Bell Beakers from West to East

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BELL BEAKERS FROM WEST TO EAST



One of the most puzzling archaeological phenomena of prehistoric Europe is the widespread appearance of a specific form of ceramic vessel, a decorated, thin-walled, handleless drinking cup known as a bell beaker, throughout western and central continental Europe and the British Isles during the second half of the third millennium b.c. The bell beakers were often found in male burials that also included archer's wrist guards of polished stone, V-perforated buttons (with two holes drilled from one side at an angle until they converged to form a single V-shaped channel), and copper daggers. Archaeologists refer to this phenomenon as the "Bell Beaker complex" or, more efficiently, simply as "Bell Beakers."

Bell Beakers came to the attention of archaeologists at the end of the nineteenth century when researchers from various countries became aware of the very richly decorated vessels whose shape was reminiscent of an inverted bell. In the early twentieth century, archaeologists throughout western Europe began to adopt a naming convention using the word "bell." In France, these vessels came to be called Vases Campaniformes, and the German prehistorian Paul Reinecke conformed to the terminology used by Germany's western neighbors by introducing the term Glockenbecher. In the British Isles the term "Bell Beakers" was introduced by Lord Abercromby in the study he published about the phenomenon in 1912.

As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, researchers made the first basic determinations about Bell Beakers. A collection of artifacts characteristic of this phenomenon had been assembled. It was ascertained that these artifacts were most often found in graves throughout western and central Europe. Chronologically, Bell Beakers were assigned to the end of the Neolithic (often called the Copper Age). These first determinations made researchers aware of the extraordinary geographic spread of Bell Beakers and the richness of objects that characterized it. At the time, Bell Beakers were presumed to be the culture of a single people who had spread very quickly across the expanse of western and central Europe over a relatively short time, so the main problem for researchers was to find the place where this culture originated. Most archaeologists of the early 1900s considered the "Beaker People" to have been very mobile and warlike folk, who occupied themselves with raising animals and conducting trade. In some discussions they were described as itinerant traders who spread the knowledge of metallurgy to central and western Europe.

The first all-encompassing model for explaining the genesis of Bell Beakers was proposed by Spanish researchers Pedro Bosch-Gimpera (1926) and Alberto del Castillo Yurrita (1928). In archaeological literature, their theory is called the Spanish Model. It stated that the Bell Beaker phenomenon started on the Iberian Peninsula and from there its peoples, practicing trade, expanded as far as central Europe. Later research, concentrating on the typology of finds in various regions, complicated the picture of Bell Beakers. A breakthrough in this regard were the studies published in 1955 by Dutch researchers J. D. (Johannes D.) van der Waals and Willem Glasbergen that presented a scheme of evolution for the bell beaker vessels. In their opinion this form developed from the beakers of the Corded Ware culture on the Lower Rhine. In the literature this view is known as the Dutch Model. They proposed that there had been an entire sequence of stylistic transformations in the beakers. Those taken to be the oldest were transitional types of beakers called "corded-bell." In addition, there were vessels decorated on their entire surface with cord impressions, which were called "all-over-corded" beakers, or AOC. Beakers ornamented on their entire surface were termed "all-over-ornamented" beakers, or AOO. The next form, an unmistakably bell-shaped phase of typological development, was the so-called Maritime beaker. At the end of the sequence were beakers of the Veluwe type. Subsequently, the Maritime beakers were found to be the stylistically oldest form of bell beaker in all the key Bell Beaker regions of Europe. To this day, the Maritime bell beaker remains a basic component in understanding the internal chronology of the Bell Beakers.

About the same time that the Dutch Model was formulated, Edward Sangmeister proposed the socalled Reflux Model of Bell Beaker origins and distribution. Typological studies done in many regions showed that not all Bell Beaker attributes were connected with Spain, one of the main problems being the fact that corded decoration was absent there. Sangmeister proposed that after the initial phase of Bell Beaker development and expansion from the Iberian Peninsula in the direction of central Europe, a second phase of development took place, this being the "reflux" or reverse flow of Bell Beakers back to the Iberian Peninsula in a new version that had been enriched by central European contributions. Sangmeister, like some of his contemporaries, was becoming aware that it was increasingly difficult to find a single region where Bell Beaker attributes originated.

In the 1970s the Dutch Model gained strong support because a series of carbon-14 datings confirmed its typological sequence. It was an argument that convinced most archaeologists, mainly on the Continent, to accept the Dutch Model. At approximately the same time in the British Isles, new concepts were gaining voice. These addressed concepts far removed from the traditional question about the genesis of an archaeological culture linked to a specific people. Archaeologists such as David L. Clarke called on their colleagues to address the issue of the Bell Beakers from new perspectives. This general appeal was followed by concrete proposals, examining Bell Beakers as a result of processes that were being played out in the social or religious spheres rather than representing the actual movements of peoples. Colin Burgess proposed that Bell Beakers be analyzed as a cultural "package": a collection of artifacts displaying a single type of cultural behavior, which in this instance involved the custom of communal libations. This concept was further developed by Andrew Sherratt, who proposed that Bell Beakers reflect the introduction of fermented beverages and the social privileges associated with the consumption of alcohol. Stephen Shennan devoted much attention to the thesis that Bell Beakers are not a classical archaeological culture but a gathering of specific objects that appear in various cultural contexts.

Such perspectives resulted in a change of approach in research on the Bell Beakers. The questions of the genesis and "Beaker People" became less important to archaeologists. The term "Bell Beaker culture" was no longer used, and archaeologists substituted "Bell Beaker phenomenon," "beaker package," or simply "Bell Beakers." Interpretations of the phenomenon reached for a totally different concept of understanding and generally placed Bell Beakers in the frame of a large cultural change that took place as the Neolithic Age passed to the Bronze Age and social stratification was emerging.


ARCHAEOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS AND SPATIAL DIFFERENTIATION

Characteristics of archaeological information on Bell Beakers should be viewed on two levels, taking into consideration: the attributes unique to the phenomenon over the entire area where they appear and attributes specific to individual regions. This division is most apparent among pottery. The collection of Bell Beaker vessels is divided into those that are richly ornamented and those that lack ornamentation. Most of the ornamented vessels are various forms of bell-shaped beakers that provide a classic indicator of the Bell Beaker phenomenon and are known throughout its entire domain. Yet all unornamented vessels and a small part of the ornamented ones have a regional quality, and their local, non-beaker genesis is often mentioned. At the very outset it is necessary to mention that there are a limited number of non-ceramic artifacts that also fall into the first group—those that are found throughout the Bell Beaker domain. The rest of the attributes that describe various cultural characteristics find their place in the second category. For example, there is no single type of grave or settlement that was typical for the entire Bell Beaker phenomenon.

CORE BEAKER ATTRIBUTES

The basic artifact that gives its name to the phenomenon is the bell-shaped beaker. It is a carefully made vessel, having smooth surfaces that are usually an intense orange color, which has a marked resemblance to metal vessels made of copper or gold. The walls of the beaker are relatively thin, which is another point of resemblance to metal vessels. There are many types of bell beakers, such as those mentioned above: AOO, AOC, Maritime, or Veluwe type. Generally, the tendency for stylistic change in bell-shaped beakers lies in the changes in their proportions (from tall and slender to more squat) and the growing intricacy of the decoration.

An important characteristic of the bell-shaped beakers is decoration known as "zoned ornamentation." Looking from top to bottom, one can see bands of ornamentation on the vessel separated by bands without ornamentation (see fig. 1). The decoration was done using four basic techniques: cord impressions in damp clay; engravings with a sharp tool; impressions made with a comb; and less often—and primarily in southwestern Europe—application of red paint. The ornamentation was often incrusted with a white substance. There are many varieties of zoned ornamentation: narrow bands characteristic of the Maritime beakers; wide bands in both single- and multiple-band configurations; and the so-called metope decoration, in which the ornamentation is contained in a wide band that recalls in its layout the friezes of classical Greek buildings.

The second group of objects characteristic to the Bell Beakers was the archery set. Archery must have had a deep cultural significance, because in addition to the flint arrowheads known from earlier cultures, we have been able to find stone plates thought to be archer's wrist guards and the socalled shaft straighteners. The flint arrowheads exhibit a very high quality of manufacture. They have a complicated shape and are covered with a regular surface retouch. Several varieties are known: tanged arrowheads, the so-called heart-shaped points, and triangular arrowheads. Specific to Bell Beakers are stone archery plates that protected the wrist of the hand holding the bow. It is a formally rich group of objects, often decorated, which consisted of both four-hole and two-hole types.

The so-called shaft straighteners were used to polish the arrow shaft. They consisted of two stones, each of which had one flat surface with a single straight groove in it. When the two stones were placed together with their grooved sides facing each other, an opening resulted through which it was possible to pull the shaft.

With Bell Beakers, cutting weapons, mainly daggers, first appeared in Europe. These were commonly made of copper and their characteristic typology was uniform throughout the entire Bell Beaker area. This type is described by the term "tanged dagger." The fact that copper was used, a relatively soft metal, indicates that these had ceremonial rather than utilitarian uses. In the northeast part of the Bell Beaker domain (from Jutland to the regions on the lower Vistula River) flint daggers were manufactured on a large scale.

An invention of Bell Beakers are the so-called dagger scepters or halberds, in which the metal edge similar to that of a dagger is mounted transversely on a wooden handle. We know them from the British Isles and central Europe, and they are widely interpreted as insignia of authority and, more generally, symbols of high social rank.

Another metal product, the so-called Palmela points are known mainly in southwest Europe. A single unequivocal explanation of their use has yet to be formulated. The larger examples could have been used as daggers, while the smaller ones were definitely arrowheads.

Other objects of sheet metal (copper and gold) are also associated with Bell Beakers. These are in the form of earrings (hair decorations), lunulae, and other less-frequently seen objects, such as flat axe heads, awls, or pins.

Buttons with a V-shaped opening were made from various materials, not only horn and bone but also from various semiprecious stones (e.g., jet) and amber. They were of various shapes, but most commonly were round. In the southwestern Bell Beaker area, buttons of the Tortuga type were also made. Both types of buttons are considered to have served as necklace beads, parts of headdresses, or as decorations sown onto garments.

Still another form of object specifically connected to the Bell Beakers are models of bows made from bone, horn, or boar tusks. They are found mainly in central Europe and appear to have been connected to the religious sphere of life, a confirmation of the high regard given to bow hunting.


SPREAD AND REGIONAL DIFFERENTIATION

The line that divides Europe into areas with and without beakers runs along the Vistula River south to the Moravian Gate, as far as the Central Danube in the vicinity of Budapest, then makes a wide curved turn to the shores of the Adriatic in the region of the Po River delta. The area with Bell Beakers takes in not only a large part of Europe west of this line, but also parts of northern Africa in Algeria and Morocco.

This area is unevenly covered with Bell Beaker sites. They are mostly found in settlement centers—places that have a long tradition of regional development, where settlements of prehistoric societies concentrated over many periods. In the entire Bell Beaker domain there are no examples of sites being found in areas that had a marginal cultural significance in previous times.

There are dozens of regions in Europe and Africa that have concentrations of Bell Beaker settlements. A general geographic apportionment of Bell Beakers was proposed in 1980 by Richard J. Harrison. He divided the beaker area into three main provinces: southern, western, and eastern. In central Europe, this general apportionment should be supplemented by one additional province—the northern—encompassing the area between Jutland, in Denmark, and the lower Vistula River.


The Southern Province. This province takes in the entire Iberian Peninsula, southern France, the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, and Sicily, and it also includes the enclaves in northern Africa (Morocco and Algeria). Especially characteristic to this province are the following objects: Palmela points and V-perforated Tortuga buttons. Characteristic among the ceramic ware is the squat shape of the beaker that typologically corresponds to the S-shaped profile bowls (e.g., Palmela-type bowls) and the frequent painting of the vessel surfaces with red paint.

In this province are found fortified settlements, such as Zambujal and Vila Nova de S~ao Pedro. These settlements had stone walls, bastions, and moats carved into the rock. Their beginnings are connected to earlier cultures, but there is no question that they were used during Bell Beaker times. Traces of metallurgical works were found in many settlements, especially for copper and gold. The southern province is noted for its high production of metal objects. These included daggers, earrings, flat axe heads, Palmela points, awls, and other items.

The funeral rites included single and multiple burials. Many of the dead were placed in rock-cut tombs and in various types of megalithic tombs. These were usually complicated constructions that included hallways and round chambers (similar to the tholos constructions found in the Aegean area). The dead were placed in the fetal position, on their sides, directly on the rock. Caves and grottos were also used for burials.


The Western Province. This province includes the Atlantic shores of France, the British Isles, the entire Rhine basin as far as Switzerland, and the lower part of Germany to the west of the lower Elbe. In this area three main concentrations can be identified: in Brittany, southern England, and on the Lower Rhine. The first two are characterized by the presence of many objects from the megalithic tradition. Combined with Bell Beakers, the megalithic tradition reached its peak, the best example being the "beaker" phase at Stonehenge. In Brittany there is a visible connection to the Iberian area in the form of the Palmela point found there. Characteristic to the western province is the large number of metal items made of copper and gold. These include halberds, lunulae, daggers, and flat axe heads. These are all objects that had definite prestige and insignia value. Burials continued to be made in various types of megalithic monuments, especially in Brittany. In the British Isles and on the Lower Rhine the graves are mainly single burials, with the body placed on its side in the fetal position, often covered by a barrow. In this province we also have much evidence of settlement sites. This is mainly in the form of traces of rectangular post houses. In the British Isles we find a greater variety of house types.

The Eastern Province. This province includes the areas of the upper and central Danube (up to Budapest), the Bohemian-Moravian basin, and the upper basins of the Oder and Vistula Rivers. Among the most characteristic objects found in the eastern province are the model bows made from bone. There were also many copper daggers. In this province, Bell Beakers come into contact with the Balkan Early Bronze Age tradition, and vessels from both traditions appear in the same context.

Bell Beaker artifacts in this area come mainly from single-burial graves where the body was placed in the fetal position and positioned on a north-south axis. The placement of the body (the direction of head and the orientation of the face) was dependent on gender, although the rules governing orientation were regional in nature. For example, in Moravia men were placed on their right side, women on their left side, whereas in Bohemia the positions were reversed. A specific feature of the burial rites in this province is the frequent use of cremation, which was most likely a continuation of earlier traditions from the Balkan area where this custom was known during the Neolithic. Remains of permanent settlements with dwellings are known only in the vicinity of Budapest and consist of large post houses.


The Northern Province. This province includes Jutland in Denmark, then stretches through northern Germany to the lower Elbe, then across northern Poland to the lower Vistula basin. A characteristic attribute of this province is the intense manufacture of flint daggers. Numerous metal items, especially lunulae and halberds, indicate a connection with the western province. A key factor in reconstructing the placement of the northern province in the framework of Bell Beakers is amber. Here were the main centers where amber objects were manufactured and exported to other localities.

This area has yielded many finds of Bell Beaker settlement sites. These often consisted of rectangular huts, built using post construction techniques, with a partly sunken floor. An analysis of house construction in Jutland showed that the Bell Beaker phase was not a time of radical changes but rather a continuation of the steady developments that had been taking place since the beginning of the Neolithic. Bell Beaker burials are known from both the megalithic tombs as well as from a few individual burials where the body was placed in the fetal position.

In the above geographic division of Bell Beakers there are no sharp, definite lines of demarcation. There are many regions that can be characterized by their own Bell Beaker attributes. One such center, for example, is the area on the Saale River in eastern Germany where the attributes of the western and eastern provinces were combined into a unique whole.



METALLURGY

In all the places where Bell Beakers appear we also see the development of metallurgy. This consisted of the working of copper and gold, where most of the objects are made from hammered sheet metal (lunulae, earrings, pins) or simple casting methods (daggers, flat axe heads, Palmela points, halberds). From a typological viewpoint one can speak of a Bell Beaker style that has a uniform character that takes in the whole of the Bell Beaker domain—a rather large area. This was the oldest single-origin style for metal objects in Europe. In addition to the manufactured objects, we are also familiar with the tools used for metalworking. These are of the "smithy" type, mainly stone anvils of various sizes and chiseling tools. Bell Beakers represent a breakthrough where the majority of European societies adapted to the widespread use of metal. Thus began an era where metal objects were always present in society, along with the techniques for working the material. (Earlier there had only been sporadic episodes where the use of metal objects was widespread, for example, in the horizon of the Lengyel, Polgár, and Brześć Kujawski cultures, c. 4500–4000 b.c.)



CHRONOLOGY

In the archaeological literature, there exists a widely held theory about the principal trends in the stylistic development (i.e., the relative chronology) of Bell Beaker ceramic ware. At the beginning were the Maritime beakers, after which follow various types of ceramic ware that have a regional dimension characterized by more squat proportions. A principal change has occurred in our knowledge of the duration of the Bell Beaker period. The image of Bell Beakers as a short-term event that took place at the end of the Copper Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age is a thing of the past. Accurate chronological data from carbon-14 testing of samples from various regions show that Bell Beakers were a long-lasting and dynamic phenomenon. An analysis by Johannes Müller and Samuel van Willigen published in 2001 took into consideration selected carbon-14 determinations on short-lived substances such as bone and plant seeds while omitting samples from long-lasting sources such as wood charcoal. Results of this dating provide a picture of an extended Bell Beaker development period having various features in different regions. Its earliest beginnings were in the southern province (Iberian Peninsula, southern France, and northern Italy) about 2800 b.c. The latest dates extend into the first centuries of the second millennium b.c. and are found in the western and northern provinces. Chronological data show that the development of Bell Beakers took place from the west (more specifically from the southwest) toward the east and northeast.

POSITION OF BELL BEAKERS IN THE PROCESS OF CULTURAL CHANGE

While searching for an explanation for the Bell Beaker phenomenon one must take into consideration not only the characteristic attributes described above. Two other aspects are of importance: the cultural base on which the Bell Beaker phenomenon was shaped and the world of the early Bronze Age cultures that succeeded the Bell Beakers.

Three basic varieties of cultural base can be named: the megalithic world, the Corded Ware culture, and the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age cultures of Carpathian culture basin. In the megalithic zone of western Europe, the Bell Beakers made use of megalithic tombs as well as single graves. Various forms of stone tombs were used, several of which can be seen in the famous cemetery of Sion-Petit Chasseur in Switzerland. In the time of the Bell Beakers there was a flowering of megalithic constructions in the form of complex circles and avenues. These are widely known from examples in southern England. Stonehenge, for example, was developed to its fullest during the Bell Beaker era. Therefore, it can be said that in the megalithic zone, the appearance of Bell Beakers does not break the megalithic tradition, but rather brings it to its apogee.

Likewise, in places where the Bell Beakers came in contact with the Corded Ware culture, the two coexisted. However, there is a definite contrast between the cultural behavior of Bell Beakers and that of the Corded Ware culture, which can be described as a dialectic connection between them. This fact can be best observed in the burial rites. For example, in the Upper Danube both the Bell Beakers and the Corded Ware culture used the same form of mortuary expression (single burial, the body in the fetal position lying on its side, with the two genders placed in opposite ways), but the two groups differ in the specific placement of the bodies.

In the Carpathian culture basin there was interaction between Bell Beakers and the oldest groups of the Early Bronze Age (successors to the Vučedol culture). These contacts developed differently from those in the Corded Ware zone, but similarly to that in the megalithic regions. There are no visible cultural barriers in the development of contacts, which on the level of archaeological practice is problematic for the researchers: there exist many contexts where it is difficult to assign items definitely to one or the other cultural tradition.

Given this evidence, it is difficult to describe the appearance of the Bell Beakers as an invasion that led to radical disruptions in the process of historical change. However, this general picture does not exclude the possibility that in some regions the genesis of Bell Beakers was combined with the phenomenon of migration. One example of this process can be seen in the part of southern Poland known as Małopolska.

In examining the Early Bronze Age cultures that appeared immediately after the disappearance of the Bell Beakers, significant trends are evident. In this domain were the earliest places in Europe (outside the Aegean area) where bronze was made. The list of cultural successors to Bell Beakers is long. Among them are the Wessex, Únětice, Polada, Armorican, Rhône, and Montelavar cultures. Each is characterized by its own style of bronze artifacts, rich deposits of metal objects, an elaborate, stratified society, and an extensive network of cultural contacts. It is difficult to imagine that this prosperous civilized zone was only coincidentally contiguous with the domain of Bell Beakers.


WHAT WERE THE BELL BEAKERS?

It is not accidental that the question is "what were" and not "who were" the Bell Beakers. The latest research confirms the traditional view that Bell Beakers spread from west to east and, more specifically, from southwest to northeast. But the dimensions, from the geographic and the chronological perspective, preclude the possibility of explaining this phenomenon as the expansion of a "Beaker People." In some exceptional instances we can speak about the anthropological characteristics of people who are associated with beaker ware, a situation which we have in Małopolska. In a general comparison, however, the individuals associated with the Bell Beaker "peoples" exhibit great variation in anthropological types and represent a large number of the major European cultural groups from the third and the beginning of the second millennia b.c. While the theory of a "Beaker People" has been discarded, this does not preclude the fact that some migration did occur within the Bell Beaker domain. A spectacular example of this is the rich burial of a man in Amesbury, not far from Stonehenge in southern England. On the basis of isotope testing of the man's teeth, archaeologists concluded that he had spent his youth in the Alpine regions, while his son, buried nearby, was a native Briton.

What were Bell Beakers? The main characteristics are as follows:

  • They were distributed throughout half of Europe, covering an immense area roughly equivalent to that now occupied by the countries of the European Union.
  • The history of Bell Beakers is contained in a time frame that extends for more than one thousand years (though in specific regions the time frame is always shorter).
  • They were a phenomenon with internal dynamics. Starting in the southern province they spread from west to east and lasted the longest in the northern province and in the British Isles.
  • The central feature of Bell Beakers was a set of artifacts connected with the drinking of specific beverages, war, and hunting.
  • These objects were always carefully made, thus having an intrinsic cultural value for their users and are most often found in graves in which a single body was laid in the fetal position on its side.
  • The general typological evolution of Bell Beaker artifacts is similar in all regions; their forms are rather unified in the beginning (as can be seen in the Maritime beakers) but in time acquire regional differentiation.
  • Bell Beakers are closely linked to metallurgy, mainly of copper and gold. As a consequence, metallic items became common across a wide expanse of prehistoric Europe, leading to the manufacture of the first stylistic metal objects on the Continent.
  • The Bell Beaker phenomenon was culturally mobile and moved with great ease from region to region but was concentrated in the established settlement centers.
  • Bell Beakers quickly combined with traditional forms that existed in the various regions. As a result, the appearance of Bell Beakers created no radical interruption in the process of cultural evolution.
  • In the places reached by Bell Beakers, there was a period of civilized prosperity that continued even after the phenomenon had disappeared during the Early Bronze Age.

What then were Bell Beakers? Among the proposed answers, archaeologists now assign a greater role to social factors. These concepts are mainly being developed by British archaeologists. Researchers treat Bell Beakers as a cultural "package." A significant element of this package must have been the libation ritual where the bell-shaped beaker was used. The remaining elements of this package, such as the archery set or the dagger, belong to different spheres of life: war and the hunt. Andrew Sherratt has argued that the beakers were used for the consumption of an alcoholic beverage, probably beer or mead, as part of a growing pattern of warrior feasting and hospitality. The characteristic artifacts of the Bell Beaker complex may well have served as status symbols of an emerging elite whose presence became clearer in the Early Bronze Age of the second millennium b.c. Such theories point to Bell Beakers as an important part of the long process that formed the warrior caste in the societies of later prehistoric Europe. The phenomenon became the basis for the creation of the first permanent hereditary elites among the inhabitants of Europe.

See alsoEarly Metallurgy in Southeastern Europe (vol.1, part 4); The Megalithic World (vol. 1, part 4); Sion-Petit Chasseur (vol. 1, part 4); Corded Ware from East to West (vol. 1, part 4); The Early and Middle Bronze Ages in Central Europe (vol. 2, part 5); Bronze Age Britain and Ireland (vol. 2, part 5).

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Janusz Czebreszuk
(Translated by Peter Obst)