The Bell Beaker phenomenon

This is a tongue dagger from a middle European Bell Beaker grave (Type IV dagger ; similar examples were found in Pavlov, Budapest and around the middle Danube).

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.

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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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2 Responses to The Bell Beaker phenomenon

  1. ohwilleke says:

    A couple of the key questions relating to the Bell Beaker people are:
    (1) Were they linguistically Indo-European, or were they the last pre-Indo-European wave of migration to the areas in question? There is some evidence that they provided a thousand year bullwark against the intrusion of the Corded Ware culture (more definitively identified with Indo-European linguistics) from the East and could have been the source of the “Vasconic substrate” in Europe.
    (2) Were they a bearer of key genetic markers like Y-DNA R1b in the area, or were they a superstrate upon a pre-existing R1b distribution? (Corded Ware is associated with R1a). There was clearly some demographic impact from their migration, but how much isn’t easy to tell. There are few other good candidates for demographic impacts that preceded Indo-European migration, but post-dated the initial Neolithic or Epipaleolithic in this region.
    (3) What was their relationship to the megalithic culture in an overlapping area? The model of Roman rule of Greece, where the conquering superstate culture absorbs a great deal of religious and cultural material from the supposedly conquered substrate culture is an attractive analogy.
    (4) What was their relationship to dairying and other means of food production? If not, what particular technologies or advantages were most important to their expansion?

    Keep in mind that pre-Bell Beaker Neolithic Europe in the region was pretty primative and had a pretty weak large scale social structure.

  2. Pingback: Grand Pressigny dagger from the Lac de Neuchatel | Aggsbach's Paleolithic Blog

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