There are still ocean waves in the Jurassic beach

It’s a unique discovery in Portugal, rare in the rest of Europe. Around sixty fossils – among them starfish, sea urchin and sea lilies – were found in an old quarry in the Aire and Candeeiros mountain range. 170 million years ago, the ocean was there. But the better-looking fossils are gone.

Rita Ferreira

Translation by Paulo Montes

March 2014

“The dried up beach? There’s no water there!” Fair warning is given to those who are distracted or naive, should anyone think there’s a sea of clear water surrounded by white sands in the middle of the Aires and Candeeiros mountain range, in the West of Portugal. That’s not the case with the tenths of visitors who, in the last two months, have been looking for the old quarry where numerous fossils were discovered, proving the existence of a marine environment in the region. And you need persistence to get there. Or you find someone who knows the way.

The first directions came from Ilídio’s Minimarket & Café, in São Bento, a parish in the council of Porto de Mós. You go past the dairy farm, down the road and when you see a great corner, turn right. And then what? Then you ask someone else. “Do you see that hill? You follow this road and then you go onto the white road, you’ll see some olive trees and then you don’t take the right, you take the left.” But everything’s the same and there are olive trees everywhere. “You go up there near the eucalyptus trees and then it’s downhill. It may look like the car can’t go there, but it can, and then you have to come back the same way, because you can’t go any further”, says a lady who’s fixing her garden. It’s miles and miles without even glancing the Jurassic beach. There isn’t a sign, some noticeable indication for those unaccustomed to the landscape that looks the same all over and the truth is that the Ladeira quarry, where the fossils were discovered, can’t be seen from afar; you only realize it exists when you get there.

This time, praise goes to Jorge Pascoal, parish employee, a nice man who owns a tractor and who led us through brown roads, white ones, stone walls and olive trees right to the quarry as deftly as someone who could have done it with their eyes closed.

We got there and parked the car as soon as the road ended, on top of broken rocks. It’s over broken rocks that we continue walking until we go down to the beach proper, composed of huge clean slabs, punctuated here and there by rocks of different sizes. Jorge Pascoal ends up giving us a “guided tour” of Porto de Mós’ Jurassic beach. He’s neither archaeologist, nor geologist, nor paleontologist. But he knows by heart the place where the fossils were found a few years back, when the quarry was still active. “The rocks mark the location of the fossils”, he explains, while heading up to one of them. He moves the rock over and shows us: “Here’s a starfish.” There are sea urchins, lilies and other distinctive marks of an environment that existed there 170 million years ago. “They say these are the ocean’s waves”, he reveals, showing an area that does remind of the little waves in the sand on the seabed. Jorge knows all this because he worked for the São Bento parish cleaning the quarry and he heard the experts’ explanations. Ripple marks, that’s what the fossilized sea waves are called.

Jorge moves around upturning rock after rock, looking for a particular fossil. “It was the biggest and prettiest, a sea urchin, but I can’t find it.” But that’s not because he forgot the place where it was. It’s because someone took it.

©osomeafuriaThe fossil war

Sixty fossils were found in those two thousand square meters previously occupied by a rock quarry. According to geologist António José Menezes, councilman from the Socialist Party in Porto de Mós, this discovery shows that in the area there once was “a coastal plain, filled with water tables around one to two meters thick”. That’s why in the Ladeira quarry you can now see fossils from “countless species of starfish, crustaceans, fish, sea urchin, sea lilies, grooves made by marine animals and even fossilized sea waves”. When António José Menezes brought the existence of this site to the public, at the Municipal Assembly in November 29th, 2013, he explained this quarry proves that in the area there once was “a Jurassic sea, tropical to subtropical” and on its shores “dinosaurs roamed, like the ones found in Porto de Mós’ council”.

At the Assembly, the geologist proposed to have the site classified as a geo-monument. And so it was. The council approved the proposal unanimously. “Since there’s already a project for a geo-park in the area, such a site could kick-start something more ambitious”, he explains. But António had a different motivation. He wanted to stop the Aire and Candeeiros Mountain Range Natural Park (PNSAC – Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros) from carrying out the removal of some fossils from the Jurassic beach. He wasn’t able to do so. “They removed the fossils without even telling anyone the date and time they’d do it. And they took the most relevant ones, destroying an overview that would let us rebuild the paleoenvironment. They were brutal”, he accuses.

“For the past two years I’ve been pressing the Natural Park and the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forestry for the removal of the most meaningful fossils from the area”, explains Miguel Ramalho, geologist and director of the Geological Museum in Lisbon. For this former professor, there’s a very simple explanation and removing the fossils makes perfect sense: “It’s impossible to protect the site, both from people and from the passing of vehicles in the area, like it happened before. And then there’s erosion. The fossils are very frail and they breakdown easily, disappearing in half a dozen years. Even the dinosaur prints in the Galinha quarry [located in the Natural Park] are no longer as they once were and their size doesn’t compare to these fossils.”

António José Menezes and Miguel Ramalho agree on one thing: the importance of the fossils that were found there is enormous. “Their condition makes them remarkable. That’s something rare. There’s no other example in Portugal and I only know of one other case of fossils in such good condition in Europe”, says the director of the Geological Museum. Right away he justifies the removal of the specimens with greatest interest for science which were taken to the museum to be studied, dated and later exhibited. “Either they’re removed and come to this museum where their value is preserved and divulged or we leave them to the council who’s incapable of protecting them. They’re scattered over a pretty large area. You’d need a security guard 24/7, they’d have to be sheltered from the rain…”, he argues.

The council representatives have a different opinion. The chairman of São Bento’s parish council doesn’t conform. “The Natural Park does everything behind people’s back. We cleaned the quarry, together with the fire department, and they didn’t even call us when they removed the fossils. And they took the nicest ones, they didn’t even leave replicas”, complains Luís Cordeiro, who’d like to see the site used to boost the region, because since the Jurassic beach was presented there have been real processions of curious people coming to see the fossils on weekends.

That view is shared by the council in Porto de Mós, who didn’t agree with the removal of the fossils. Rui Marto, councilman for Civil Works, Municipal Services and Environment, says he was alerted “by someone who doesn’t even work for the city council saying they were cleaning the quarry and then it was the parish council” who told him the fossils were being removed. Rui Marto says he told the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forestry (ICNF) that the council opposed that decision, proposing they worked together to find a solution that would please everybody. And that’s what they’re trying to do now, after meeting with the two Socialist Party parliamentarians elected in the district of Leiria, João Paulo Pedrosa and Odete João, who visited the quarry and quickly wrote a press release about the “lack of dialogue and cooperation by the ICNF and the LNEG (Natural Laboratory of Energy and Geology) who removed some fossils from their ‘in situ’ context, thus destroying the natural environment of the archaeological findings making it impossible to have them studied and framed in their natural landscape.” So they plan on presenting a draft resolution to the National Parliament so that the problem can be solved by the state authorities, along with the municipality.

To Miguel Ramalho, who states “nothing irregular went on”, the solution to this story is to supply the municipality with replicas of the fossils, something that, in fact, has been assured from the start. At the moment, the originals are in Lisbon, at the Geological Museum, being studied by a geologist who’s working with Bristol University and who’ll be in charge of classifying the findings. “Everyone’s in good faith in this. We just can’t accept that local interests jeopardize a patrimony such as this, that according to international law should be stored in a recognized science museum”, argues the museum’s director. An email was sent to the ICNF, which manages the PNSAC. For a week, we waited for the answers, but they still haven’t come.

In Ilídio’s Minimarket & Café, Arminda shrugs when people talk about the Jurassic beach: “I haven’t been there and I’m not planning on going.” The extra customers who come in on their way to the site don’t spend much “they bring their own food” and the only difference is the newspaper sales that increased on the days São Bento’s beach made the news. Life continues quiet, moving slowly, keeping pace with the card game being played after lunch.

Joaquim already had his coffee, but he decided to stay and chat. He’s a shepherd and he used to take his animals through the Ladeira quarry. Now he doesn’t go near it and he’s seen the number of cars that stop by on weekends. Is it a nice beach? Joaquim remains indifferent: “There are plenty of those everywhere.” But if it comes to badmouthing the Natural Park, Joaquim steps up immediately. “If the Park messed with it, it shouldn’t have”, he grumbles. He doesn’t like that the land can’t be worked like in the old days, and he doesn’t understand the limits to construction. “Look at this,” – he says pointing to a green slope – “wouldn’t a nice row of apartment buildings look nice here?” Manuel Silva is playing cards with a friend and occasionally looks around to see what’s going on. When he finally decides to speak, he only says two sentences. “I went to the Jurassic beach once and I really like to go there for a walk. It’s very nice and it should be preserved and capitalized.” Go fish.

Lunch time is over and the customers at Ilídio’s café leave one by one, returning to their trades. The sun is shining and it’s a good day to visit the quarry looking for the tenths of fossils that weren’t removed and can easily be seen. There are starfish and sea urchins so neatly carved in the rock that you can count their thorns one by one, and sea lilies that still seem to be moving along with the current. The mountain range is all around and it isn’t easy to imagine how the site would have been like with the slow and shallow waters running through it 170 million years ago.

To get there: if you’re coming from Porto de Mós to São Bento, you turn left on the sign to Covões Largos. Reaching the small village, you follow the main road. After a tight corner to the right, the road starts climbing and it becomes dirt and gravel. Follow that road. You’ll go by a grove of olive trees. The road starts going down. When you see a hill and a group of very tall trees on your left, turn towards them at the crossroads where there’s a sign saying “thrush hunting prohibited”. Keep going along the wall on your right, towards a very tall lonely tree. You’re at the dry beach.