Beaker People Live in Western Europe Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Beaker culture introduced metallurgical technology that replaced Neolithic methods and, through the derivative Urnfield culture, endured until the Hallstatt period.

Summary of Event

The Beaker (or Bell-Beaker) people derive their name from the distinctive bell-shaped drinking vessels placed in their burial sites. Debate exists regarding the origin of their culture, with some archaeological evidence suggesting the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula. Some scholars have narrowed their probable place of origin to the Tagus River Estuary region. From this point, the culture spread eastward into central Europe, encountering, at some uncertain date and location, the Battle-Ax culture, which had migrated into Europe from the east.

The Battle-Ax people were so named because their (single) graves usually include a flat stone ax head with a central post hole into which a handle could be wedged. Because the graves also usually contained pottery with a pattern around the neck created by imprints of cords wrapped diametrically around the vessels, the Battle-Ax people are sometimes also termed the Corded-Ware culture. The Battle-Ax People are theorized to have been an offshoot of the Kurgan folk of the Russian steppe and to be predominately herdsmen and warriors, having domesticated the horse.

The Battle-Ax and Beaker groups then presumably combined culturally and perhaps physically, migrating westward into eastern Great Britain from the Low Countries and northern France. A parallel theory states that one group of Beaker people journeyed by sea from the Tagus Estuary to Brittany, then eventually proceeded to Cornwall in western Britain (attracted there perhaps by the Cornish tin mines). There also seems to have been a less significant migration of Beaker people from southern France, called the Reflux Movement, into Sardinia and Sicily. Another school of thought (in the minority) places the Beaker origin in the east, where merger with the Battle-Ax culture occurred before migration took the merged group to all of the western archaeological sites.

Unlike the Neolithic peoples among whom they settled or whom they supplanted and who entered their dead in communal long barrows, the Beaker people used single burials in smaller, round barrows. In Beaker graves, the deceased were placed in kneeling or fetal positions with drinking vessels placed on their knees, clutched in their hands. The bell shape of the beakers is unique, and the vessels were decorated horizontally with corded marks or etchings from the sharp edges of seashells. Some horizontal lines run straight across the vessel’s diameter; others are in a zigzag or wave pattern. Some have diagonal lines in the spaces between them. The significance of these particular patterns, if any, is unknown. It is uncertain whether the vessels actually contained a beverage, and if so what this would have been; milk, beer, and honey mead have been suggested. It has been postulated that the beaker was provided for the departed soul’s refreshment in the afterlife, but scholars are unsure of this. Beakers averaged 8 inches (20 centimeters) in diameter. Because of some regional variation in beaker shapes and surface patterns (for example, the bottoms of beakers at British sites tend to be larger and flatter, and those from sites in the Czech Republic have a smaller, more curved shape at the bottom), the existence of four separate Beaker tribal groupings has been suggested: Maritime, including settlements in southern England, Brittany, and the Tagus; Eastern, for sites in Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Poland; a combination of groupings in the Rhineland, the Netherlands, Austria, and North Italy; and Reflux Movements in central Spain, southern France, Sardinia, and Sicily.

Beaker graves have also been found to contain flint arrowheads; archers’ wrist guards, which were often crafted from bone; silver and gold ear rings; bone pendants; copper, silver, and gold pins; fragments of woolen and linen weaves; buttons manufactured from jet, amber, or shale; copper axes and awls; and copper-tanged or riveted knives and daggers.

Physically, the skeletons in Beaker burial sites tend to have skulls that are somewhat rounder than the more longish skulls found in Neolithic communal burial sites. They have been identified as being of stockier build than the earlier Neolithic peoples. The theory that the Beaker people (or a Beaker/Battle-Ax amalgamation) formed a sort of horse-riding military aristocracy over the original Neolithic population cannot be conclusively proven through available evidence.

The Beaker people in southern England, who are thought to have displaced the Windmill Hill folk, added to the already existing megalithic site at Stonehenge. Their contribution is generally referred to as Stonehenge II and mainly includes the outer circle of bluestones. The nearby sites of Avebury, a stone-encircled ditch, and Silbury Hill, Britain’s longest manmade mound, can be accurately attributed to the Beaker culture.

The Beaker people are most noted for being the first population of metallurgists in the area. It has been suggested that the Beaker people migrated into various parts of Europe in order to follow metallic deposits of copper, silver, and gold. It is not known from whom the Beaker smiths might have learned their skills. Earlier Beaker graves, especially, reveal that the copper daggers and implements were first hardened by treating them with arsenic. Some bodies reveal a high degree of contamination from arsenic and eventually tin, particularly Cornish tin, which was mixed with copper to form a bronze alloy. The Beaker people who migrated into Ireland were probably the earliest workers in the Irish gold of the Wicklow Mountains.

Like much else concerning the Beaker people, the end of their culture is unknown. The speculative ideas that they were speakers of the earliest Indo-European languages and that the remnants of their language may be found in the surviving Celtic tongues of Europe have no basis in verifiable fact. The Beaker people may have simply assimilated into the existing population, a theory that is suggested by the presence of Beaker burials in certain megalithic tombs in Ireland, France, and Britain and in earlier Sicilian and Sardinian rock tombs. Their style of pottery and their metalworking innovations were adopted and later altered by a succeeding culture, the Urnfield people. Evidence exists that the Beaker people engaged in herding of cattle and sheep and, in some areas, hog and chicken farming. Barley seems to have been their staple grain.

Significance

Few details, apart from the content and layout of their burial sites, are known about the Beaker people; however, it is clear that they initiated the Bronze Age in Europe. Because of their interactions with the Neolithic people and presumably with the Battle-Ax people, the Beaker people were a key element in the diffusion of metallurgic technology throughout western, central, and insular Europe.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brodie, Neil. The Neolithic-Bronze Age Transition in Britain: A Critical Review of Some Archaeological and Craniological Concepts. Oxford, England: Tempus Reparatum, 1994. A look at the Beaker and Neolithic peoples, with reference to their cranial shapes.
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    xlink:type="simple">Cavendish, Richard. Prehistoric Britain. New York: British Heritage Press, 1983. A conventional rendering, but nonetheless a clear concise account of what set the Beaker people apart from Neolithic Europeans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, Alex M. Beaker Domestic Sites: A Study of the Domestic Pottery of the Late Third and Early Second Millennia b.c. in the British Isles. 2 vols. Oxford, England: B.A.R., 1982. Looks at the Beaker culture in Great Britain and Ireland through its pottery. Illustrations and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrison, Richard J. The Beaker Folk: Copper Age Archaeology in Western Europe. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1980. An examination of the Beaker culture from an archaeological perspective. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrison, Richard J. The Bell Beaker Cultures of Spain and Portugal. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University Press, 1977. Focuses on the Beaker people in Spain and Portugal.
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    xlink:type="simple">Piggott, Stuart. Ancient Europe: From the Beginnings of Agriculture to Classical Antiquity. Chicago: Aldine, 1970. Uses substantial illustrative material; text attempts to place the Beaker people within the general framework of prehistoric European migrations and technological development.
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    xlink:type="simple">Vlahos, Olivia. Battle-Ax People: Beginnings of Western Culture. New York: Viking Press, 1968. Broader based than its title would suggest; tends to downplay the Beaker culture in favor of the Battle-Ax element.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waldren, William H. The Beaker Culture of the Balearic Islands: An Inventory of Evidence from Caves, Rock Shelters, Settlements, and Ritual Sites. Oxford, England: Archaeopress, 1998. Discusses the Beaker culture and Copper Age on the Balearic Islands in Spain.

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