Category Archives: Zambujal

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 Iberian survived broken neck bone

Motilla del Azuer

Archaeological works at the Motilla del Azuer, in the steppary region of La Mancha, SE Spain, made an unexpected discovery: the skeletal remains of a man in his 40s who suffered a broken hyoid bone but survived the normally deadly injury. 

This bone, placed around the base of the tongue, is often broken in case of strangulation (including hangings) but otherwise a rare lesion. However the very fact that the man survived suggests to researchers that in this case the lesion was caused by a direct impact.
Full story at Unreported Heritage News (paper to be published at Journal of Osteoarchaeology). More information on the archaeological work at Motilla del Azuer at Science Daily (2007).
Las Motillas in context
The Motillas are fortifications, rather similar to the more famous Sardinian Nuraghe, erected at La Mancha in the Middle Bronze Age and abandoned a few centuries later. Culturally they are more akin to the Bronze of Levante (Valencian Country) but are surely also related to the regional power of the age: El Argar civilization (Almería, Murcia). This group of cultures is surely at the roots of historical Iberians.
El Argar and its hinterland was the core of the Iberian Bronze Age, beginning c. 1800 BCE. They are probably the ancestors of historical Iberians and were at a later stage (since c. 1500 BCE) influenced to some extent by Mycenaean Greece. It was in this B phase of the Middle Bronze Age, when the inland fortifications known as Las Motillas in Spanish (exactly the same concept as motte-and-bailey in English) were erected to live for about two or three centuries. 

Iberia Bronze
Las Motillas in the context of Middle Bronze Age Iberia

I believe that their construction in this otherwise uninteresting steppe (showing little signs of habitation before and after them) was triggered by the need of El Argar (surely a centralized state) of securing a safe inland route towards NW Iberia, which was like the Persian Gulf of the Bronze Age because of its huge reserves of tin, an otherwise rare metal necessary for the forge of bronze. The rest of the route would go (possibly) through the lands of the cattle-herder peoples of Cogotas I culture in the Iberian Plateau. 
An alternative route was through the sea but there it had to go by the coasts of another (maybe rival) power: Zambujal (Vila Nova de São Pedro culture). Some of the produce would surely remain in Iberia (El Argar and allies) but much, I understand, would be exported to Greece, where it would have fed their militaristic tendencies maybe (culminating in the destruction of Troy and much of the Sea Peoples‘ episode). No Greek outpost is known to have existed  anywhere in Iberia but Greek burial styles were adopted by the Argarians since c. 1500 BCE, strongly suggesting they were trade partners. Otherwise only a few glass beads of Oriental origin attest the trade which must have been mostly about raw products such as tin, copper, gold and silver.
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Posted by on December 18, 2010 in Bronze Age, El Argar, Greece, Iberia, Spain, tin, Zambujal