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Heraldry for the Dead

Heraldry for the Dead
Memory, Identity, and the Engraved Stone Plaques of Neolithic Iberia

A groundbreaking interpretation of the engraved stone plaques found in southwestern Portugal and Spain, with important implications for anthropological thought on the origins of writing and recording systems, the role of memory in the creation of social inequalities, and the production of art in European prehistory.

August 2008
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232 pages | 7 x 10 | 99 b&w illus., 21 maps, 1 chart, 7 tables |

In the late 1800s, archaeologists began discovering engraved stone plaques in Neolithic (3500-2500 BC) graves in southern Portugal and Spain. About the size of one's palm, usually made of slate, and incised with geometric or, more rarely, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic designs, these plaques have mystified generations of researchers. What do their symbols signify? How were the plaques produced? Were they worn during an individual's lifetime, or only made at the time of their death? Why, indeed, were the plaques made at all?

Employing an eclectic range of theoretical and methodological lenses, Katina Lillios surveys all that is currently known about the Iberian engraved stone plaques and advances her own carefully considered hypotheses about their manufacture and meanings. After analyzing data on the plaques' workmanship and distribution, she builds a convincing case that the majority of the Iberian plaques were genealogical records of the dead that served as durable markers of regional and local group identities. Such records, she argues, would have contributed toward legitimating and perpetuating an ideology of inherited social difference in the Iberian Late Neolithic.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Themes
  • Chapter 2. Variations
  • Chapter 3. Biographies
  • Chapter 4. Agency and Ambiguity
  • Chapter 5. An Iberian Writing System
  • Chapter 6. Memory and Identity in Neolithic Iberia
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Illustration Credits
  • Index

Katina T. Lillios is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iowa.


The engraved stone plaques of prehistoric Iberia are mind traps. Their hypnotically repetitive designs, the eyes that stare out from some of them, and their compositional standardization have intrigued prehistorians for over a century (Figure I.1).


Discovered in hundreds of Late Neolithic (3500-2000 BC) burials throughout southwest Iberia (Figure I.2), the engraved plaques have enjoyed an enduring place in the scholarly imagination. The nineteenth-century Portuguese medical doctor Augusto Filippe Simões (1878:53) wondered whether they might be "amulets or insignias or emblems or cult objects." After the eminent Portuguese geologist Carlos Ribeiro showed Florentino Ameghino, the Argentine naturalist, some of the plaques at the Paris Exposition in 1878, Ameghino (1879:219) speculated that they represented "a complete system of ideographic writing that awaits decipherment and obscures facts of great importance." The Portuguese prehistorian Vergílio Correia (1917:30) argued that the plaques are "what they simply are—idols or icons of prehistoric divinities." The Polish ethnologist Eugeniusz Frankowski (1920:23) believed that the plaques were not idols or divinities but representations of the dead. To the Portuguese archaeologist Victor dos Santos Gonçalves (1999a:114), the plaques unquestionably depict the European Mother Goddess.


For nearly twenty years I found the palm-sized plaques easy to ignore. Their subtly engraved lines and their dark gray color hardly called out for attention, particularly when they were displayed in dimly lit museum cases. When the occasional plaque did catch my eye I would, I confess, experience a brief flicker of curiosity. I recall one such moment in the summer of 1994 at the Museu Municipal de Montemor-o-Novo, a small provincial museum in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. I was visiting the museum with my geologist collaborator Howard Snyder to examine the stone tools in its collection as part of our study of trade during the Late Neolithic of the Iberian Peninsula. We were particularly interested in stone tools made of amphibolite, a dark greenish-black metamorphic rock found in this region of Portugal. After noticing a group of engraved plaques displayed next to some amphibolite tools in the museum, we casually remarked that the plaques and the stone tools resembled each other in color, form, and size. Howard even suggested that the plaques' artists had represented the crystalline microstructure of amphibolite in the geometric designs of the plaques. The hot Alentejo sun and hundreds of hours spent peering down a microscope at stone tools had clearly gotten to him. Howard needed a day at the beach, and I did not see myself as an "art and symbolism" person.


All this changed, however, in the winter of 2000. My colleague Jonathan Haws had kindly mailed me a new book, Reguengos de Monsaraz: Territórios megalíticos (Gonçalves 1999a), summarizing Gonçalves' thinking about the archaeology of the Reguengos de Monsaraz region, the heartland of amphibolite and of the engraved slate plaques. The book sat unopened on my office bookshelf for a few weeks, until I had time one evening to look at it. Casually thumbing through the book, I saw familiar images—plans of megaliths, site distribution maps, and photographs of undecorated handmade Neolithic pottery. My calm was disrupted, however, when I reached the full-page color photographs of the engraved plaques. Nestled in my warm and cozy office in Ripon, Wisconsin, while arctic winds howled outside, I was stunned to see the individual incisions and delicate cross-hatchings that filled the designs. For the first time, I noticed the abrasions and scratches and the grooves in the plaques' perforations left by their original drilling. I could see where engravers had made mistakes and where they had corrected them. I could identify plaques engraved in the same idiosyncratic style and possibly produced by the same engraver. I saw beautiful plaques and strange plaques. And for the first time the plaques spoke to me. While 5,000 years separate us from the world of Late Neolithic Iberians, there is something palpably accessible about the engraved plaques—at least under good light. I was hooked.


Ultimately I was inspired to write this book. This is a book about many things. It is above all about seeing, about seeing with new eyes, and, most importantly, about seeing with multiple eyes. Writing the book has been—and I hope reading it will be—a visually, intellectually, and emotionally stimulating exercise in apprehending a body of material culture through a diverse array of theoretical lenses. Throughout it, I engage a range of epistemologies and methodologies in regard to the engraved plaques—critical historiography, formal analyses, experimental studies, spatial analyses, and interpretative frameworks inspired by memory and visual culture studies. This study seeks to engage with what Michael Herzfeld (2001) has called the "militant middle ground" in anthropology, in which structure and agency, materialism and idealism, and humanism and scientism occupy a shared intellectual space. Thus this book does not seek to contain the plaques in a seamless explanatory package. Theories, I believe, should be tools that generate new questions, provoke new insights, and organize information. They are not intellectual straightjackets. Many questions will remain unanswered, ambiguities will be identified, and contradictions will be teased out. One of my intentions is that this book, as well as the perspectives that it draws upon, will stimulate new pathways of inquiry. While this may be the first book dedicated to the Iberian plaques, I certainly hope it will not be the last.


Although the Iberian plaques have been known for over a century and have been interpreted in a variety of ways, most theories about the plaques have been firmly lodged in idealism, an approach that seeks to explain human behavior and material culture through people's shared values, beliefs, or religious practices (Aunger 1999). The engraved plaques are found in burials and are decorated, which has led most archaeologists to apply idealist models that center on the religious practices and artistic traditions of prehistoric Iberians. While many intriguing questions within this framework have been proposed (such as what the plaques may have depicted), many aspects of the plaques, particularly their material and social dimensions, have remained unaddressed. How were the plaques made? How long did it take to make one? Where were they made? How was their production and distribution organized? Were they the work of specialized artisans? Were they worn or used during a person's life or were they made at the time of a person's death? Are there meaningful patterns in their design? Are different plaque types found in different regions? How did making and using the plaques structure the lives of ancient Iberians? Why, indeed, were they made at all?


This is also a book about identity and, specifically, the creation of identities during a critical juncture in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. In this book I take identity to be a "relational and sociocultural phenomenon that emerges and circulates in local discourse contexts of interaction rather than a stable structure located primarily in the individual psyche or in fixed social categories" (Bucholtz and Hall 2005:585-586). In other words, identity is not inherent in individuals or groups but is the product of engagement, interaction, and ultimately the "social positioning of the self and other" (ibid.:586).


During the Late Neolithic of the Iberian Peninsula powerful economic and social forces structured the creation of new identities. Human populations were increasingly tethered to a residential base, an outcome of their intensification of agricultural production. At the same time when this residential stability was emerging, however, we also see evidence for increased long-distance travel (at least as experienced by some individuals and groups) to acquire important raw materials from the Alentejo, such as amphibolite for axes and adzes, variscite for beads, and copper for tools and weapons. I suggest that the polarization of experiences and knowledge, differentiating those who traveled from those who stayed closer to home, crystallized in new social identities. I also argue that the encounters of those traders and travelers on the open plains of the Alentejo—coming from diverse regions of the peninsula, perhaps speaking different (mutually unintelligible?) dialects, and competing for the valued resources of the Alentejo—further contributed to the emergence and materialization of social distinctions.


The social landscape of the Late Neolithic, such as it was, also would have instigated profound changes in mnemonic practices in order for groups to maintain and legitimate rights to these economic and symbolic resources far from their residential bases. In fact, the material record of the Neolithic of the Iberian Peninsula suggests that such transformations occurred—in the reuse of sacred objects, the circulation of the remains of the dead, the mimesis of ancestral landscapes, and the rituals that brought the living and dead together in liminal spaces that both ordered and transcended time, by mobilizing "deep time" (Boric 2003).


Thus this book is also about memory and about how people construct their pasts. While memory studies are very much in vogue in academic circles, including archaeology (Herzfeld 2003; Van Dyke and Alcock 2003; Williams 2003), few archaeologists were concerned with memory when I first began thinking seriously about the plaques. But, in the delicately controlled lines and hatching of a plaque that so exquisitely preserve the careful handiwork of a person living 5,000 years ago, one cannot help experiencing, on an intimate level, a sense of shared humanity. As part and parcel of recognizing that humanity comes an awareness that people of the past had their own pasts and their own stories about how they came to be, where they came from, and who they were related to. Once I began to consider these dimensions of Neolithic lifeways, through the material qualities of the plaques, I could begin to ask new questions about the plaques and ultimately contemplate the possibility that they were memory aids, heraldry for the dead, and indeed writing.



“This is a fabulous book! Beautifully written, effectively organized, and richly illustrated. Once I started reading it, I was hooked. . . . This book actually has the potential to be one of the truly seminal studies in archaeology and anthropology (this is something I do not say lightly). It is one of those original studies that only appear rarely in a generation of scholarship.”
John K. Papadopoulos, Professor of Classical Archaeology, History, and Culture, UCLA


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