Migration in the Bell Beaker Period of Central Europe

By Price, T. Douglas; Grupe, Gisela et al. | Antiquity, June 1998 | Go to article overview
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Migration in the Bell Beaker Period of Central Europe


Price, T. Douglas, Grupe, Gisela, Schroter, Peter, Antiquity


The movement of people in the past - via marriage, migration, conquest, colonization is an important topic in archaeology. The arrival of new people has often been used to explain the appearance of innovative features in the archaeological record. Examples are numerous and include the origins of modern humans, the spread of agriculture, the introduction of metals and many, many others. Arguments revolve around the effects of migration and diffusion vs independent invention (e.g. Adams et al. 1978; Anthony 1990; Champion 1992).

Rebuttal, rather than resolution, continues because movement and residential changes have been difficult to measure. Evidence is generally circumstantial; archaeologists have relied on indirect means, such as styles of pottery decoration, vessel form, architecture or other presumed signals of identity, to examine questions of mobility (e.g. Rouse 1986). Such proxy information is often suspect; materials may have moved through trade, exchange or other mechanisms without direct contact with the original producers.

A technique is described in this study for directly examining questions of prehistoric residential change, using strontium isotope ratios in human bone and tooth enamel. Differences in these ratios in the same individual indicate migration. Results from a study of Bell Beaker burials in Bavaria suggest that both human mobility in the Bell Beaker period and the potential of strontium isotope analysis are high.

The Bell Beaker period

The Bell Beaker is one of the more intriguing and lesser-known periods in European prehistory. Discussions of this time occupy surprisingly little space in texts and on library shelves, yet the evidence is fascinating. The term 'Bell Beaker' is used for a type of pottery and a group of people, as well as a period of time (Guillaine 1984; Luning 1994; Sangmeister 1972; Shennan 1986; Strahm 1997a; 1997b). The Bell Beaker period, appearing at the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of the Bronze Age, and dating from approximately 2500-1900 BC, is named after a distinctively shaped ceramic vessel, probably a drinking cup. The uniform pottery is found most commonly in graves that also contain certain, distinctive materials including jet and amber ornaments, some of the first gold and bronze objects in Europe, archery equipment, and occasional horse bones as well (Sherratt 1994). The Bell Beaker individuals found in these graves are frequently robust males with a distinctive 'short-headed' skull (e.g. Gerhardt 1976; 1978).

Bell Beaker materials are distributed irregularly from Denmark to Sicily and from Ireland to eastern Europe. Compilation and analysis of radiocarbon dates from this period suggests an origin in the Rhine delta shortly before 2500 BC in a Corded Ware context (Lanting & van der Waals 1976). In some regions such as the British Isles, the distribution of Bell Beaker materials is almost continuous, while in others the remains are very sparse. The end of the Bell Beaker is variable in these areas, depending on the date of appearance of Bronze Age materials. The Bell Beaker period lasts longer in Britain than elsewhere.

The exotic materials found in Bell Beaker graves, along with their patchy distribution, the general absence of settlement and the distinctive skeletal remains has constituted evidence for migration. In an attempt to explain Bell Beaker, Childe (e.g. 1950; 1957) used analogies with groups such as traders, prospectors, smiths, warriors, missionaries and a kind of gypsy folk. This interpretation has remained a standard view of Bell Beaker. Others, however, including Engelhard (1991), Harrison (1980) and Sherratt (1994), have suggested that increased social ranking, not population movement, was responsible for the adoption and spread of Bell Beaker materials as symbols of wealth and status. The question of the importance of mobility in the Bell Beaker period is unresolved. It has not been possible to determine if these materials were brought by their owners or imported.

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