Image: Dave Zahn via Statesman Journal

It’s 2015, and America’s western coast is in the grip of a severe drought that’s being felt far and wide. Over in Marion County, Oregon, for example, Detroit Lake is the lowest that it has ever been. And yet as the reservoir slowly dries up, the waters recede to reveal a stunning sight. Rising from the lake are the relics of an old railroad town – one that’s been hidden from sight for over 60 years.

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Located in the famously picturesque area of America known as the Pacific Northwest, Oregon is renowned for its magnificent landscapes. From the state’s golden, sandy beaches to the lush, green expanses of its parks, this is a place that delights millions of visitors every year.

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Now, one of Western Oregon’s most popular attractions is Detroit Lake – a reservoir on the North Santiam River that lies near to the small city of Detroit in Marion County. At nine miles long, Detroit Lake boasts some 32 miles of shoreline. The water there also provides local residents with plenty of opportunities for fishing, swimming, boating and other recreational activities.

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On top of this, Detroit Lake supplies water to neighboring communities – such as the city of Salem, which sits some 46 miles to the northwest. This state of affairs hasn’t always been the case, though. In fact, the body of water was only created in 1953, when a dam was built to control flooding in the nearby Willamette River.

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And although Detroit Lake was constructed for practical reasons, it has since become arguably one of the region’s most valued recreational sites, with sunbathers and swimmers enjoying the cool waters on hot summer days. That said, as with similar bodies of water, the weather can greatly affect the reservoir. Factors such as rainfall and snowmelt can cause the water levels to change, for instance.

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A lack of precipitation can drastically change the state of the reservoir too. You see, in 2011 Marion County – along with many of America’s western coastal states – began suffering from a terrible drought. So it was that by the start of the 2015 summer season, Detroit Lake was already some 60 feet below its normal capacity. Shockingly, over the coming weeks, the water level would then plunge by a further 83 feet.

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At just 1,426 feet, the water was at its lowest point ever. Such a drastic drop had only been recorded once before, in January 1969. And even though the lake’s water level had previously fallen to 1,427 feet three further times, this record drop revealed something that the reservoir had kept hidden for generations.

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Yes, in the fall of 2015, a startling sight confronted local residents. There, exposed on the lakebed, were the remains of Old Detroit – a remnant of times long since past. After all, the town had been abandoned and swallowed up when the North Santiam River was dammed back in 1953.

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Founded in 1880, Old Detroit started life as a camp meant to house men working on the Oregon Pacific Railroad. This ambitious venture – the brainchild of local businessman Thomas Egenton Hogg – was originally intended to connect the state with the east of the country. Ultimately, though, it never quite reached its potential.

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Beginning in the city of Salem – some 50 miles east of Old Detroit – the railroad once followed the path of the mighty North Santiam River. Then, after the track traversed the canyon floor, it reached the foothills of the Cascade Range of mountains. Hogg even planned to continue through the Cascades and onward towards the Transcontinental Railroad.

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Sadly, though, Hogg ran out of cash before he could make his dream a reality. Instead, he bought a steamship and used this to connect his railroad with the city of San Francisco. And while the businessman made a number of attempts to realize his vision, he eventually had to admit defeat.

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As a result, the Oregon Pacific Railroad petered out at Idanha – some 15 miles away from the Cascades. This meant the nearby turntable at Old Detroit became one of the last stops on the line. Yet despite the remoteness of the station, it was often busy with loggers transporting timber eastwards by rail.

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At one point, Old Detroit was a thriving community that played host to a number of cafes along with a cinema, a church, a hardware store and a school. However, for farmers living further down the valley, life was often a struggle. The North Santiam River passed through the nearby Cascade Mountains, swelling with rainfall and snowmelt as it went. Eventually, it would come crashing through the nearby towns, wreaking havoc along the way.

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“For farmers and boosters in the Willamette Valley, the North Santiam made life hell,” Oregon historian Bob Reinhardt told the Statesman Journal in 2015. “Gathering snowmelt and rainfall in the Cascades, the river contributed to floods that washed through Salem and other valley towns, sometimes causing millions of dollars in damage.”

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However, in 1938 Congress passed the Flood Control Act, which permitted the use of civil engineering programs to help combat damaging deluges in the United States. And in the Willamette Valley itself, developers came up with a plan. By constructing two dams, they realized, they could solve the area’s flooding problem and produce electricity at the same time.

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Like Hogg before them, the masterminds behind the Detroit Dam thought big. Upon its completion, the dam would stretch 1,580 feet from end to end and tower 360 feet tall. It was also envisioned that the great structure would be able to contain 455,000 acre-feet of water from the North Santiam River when it finally went into operation.

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Unfortunately, there was one small problem with these grand plans for a new dam. Apparently, the barrier would require 3,580 acres of space – including the use of the land where Old Detroit stood. And so in the name of progress, the railroad town’s residents prepared to leave their homes behind for good.

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According to records, the soon-to-be displaced locals asked the government for land on which to build a new town. But while authorities denied the request, fortunately all was not lost. At that point, a local timber merchant stepped in, offering the use of an old logging site instead. And by the summer of 1952, many members of the Old Detroit community had purchased plots at this new location.

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There, on a hill above the old town, residents re-established the community of Detroit – even keeping the same name. Some families went so far as to dismantle their dwellings piece by piece, dragging them by sled to the new site. And even today, the streets contain some buildings that were relocated in this strange manner. These structures almost certainly wouldn’t have survived if they’d stayed in place.

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You see, in 1953 the dam – the fifth largest of its kind in the country – went into operation. As a result, the river became a lake that would quickly swallow the rooftops of Old Detroit. And yet on days when the waters are at their lowest, the curious can still sometimes see the ruins that remain.

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In fact, in October 2015 the few people lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Old Detroit were in for a particularly spectacular sight. And the remnants of the former town definitely weren’t the only relics to be exposed as the water waned. There was also a 19th-century wagon that, thanks to the low oxygen levels in the lake, was incredibly well-preserved.

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“I went on a treasure hunt down along the river, figuring I’d find foundations or something like that,” Dave Zahn, a Marion County sheriff’s deputy, told the Statesman Journal in 2015. “Then I saw a piece of old history right there.” The wagon, which dates back over 140 years, was most likely used to carry goods, and it had emerged from the lakebed lying on its side.

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Furthermore, a plaque on the vehicle declares that it was produced by the Milburn Wagon Company in 1875. Based in Toledo, Ohio, the company was the biggest manufacturer of wagons on the planet at the time. And according to Cara Kelly, an archeologist with the U.S. Forest Service, this particular example may have played a part in the construction of the local railroad – at least, before it was left to its watery fate.

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Over the years, however, the usefulness of wagons such as this one waned. And by the time residents abandoned Old Detroit, automobiles had essentially replaced these old-fashioned carts. No longer needed, they simply sat empty and forgotten, eventually succumbing to the same fate as the rest of the town.

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And the wagons were apparently constructed to last – explaining just how the Old Detroit example remained intact for so many years. Speaking to the Statesman Journal in February 2020, David Sneed from the vehicle archive Wheels that Won the West explained, “That wagon was built for the country that you’re in. With those extra spokes, the metal-encased hubs and the ‘Oregon brake,’ it’s built to engage rough terrain.”

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Interestingly, though, the cart wasn’t all that eagle-eyed observers managed to spot in Detroit Lake, as the low waters also revealed a type of octagonal-shaped pit coated with cement. But even though the mysterious hole stood out sharply against the cracked, dry reservoir bed, experts were unable to determine what its original purpose might have been.

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And while Zahn was delighted to be among the lucky few to glimpse the wagon, he also had concerns that vandals might destroy the historical find. Kelly seemingly concurred, as he asked residents to keep the discovery’s exact location to themselves. “I don’t think people realize they aren’t supposed to collect items off public land,” she told the Statesman Journal in 2015. “But once someone removes something, nobody else will get to see that piece of history.”

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Then, in late 2015, the wagon went viral. And as its story spread across the country, a group of local business people asked themselves questions. Could they somehow excavate the relic and display it in Detroit as a permanent attraction? Unfortunately for the budding entrepreneurs, Kelly was quick to shoot down this proposal.

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“The issue is that in trying to remove [the cart], it would just fall apart,” Kelly told the Statesman Journal in February 2020. “It would just crumble. It’s also half-buried in the mud.” So, even if experts could somehow excavate the wagon, it would need storing in a specialist facility – and nothing suitable to the task currently exists in Detroit.

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Amazingly, too, Kelly believes that the 2015 appearance could have been the wagon’s first since having been swallowed up by the lake over 60 years ago – although she does also think that it may have traveled from elsewhere. “This might not have been [the wagon’s] original resting place,” the U.S. Forest Service employee claimed. “It could’ve come from anywhere in the town of Detroit. The flood of 1964 moved a lot of things; it even brought houses down.”

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Kelly also thinks the wagon’s time above water may have caused more deterioration than its six decades spent submerged. Perhaps luckily for the vehicle, then, its wheels were destined to disappear beneath the surface once more. But that wasn’t quite the end of the story.

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In 2019 concerns were raised about the future of the lake as well as any relics submerged beneath its waters. Since the dams’ construction, the wild fish population of the Willamette River has reportedly seen a drastic decline. In particular, it’s thought that the structures both damaged the marine dwellers’ natural ecosystem and closed off their spawning grounds from the rest of the river.

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So, in response to a 2008 legal agreement designed to protect species such as steelhead trout and wild salmon, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put forward a solution. By constructing a 300-foot tower at Detroit Dam, the engineers claimed, they could reverse the negative effects on the fish’s habitat. The team also submitted a design that would help round up migrating fish and relocate them safely downstream.

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However, these developments came with one small catch. In order to construct these solutions, engineers explained, they need to drain the reservoir to as low as 1,310 feet – below even the drought levels of 2015. What’s more, these measures could remain in place for an entire summer, and this is likely to deliver a hard blow to tourism in Detroit.

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In fact, the project – which is yet to begin – has apparently drawn criticism from locals whose livelihoods depend on the reservoir. And the custodians of the relics of Old Detroit may also have cause for concern. After all, prolonged exposure to the elements caused damage to the wagon in the past, and so a whole summer above water could prove disastrous.

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Four years after the wagon made its star appearance, however, repairs to the dam caused the amount of water in the reservoir to decrease once more. This meant the historic relic was again visible. And in December 2019 photographer Jeff Green managed to locate the fascinating site after three days of searching.

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Seeing the wagon in person was a memorable moment for Green, too. Speaking to the Statesman Journal in February 2020, he explained, “Oregon has few such relics. To see this history appearing in the mud was surreal. It was a moment that doesn’t happen very often – like the solar eclipse.” The photographer pointed out, though, that the area around the wagon contained a treacherous quicksand-like mud, making it challenging to reach.

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And with the wagon’s reappearance, concerns grew once more that looters might damage the historic artifact. Yet Zahn told the Statesman Journal that he was not overly anxious about the situation. “[The wagon’s] very difficult to reach and almost always underwater,” he explained. “I’m happy that it happened and glad whenever someone talks about it or says they’ve seen it.”

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Then, in January 2020, the water in the reservoir reached more normal levels, and the wagon vanished again. Still, it wasn’t long before yet another threat emerged – this time in the form of a drought. In March that year, experts grew concerned that a lack of precipitation could cause Detroit Lake to dry out. And if this were to come to pass, the relic would once more be at risk from both looters and the elements.

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For now, however, the wagon remains beneath the water, where it continues to be a source of inspiration. Speaking to the Statesman Journal, photographer Brent McGregor explained the cart’s appeal. “The real beauty with this one is that it’s still out there, sticking out of the mud and well-preserved,” he said. “You can use your imagination and think about the old town. It’s great to have it there.”

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But, of course, Detroit Lake isn’t the only body of water on the planet to have dried up – nor is it the only one to have a secret hiding beneath the depths. When drought hit a remote part of Spain, a reservoir practically vanished, revealing a mysterious monument that dates back thousands of years.

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As a record-breaking summer sears the land across Western Europe, water has become a scarce resource. And owing to the extreme heat, the Valdecañas Reservoir – which has dominated the landscape in the Spanish region of Extremadura for more than 50 years – is beginning to evaporate. But as the body of water starts to disappear, something incredible – not to mention mysterious – emerges from the depths below.

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That secret was only revealed after weeks of a deadly heatwave that had affected countries such as France and Germany as well as Spain. And as the resultant drought transformed the land, emergency measures began to come into force. But while the cities and their inhabitants sweltered, the unexpected surprise in the reservoir reared its head.

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So, what exactly did the water conceal? Well, thousands of years ago, a mysterious people lived in this now-remote part of the Iberian Peninsula. And while much of these individuals’ culture has since been lost to time, some relics nevertheless remain for those who know where to look. In fact, in this particular spot, locals have heard the legend of an ancient monument for many years – and now its moment in the spotlight has finally arrived.

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Located in Western Spain, the Extremadura region has always had a hot climate with little in the way of rainfall. As a result, when the dictator General Franco set about developing the country in the mid-20th century, it may have seemed logical to construct a reservoir and dam in the area.

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In any case, in 1963 workers flooded the countryside near the village of Peraleda de la Mata to create the Valdecañas Reservoir. And for decades, the facility helped to provide water in a region that is cursed with often-crippling heat. During the summer of 2019, though, a meteorological phenomenon created conditions that were even tougher than normal.

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Beginning in June, a spell of atypically warm weather swept through much of Western Europe, with the mercury hitting record highs across the continent. And in this corner of Western Spain, that meant the onset of a terrible drought, with some farmers in the region likely to suffer severe financial hardship as a result of the heat and its consequences.

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All across the region, the drought transformed the land into an arid expanse with little in the way of vegetation. And in Extremadura, even the vast reserves of the Valdecañas Reservoir were affected by the unusual weather. Yes, as the weeks crept by, the waters in the lake began to recede.

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But while residents of the region likely fretted about their dwindling water supplies, there may have been something else about the situation that piqued their curiosity. It was said, you see, that a remarkable artifact lay hidden under the surface of the reservoir. Would the drought finally cause its secrets to be revealed?

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According to locals, the source of this legend is a mysterious ancient monument known as the Dolmen de Guadalperal. Believed to have been created several thousands of years ago, the structure is built from approximately 150 stones that have been arranged in an oval pattern of some 16 feet in diameter.

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Apparently, the rocks – known as menhirs – would once have held aloft a series of large flat stones laying horizontally, thus forming an enclosed chamber. Sometimes referred to as a dolmen, this space would have been reached via a long corridor stretching almost 70 feet. And at the entrance to the monument, a number of carvings would have been found.

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Furthermore, according to Angel Castaño, who grew up in the area, the monument was built using stones from outside the local area. “The site would have been created over thousands of years using granite transported from kilometers away,” he told The Local in August 2019. Sadly, though, the exact method of the monument’s construction has since been lost to time.

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But although it’s certainly mysterious, the ancient site is far from unique. In fact, its familiar structure has led some to dub it the “Spanish Stonehenge.” And as is the case with the famous megalith in Southern England, the dolmen is believed to have once been a center of both religious and memorial rites.

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In fact, according to Castaño, the stones may initially have fulfilled a number of different roles. “Like Stonehenge, they formed a sun temple and burial ground,” he explained. “They seemed to have a religious but also economic purpose, being at one of the few points in the river where it was possible to cross, so it was a sort of trading hub.”

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Despite its ancient heritage, however, the dolmen has remained relatively incognito over the years. Indeed, although it’s believed that the Romans were aware of its existence, the monument wasn’t officially “discovered” until the 1920s. At around that time, the German historian Hugo Obermaier began investigating the area.

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While examining the site, Obermaier discovered a number of relics including ancient ceramics, axes and knives. In addition, he came across the remains of a settlement that is thought to date from the period when the monument was built. And along with the traces of ancient residences, the anthropologist also identified sharpening stones and mills.

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For some reason, however, Obermaier’s findings weren’t made public until more than three decades later, in 1960. By that point, Franco’s mission to modernize Spain was well underway. And for the Dolmen de Guadaperal – which found itself at the heart of one of these new developments – this meant a rather undignified fate.

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Three years after the publication of Obermaier’s work, in fact, the site of the dolmen was flooded in order to create the Valdecañas Reservoir. And just like that, a site that could have rivaled Stonehenge in terms of significance and appeal disappeared – taking its ancient secrets with it to a watery grave.

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Yet even after it had vanished beneath the surface of Franco’s new reservoir, the dolmen wasn’t always completely hidden from then on. Over the years, you see, the water level would sometimes drop enough for the monument’s highest points to re-emerge. In fact, a drought in the 1990s dried up the region so much that the entire upper section of the dolmen could be seen.

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And for the people who had grown up around the Valdecañas Reservoir, these occasional glimpses of the dolmen were enough to inspire a local legend. Then, when the hot summer of 2019 scorched the landscape of Extremadura, that myth soon collided with reality, as the ancient monument revealed itself in all its glory.

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According to Castaño, who lives close to the monument, the reappearance of the structure was a spectacular sight. “All my life, people had told me about the dolmen,” he informed Atlas Obscura in September 2019. “I had seen parts of it peeking out from the water before, but this is the first time I’ve seen it in full. It’s spectacular, because you can appreciate the entire complex for the first time in decades.”

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Then, with the dolmen exposed, curious onlookers were able to form their own theories about the mysterious monument. It was now possible, after all, to study the engraved menhir at the entry to the chamber. And while experts have historically accepted that the stone depicts a human and a snake, some other explanations have since arisen.

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In Castaño’s opinion, for instance, the undulating line found on the rock represents not a snake but rather a body of water – specifically, the nearby Tagus River. Apparently, he believes that the marking mimics the path that the river once took through the region. And if Castaño is correct, the carving would be among the earliest maps in human history.

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“It was intuition,” Castaño told Atlas Obscura in September 2019. “Before the area was flooded, the river had a strange bend that matched where the snake’s head was supposed to be. I rushed to consult an old map of the river, and I realized that the curvy line corresponded nearly 100 percent to the river’s path.”

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However, some researchers have disagreed with Castaño’s bold hypothesis. Primitiva Bueno Ramirez from the University of Alcalá thinks, for example, that the lines are more likely to be a relatively common type of megalithic phenomenon. Having first examined the stones back in the 1990s, she believes that the carving has little to do with the local landscape.

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“I appreciate his enthusiasm,” Bueno said of Castaño. “But from my archaeological understanding, I would say that the line is geometric and similar to ones found in megalithic art across Europe. In this case, it could be identified as a serpent.” Regardless, though, she acknowledged that further investigation was needed in order to make a positive identification.

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But it wasn’t just experts such as Castaño and Bueno who found themselves drawn to the site, as the newly exposed dolmen soon became something of a tourist attraction. And despite the fact that visiting the site meant trekking for several hours in the baking heat, people still flocked to the remote location.

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By early September, in fact, two different companies had begun operating boat tours that took tourists across the reservoir to see the monument. And with the challenging trek thus eliminated, visitor numbers to the area continued to grow. Yet while these developments have highlighted the site’s appeal, many observers are concerned about the adverse effect that such tourism may have on the stones.

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You see, without anything in the way of barriers or security to protect it, the dolmen has been left exposed to interlopers. There’s the possibility, then, that enthusiastic sightseers may choose to touch and sit on the ancient stones. And such a prospect have raised concerns that the monument – which up to now has survived for thousands of years – may become irreparably damaged.

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In addition, some onlookers have noted that the monument’s time underwater has left it in a state of disrepair. It seems that a number of the stones mentioned in Obermaier’s research have now moved, with previously elevated slabs now lying flat on the ground. Some pieces that were intact just decades ago, meanwhile, are now broken.

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According to experts, the damage has been done because the stones that form the dolmen are made of porous granite – making them particularly defenceless to the process of erosion. And after seeing the state of the monument, Castaño’s group therefore began petitioning the authorities to move it to a dry location.

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“It isn’t a difficult thing to move [the stones]; we have machinery now to do that,” Castaño told The Local. “Let’s just hope that there is the political will to move them while we can.” Not everyone agrees, however, that a hasty relocation is the right way of conserving the stones. Bueno’s view is that a rushed decision on the matter could prove even more detrimental in the longer term.

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“Whatever we do here needs to be done extremely carefully,” Bueno told Atlas Obscura. “We need high-quality studies using the latest archaeological technology. It may cost money, but we already have one of the most difficult things to obtain: this historic monument. In the end, money is the easy part. The past can’t be bought.”

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Despite Bueno’s concerns, however, many supporters have been pushing ahead with the campaign to save the stones. As of September 20, 2019, in fact, almost 50,000 people had signed a Change.org petition urging the Spanish authorities to take action. And according to Castaño, it’s vital that measures are taken soon.

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“If we miss this chance, it could be years before [the dolmen is] revealed again,” Castaño told The Local. He believes, too, that the stones could provide a welcome economic boost for one of the country’s more overlooked regions. “There are already lots of reasons to come to this part of Spain, but there is very little tourism,” he pointed out. “This could be the kick-start that the region needs to bring tourism to the area.”

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In fact, in Castaño’s eyes, the dolmen could become a thing of great value to the local community. “We grew up hearing about the legend of the treasure hidden beneath the lake, and now we finally get to view them,” he explained. “There certainly may have been treasures buried beneath the stones once upon a time. But for us now, the treasures are the stones themselves.”

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It should be known, though, that this is far from the only time that extreme weather conditions have inadvertently revealed an ancient site. Thousands of miles away in Iraq, for example, a drought in June 2019 affected the water in a Tigris River reservoir. And as the levels dropped, the remains of a Bronze Age palace were revealed.

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Similarly, in 2018 a heatwave swept through much of the United Kingdom. Owing to the sweltering conditions, then, the quantity of water in the Burrator Reservoir on the wild expanse of Dartmoor in Southern England fell further than it ever had before. And in the process, relics of a long-forgotten 15th-century estate – known as Longstone Manor – emerged from the depths.

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But it’s not just dwindling water levels that are capable of revealing these hidden histories. During that British heatwave, the resultant lack of plant growth also exposed traces of numerous past structures and settlements. And while some of these artifacts were merely a few centuries old, others originated all the way back to the Stone Age.

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Meanwhile, over at the original Stonehenge, extreme conditions have helped to confirm long-held theories about the nature of the monument itself. Back in 2014 a spell of unusually dry weather had left the land parched, with the result being that there was now an outline of where missing stones had once stood. And using this natural blueprint, experts were able to determine that the structure had formerly consisted of a complete circle.

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In Extremadura, however, specialists have been unable to predict how long it will be before the waters of the Valdecañas Reservoir rise once more – although it could be just a matter of weeks. And, currently, the fate of the dolmen remains undecided. Will Castaño succeed in his mission to secure a new lease of life for the monument? Or will it disappear beneath the surface for good?

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