SW Iberian plaques from the Chalcolithic

24 Feb
A new study gives us the opportunity to learn about the mysterious SW Iberian plaques from the Chalcolithic period.
Daniel García Rivero & Daniel J. O’Brien, Phylogenetic Analysis Shows That Neolithic Slate Plaques from the Southwestern Iberian Peninsula Are Not Genealogical Recording Systems. PLoS ONE 2014. Open access LINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088296]


Prehistoric material culture proposed to be symbolic in nature has been the object of considerable archaeological work from diverse theoretical perspectives, yet rarely are methodological tools used to test the interpretations. The lack of testing is often justified by invoking the opinion that the slippery nature of past human symbolism cannot easily be tackled by the scientific method. One such case, from the southwestern Iberian Peninsula, involves engraved stone plaques from megalithic funerary monuments dating ca. 3,500–2,750 B.C. (calibrated age). One widely accepted proposal is that the plaques are ancient mnemonic devices that record genealogies. The analysis reported here demonstrates that this is not the case, even when the most supportive data and techniques are used. Rather, we suspect there was a common ideological background to the use of plaques that overlay the southwestern Iberian Peninsula, with little or no geographic patterning. This would entail a cultural system in which plaque design was based on a fundamental core idea, with a number of mutable and variable elements surrounding it.

Figure 1. Engraved plaques from the Iberian Peninsula.
Valencina de la Concepción, Sevilla, Spain (Museo Arqueológico de
Sevilla [MAS]); b, S. Geraldo, Montemor-o-Novo, Évora, Portugal (Museo
Nacional de Arqueologia de Portugal [MNAP]); c, Monsaraz, Reguengos de
Monsaraz, Évora (MNAP); d, Mora, Évora (MNAP); e, Jabugo, Aracena,
Huelva, Spain (MAS); f, Ciborro, Monte-o-Novo, Évora (MNAP); g, Marvão,
Portalegre, Portugal (MNAP); h, Estremoz, Évora (MNAP); and I, Pavia,
Mora, Évora (MNAP).

Rather than dwelling in the central discussion of the study, which is to empirically discard the genealogical hypothesis (for which it is surely best to read the paper as such), my main interest is to share this not often seldom discussed Chalcolithic phenomenon which is limited to SW Iberia (i.e. Southern Portugal and nearby areas of Spain). This study gives us the opportunity of not just knowing it but also contemplate its unity and diversity from a large number of specimens. 

Fig. 2 –  General design of the plaques.
The dates of the “plaque idols”, as they are often known in the literature, range from c. 2650 to c. 2100 BCE[see note below], corresponding to the development of the first Iberian (and West European) civilizations (fortified towns) in the area, which began c. 2600 BCE, with two main centers around modern Lisbon (Zambujal) and Almería (Los Millares) but that also knew of other such towns especially in Southern Portugal. All that in the context of dolmenic Megalithism, with the introduction of new burial designs such as the tholos (beehive tomb) or the artificial cave, innovations that may have been restricted for some elites. 

Important note (update Feb 25): the dates given in the previous paragraph are uncalibrated (i.e. raw BP minus 1950). The calibrated dates are quite older: between c. 3500 and 2600 “actual years” BCE, as you can check in table 1. They still overlap with the known dates for Los Millares (c. 3200–2300 BCE) and its “Almeriense” precursor culture but less so with Zambujal (c. 2600-1300 BCE, subject to possible revisions). My apologies for the confusion.

The most dense area, and seemingly also the most diverse, for this kind of findings is the southern part of Évora district (Central Alentejo, near the Guadiana River, known as River Ana in Antiquity), a mostly flat country with some low hills (the highest peak in the district has 600 m.) and a scattered natural forestry of corks and holm oaks. It was once known as Portugal’s “bread basket” and was surely of relevance in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic period, especially in relation with the development of the influential burial style of dolmens or cairns (known as mamoas in Portuguese), later partly replaced by tholoi.

Typical Alentejo landscape (CC by Alvesgaspar)

The plaques’ phenomenon is anyhow found through all the Southern half of Portugal, with limited penetration into Spanish Extremadura. Another important region was the Lisbon Peninsula, which was almost certainly a more important civilization and geopolitical center, with notable urban development in this period and becoming a major center of Bell Beaker.
Its main city, Zambujal (Torres Vedras) still barely researched was connected to the Atlantic Ocean by a 10-14 km long marine branch that was silted (tsunami?) at the end of its occupation (end of Bronze Age?) Hence we are talking of a major city (for the standards of the time at least) which lasted for more than a thousand years and whose influence encompassed once at the very least much of Southwestern Europe (and, if we accept that it was at the origins of the Bell Beaker, then all Western Europe and parts of North Africa).

Ruins of Zambujal (source)
Reconstruction of the known area of Zambujal, possibly just an acropolis (source)
Figure 3. Character states used in the analysis.

Back to the plaques, I don’t feel able to say anything about them that is not in the paper (read it and browse the many figures, please), except for one thing: some of the characteristics of certain plaques compare well with other “religious” iconography from the Southern Iberian Peninsula in Chalcolithic times.

For example plaque A in figure 1 clearly has the “oculado” (eyed) symbol found in many other artistic elements of the time and believed to represent some divinity and very likely representing the eyes of an owl (suspected to have been an ancient divinity or divine symbol in much of Europe, and found also in India).

“Oculado” symbol in a bowl from Los Millares (CC by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez)
An “oculado” idol (CC by Luis García (Zaqarbal))
Proto-Chorintian owl (public domain, credit: Jastrow)

Other plaques with a more defined head (plaque G in fig. 1, NK2 in fig. 3), remind also to the Millarense “cruciform” idols:

(CC Museo de Almería)
Diverse types of idols from Chalcolithic Iberia (source)
So I would think that all or at least many may well represent the same kind of divinity, possibly related to the origins of several more historical deities such as Athena (Greece) or Mari (Basque Country). 

9 responses to “SW Iberian plaques from the Chalcolithic

  1. sblog

    February 25, 2014 at 9:08 pm


    I don't understand why you write this: “The dates of the “plaque idols”, as they are often known in the literature, range from c. 2650 to c. 2100 BCE” while the paper writes this: “engraved stone plaques from megalithic funerary monuments dating ca. 3,500–2,750 B.C”.

  2. Maju

    February 25, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Based on table 1 (Available radiocarbon dates directly associated with plaques) but it seems I focused on column named “date BC”, while there is another column just to its right titled “calibrated dates BC (1 sigma)” with the oldest date being (rounded) 3500-3400 BC (just 2655 in the previous column).

    I can only imagine that “date BC” is something like date BP minus 1950 (the standard “present” of BP dates) but it is a confusing notation. Normally when you give dates BC, they are already calibrated.

    I will have to correct that. Thanks for mentioning.

  3. Grey

    February 27, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Shame that the Zambujal culture isn't being researched as it's likely to be an important piece of the puzzle for the whole Atlantic coast imo.

  4. Maju

    February 27, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    True. It's like the Neolithic levels of Samara: they should be top in the agenda of all archaeological and prehistoric research institutions but nope.

  5. eurologist

    February 28, 2014 at 11:06 am

    I agree, most of the plaques from Fig. 1 & 3 look like stylized owls to me.

    Sorry, I don't have more to say. 😉

  6. Maju

    February 28, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    Some of them do, IMO. And now that I think of it again, the triangular elements could well be taken as feathers, at least in some cases. On the other hand none of the icons has the typical “horns” of many owl species, while barn owls, which do not have “horns” do not have the feather design either. So if the owl iconography is actually present it should be inspired in some type of owl which does have the chest feather design but probably not “horns”.

    My tentative list of species would be quite short, after considering this and their distribution:
    → Athene noctua (little owl)
    → Strix aulco (tawny owl)

  7. Grey

    February 28, 2014 at 11:50 pm

    A coincidence maybe but a possible link with an Athena-like deity is interesting.

  8. Grey

    February 28, 2014 at 11:54 pm

    Yes I wonder if there's a psychological barrier due to people's thinking being centered on the middle-east. A civilization on the Atlantic fringe doesn't “fit.” I'd hope UK researchers might join in as my current guess is Britain's neolithic history is connected to this via Brittany.

  9. mynameisalreadyused

    May 15, 2015 at 11:20 am

    At Clodgy Moor Cornwall there is a humanly scratched stone in a Neolithic flint scatter that has an owl’s head as part of the motif set. Still working on the rocks and minerals that it is made from. It is not local and metamorphosed so could be from Lizard Peninsula (Cornwall) but I am also researching Iberia geology as you might expect!


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