Monday, November 17, 2014

Iberian & Egyptian Acacia-Leaf Comparison

This next post will deal with a weird, globular-shaped Iberian pottery called Acacia-Leaf that appears in concert with stippled Maritime Beaker pottery within walled settlements but lacking elsewhere.  It seems to have a curious parallel within the Naqadan II/III landscape*.

This follows my previous comparison of Maritime pottery with C-Ware [Link]
Be sure to click on the Princeton link below as well for some context...

Naqada IC Globular Acacia Leaf Pot (Princeton SD 30-39)
Tagus Acacia-leaf seems to have a lot of questions from who used it, when it was used, what it was used for and why it appears in these narrow-rimmed, globular configurations.  A few of the Iberian Acacia-left potteries are in the form of tall drinking glass, but these are mostly outliers compared to the otherwise standard globe shape.

Another question is whether Acacia-Leaf even represents a valid cultural horizon.  Generally, it is found in contexts associated with early Maritime ware or preceding it, but not in country settlement contexts.  Basically, it is found in wealthier, denser, fortified areas and lacks the functionality and diversity of typical pottery sets, assuming it was an independent ceramic.

Carvalho-Amaro makes this observation regarding Acacia-leaf "culture":
"Also, I believe that the justification of a horizon for pottery with these features [Acacia] is very tenuous, as this type of decoration is absent in the funerary contexts, and is almost exclusively associated with one specific shape: the globular vase" (2)

Folha de acacia de Zambujal (Courtesy of Mike Argueo - See PhotoArch)

It's worth pointing out that Acacia Gum is where much of the world derives its stabilizers for carbonated beverages and confections.  This in turn is largely grown in the form of Acacia Senegal on plantations in the Sahel with about 70% of the modern supply coming from the vicinity of modern Sudan and Northern Niger.

In ancient times it was harvested across the North African pastoral belt (Western Sahara to the Red Sea) by transhumant pastoralists and exported.  It's also a psychoactive plant, a stimulant and an Aphrodisiac according to its historical use. 

The plant was closely associated with the primordial mother goddess Iusaaset, from under her tree the sun god, Ra, was born according to Egypt's central myth.  Within her crown is the sun within crescent horns which presents some interesting parallels with Beaker dualism. 

That Isis would bury her murdered husband Osiris under Iusaaset's tree in order to have posthumous intercourse would seem to imply one of its uses.  This was especially important because she could not find a particular part of her dismembered husband.  Ra was conceived nonetheless through the tree's "magical" properties.  (I'm not going to go there)

So, in reading some of the researchers in this area, I think there are several key questions regarding Acacia Leaf pottery in Iberia:

One, is there any such thing as an "Acacia-Leaf Culture person"?

Two, is it just a special ceramic, perhaps a tea cannister or a tea pot?

Three, why is its material constitution different from other local potteries; perhaps more volcanic or insulating?

Folha de acacia de Zambujal (Courtesy of Mike Argueo - See PhotoArch)
I was reading some things from Michael Kunst regarding the formation of Bell Beaker pottery from the wide-rim bowls of the Tagus Early Chalcolithic.  What raised my antennas was seeing for the first time (as an epiphany) that there are multiple elements of proto-Beaker (not just pottery) within parts of late 4th millenium Iberia (in my view) coming from the African Steppe into the fortified trading ports of Portugal.

Here is something he wrote that can be challenging:
"Did the people who brought the bell beakers invade Spain and Portugal? This idea has to be rejected, at least in the case of Portugal. There, bell beakers appear with items of longer traditions, such as, for example, the vessels with acacia leaf designs." (3)
This is problematic if you can't adequately separate Acacia and Beakers, I think.  I don't know how the pottery is found within settlements compared to Maritime pottery.  They may in fact be very separated.  But if they are not substantially separated, need they belong to different cultures, different peoples instead of one?  If they are separated, is the Acacia-Leaf concentrated in certain places but not others?

*Update 20*

Let me go way off the rails for a moment.  In Western Europe there are a number of potteries that have 'goat feet', 'maggot impression' or pinnate impressions.  I suppose this begins in the Middle Neolithic and extends into the Late Neolithic Cultures, such as the Grooved Ware culture of the Isles.

I find it hard to believe this is just an 'attractive' motif, for one, because it's not attractive.  I do think you see a trend towards stylization ultimately towards the herringbone pattern in many bell beakers.  Summoning my inner Sherratt, it's awfully tempting to view this as a drug culture.  Whatever the plant, people seem to like it a lot.

1.  Cardoso  "Absolute chronology of the Beaker phenomenon north of the Tagus estuary: demographic and social implications"

2.  Carvalho-Amaro "Pre-Bell Beaker ware from Estremadura, Portugal, and its likely influence on the appearance of Maritime Bell Beaker ware"

3.  Kunst, 2001.  "Invasion? Fashion? Social Rank? Consideration conceming the Bell Beaker phenomenon in Copper Age fortifications of the Iberian Peninsula"


  1. "and is almost exclusively associated with one specific shape: the globular vase"

    Interesting. Given the distribution say for the sake of argument one possibility is they were containers for a trade good then what might be carried in a (sealed?) jar like that?

    Acacia leaves themselves - a neolithic version of the opium trade to Iberia via north African coastal settlements?

    1. or as a component in red paint for other pots?

    2. In some ways could be comparable to soma, which by the way has never been conclusively linked to Ephedra.

      Andrew Sherratt believed the Beakers were druggies. He formed this view from their social pattern which probably reminded him of his own experience in the sixties.

      There's no doubt there were heavy imports coming into the Iberian ports. There's also no doubt what cattle drivers liked to peddle.

      It would be interesting to see what the HDA content is from a Beaker spinal column, especially those who were vegetarian (religious estate)

    3. Yes, a very interesting thought all round.