Ancient owl tablets may have been toys, not religious relics

Since the late 19th century, archaeologists in the Iberian Peninsula have encountered multitudes of miniature owl-shaped tablets embedded in tombs, pits and crevices. But for decades no one agreed what these little slate treasures might have once represented.

Some have said they are religious artifacts that may have served a symbolic purpose for their creators. Others have suggested that they were idols of goddesses prayed to in times of need. And still others have argued that these replica owls were not mystical objects at all, but rather made to honor the dead. Now, on Thursday, a group of archaeologists published an article in Scientific Reports magazine with perhaps the most delightful conjecture yet.

Maybe those owl plaques were just cute kids toys.

After analyzing 100 plaques dating back 5,000 years and dating to the Copper Age and evaluating their owlish characteristics – categories such as feathering, color patterns, beaks, etc. – the team recognized the ancient relics and saw 100 modern images of owls that drawn by children between the ages of 4 and 13 are horribly similar.

“Owl engravings may have been done by teenagers, as they resemble owls painted by elementary school students today,” the study authors write. “It also suggests that schematic drawings are universal and timeless.”

Some of the modern-day owl drawings that the researchers used for comparison.

Scientific Reports

Intriguingly, the team also recognized how the “owl-likeness” of modern children’s drawings naturally improved as the drawing person aged, which “could explain, at least in part, why there are so many types of plaque and why some are more impressive of owls than others,” write the researchers in their work.

According to the study, many of the plaques even had two perforations at the top, which the authors believe may have been where real owl feathers were inserted for ultimate resemblance.

“If stone toys were made at the end of the Stone Age, metal tools certainly facilitated the carving of wooden figures in later periods, which would leave little trace in the archaeological record,” the authors write. “Similarly, bits of skin or cloth would disintegrate fairly quickly. Thus, owl-like stone objects offer perhaps one of the few glimpses of child behavior in the archaeological record of ancient European societies.”

Two species of owls can be seen at the top and bottom right next to two corresponding plaques of owls.

Different owl tablets may have denoted different species. Some examples.

Scientific Reports

Humans just want to have fun

Considering how children might actually have played with their owl toys, the researchers suggest that the owls might have been pieces in a larger game, similar to the shoe, car, and thimble in Monopoly, except each child had one could have unique plaque.

This uniqueness could explain why some of the models were found in tombs. Deceased children may have been buried alongside their little lifeless friend, or at least adults may have considered the figurines important enough to use in burial rituals for sentimental reasons. That would make it more understandable why something made of slate – a plentiful material at the time – was used for burial practices where opulent gems and gold usually made the grade.

8 owl models can be seen here.  Five are dark gray and two are sandy brown.

Various owl relics dating back thousands of years. In all, scientists estimate that 4,000 of these relics have been found so far.

Scientific Reports

“The way slates flake off [it] easy-to-make owl-themed plaques,” the authors write.

Another hypothesis is that the owl relics could be characterized as pupae. Some of the panels appeared to be painted and covered with fabric.

“It cannot be denied that some ‘idols’ were actually objects with only recreational value, literally puppets, which entertained both their makers and younger members of the community through play activities or as learning activities,” the paper reads.

The team’s undeniably heartwarming concept is bolstered by the idea that even items that had religious value could also have had a fun purpose thousands of years ago. In this respect, the scientists also consider it to be the most possible Everyone with one theory about these owl figurines might somehow be correct – the decorations could have served a double, maybe even triple purpose. Centuries ago, the line between art, ritual, and play might have been quite blurred.

Finally, as to why children were more likely to play with owl toys than dogs, cats, or perhaps bats — dogs and cats are particularly famous for their kinship with humans — the authors say it could be down to the bird’s special relationship with humans during the Copper Age and beyond.

First, many species of owls tend to live very close to humans, and second, it’s very likely that societies considered owls as helpers because they would drive mice and other troublesome creatures out of areas where farming was done.

“Our hypothesis that Chalcolithic slates of the Iberian Peninsula were owl-inspired toys that may have had a recreational purpose, at least originally, is based on humans’ transcultural fascination with owls throughout history,” the authors write.

“Moreover, using Occam’s razor, our hypothesis is simpler than the alternative of resorting to a complex symbolic world with fertility goddesses represented by idols or heraldic mnemonic devices… for which there is no evidence anyway.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *