Located on the banks of the river Guadiana, the village of Mértola was of exceptional economic importance throughout the history of Iberia, right up until the period of its Christian Reconquest (1238 CE). This was due in large part to the vitality of its port which from the pre-Roman period onward traded in extracted metals from the nearby regions of Aljustrel and the mines of S. Domingos. The growing awareness of the city’s cultural richness owes largely to the heritage work done by the ‘Campo Arqueologico de Mértola’ (est. 1978) and the establishment of the Museum of Mértola on the back of finds from several excavations (est. 1982).
The Mértola Museum, with a geographical focus on the town and its municipality, has branched out to include archaeological sites representing several periods of history within its remit. These include a Roman house which was opened to the public in 1998, an early Christian basilica opened in 1993, as well as the church and necropolis of S. Sebastião which was inaugurated in 1999. Several other sites bring together important collections of archaeological materials, especially in the Castle Tower opened to the public in 1991 and the centre for Islamic Art which was opened in 2001. There is also an important collection of religious art with pieces dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries CE as well as ethnographic materials representative of traditional craftsmanship. These include a blacksmith’s forge and a weaving workshop where, at present, three weavers are in charge of preserving the centuries old tradition of Mértolan weaving.
The Mértola Museum contributes significantly to the study and knowledge of the Islamic period in Portugal. While its initial focus concentrated on archaeology, in time the museum opened up to other avenues in promoting the heritage and knowledge of Islamic Mértola. This effort is visible in the Islamic Museum which showcases in a time when the region was the capital of a Taifa kingdom throughout the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.
These consist of objects from the excavations of the Almohad neighbourhood as well as a reconstruction of one of the excavated houses uncovered. Other elements make it possible to establish a synthesis of the missing Mértola. The model of the central mosque reminds us of the original Aljama or central mosque and funerary steles refer indicate the Islamic cemetery or maqbara which is now the subject of renewed excavation.
The ceramics collected during the excavations also evoke daily life in Islamic Mértola with particular reference of those crafted in the ‘cuerda seca’ technique. All in all, the Mértola Museum not only preserves the heritage of the region but also provides important insight and a basis for research into the relationship between the town and several Western Mediterranean ports during the medieval period.
The Mértola Museum has been part of the Portuguese Museum Network since 2002.