The Bell Beaker phenomenon (BBP) is a widely scattered cultural phenomenon of prehistoric western, northern and middle Europe starting in the late Neolithic running into the early Bronze Age (ca. 2.900 -1,8 k.a. BC) and is contemporaneous with several other Neolithic entities (Corded Ware culture). Radiocarbon dates for Bell Beaker across Europe showed that the earliest dates for Bell Beaker were 2.9 k.a BC in Iberia. The fate of the bell-beaker culture varied from region to region. Many of its groups played a significant role in the formation of the culture of the early Bronze Age.
Results from 87Sr/86Sr isotope ratios in tooth enamel and compact bone indicate that Bell Beaker people were highly mobile, migrating in small groups. Exogamy might explain the higher numbers of immigrating females. It is suggested that the “Bell Beaker People” were scattered in small communities throughout Europe. These communities were self-sufficient and flexibly organized and already partly specialized and demonstrate an exchange of information, goods, genes, and social values.
- Earlier interpretations of the BBP stressed the migration of people with very specific equipment as found in BB graves. Until recently these hypotheses was out of fashion but became again more important after 87Sr/86Sr isotope studies, which showed that such mobility took place. A Strontium isotope analysis of 86 people from Bell Beaker graves in Bavaria suggests that between 18-25% of all graves were occupied by people who came from a considerable distance outside the area. This was true of children as well as adults, indicative of some significant migration wave.The revelation that the “Amesbury archer “, found in a BB-grave near Stonehenge had travelled from the Continent, perhaps from southern Germany or thereabouts, served to re-open the debate about the role of human immigration in the introduction of the Beaker ‘package’ to Britain and Ireland.
- A second model proposes a migration of prestige goods and specific ideologies instead of people. In this view the BBP mirrors a ranked society with local “big men” having access to these goods. Sometimes the male graves have been described as worrier graves indicating the beginning of social stratification, that would fully evolve during the Bronze age
- The third interpretation stresses that the BB-package as found in male graves was a symbolic hunting set, providing for hunting of big game. , undertaken in the world of the living or the dead.
The Bell Beaker phenomenon is primarily known from burials and was primary defined by grave goods. BB-graves are known from grottoes, in cists, in simple pits, and sometimes in burial mounds. The burial rite usually involved inhumation, and more rarely, cremation.
These are the main components of the BB-“package”:
- A bell beaker made of well-made pottery, usually red or red-brown in color, and ornamented with horizontal bands of incised, excised or impressed patterns. These items were found both in female and male graves. It has been suggested that the beakers were designed for the consumption of alcohol. Anyhow, others 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.
- “Tongue daggers” made of copper, selectively found in male graves. These artefacts have tangs to which handles (probably wooden) would have been fixed. Whilst in central Europe copper metallurgy was common for about 1,000 years prior to the emergence of Bell Beaker, in north-western Europe the introduction of metallurgy was likely connected with the Bell Beaker phenomenon. Anyhow copper daggers are only present in about 8 % of all graves. In Demark for example, bell beakers are associated with Typ-I lanceolate flint daggers. Because metal objects are frequently discovered in association with Bell Beakers, the Bell Beaker phenomenon has often been linked to metallurgy. The association of copper daggers and gold artefacts, such as spiral finger rings, copper awls, buttons and beads, bow-shaped pendants and offerings made of gold in single graves indicates that these objects symbolized a higher status of the buried person and display an exceptional value of these goods.
- Tanged and barbed arrow flint arrowheads also selectively found in male graves.
- The Bell Beaker bracers or wrist-guards are traditionally thought to have functioned as archery equipment, protecting the arm against the sting of the bowstring. This view has been challenged recently by the proposition that many of these highly elaborated artifacts were artifacts associated with symbolic meaning and had no utilitarian connotation.