The main aim of the archaeological work carried out at the Moorish Castle by Parques de Sintra is to analyse the various alterations and improvement works that have been undertaken there, as well as to provide visitors with a more objective understanding of the different human occupations of the Castle area over time, its various building phases and its communal and living spaces.
Carried out in partnership with the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences of the New University of Lisbon, the systematically planned archaeological excavations have confirmed the existence of several distinct realities, although these had already been revealed by earlier research.
The archaeological work that was undertaken in 1976, 1981, 1993-1995 and 1998-2000 made it possible to identify the existence of a Neolithic occupation, with remains dating from the Bronze Age, part of the cemetery of the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim and structures remaining from a Muslim house equipped with storage silos.
Several sectors of the Castle have been worked upon in this way, serving to provide a more comprehensive knowledge of its different areas. The first sector to be investigated was that of the cemetery, which occupies a vast area (between the castle’s eastern wall and the church’s western doorway) that was used for roughly 300 years (in the 12th to the 14th centuries).
Several different forms of burial have been identified, the most common one being the digging of a grave in the disintegrated granite, which was then covered by roughly hewn limestone slabs. It was also possible to note the existence of earlier structures, through the discovery of silos and the foundations of domestic buildings, which had been destroyed when this cemetery was created.
This cemetery is matched by similar structures to be found at other points in the region, namely the medieval burial grounds of the Church of Santa Maria, the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Milides and the Chapel of São Saturnino.
Among the many Neolithic artefacts that have been found here is one that was discovered during the archaeological intervention undertaken in 2010: a complete vase, “bag-shaped” with cleft handles and a nipple, and without any decoration. This is typical of the vases produced in the 5th millennium BC and is considered to be a small, but genuine treasure, given the rarity of such examples in Portugal.
In all the sectors where archaeological excavations have taken place, proto-historic artefacts have been found, as well as various materials from the Middle Ages, all of which underlines the occupation of the same place by various human communities over a very extensive time period.
Different levels of stone paving have been identified inside the Old Stables, one ending in a stone gutter by the castle walls and another composed of tubs for the planting of trees or small flower-beds. This latter pavement was possibly built during the refurbishment work undertaken by King Fernando II, which resulted in the creation of a garden area in the romantic style, at the same time as a tree was planted inside the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim.
In this part of the castle, the earthwork placed on top of these paved areas contained various objects of archaeological interest, in particular several coins from the first Portuguese dynasty, as well as a number of artefacts made of ivory and bone. Two ivory plaques were found with an inscription in Kufic Arabic, probably belonging to a box or casket.
The removal of the layer of earthwork revealed the base rock – granite – which displayed the bottom areas of several silos that had been dug out of the rock itself. This showed that the oldest medieval occupation of the castle had taken place some four metres below the surface at the time when the archaeological work was begun. These silos were damaged in their upper sections, so that it was not possible to excavate even one of them in such a way that they remained intact.
Next to the castle wall, it also proved possible to identify the walls of a single compartment, which had made use of a granite block during its construction. Inside the space marked out by the walls, ceramic fragments were found that belonged to a number of domestic objects with the shape of saucepans and pitchers, decorated with white paint and typical of Islamic domestic contexts in the 11th and 12th centuries.
The most important discovery that was made about this structure is the fact that its walls are located under the castle walls, which clearly demonstrates that this structure was built before the castle itself.
Although the detailed study of this eastern section of the castle wall had led us to believe that the Moorish Castle is a fortification that was built in the 9th century, the archaeological excavations that have taken place here have shown that no use was made of the technique of soga and tissão (consisting of alternating rows of headers and stretchers) in the footing of these walls, and the fact that the foundations of a Muslim house have been identified under the castle wall, with artefacts dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, proves that the castle wall can only have been built after the house itself.
In addition to the Arab sources that state that there were two castles, the information that most clearly suggests that this is a Muslim fortification is precisely the place name of Canaferrim. This subject has already been discussed by various authors, and the consensus is that the origin of the name derives from an Arab prefix that is used to describe defensive structures and/or villages situated on rocky crags: qala’â. This suggests that the word Calaferrim gradually evolved into the name of Canaferrim.