Beaker culture

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Generalised distribution and movements of Bell-Beaker cultures

The Bell-Beaker culture (sometimes shortened to Beaker culture, Beaker people, or Beaker folk; German: Glockenbecherkultur), ca. 2800 – 1800 BC, is the term for a widely scattered 'archaeological culture' of prehistoric western Europe starting in the late Neolithic or Chalcolithic and running into the early Bronze Age. The term was coined by John Abercromby, based on the culture's distinctive pottery drinking vessels.

Introduction[edit]

The Bell Beaker culture is understood not only as a particular pottery type, but as a complete and complex cultural phenomenon involving other artefact styles such as weaponry and ornamentation, as well as shared ideological, cultural and religious ideas. The Bell Beaker period marks a period of unprecedented cultural contact in Atlantic and Western Europe on a scale not seen previously, nor again seen in succeeding periods. This contrasted the situation in Central and Eastern Europe where the slightly earlier Corded Ware Culture had already established wide-ranging contacts within those regions.

Its appearance is marked from 2900 BC, lasting until 1800 BC, when the incipient Bronze Age dissolved the beaker phenomenon.

It is important to note that underlying the Bell beaker superstratum existed a wide diversity in local burial styles (including incidences of cremation rather than inhumation), housing styles, economic profile and local coarse ceramic wares which continued to persist.

There are two main Bell Beaker styles: the cord-impressed types, such as the "All Over Corded" (AOC) or "All Over Ornamented" (AOO), and the "Maritime" type, decorated with bands filled with impressions made with a comb or cord. Later, characteristic regional styles developed.

It has been suggested that the beakers were designed for the consumption of alcohol, and that the introduction of the substance to Europe may have fuelled the beakers' spread. Beer and mead content have been identified from certain examples. However, not all Beakers were drinking cups. Some were used as reduction pots to smelt copper ores, others have some organic residues associated with food, and still others were employed as funerary urns. They were used as status display amongst disparate elites.

Origins[edit]

There have been numerous proposals by archaeologists as to the origins of the Bell Beaker culture, and debates continued on for decades. Several regions of origin have been postulated, notably the Iberian peninsula, the Netherlands and Central Europe. Similarly, scholars have postulated various mechanisms of spread, including migrations of populations (“folk migrations”), smaller warrior groups, individuals (craftsmen), or a diffusion of ideas and object exchange.

Recent analyses have made significant inroads to understanding the Beaker phenomenon, mostly by analysing each of its components separately. They have concluded that the Bell Beaker phenomenon was a synthesis of elements, representing “an idea and style uniting different regions with different cultural traditions and background.”

Radiocarbon dating seems to support that the earliest "Maritime" Bell Beaker design style is encountered in Iberia, specifically in the vibrant copper-using communities of the Tagus estuary in Portugal around 2800-2700 BC and spread from there to many parts of western Europe. An overview of all available sources from southern Germany concluded that Bell Beaker was a new and independent culture in that area, contemporary with the Corded Ware culture.

The inspiration for the Maritime Bell Beaker is argued to have been the small and earlier Copoz beakers that have impressed decoration and which are found widely around the Tagus estuary in Portugal. Turek sees late Neolithic precursors in northern Africa, arguing the Maritime style emerged as a result of seaborne contacts between Iberia and Morocco in the first half of the third millennium BCE. However, radiocarbon dating from North African sites is lacking for the most part.

AOO and AOC Beakers appear to have evolved continually from pre-Beaker period in the lower Rhine and North Sea regions, at least for Northern and Central Europe.

Furthermore, the burial ritual which typified Bell Beaker sites was intrusive into Western Europe. Individual burials, often under tumuli burials, with the inclusion of weapons contrast markedly to the preceding Neolithic traditions of often collective, weaponless burials in Atlantic/Western Europe. Such an arrangement is rather derivative of Corded Ware traditions, although instead of ‘battle-axes’, Bell Beaker individuals used copper daggers.

Overall, all these elements (Iberian-derived maritime ceramic styles, AOC and AOO ceramic styles, and ‘eastern’ burial ritual symbolism) appear to have first fused in the Lower Rhine region.

Expansion[edit]

The initial moves from the Tagus estuary were maritime. A southern move led to the Mediterranean where 'enclaves' were established in south-western Spain and southern France around the Golfe du Lion and into the Po valley in Italy probably via ancient western Alpine trade routes used to distribute Jadeite axes. A northern move incorporated the southern coast of Armorica with further, less well defined, contacts extending to Ireland and possibly to central southern Britain. The earliest copper production in Ireland, identified at Ross Island in the period 2400-2200 BC, was associated with early Beaker pottery. Here the local sulpharsenide ores were smelted to produce the first copper axes used in Britain and Ireland. The same technologies were used in the Tagus region and in the west and south of France. The evidence is sufficient to support the suggestion that the initial spread of Maritime Bell Beakers along the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, using sea routes that had long been in operation, was directly associated with the quest for copper and other rare raw materials.

The enclave established in southern Brittany was linked closely to the riverine and landward route via the Loire and across the Gatinais valley to the Seine valley and thence to the lower Rhine. This was a long-established route reflected in early stone axe distributions and it was via this network that Maritime Bell Beakers first reached the Lower Rhine in about 2700-2500 BC. The Lower Rhine region had, by 3000 BC, adopted a burial rite characterized by single inhumation accompanied by a beaker decorated with cord zone impressions, and frequently by a perforated stone battle-axe. This cultural package was characteristic of belief systems which extended across the North European Plain and into Russia. The arrival of the Maritime Bell Beaker from the west a century or two later initiated a period of borrowing and experimentation in what has been called the Primary Bell Beaker/Corded Ware contact zone and cultural traits developed here, such as single burial and the shaft-hole axe, were transmitted westwards along the exchange networks from the Rhine to the Loire. It was from this fusion zone that the modified Beaker package spread northwards across the Channel to Britain.

Beaker culture objects

Migration vs. Acculturation[edit]

Given the unusual form and fabric of Beaker pottery, and its abrupt appearance in the archaeological record, along with a characteristic group of other artefacts, known as the Bell Beaker "package", the explanation for the Beaker culture until the last decades of the 20th century was to interpret it as the migration of one group of people across Europe. However British and American archaeology since the 1960s had been sceptical about prehistoric migration in general, so the idea of "Bell Beaker Folk" lost ground. A theory of cultural contact de-emphasizing population movement was presented by Colin Burgess and Stephen Shennan in the mid-1970s.

It is now common to see the Beaker culture as a 'package' of knowledge (including religious beliefs and copper, bronze and gold working) and artefacts (including copper daggers, v-perforated buttons and stone wrist-guards) adopted and adapted by the indigenous peoples of Europe to varying degrees. This new knowledge may have come about by any combination of population movements and cultural contact. An example might be as part of a prestige cult related to the production and consumption of beer, or trading links such as those demonstrated by finds made along the seaways of Atlantic Europe. Palynological studies and analysis of pollen, associated with the spread of beakers, certainly suggests increased growing of barley, which may be associated with beer brewing. Noting the distribution of Beakers was highest in areas of transport routes, including fording sites, river valleys and mountain passes, it was suggested that Beaker 'folk' were originally bronze traders, who subsequently settled within local Neolithic or early Chalcolithic cultures creating local styles. Close analysis of the bronze tools associated with beaker use suggests an early Iberian source for the copper, followed subsequently by Central European and Bohemian ores.

Investigations in the Mediterranean and France recently moved the discussion to reemphasize the importance of migration to the Bell Beaker story. Instead of being pictured as a fashion or a simple diffusion of objects and their use, the investigation of over 300 sites showed that human groups actually moved in a process that involved explorations, contacts, settlement, diffusions and acculturation/assimilation. Some elements show the influence from the north and east, and other elements reveal the south-east of France to be an important cross road on an important route of communication and exchange spreading north. A distinctive barbed wire element is thought to have migrated through central Italy first. The pattern of movements was diverse and complicated, along the Atlantic coast and the northern Mediterranean coast, and sometimes also far inland. The prominent central role of Portugal in the region and the quality of the pottery all across Europe are forwarded as arguments for a new interpretation that denies an ideological dimension.