Sourcing African Ivory in Chalcolithic Portugal

Article excerpt

History of investigation

In their monumental work on the megalithic tombs of the Iberian Peninsula, the Leisners included a list of the ivory objects from the southern part of the peninsula (Leisner & Leisner 1943: 474-5). Later, Gilman and Harrison produced an updated inventory list for ivory objects known from bibliographic sources (Harrison & Gilman 1977). Subsequently, there were specific studies of the relations between the Iberian Peninsula and north-west Africa during the Bell Beaker period (Poyato & Hernando 1988). After that, only a few regional works have been published, those of Spindler for Portugal and of Pascual Benito for the Pais Valenciano (Spindler 1981 ; Pascual Benito 1995).

As early as the late nineteenth century, Estacio da Veiga proposed that finished ivory objects found on Bronze Age sites, as well as the raw material itself, were imported from northern Africa (Veiga 1886-1891, vol. 1: 268-70, vol. 2: 212). Later, Siret differentiated between pieces made of elephant ivory and others from hippopotamus ivory (Siret 1913: 33) and argued that both groups were imported from Egypt as finished objects. Serra Rafols pointed out that, on the contrary, there was really no evidence for an Egyptian origin, and that we should consider north-west Africa to be the source (Serra Rafols 1925: 87). At the same time, Gotze argued that local fossilised ivory was too fragile and brittle to have been used to the same technical advantage as raw ivory (Gotze 1925: 87). Finally, Jodin and Camps connected the finds of ivory in the Iberian Peninsula to the appearance of Bell Beakers in north-west Africa (Jodin 1957; Camps 1960). Thus, a north-west African origin has been widely accepted (Harrison & Gilman 1977; Spindler 1981, but see Poyato & Hernando 1988 for an opposing view).


In a current research project, we are attempting to compile a new catalogue, as complete as possible, of all ivory objects from the Iberian Peninsula dated from the beginning of the Chalcolithic at about 3000 BC until the end of the Early Bronze Age, about 1650 BC, in the southeast (Schuhmacher & Cardoso 2007). Our preliminary work has revealed that the aggregate number of prehistoric ivory objects known, and thus the scale of ivory exchange, is much greater than previously thought. In fact, we have recognised 1060 objects from 130 sites. With few exceptions, the distribution of these finds is restricted to the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula.

In this article we will focus on the results associated with Portugal (Figure 1), seeking to identify the source of supply.

Cultural, chronological and economic context of the ivory objects

The Chalcolithic of Portuguese Estremadura is subdivided into three principal cultural phases, seen for example in the stratified sequence at Leceia, supported by almost 40 published radiocarbon dates (Cardoso & Soares 1996). Some types of ceramics emerge as true cultural markers (Figure 2), valid not only at Leceia, but over other settlements of the same cultural area (Portuguese Estremadura). According to the general sequence, the oldest occupation of the site (Period 1: Layer C4; Construction Phase 1 on Figure 2) dates to the fourth and beginning of the third millennia BC. Two ceramic types are characteristic of this late Neolithic cultural phase: the carinated bowls and the vases with denticulated edges. The second cultural phase (Period 2: Construction Phases 2-4 on Figure 2) is characterised by the 'copos' and bowls decorated by smooth channelled lines, the so-called 'Importkeramik' of the literature of past decades. This phase corresponds to the construction and utilisation of a complex fortification, organised in three sets of walls (Figure 3), between 2800 and 2600/2500 cal BC (Early Chalcolithic).



After 2600/2500 cal BC (Full Chalcolithic, Period 3: Construction Phase 5 on Figure 2) the defensive system enters progressively into ruin and the last inhabitants of the site live literally over the collapsed walls in small huts that contrast with the round houses of the Early Chalcolithic. …