Over the past century, thousands of pieces of slate carved into the shape of owls have been found in tombs and pits across the Iberian Peninsula, in what’s now Spain and Portugal. Originally, archaeologists believed these figures were sacred objects representing deities, used in rituals. But now a new study is suggesting otherwise.
The artifacts are about 5,000 years old, and their function has been a constant source of puzzlement for archaeologists. Now, new findings research suggest they were actually toys made and used by children.
The engravings’ informal appearance made the team doubt their usee as ritual objects, as well as the fact that many were found not in a ritual context. But there wasn’t exactly enough evidence to support the idea that they are toys — until now.
To investigate, the researchers from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) examined 100 of the approximately 4,000 engraved slate owl plaques that have been collected over the years. All the carvings date back to the Copper Age (3500 B.C. to 2750 B.C.) and had two small perforations, likely used to weave in bird feathers.
They then compared the plaques with 100 images of owls drawn earlier this year by children ages 4 to 14 at elementary schools in southwestern Spain. The children were told by their teachers to draw an owl in less than 20 minutes. The similarity of the plaques with the drawings made by children is remarkable, the researchers argued.
“My first impression when looking at the engravings was that they were simple to make,” Juan Negro, the study’s lead author and a biologist in the Department of Evolutionary Ecology at the CSIC, told Live Science. “[The carvers] didn’t invest a lot of time or skills into making them, and they could be finished in a few hours.”
Playing with owls
One thing shared by the carvings was that they were all made using slate, a soft material comprising a combination of minerals like quartz, illite, and chlorite. It’s sufficiently malleable to be carved using pointed tools made of quartz, copper or flint. Anyone can engrave it, including children who were begging their lessons on how to carve, the researchers argued.
While they don’t have an exact explanation for what inspired these Copper Age kids to focus on owls instead of other animals, the researchers highlight owls were a common sighting back then, even in urban areas. The two most abundant species in that area would have been the little owl (Athene noctua) and the long-eared owl (Asio otus).
Negro said the kids most likely lived in settlements and would see owls on a regular basis, as they are known to get rid of rats and mice. Owls are different from other birds due to their frontally placed eyes and large heads, which kids probably found striking. “Everyone has an image of an owl in their brains. They are iconic animals,” he argued.
The plaques aren’t the oldest known potential toy in the archaeological record. Animal figures found in children’s graves in Siberia dated to around 20,000 years old have been interpreted as toys. Also, spinners and thaumatropes found in French caves dating back to about 36,000 years ago are also believed by some to have been toys.