Interpreting the Beaker Phenomenon in Mediterranean France: An Iron Age Analogy

Article excerpt



For more than a century the discovery in many regions of Europe of decorated Bell Beakers associated with weapons and objects of personal adornment, often found in individual burials, has fascinated researchers, who have tried to explain what is now conventionally called 'the Beaker phenomenon'. There have been many proposals for its area of origin (Iberian Peninsula, the Netherlands, Central Europe ...), and explanations of its spread over a whole continent (migration of a warrior population, movement of individuals, of objects, of ideas, or fashion ...). Yet there is still no consensus among researchers. As recently as 2001, Alain Gallay could state that "we must admit today that the very wide distribution over Europe of the Bell Beaker style of decoration still has no plausible explanation in economic terms, as there is no adequate ethnographic model" (Gallay 2001: 52). In this article we advance a model inspired not by ethnography, but by the later experience of the same region in the Iron Age.


The area of study, Mediterranean France, consists of an area between the Iberian and Italian peninsulas, stretching from the Pyrenees to the Alps; it is wide open towards the Mediterranean but also towards the interior of the continent, via the Rhone valley. Around 540 sites (Figure 1) with Bell Beaker material can be catalogued: some 170 burial sites, 230 settlement or domestic sites and 130 sites of indeterminate function. The proportion of habitation sites compared to burials is of great importance because it allows a good understanding of the assemblages and of the context in which Beakers appear. Four Beaker ceramic styles have been defined since the 1960s for certain areas of the Pyrenees and Provence and later extended to the whole of the region (Courtin 1967, 1974; Guilaine 1967, 1976). A reassessment of Beakers in south-eastern France, the eastern part of Mediterranean France, has allowed us to define more precisely the different styles and propose a three-phase chronological sequence (Early, Recent and Late Beakers) based on data from over 310 sites which produced over 1500 decorated vessels (Lemercier 2004b, 2004c & in press). In parallel, the past few decades have seen particularly active research on the Late Neolithic as well as the Beaker episode in the region, thus providing a firm chronological framework (Figure 2) (Lemercier 2007; Lemercier et al. 2010).

The archaeological data

The Early Beaker horizon

Beakers first become visible in Mediterranean France between 2500 and 2400 cal BC. This Beaker presence is characterised by pottery of Maritime or International style and the most common variants of its vessels (Figure 3.1). The extreme rarity of All Over Ornamented and All Over Corded (AOO and AOC) large beakers is notable and there are no coarse wares specific to the Beaker assemblages (Lemercier 2004a & b). Nearly all the pottery is produced locally or regionally, but the techniques or practices used can differ from those of indigenous traditions (Convertini 1996, 2009). The tool assemblage comprises polished stone artefacts and bone, horn or antler objects that are difficult to distinguish from earlier artefacts of the Late Neolithic, as well as flint artefacts which are essentially locally produced; their debitage consists of small non-standard flakes made by direct percussion or on an anvil. The toolkit is limited in form. The percentage of arrowheads can be high (leaf-shaped, heart-shaped and lanceolate forms and tanged and barbed arrowheads with a variant with squared-off barbs). The remainder is characterised by end-scrapers, side-scrapers and splintered pieces (pieces esquillees) (Furestier 2007). Metal objects are few (awls with square section, daggers, Palmela points and ornaments). Settlements are generally small, containing one to four dwellings, oval in plan, with flagstone floors or with a surrounding low wall, some 50 to 60[m. …