Ancient owl-shaped slate etched plaques that date back 5,000 years and were discovered in a copper mine may have been children’s toys, according to a new study.
Since the late 19th century, archaeologists have found innumerable little plaques in the form of owls buried in graves, pits, and fissures around the Iberian Peninsula. Yet for decades, scholars and experts alike have been unable to agree on a single explanation for the original function of these little slate objects.
Some have hypothesized that their makers meant them to have religious significance, making them into artifacts. Some people thought they were deities people prayed to in times of need. Some have stated that the owl figurines weren’t created for their magical properties, but rather to memorialize the deceased.
Recently, Juan José Negro and coworkers have reexamined these interpretations and propose an alternative theory: that these owl plaques were likely made by children using area owl species as a basis, and that they served as dolls, toys, or amulets.
The authors assigned a score from one to six for each of 100 plaques based on how many of six owl traits they displayed. These qualities included two eyes, feathery tufts, patterned feathers, a flat face disk, a beak, and wings. Similarities between these plaques and one hundred modern owl drawings created by children aged four to thirteen were discovered. As kids became older and more proficient at sketching, their owls began to seem more and more like actual owls.
The authors of the research add, “Owl engravings could have been executed by youngsters, as they resemble owls painted today by students.” In addition, this seems to indicate that “schematic drawings” remain relevant no matter when they were created.
There are two holes at the top of many of the plaques, which the team says makes it impossible to hang them as ritual items by threading rope through them. Juan José Negro, however, thinks that the holes were used to implant feathers to simulate the feathered tufts, which resemble ears, that several owl species in the region have on their heads, such as the long-eared owl or Asio otus.
The authors add, “If stone toys were made at the end of the stone age, metal tools in subsequent periods surely made easier the carving of wood figurines, which would hardly leave any traces in the archaeological records.”
Similarly, bits of skin or fabric would dissolve somewhat quickly. Stone owl replicas are thus a unique window into the childhood activities of ancient Europeans.
Experts think kids played with their owls like Monopoly’s shoe, car, and thimble, except that each player also received a personalized plaque.
This singularity may account for the models’ discovery in burial tombs. Children who died could have been buried with a little, inanimate companion, or the figurines might have been deemed meaningful enough by adults to be used in burial ceremonies.
So it seems sense that burial rituals, which often included lavish stones and gold, would use something made of slate, a readily available material at the period.