Sometimes, the team may be joined by local university and high school students who are there to learn. You will receive training on the activities and the basic tools and software used each day. The trip between the site and the lunch place takes less than 10 minutes. When the team returns to the accommodations, all the data collected during the day is downloaded to the main database. The team will enjoy dinner out each night at local restaurant (chosen ahead of time by field staff).


There is no smoking at the project site; only in designated areas.


Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.


For One Week Teams:

  • Day 1: Arrival in the afternoon, dinner and then project orientation.
  • Days 2: Basic training, safety briefing and orientation to field sites, begin field work.
  • Days 3–5: Excavation and laboratory work
  • Day 6: Fieldwork and evening wrap-up for first week of work
  • Day 7: Depart for airport

For Two Week Teams:

  • Day 1: Arrival in the late afternoon, dinner and then project orientation.
  • Days 2: Basic training, safety briefing and orientation to field sites, begin fieldwork
  • Days 3–11: Excavation and laboratory work. One day will be spent exploring a nearby town or visiting the vineyard on a recreational day.
  • Day 12: Fieldwork and evening wrap-up for first week of work
  • Day 13: Depart for airport

Accommodations and Food

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.


Earthwatch teams will stay in the Palace of Muge Estate, the historical home on the property where the research site is located. In the palace, volunteers will have shared rooms with 2-4 people per room and share multiple bathrooms in one wing of the home. Rooms will be split by gender. Rooms for couples are possible with advanced notice, but are not guaranteed. Unfortunately, single rooms are not available. Sheets, towels, pillows and blankets will all be provided. The family estate is home to Teresa Schonborn, Countess of Schonborn and Wiesentheid, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the House. Countess Teresa Schonborn is a friend and colleague of the research team, a project collaborator, and passionate about archeology. The home is a private residence and a historical landmark. This housing is a truly special and unique experience.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.


The bathrooms are shared and have conventional flush toilets and hot showers.


All participants can be reached through mobile phones at any time. And because mobile network is available at the sites, e-mails and Skype can also be used.

All members of the project are equipped with mobile phones with mobile network.

Please note that personal communication with outsiders is not always possible while participating in an expedition. Earthwatch encourages volunteers to minimize outgoing calls and immerse themselves in the experience; likewise, family and friends should restrict calls to urgent messages only.


The distance between the house that Earthwatch participants are staying and the site is very short and takes less than 10 minutes to get from one to another.


The teams will eat local Portuguese cuisine, which is fresh from the many farms in the area. Soups and stews are typical in the area due to the presence of ancient convents and monasteries where they originate. Staff and volunteers will prepare breakfasts, lunches and snacks. Drinking water will be provided. Breakfast and lunch will take place at the accommodations. Fresh fruits and energy bars are available for snacks. Dinner will be arranged at local restaurants.

The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

  • Breakfast: Bread, cheese, fresh fruit, coffee, tea
  • Lunch: Sandwiches, deli meat, cheese, canned fish, vegetable salads, soft drinks
  • Dinner: Meat, grilled fish, fresh vegetables, a variety of stews and soups
  • Desserts: Local Portuguese desserts
  • Beverages: Water, coffee, juice, soft drinks

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms.

Vegetarians and lactose intolerant diets can be accommodated on this project if volunteers are prepared to be flexible. Vegan diets and kosher diets are rather difficult to accommodate. If you have a special diet, it is recommended that you bring some supplemental snacks.

Project Conditions

The project area is called Lezíria Ribatejana and it is located on the plain of the Tagus River.

The Ribatejo region, where Muge Shell middens are located, is a transition zone between two major ecosystems: Atlantic (to the north) and Mediterranean (to the south). Because of this ecosystem complexity, the region is home to diverse range of flora and fauna. The native vegetation of this area is usually cork-oak woods, myrtles and shrubs of oaks. At the area, the grape vines dominate, however other species are also present: olive tree and fruit trees (e.g. pear, apple, quince, peach, orange, lemon and fig). The herbaceous vegetation is mainly composed by ruderal and nitrophilous species typical of agro-ecosystems. The site is surrounded by trees and is not unusual to see local fauna wandering around, mostly small herbivores like rabbits or hares, and birds of prey and herons, as well as farm animals that live to the property like cows, horses and donkeys.


For weather and region-specific information, please visit and search for your project location.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is different from your own.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Enjoy being outdoors all day in all types of weather (see above), in the potential presence of wild animals and insects.
  • Tolerate 77–85°F/25–30°C and higher daily temperatures and low humidity levels.
  • Traverse short distances of mostly flat terrain to reach research sites.
  • Walk, possibly in sand or uphill with a light pack, up to 1 miles/1.6km per day.
  • Bend and kneel to get low enough to access the ground for digging and trowelling in the sediment, several times per day.
  • Handle a shovel and trowel to sift through sediment, and lift and carry a bucket about 10–15 lbs./4.5–7 kgs of sediment.
  • Carry personal daily supplies such as lunch, water, and some small field equipment weighing 10 lbs./4.5 kgs or less.
  • Get up into and down out of a minibus and ride, seated with seatbelt fastened, for a total of about 30 minutes per day.
  • Be able to go up and down the stairs in order to get to the accommodations.

Health and Safety


Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.


Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or region where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions


As in any country, transport is a risk. All minibuses and cars will be fitted with seatbelts, and all passengers must wear them whenever the vehicle is in motion. Only experienced drivers will drive vehicles. Each vehicle will contain a first-aid kit and a cell phone for communication. Participants may not drive, even their own cars, during the project.


Participants are required to engage in demanding physical activities including walking over uneven terrain. Project staff will review the participants’ physical abilities, and adjust the pace of the group as much as possible to accommodate needs. Due to the terrain, individuals with severe mobility restrictions may not be able to be accommodated.


The region can be very hot in August and September. Temperatures can be an average of 86–89./30–32. in the peak of the day, but they have been close to 40. in the past. Participants must be able to tolerate long periods of sun exposure during the summer months. Measures should be taken by participants to avoid dehydration and sun exposure, such as drinking water throughout the day, covering up with full-length trousers and shirts, and wearing sunglasses and a hat with a generous brim.


Participants will be reminded to drink plenty of water throughout the day and to bring at least 2 liters of water into the field each day; to wear high-factor sunscreen and appropriate clothing, including sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat and/or scarf; to not overwork when jet lagged or tired, and to inform a staff member when feeling tired or ill. Team will take regular breaks as needed, and monitor participants for general health at all times.


Information will be provided prior to program to ensure proper medical awareness, and prior review of allergies listed in participant forms will be undertaken by field staff. Due to the large amount of trees, plants and insects in the area, we advise citizen scientists that suffer from pollen/insects allergies to bring appropriate medication. Scorpions are present in the area, but they are rare and not lethal.

Project tasks/Equipment

Instruction will be provided on proper excavation technique and proper inspection of equipment to ensure safety. Adequate protective personal equipment (i.e., gloves, face masks, etc.) should be provided by each participant. Kneeling pads will be provided by the project for participant use.

Travel Planning


Lisbon Humberto Delgado Airport also known as Lisbon International Airport or Portela Airport, Lisbon, Portugal

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.


Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.


Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website:

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.


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  • Carvalho, A.F., and Petchey, F., (2013). Stable isotope evidence of Neolithic paleodiets in the coastal regions of Southern Portugal. The Journal of Inland and Coastal Archaeology 8 (3),361-383.
  • Bicho, N., Cascalheira, J., Marreiros, J., Gonçalves, C., Pereira, T., DIAS, R., (2013). Chronology of the Mesolithic occupation of the Muge valley, central Portugal: The case of Cabeço da Amoreira. Quaternary International 308-309, 130-139.
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  • ANDRÉ, L. and Bicho, N., (2016). Perforation techniques and traces of use on the Mesolithic adornments of the Trench area at Cabeço da Amoreira Shellmidden (Muge, central Portugal). Comptes Rendus Palevol 15, 569-580.
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  • Bicho, N., (1994). The end of the Paleolithic and the Mesolithic in Portugal. Current Anthropology 35 (5), 664-674.
  • Bicho, N., Cascalheira, J., Gonçalves, C., Umbelino, C., GarcÍa Rivero, D., AndrÉ, L., (in press). Resilience, replacement and acculturation in the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition: The case of Muge, central Portugal. Quaternary International. Available online 28 February 2017. quaint.2016.09.049
  • Bicho ET AL. (editors). (2015). Muge 150th: The 150th Anniversary of the Discovery of the Mesolithic Shellmiddens: Volumes I and II. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
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  • Bokelmann, K. 2012. Spade paddling on a Mesolithic lake – Remarks on Preboreal and Boreal sites from Duvensee (Northern Germany). In: M.J. Niekus, R.N. Barton, M. Street and Th. Terberger (eds.), A Mind Set on Flint: Studies in Honour of Dick Stapert. Elde, Barkhuis, pp. 369–380.
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