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Heraldry for the Dead

Memory, Identity, and the Engraved Stone Plaques of Neolithic Iberia

By Katina T. Lillios

Publication Year: 2008

In the late 1800s, archaeologists began discovering engraved stone plaques in Neolithic (3500-2500 BC) graves in southwestern Portugal and Spain. About the size of a 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.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

That a manuscript on the engraved plaques of Iberia now faces me is a mystery almost as perplexing as the engraved plaques themselves. Three major sources of assistance and inspiration deserve my heartfelt thanks: first, the museums, granting agencies, and educational institutions that provided generous financial and institutional support;...

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pp. 1-5

Discovered in hundreds of Late Neolithic (3500–2000 BC) burials throughout southwest Iberia (Figure I.2),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...

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ONE. Themes

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pp. 7-37

Ever since antiquarians began discovering the engraved plaques in the nineteenth century, they have emphasized their homogeneity. Indeed, the plaques are remarkably coherent in their form and design. Th e Portuguese prehistorian Verg

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TWO. Variations

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pp. 38-75

Like an old friend, each plaque has something reassuringly familiar about it. But, like old friends, the plaques can also bear startling surprises. Sometimes a plaque displays a unique combination of motifs. Sometimes it exhibits a bizarre or highly idiosyncratic style. And sometimes it reveals an unusually high level of technical precision...

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THREE. Biographies

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pp. 76-113

Despite the brilliant creativity they often display, the engraved plaques of Iberia have traditionally been viewed as static entities. Prehistorians have rarely considered the technical skills, cognitive decisions, social relationships, and embodied knowledge that were activated to produce them and that generated their distribution throughout southwestern...

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FOUR. Agency and Ambiguity

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pp. 114-140

So far I have primarily discussed the plaques as objects that were acted upon and manipulated by individuals and groups, and I return to this approach in the next chapter. Viewing material culture as the medium onto which and through which human agency acts is the traditional approach in archaeology and, when carried out with multiple methodologies, can indeed produce rich and varied...

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FIVE. An Iberian Writing System

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pp. 141-169

In this chapter I address perhaps the most intriguing quality of the Iberian plaques: the possibility that they—or at least the majority of them—were a form of writing. The identification and decipherment of ancient writing systems are contentious fields, entangled with the twin threads of power and identity. From a historical perspective, power and writing are inextricably...

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SIX. Memory and Identity in Neolithic Iberia

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pp. 170-176

During the Neolithic of the Iberian Peninsula, human groups engaged in mnemonic practices that centered on funerary rituals performed at collective burial monuments.1 At these stages for the performance of ritual (Barrett 1994) Neolithic peoples orchestrated their memories by manipulating objects, such as the engraved plaques, architecture, bodies, animals, and...


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pp. 177-180


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pp. 181-199

Illustration Credits

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pp. 201-206


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pp. 207-218

E-ISBN-13: 9780292794184
E-ISBN-10: 0292794185
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292718227
Print-ISBN-10: 0292718225

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 99 b&w illus., 21 maps, 1 chart, 7 tables
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 311064517
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Heraldry for the Dead

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Antiquities, Prehistoric -- Iberian Peninsula.
  • Neolithic period -- Iberian Peninsula.
  • Plaques, plaquettes -- Iberian Peninsula.
  • Burial -- Iberian Peninsula.
  • Iberian Peninsula -- Antiquities.
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