Mysterious owls of the Copper Age turned out to be children’s toys

(ORDO NEWS) — On the slate tiles of the Eneolithic era, deities may not be depicted, as was previously believed, but ordinary birds living next to human settlements. And these drawings are not made by experienced engravers.

Around the middle of the 19th century, on the Iberian Peninsula, in a large tomb of the Copper-Stone Age, the first so-called owl tablets were found. Since then, they have accumulated more than four thousand.

They are made from flakes of slate the size of an adult woman’s palm. They were found both in large tombs, and in individual graves, and at the sites of settlements.

They were made, according to dating, approximately 4750-5500 years ago. They are painted with drawings of different levels of skill, which depict something similar to owls.

Some have two holes at the top. Over the past time, experts have proposed quite a few interpretations of the “owl” tablets. The main hypothesis suggested some kind of ritual use.

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Examples of engraved slate tiles

The oldest human-made image of an owl discovered to date is located in the Chauvet cave in southern France. The age of these rock paintings is estimated at 36 thousand years.

The next oldest painted owl also settled in France – in the Trois-Freres cave in the south-west of the country. She is about 13 thousand years old.

Later, images of owls are ubiquitous in the art and ritual activities of Mycenaean, Egyptian, ancient Greek and other ancient civilizations.

Therefore, there was even a hypothesis that painted owls came to the Iberian Peninsula from the East, and only then the masters began to depict them on local material.

Some scholars suggested that the deities of the local pantheon were depicted in the form of owls. Others believed that these were generally anthropomorphic idols and their resemblance to an owl is accidental: it is considered the most anthropomorphic animal, except for monkeys, because of the frontal eyes.

Still others argued that the “owl” tablets were a kind of pass to the realm of the dead.

But there were two things that bothered everyone. The first is the very different quality of workmanship: it seemed that some plates were engraved by an experienced master, while others were engraved by a small child.

The second important point: we are talking about the copper age. Technologies are developing rapidly, but at the same time they tend more towards large forms – for example, megaliths.

The authors of the new study believe that if the tablets had a ritual significance, it was only to the extent that the daily life of the Eneolithic community was associated with rituals.

And the drawings are made by children of different ages. Children of the Copper Age, like their peers of any era, simply wanted to play.

The researchers analyzed 100 slate tiles and rated them (on a scale of one to six) for six owl features, including two eyes, feather down, patterned feathers, a flat facial disc, beak and wings.

Then they compared these tablets with 100 images of owls drawn by modern children between the ages of four and 13 and noted that they have much in common.

The drawings of owls became more like real birds as the children grew older and became more skilled.

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The authors compared owls with their Eneolithic portraits in six parameters

The question arises: why owls? The authors offer an answer. They compared the images on the tablets with photographs of seven species of owls common in the Iberian Peninsula both now and in the Eneolithic.

And they found out that young artists most often painted two types of these birds: the little owl ( Athene noctua ) and the long-eared owl ( Asio otus ).

These species often live near human settlement or around areas cultivated by humans. That is, the children drew those whom they often saw.

We noted above that some of the tablets have two holes in the upper part, near the edge of the bird’s head. Previously, it was believed that these holes were needed for threading the lace.

But wearing a stone weighing up to 300 grams around your neck is not very convenient. It’s also easier to punch one hole. In addition, there are no signs of wear on the holes from the lace.

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If you insert real feathers into the holes, but the resemblance to a long-eared owl will increase

It turned out that such holes are present mainly on the plates with the image of a long-eared owl. The authors believe that real bird feathers were inserted into them, which thus played the role of tufts of feathers similar to ears, from which the bird got its name.

According to scientists, the ritual function of the tablets cannot be completely ruled out: perhaps what was once a toy later became an amulet, and if the child died, then his work was buried with him.

The researchers also assumed that drawing owls served as a type of educational and play activity, when older children acted as mentors to the younger ones, helping them learn new skills. And the kids eventually got a toy.


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