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Origin, trade, work and amortization of ivory in Chalcolithic Portugal

Origin, trade, work and amortization of ivory in Chalcolithic Portugal

Worked ivory suddenly appeared in the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the Neolithic/beginning of the Chalcolithic, at the final centuries of the 4th millennium BC. We are not sure about the reason of this sudden appearance, linked at the same time to the emerging of complex societies, but it is possible that the causes would have to be sought partly outside the Iberian Peninsula, and especially in North Africa. Among the oldest contexts, some findings in Andalusia and in the Portuguese Estremadura and Alentejo stand out. From the end of the 4th millennium BC ivory was imported into the Iberian Peninsula, mainly as raw material to be transformed into objects which were mainly deposited in burials. As a result of two consecutive research projects on the ivory objects found in the Iberian Peninsula and Northwest Africa, also in Portugal, we identified a growing number of ivory objects in graves and villages. In recent years, the site of Perdigões (Alentejo) has become increasingly important in this regard.

Using different scientific methods of analysis, we were able to identify the type of ivory used in Portugal during Chalcolithic and its possible geographical origin. Apart from ivory of supposedly local origin –sperm whale and Elephas antiquus–  we detected African steppe elephant ivory, and an occasional presence of hippopotamus ivory.

We also investigated the places and routes of supply of this African ivory in the Portuguese Chalcolithic and its exchange network. The data speak in favour of a provenance from the Maghreb and its exchange for finished products such as painted pottery, flint daggers, copper punches and axes, and, in the Bell Beaker period, pottery, Palmela points, daggers and metal halberds. Raw ivory or finished ivory objects were also exchanged between Chalcolithic groups within the Iberian Peninsula, specially between the Portuguese Estremadura and the Alentejo and between the latter and Andalusia. 

The control of this trade was surely one of the bases for the development and power of the elites of the Iberian Peninsula, and probably it was also the cause of the appearance of local elites in North Africa, specially from the Bell Beaker period. At the same time, it served for the staging of their power through the ostentation of these objects in life and death.