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Grain Processing Technologies and Economic Organisation: A Case Study from the South-East of the Iberian Peninsula during the Copper Age

Author(s): Roberto RISCH

Journal: The Arkeotek Journal
ISSN 1961-9863

Volume: 2;
Issue: 2;
Date: 2008;
Original page

Keywords: Grinding material | Copper Age

Since the discovery of Los Millares (Almería) at the end of the nineteenth century, the Copper Age of the south-east of the Iberian Peninsula has been considered one of the most noteworthy phenomena of European Prehistory. Recent excavations have confirmed that this six hectare settlement presented at the height of its development three fortification walls and an inner citadel (Arribas et al. 1987, Molina & Camara 2005). In front of it, extending towards the west, lies a funerary area of thirteen hectares with at least eighty collective megalithic burials. Inside these tombs the remains of dozens of skeletons have been identified together with a large variety of grave goods, many of which are highly elaborate symbolic items, occasionally made out of exotic raw materials. This whole area, including the settlement and the necropolis, is surrounded to the south and west by thirteen small forts, situated on hills with excellent visual control over a wide territory. Inside these forts, as well as in Los Millares itself, abundant evidence of activities related to production and consumption have been found in round or oval dwellings, square structures, open spaces and inside the bastions of the defensive lines. Some of these activities, such as metallurgy or flint knapping, are restricted to certain structures indicating their specialised character. According to the available C14 dates (Molina et al. 2004), Los Millares was probably occupied continuously over c. 900 years, between the end of the fourth millennium and the end of the third millennium. However, the peripheral forts are a phenomenon of the final settlement phase, between c. 2500-2200 cal BCE, when most of the area had already been abandoned and occupation was practically restricted to the inner citadel (Arribas et al. 1987).Structures and artefacts similar to those discovered in Los Millares are present in a wider region, comprising approximately the present day provinces of Almería, north-eastern Granada and southern Murcia. Yet these archaeological evidences are substantially different as far as their size, quantity or variability are concerned. The absence of characteristic features, such as the fortification systems, in many sites has even led to questioning of the concept of ‘Los Millares culture’ as representing a defined territory sharing a set of material traits (Micó 1991). The most common settlement type in the region is formed by unfortified small occupations of 0.1-1 hectare, most of which were only occupied over a short period of time, perhaps a few generations. These small hamlets tend to be located on river terraces, at the margins of fertile Quaternary flood plains (Castro et al. 1994, Cámalich & Martín 1999). However, they also appear in most other possible geographical positions, ranging from mountain areas to Tertiary plains to coastal and marshland environments. The exploitation of a diversity of resources is also seen in the remains of subsistence production. While intensive agriculture on the most fertile or humid soils and husbandry, including the use of derived products such as milk and wool, were firmly established, hunting, gathering and fishing provided important complementary resources. This archaeological record suggests that intensification, diversification and mobility were basic criteria ruling Copper Age subsistence production. Another important observation is that larger and, as would be expected, more populated settlements are not necessarily located in more favourable ecological conditions than the small villages (Risch 1995: 535-6).The picture becomes still more complex when we turn to the manufacture and circulation of secondary products. Various rocks, as well as copper, gold, bone, shell, wood, linen, etc. were transformed into multiple types of tools, cloth, ornaments, idols and other symbolic items. Specialised activity areas are frequently found in the large and permanent settlements, but are not absent in the other smaller ones either. They are present both inside particular dwellings, as well as in open areas. Apparently, a considerable part of the labour force was invested in these highly elaborate products, which must also have had an important symbolic value, suggested by their circulation over large distances. These products were used and consumed in greater number and variety, but not exclusively in the larger and more complex settlements and collective tombs (Micó 1992).The complexity of the archaeological record of the Copper Age in south-east Iberia has led to differing and even opposing interpretations of the social and economic organisation of the communities represented by it. Principally, the team from the university of Granada, which has been in charge of the recent excavations of Los Millares itself, proposes the existence of a markedly hierarchical society (Molina & Cámara 2005, Molina et al. 2004). The larger settlements would represent central sites, from where the ruling elites could control large territories and the distribution networks as well as certain natural resources, such as copper outcrops. At the same time, the small settlements would form dependent agricultural communities, obliged to pay tribute to the first. Apart from the differences in settlement size, this interpretation would mainly be supported by the complexity of the Los Millares fortification system, including the chain of forts surrounding the settlement (though these are not necessarily contemporary, as we have remarked earlier), and the economic specialisation observed in some of the constructions, particularly in relation to metal working. The differences observed in the furnishing of the collective burial chambers are seen as a mirror of the social and political asymmetries existing inside the settlement (Molina & Cámara 2005: 58-62).On the other hand, surveys and excavations carried out in other regions and settlements tend to place greater emphasis on the domestic character of production and a more communal form of political organisation. While some authors consider that the power of the elites was restricted to a limited leadership (Gilman 1976, Ramos Millán 1998), others argue in favour of a co-existence between unequal and equal social relations, which would create tensions but no economic exploitation (Chapman 2003: 130-131, 159). The structuring of society according to two different geographical and economic principles, with larger and sedentary communities more involved in secondary production existing next to small, more mobile and subsistence oriented groups, has led to the definition of Los Millares society as a dual production system (Risch 1995: 528-541, Castro et al. 1998). This model emphasises the high productivity and limited possibilities of gaining political control over rather mobile and spatially dispersed communities with diversified and, at the same time, intensive subsistence production. Under such conditions, the production of elaborate objects with a high symbolic but, in economic terms, low use value would not primarily be intended to accumulate wealth or to establish relations of economic dependency. Rather, such objects are seen as a crucial element in maintaining political and social cohesion between and within economically diverse communities and kinship groups and in granting their access to basic resources and goods. Furthermore the question of the social and economic organisation of the Los Millares communities can be addressed through the study of grinding tools. In societies based on a developed agriculture, grinding tools become a crucial part of the means of production, given that cereals inevitably have to be processed through them in order to become consumable. Grinding tools do not only inform about the technical development and spatial organisation of the grinding process, but also provide one of the few archaeological indicators of the volume of subsistence production in a community. The qualitative and quantitative difference of these labour instruments within and between settlements shows the organisation of subsistence production and consumption. From this perspective, the present study undertakes an analysis of the economic and social implications of grinding technology used during the Copper Age of south-east Iberia. So far, the material from the settlements of Almizaraque (Cuevas del Almanzora, Almería) and Cerro de la Virgen (Orce, Granada) has been studied systematically following specific archaeological methodology designed for macro-lithic artefacts (Risch 1995: 335-355, Delgado 2003). Moreover, the surface counts carried out at Cabezo del Plomo (Mazarrón, Murcia) have provided useful information on the geology of the grinding tools used in this settlement (Risch & Ruiz 1994). For further archaeological information on Almizaraque see Delibes et al. (1986, 1994, 1996), on Cerro de la Virgen (Kalb 1969, Schüle 1980) and on Cabezo del Plomo (Muñoz 1983, 1993).

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