Category Archives: religion

SW Iberian plaques from the Chalcolithic

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). 

Bronze Age temple of Tel Haror, Palestine

The Archaeology Network mentions the finding of a pre-Jewish temple at Tel Haror, near Beersheba, dated to c. 1800-1550.
The finding is interesting because of the many sacrificial burials of young dogs and corvids. Puppies were ritually slaughtered in some West Asian religious rituals, the use of corvids is not documented however. It is also known that the Jewish mythological text declared both animals impure and that it banished the ritual of slaughtering dog cubs by breaking their necks. 

Escaping Christian persecution: Norway’s Pagan temple buried before the religious fanatics could destroy it. Now urban developers may flatten it

Artist rendering (credit: Credit: Preben Rønne, Science Museum/NTNU)
I seldom write on Iron Age, never mind the Middle Ages, but this finding has really touched me: a Pagan temple was unearthed in Ranheim, not far from Trondheim (Norway). Its last community run away from Christian intolerance, as is attested by the sagas, but first buried their holy precinct so the theists could not destroy and profane it with their crosses and exotic rituals.
The temple which may have been built c. 400 CE, was used for many centuries and consisted of:

… a stone-set “sacrificial altar” and also traces of a “pole building” that probably housed idols in the form of sticks with carved faces of Thor, Odin, Frey and Freya. Deceased relatives of high rank were also portrayed in this way and attended. Nearby, the archaeologists also uncovered a procession route.

At first researchers thought it could be some sort of burial mound but they eventually recognized it as a temple.

The members of this community, as attested by historical sources, were probably among the many to flee to Iceland, where there was initially more tolerance. It was in Iceland in fact where many of these sagas were written.

The temple was probably buried under the reign of the first recorded King of Norway, Harald Fairhair (872-930).

The temple may now be destroyed by urban development if something does not stop it quick. Archaeologist Prebben Rønne said:

The location of the [planned] housing could easily be adapted to this unique cultural heritage [site], without anyone losing their residential lots. It could be an attraction for new residents, telling them much about the history of the facility over 1000 years ago. Unfortunately, housing construction is now underway.

It would be indeed a pity and a crime against heritage if the construction is not stopped immediately. 

Sources and further reading: The Archaeology News Network, Yahoo! News.


The ultimate anti-creationist argument

Or rather why would you bother debating creationism, evolution, tectonics, the Big Bang… when you can directly discuss God and demonstrate its falsehood in such a simple, elegant and bullet-proof way as Carl Sagan did
Just replace the word God by dragon.
Jesus taught (?) with parables, Sagan did the same. The improbable (lit. not provable) dragon of which no evidence exists and which nobody (but apparently the mischievous side of Carl Sagan) believes in (logically) is exactly like God. Why would anyone believe in something of which no evidence whatsoever exists? Dragon or God is the same.

Ok, where’s the dragon… or where is God?

Posted by on November 16, 2011 in Carl Sagan, evolution, philosophy, religion


Çatalhöyük: people buried together probably not related

As you probably know, Çatalhöyük (near Konya, Turkey) is one of the most emblematic sties of Middle Neolithic. 
As genetic research was fruitless (bone contamination, degradation), a study of dental morphology was done in order to estimate if people buried together were related, because close relatives should have close dental morphology. The result was negative for all but (maybe) one tomb, strongly suggesting that the Çatalhöyük community did not give any importance to relatedness at least for funerary rituals and related beliefs. 

Posted by on June 29, 2011 in Anthropometry, death, Neolithic, religion, Turkey


Linguistic musings: Adur, Apru and Aphrodite

There’s a lengthy discussion after my latest speculative incursion into the messy field of Linguistics, probably breaking a record in what refers to comments in this blog: 210 so far!
But what brings me to write this note is that in latest comments have partly dealt with the origins of the name of the goddess Aphrodite, also known by her Latin name of Venus, but to Etruscans known as Apru, giving name to the month of April.
La nascita di Venere (Botticelli)
Botticelli famously imagined this way the legend of Aphrodite’s birth
The indoeuropeist hypothesis of Aphrodite’s name says that it comes from aphrós (foam), reflecting her mythological birth out of the sea foam after the severed testicles of Ouranos fell on it. Reader and linguist Octavià Alexandre argued the following purely IE etymology (for aphrós)

from IE *ºnbh-ro-/*ºnbhr-i- ‘rain’, a derivate of *nebh- ‘cloud, mist’

However I protested that rain seems unrelated to foam or surf. And then (not long ago) he provided me with a most valuable tip, that I, ignorant of the subtleties of Classical Greek, could have never figured on my own:

The Greek word can also refer to dribble (Spanish baba). 

This immediately ringed a bell in my mind because there’s a special word in Basque for it: adur. It is special not just because it means saliva or mucosa but because it also has a very special mythological meaning as the magic fluid of the universe. As such it is present in the name of the Basque river Adur (Adour in French) and probably also in English river Adur and the so many rivers in Europe with the pre-Indoeuropean particle dur- in them
However I had not expected this element to show up at all in SE Europe or the Eastern Mediterranean. Even if I am familiar with the classical Gimbutist theory of Old Europe and the alleged importance of the fluid and its zig-zag symbols, particularly common in Vinča culture iconography (but also apparent in other contexts and often associated to female sexuality or birthgiving), I had never suspected a relationship with Basque word and mythic concept Adur.
A few days ago Andalusian archaeology blog Pileta de Prehistoria mentioned (following Discovery News) the finding of a “stone age fertility ritual object” in Poland dated to c. 11,000 years ago. I did not give this finding too much importance at first, even if it is curiously a lot older than the better known Neolithic counterparts, but now I feel the need to add it to the evidence in favor of this Adur-Apru pan-European link.
The fertility meaning is explained because of the zig-zag symbols, which are very much like those of Vinča iconography but also because the body proportions of the human icon are feminine, strongly suggesting the moment of birthgiving, a most important cosmological instance for any religiosity connected with reality  (i.e. not pamphletist dogmatic “revealed” religions, like Judeochristoislamism).
Back to Aphrodite, let’s remember that she is not any Olympian goddess (not sibling or daughter of Zeus) but obviously related to a pre-Olympian cosmology, fully in connection with the early mythical (and terribly Oedipic) struggle between Kronos (Saturn) and Ouranos. Aphrodite is by all accounts a pre-Indoeuropean goddess closer to West Asian goddesses like Astarte, all them associated to the planet we know today as Venus. 
Let’s recall as well that it was Trojan favor for Aphrodite (and not the less sensual and more Indoeuropean-Patriarchal goddesses Hera, the wife, or Athena, the warrior maiden) the mythological trigger of the war as narrated by Homer. Aphrodite is clearly one of the last incarnations of the ancient Mother Goddess that Gimbutas’ often genial intuition found in Old Europe.
So Aphrodite, Apru in Etruscan, might well be the religious embodiment of this perception of the “magic flow” and its sexual and reproductive (“fertility”) implications, so important in Neolithic Europe and preserved till Modernity in the Basque Country (then becoming Satanic iconography in some cases, like the black billy goat, thanks to the Inquisition). 
Therefore Pelasgian-Etruscan Apru, derived into Greek as Aphrós should be foam, salive, and magic fluid in general. The fluid of life. 
Exactly the same as Adur, which is almost for sure a cognate. 
Now, which was first, the chicken of the egg? Is Apru or Adur the oldest term? This I live open to discussion. However the Polish Epipaleolithic finding is highly suggestive of a pre-Neolithic and hence Vasconic origin for this concept, which fits well with the fact that at least the ending of Adur looks very much Vasconic (ur is water in modern Basque).

Important update (Feb 6):

It has been brought to my attention (see comments) that Apru is not the genuine Etruscan name of Venus-Aphrodite, it was Turan instead. Apru was claimed by linguist E. Beneviste as the root of the Etruscan-Latin month of April. In this theory, Apru would not be a genuine Etruscan word but the Etruscan version of Greek Aphrós, shortening of Aphrodite.

So we can pretty much ignore this Etruscan word. Yet all which was said on Aphrós and Adur stand and they are the core of the argumentation here, with Apru being less relevant.


In case anyone has any doubt Octavià does not support this hypothesis of course. I just had to give him credit for opening my eyes to the possible Greek-Basque connection aphrós-adur because I would not have been able to think of it without his suggestions. But he, of course, disagrees with all my conclusions in this entry.