The Iberian Peninsula is dotted with thousands of plaques engraved with pictures that look like owls.
Dating from the Copper Age, around 5500 to 4750 years ago, the purpose of these hand-sized owl plaques has remained a mystery. Archaeologists thought they might have religious or ritualistic significance.
But a team of Spanish researchers has another suggestion: what if they’re actually children’s toys?
Publishing in Scientific Reports, the researchers point out the similarities between the plaques and modern children’s drawings of owls, and propose that children made the slate pieces to use as dolls, toys, or amulets.
Lead author Dr Juan J. Negro, a researcher in the Department of Evolutionary Ecology at the Spanish National Research Council’s Estación Biológica de Doñana, says that the simplicity of the designs made them think that these carvings may have been done by children.
“The owl-looking plaques are a step behind other handcrafted objects produced in the same time period,” says Negro.
“Investigations by previous researchers who replicated the engraved plaques experimentally reported that the whole process of producing a finished plaque takes about three and half hours – a rather short time.
“In the Copper Age there were artisans who produced exquisite works of art made of ivory, gold or rock crystal.
“Those works of art were surely produced by highly experienced individuals who necessarily learned their craft previously producing simpler and easier items using locally available materials.”
Slate, says Negro, is abundant in the areas where the plaques appear.
“We propose in our paper that at least some plaques may have been used to initiate youngsters in the carving of lithic materials,” says Negro.
“After all, the Copper Age was still a time where lithic tools, such as handaxes and arrowheads were commonly carved and used.”
Negro and colleagues analysed 100 plaques, rating how many owl traits each one displayed – things like patterned feathers, two eyes, or a beak – referred to as an “owliness score”. They then repeated the process with 100 drawings of owls done by children, aged between 4 and 13, and pointed out similar features.
Many of the owl plaques have two small holes at the top. The researchers don’t think that these holes supported cords to hang them – they don’t seem practical, and there aren’t enough wear-marks.
Instead, they think that feathers might have been put in the holes, to look like the tufts on the heads of local owl species.
“Most archaeologists today interpret the plaques as fertility idols used in funerary rituals and give them a highly symbolic meaning,” says Negro.
“They do not see that at least some of the plaques were inspired on owl models.”
The researchers think that it’s also possible they could have been both learning objects and ritualistic items.
Negro thinks it’s unlikely that they’ll ever know the owl plaques’ purpose for sure.
“After all, this happened more than 5000 years ago, and behaviour does not fossilise.”
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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