The Early and Middle Bronze Ages in Central Europe

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The definition and chronological framework of the Bronze Age is by no means uniform within the archaeological literature. Various areas had different paths and rhythms of change and development, and regional traditions of research influenced the labeling and periodization of the archaeological material in many ways. Thus, the Bronze Age begins in the last centuries of the fourth millennium b.c. in the Near East and the Aegean, around the middle of the third millennium b.c. in the northern Balkans and the Carpathian Basin, and around 2300 b.c. in central Europe—despite the fact that bronze itself became widespread a few centuries later. The Early Bronze Age of central Europe can be divided up into an early phase from about 2300 to 2000 b.c. and a later phase from about 2000 to 1600 b.c. The Middle Bronze Age (with its own subdivisions) spanned the time between about 1600 and 1350 b.c.

Central Europe will be taken here to consist of modern-day Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia. The geography of this vast area varies widely. It is dominated by large alluvial plains—the Danube Valley, the North European Plain, the Carpathian Basin—and bordered by high mountains, namely the Alps in the south and the Carpathians in the east, along with lower mountainous areas in central Germany, Bohemia, and southern Poland. The large rivers of central Europe (the Danube, Rhine, Oder, and Elbe) and their tributaries provided natural corridors for communication, travel, and trade. The area has a temperate Continental climate: cold, wet winters and warm, moist summers, with precipitation evenly distributed throughout the year. The Bronze Age falls into the so-called Subboreal climatic phase (about 3000–1000 b.c.), with only a slightly lower average temperature and a drier climate than that of today. Climatic changes altered vegetation during this period. Although deciduous forests continued to dominate most of the area, their composition changed: previous forests of oak, linden, and elm gave way to beech, with lime disappearing almost entirely. Human impact had its effect on the landscape as well. Deforestation due to opening up arable land and pasture reached its peak in the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age during the phase of initial occupation of various environmental niches and decreased afterward. Local variation was, however, caused by different scales of wood use: copper mining in the eastern Alps and central Germany required a large amount of wood, as did the continuous rebuilding of timber houses in the Alpine lake settlements, to the extent that regeneration of local forests did not occur.


Pottery Styles. The various environmental zones of central Europe—despite the natural routes connecting neighboring regions—accommodated human groups with fairly diverse material cultures. The most frequent trace of this diversity is evident in the pottery of these communities, and its study constitutes the bulk of traditional archaeological studies. Pottery is classified into regional stylistic groups, often named after "type-sites" or some important characteristic of the style. These groupings are sometimes referred to as "archaeological cultures," a dubious, normative category often equated with prehistoric ethnic groups. Although such an interpretation has come to be strongly questioned, some knowledge of these groupings is essential because archaeological material from various regions is often referred to by these labels.

In Slovakia, for example, the first half of the Early Bronze Age in the western part of the country is characterized by Nitra pottery; in the east we find the so-called Košt'any material. Later on the Nitra develops into Únětice and Mad'arovce styles, whereas Košt'any is followed by Otomani style in the east, with similar or identical material from east Hungary (Füzesabony, Gyulavarsánd) and northwest Romania (Otomani). In Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Switzerland the final phase of Bell Beaker assemblages appear at the very beginning of the Early Bronze Age, which later gives way to various local developments: Straubing and Adlerberg in Germany; Unterwölbing and Wieselburg in Austria; and Únětice (or Aunjetitz) in the Czech Republic, some parts of Germany, and southwestern Poland—the final phase of which is termed Böheimkirchen in Austria and Vĕteřov in the Czech Republic. The Middle Bronze Age shows a more unified picture in terms of pottery styles, with most of central Europe covered by Tumulus culture type or related material with some local variation.

Settlements. The material remains of the period come from various contexts and locations—settlements, burials, and metal hoards—and show significant differences in their geographical and temporal distribution. As for settlements, their occurrence during the Early and Middle Bronze Ages varies considerably both spatially and temporally. Large areas show no signs of settlement at all, and the extension of occupation can only be reconstructed on the basis of the distribution of graves and hoards. In many cases, where settlement remains are found, they only consist of pits dug into the subsoil. There are, however, some areas where archaeologists have good knowledge of house forms, internal settlement organization, and larger settlement patterns as well, especially from the later part of the Early Bronze Age.

The most widespread house form of the Early Bronze Age appears to have been a rectangular timber-frame construction with large posts in the corners and along the longer sides of the houses. The walls were formed by these posts, which were set roughly 1 to 2 meters apart and the gaps filled with reed or wattle and daub. Houses like these were found in the Czech Republic (e.g., at Pospoloprty, Blšany, or Březno), Austria (at Franzhausen or Böheimkirchen), or on the so-called tell settlements (multilayered settlement mounds) of Slovakia. Sizes could vary considerably even within settlements—from smaller buildings, measuring 4 by 6 meters, to larger ones, like a house at Březno that measured 32 by 6.5 meters. Some houses might have internal divisions into two or three rooms (e.g., at Nitriansky Hrádok in Slovakia) or have central posts to support a ridged roof. Other techniques of construction are known as well. Houses might have stone foundations or foundation ditches, they might have wooden plank floors, or they might have been entirely made of wood with the so-called Blockbau technique resulting a "log cabin."

Some of the best-preserved buildings come from lake dwellings in the Alps (southern Germany and Switzerland) preserved in the waterlogged environment. At Zurich-Mozarstrasse rectangular buildings were excavated that had sleeper beams laid directly on the floor and perforated by mortise holes through which posts were inserted and rammed into the ground. A number of various house types have been recovered in Cham-Obervil on Lake Zug and at Padnal near Savognin in Switzerland as well. In Padnal the earliest settlement layer had post-and-plank-built houses, sometimes with stone foundations, in one case with a floor of wooden planks. In later phases houses had stone foundations and wooden walls, and their floors were sometimes paved with stone.

In the Middle Bronze Age evidence for house forms becomes much scarcer. Some earlier settlements in Switzerland (e.g., Bodaman-Schachen) and Slovakia (e.g., Veselé) continued uninterrupted until the end of the initial phase of the Middle Bronze Age, with house types described above. A few other finds—for example from Tannhausen in Bavaria—also confirm the existence of post-built houses with wattle-and-daub walls. Other sites, as at Nitra in Slovakia, show new types: small semisubterranean houses about 3.5 meters wide and 5 meters long.

By looking at larger patterns, a number of different settlement types might be distinguished. Aside from the rarely detectable—small and short-lived—villages and hamlets, one special class is hilltop sites such as those found, for example, in southern Germany and Moravia, located on strategically important locations and rising above and controlling their immediate environment. Similar locations were chosen for larger settlements with impressive fortifications of ditches, ramparts, and palisades. About thirty such sites are known from Slovakia alone, the excavated ones displaying a well-organized, almost urbanistic internal layout, sometimes having narrow alleys between houses that line up in rows; comparable settlements make their appearance in southern Poland, the Czech Republic, and southern Germany.

Such sites were part of a settlement system with a hierarchy of at least two levels. They emerged in the later phase of the Early Bronze Age and indicate an increase both in local warfare and social complexity. They usually occupy easily defendable locations along important trade routes along river valleys, usually at distances of some 10 to 20 kilometers from each other, and were surrounded by smaller, undefended sites.

Burial. In many cases evidence of burial is the only record attesting the prehistoric occupation of an area during the Early and Middle Bronze Ages in central Europe. In this period, burial was usually by inhumation, either under or without a mound. The standard rite in the Early Bronze Age was flat inhumation in cemeteries of various sizes. Bodies were interred either on their sides in a crouched position with their legs bent and pulled upward, or they were placed flat on their backs. Specific details, however, varied from region to region. In this respect, two large groups may be discerned. In the Danube Valley burial rites show a strict gender differentiation in terms of the orientation of the body: men were placed on one side, and women were placed on the other side with their heads lying in the opposite direction. In both groups, resultingly, the face was looking in the same direction. Cemeteries with this kind of burial ritual include the one at Gemeinle-barn in Austria, with grave numbers reaching into the hundreds; at Franzhausen, with well over one thousand graves; and a large number of smaller cemeteries in southern Germany (e.g., at Singen). Graves are arranged in a similar manner in eastern Slovakia, northeast Hungary, and around the area of the borders between Hungary, Romania, and Serbia, although the specific orientation of graves varies regionally. Sometimes even cemeteries near each other show differences in this respect. In the Rhine Valley and in Switzerland graves containing similar material culture do not observe such a differentiation between the sexes, nor do the many smaller cemeteries of the Únětice (or Aunjetitz) area.

In addition to the regular burial rites, exceptional modes of interment have also been observed. Cremation became more frequent around the end of the Early Bronze Age, especially in southwest Slovakia, most probably due to more intense connections with the rest of the Carpathian Basin, where this rite had been practiced since the beginning of the Bronze Age. A number of special burials have been found within the previously described inhumation cemeteries as well. In cemeteries with Únětice-type material, sometimes double or multiple burials occur, usually containing the bodies of a man and a women or an adult and a child or children, suggesting a close relationship between the buried persons. At some Bohemian sites these multiple burials contained the remains of dismembered skeletons; in other cases the head of the deceased was cut off before burial. In many cases traces of wooden coffins or other wooden constructions were found. Sometimes grave pits were walled by stone slabs or marked by stone stelae on the surface.

Grave goods are usually sex-specific in all these burials. Most graves contain personal ornaments, weapons, tools, and pottery. In the earlier part of the Early Bronze Age (c. 2300–2000 b.c.) metal items—usually made of copper—were rare. Male graves were sometimes furnished with triangular copper or bronze daggers, sometimes flat or flanged axes, and (rarely) pins or earrings or hair rings. Female graves contained mostly ornaments, like copper earrings and bracelets. Nonmetal items included flint tools and weapons (arrowheads, scrapers, etc.), bone objects (e.g., awls, pins), or beads made of various materials (such as faience, amber, bone, antler, shells). In the later part of the Early Bronze Age (c. 2000–1600 b.c.) bronze grave goods become more widespread and numerous. New types included various pins, bronze axes, neck rings, bronze pendants, and diadems.

A number of Early Bronze Age graves stand out among the others both in terms of their construction and the richness of their grave goods: these are the so-called princely burials of the Únětice area. Two famous burial mounds are located in Saxo-Thuringia in central Germany. At Leubingen, a barrow about 35 meters in diameter and 8–9 meters high was excavated in 1877. Under the earthen mound a circular ditch surrounded a stone cairn covering a rectangular wooden chamber. A skeleton of an elderly man was laid on the oak planks covering the floor. Another skeleton, probably that of a child, was laid across his hips. Grave goods consisted of a pot, a halberd, three small triangular daggers, two flanged axes, three chisels, two gold "eyelet" pins, one gold spiral bead, a massive gold bracelet, and two gold hair rings.

The other famous barrow near Helmsdorf, excavated in 1907, had a similar size. Here, a stone wall surrounded the central cairn, under which a wooden chamber was found. The floor of the chamber was paved with stone slabs in the northern half and covered with reed in the southern end. The skeleton of an adult man was laid down in a contracted position on its right side on the floor of the chamber. The grave goods—a broken clay vessel, a stone hammer, remains of a bronze dagger and a chisel, a bronze flat axe, a gold spiral bead, two gold earrings, and two gold pins—were placed on the bier as well. At various places, the construction showed traces of burning, probably the results of burial feasts or an attempt at firing the whole structure. (Excavation at a similar barrow, near Dieskau, could only confirm that it had been robbed. However, a gold "hoard" from the same site—three bracelets and a flanged axe—was most probably part of the grave goods deposited in the barrow.)

Because they were made of wood, the burial chambers could be analyzed using dendrochronological methods, providing a date of about 1800 b.c. for the burial at Helmsdorf and about 1900 b.c. for that at Leubingen, putting both at the beginning of the later part of the Early Bronze Age.

Interment under barrows became the standard burial rite in the Middle Bronze Age throughout central Europe. Forms and structure of grave construction differed from region to region, sometimes even within one barrow cemetery. Interment was usually by inhumation; cremation, however, became more and more frequent in some areas, such as Bavaria and eastern Slovakia. Barrows might consist of a simple earthen mound above a grave pit; they might have circular ditches around them; or they might be covered by stones. In some instances stone cist graves were used as well. Grave goods in the Middle Bronze Age still usually consisted of personal ornaments, weapons, and tools. Richer male graves contained a sword, a dagger, and an axe, poorer graves have only one or two of these items. Female graves were furnished with ornaments and jewelry—mostly pins, bracelets, pendants, or belt buttons.

Often these grave goods provide an opportunity to reconstruct prehistoric clothing and the various ways ornaments and jewelry were worn, especially by women. An elaborate bronze headgear for women could be reconstructed based on the finds from three graves from the Early Bronze Age cemetery at Franzhausen in Austria. In the Middle Bronze Age, round spiked or heart-shaped pendants might be worn hanging from a necklace or sewn on the neck of a dress. Bronze pins fastened the dresses in the front at the height of the chest; decorated spiral-ended bands were worn on the ankle; and small bronze buttons were attached to belts or skirts. Bracelets and spiral-ended finger rings were common ornaments as well.


A development in metallurgical techniques and raw materials used for the production of metal objects is one of the main characteristics of the Bronze Age. Although copper had already been in use since the seventh and sixth millennia b.c. in Anatolia, bronze (copper alloyed with tin) makes its appearance much later, in the third millennium b.c., giving its name to a whole prehistoric period. Bronze first appeared in the Near East; the largest concentration of finds appears in Mesopotamia, Iran, and Anatolia, in the early third millennium b.c.—paradoxically in areas without the necessary raw materials. It appears in the Carpathian Basin by the middle of the third millennium b.c. and by the end of the millennium it was the most commonly used metal from the Atlantic coast to Southeast Asia.

What caused such a fast adoption of the new material and the techniques of its production? Bronze is easier to work, especially to cast, than pure copper. It has a lower melting point and is less prone to subsequent fragmentation due to blistering during casting. Tin also hardens the metal, both after casting and hammering, resulting in more efficient tools and weapons. However, in the earliest phase of bronze metallurgy, bronze was rarely used to produce weapons and tools; rather, it was used for jewelry, ornaments, or vessels. This suggests the value placed on other qualities of the metal: possibly its texture and color, since the addition of tin gave copper a golden-brownish shine similar to that of gold, which was also greatly valued in prehistoric times. Furthermore, tin is a rare material with few sources in Europe, and it must have been procured separately from copper from great distances. This could have significantly contributed to its value and attraction as raw material for precious objects.

Procurement. Major sources of tin in Europe are found in Cornwall in Great Britain and in the Bohemian Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains), both of great importance in prehistoric times. Less significant deposits are in Bretagne, the French Massif Central, and northwestern Iberia. Copper sources are more numerous and had already been exploited from the Late Neolithic. One important development, however, was that, whereas in earlier times surface deposits of copper oxides had been used, in the Early Bronze Age sulphide copper ores began to be extracted from greater depths, triggering an intensification of mining activities. Central Europe probably was supplied from a number of different copper sources: the eastern Alpine area, the Harz Mountains in central Germany, the northern Carpathians in eastern Slovakia, and the eastern Carpathians in Transylvania. This latter area probably provided most of the gold used in the Bronze Age of central Europe as well. Although direct traces of prehistoric exploitation are rare, a fairly well studied Bronze Age mining area is known in the Austrian Alps at Mitterberg, southwest of Salzburg. In order to extract the sulphide ores, large pits were created in the rock—with picks, stone hammers, and the help of fire (causing cracks in the rock)—and those pits sometimes later turned into shafts running up to 100 meters long. The separation of the ores took place outside the shafts, probably with the help of water, and the smelting of metal from the ore was usually carried out farther down the mountain slopes. Such intensity of extraction required tremendous organization, especially to facilitate the lighting, ventilation, and drainage of the shafts. The specialized communities carrying out the actual mining were dependent on others for food production and for the procurement of the huge amount of wood that was needed during cracking the rocks, extraction, supporting the shafts, and smelting the ores.

Production. The production of bronze artifacts by bronzesmiths could take place anywhere in local workshops. Based on finds of metallurgical equipment (molds, crucibles, small conical clay nozzles for bellows, stone hammers, and so forth) and the distribution of various types of objects, it seems certain that all areas had their own metalworking centers even when no raw materials were available locally. Based on typological differences, three major metalworking provinces may be discerned in the Early Bronze Age: a Danubian group in the north Alpine area; the Únětice province in central Germany, Bohemia, Moravia, and western Poland; and a Carpathian group in Slovakia with strong ties to more southerly centers within the Carpathian Basin. Early Bronze Age bronze objects include ring ingots, sheet bronze bosses (round, decorated bronze sheets with a half-spherical knob/boss in the middle), spectacle spiral pendants, spiral bracelets and finger rings, metal plaques, arm and leg spirals, simple and solid-hilted triangular daggers, flat and flanged axes, and racket-headed pins with folded tops.

In the later Early Bronze Age there was an even greater variety of metalwork. Daggers became longer and ogival in shape; flanged axes, shaft-hole axes, and halberds appeared, and a number of new pin forms came into use, the most important of which was the pin with perforated spherical head. An important innovation was the manufacture of bronze vessels, of which so far only one is known, found in Skeldal, Denmark, but produced in the Únětice area. The Middle Bronze Age witnessed a typological unification of the area, and the introduction of new types, like longer pins with seal-shaped heads or pins with sickle-shaped twisted shafts, wide ribbed bracelets, heart-shaped pendants, small two- or four-riveted daggers with rounded or trapezoid heels, palstaves, tweezers, and, importantly, new forms of swords.

Hoards. One of the most striking phenomena of the Bronze Age is the deposition of metalwork in hoards. The hoards vary greatly from each other in terms of number of items, number of types buried, or the locations in which they were buried, among other elements. One very important aspect of hoards, however, was the burial of ingots and fragmented objects. Ingots seem to be intermediate forms well suited for transport and easy to cast, serving mainly the purpose of enabling the movement of the raw material to a smith's workshop. However, another aspect seems to be just as significant. The so-called ring ingots of the Early Bronze Age show a remarkable uniformity in their weight (usually 180–200 grams), similar to some forms of early flanged axes and, later, rib-shaped ingots. This might suggest that they played the role of standard weights and units of exchange within a premonetary economic system. The copper in the ingots exhibits a uniform and unusual composition that might be a result of some unique treatment that made it appropriate for such a special use. This interpretation, however, still does not explain the burial of these ingots and axes in hoards containing hundreds of identical pieces. Was such a withdrawal from circulation the result of overproduction beyond the propensity of local consumption? Or was the practice of hoarding intended as an offering for gods, in the hope of receiving a supernatural "guarantee" for the hoarded items' value as currency in the secular sphere? Whatever their purpose, these kinds of hoards soon disappear from the archaeological record, and a similar function seems to have been transferred to bronze fragments broken to pieces of identical weight that appear in hoards from the turn of the Early to Middle Bronze Age (e.g., in the famous hoards of Bühl and Ackenbach) and that have a long history through the Late Bronze Age.

Gold and Silver. Although objects made of bronze abound in the material of this period, artifacts of precious metals are much scarcer. Whereas silver is extremely rare, there are a few important and well-known examples of the use of gold. The finds of "chiefly graves" with gold grave goods from Leubingen and Helmsdorf are perhaps the most famous. In other, less spectacular, graves gold hair rings are sometimes found, and occasionally hoards of gold objects are recovered as well, like that from a fortified settlement at Bernstorf in Bavaria. The most impressive products of Early Bronze Age gold metallurgy, however, are the gold beakers from Fritzdorf near Bonn and Gölenkamp near Hannover in Germany and from Eschenz in Switzerland, dated to around 1600/1500 b.c. They show some similarity to silver beakers found in Brittany and other golden beakers from France and Great Britain, thus connecting them to an Atlantic network of workshops.


The wealthiest segment of Bronze Age society—the chiefs and their immediate retinue—had easy access to the prestigious products of the local and faraway metalworking centers, but most of the population lived under much more modest circumstances. Their most important daily concern was the production of food—the maintenance of the subsistence economy. The communities of central Europe at this time practiced mixed farming: growing crops and raising stock. The most commonly cultivated plants of the Bronze Age were those of the Neolithic as well: emmer, einkorn, and barley. Somewhat less significant were flax, peas, and lentils. Newly introduced species included spelt, millet, broad beans, and oats. There might have been an increase in barley cultivation during the Bronze Age, possibly due to its use as a raw material for making the alcoholic beverages consumed at important social occasions and rituals. Most domesticated animals—cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and dogs—were inherited from Neolithic times as well. One major change was an increase in the exploitation of the horse—which remained fairly rare after its introduction in the Final Neolithic—suggesting an increase in its use as a traction animal and for riding.

The Bronze Age witnessed an intensification in the agricultural practices carried down from the Neolithic, a process that began in the Final Neolithic with the introduction of a number of important innovations sometimes termed the "Secondary Products Revolution": the exploitation of animals for secondary products (milk and other dairy products, power for traction, wool for textile production) and the introduction of plowing with wooden ards (primitive light plows). These innovations made possible a greater diversification of subsistence strategies reflected by changes in land use, occupying a wider range of locations. In many areas pastoralism and transhumance seem to have gained greater importance, with possibly larger numbers of animals kept for their primary and secondary products. This tendency seems to be even more pronounced in the Middle Bronze Age, as reflected by a much more dispersed settlement pattern.

ritual and religion

Although the reconstruction of agricultural practices can be carried out fairly straightforwardly based on plant and animal remains, the observation and interpretation of prehistoric rituals and religious life is a much more difficult task. Without written documents archaeologists can only rely on the recognition of special contexts in which some of the material remains occur, and from this they must try to reconstruct complex systems of beliefs that influenced most spheres of life.

The multilayered settlement mounds of Slovakia and the central and eastern part of the Carpathian Basin provide an interesting case to point out for description. These tells were built up during hundreds of years through the cyclical burning of houses and their rebuilding at the same location, on top of the ruins of their predecessors. This cyclical, constantly recurring practice is best explained as a conscious action, the deliberate destruction of living place, most probably connected to the life cycles of their owners. The rebuilding of the same structures in the same places can be viewed as connected to the worship of ancestors and ancestral places. Although destruction implies discontinuity, the rebuilding reinforces continuity and legitimation through a connection with the past and the ancestors. Special places having some significance in local mythologies were probably also singled out for settlement and continuous (re)occupation.

These settlements were the location of many special depositions, in pits or wells. At Gánovce in central Slovakia, for example, a deep well apparently containing ritual depositions was found in the middle of a settlement. The fill contained a large amount of pottery, plant and animal remains, burned ashes, human bones, birch bark cups, and one of the earliest iron objects in Europe: a sickle blade. Other settlements contain similar depositions of pottery and of bronze and gold objects in pits among houses or under the house floors. Some of these hoards contain only pottery—usually sets of intact drinking cups, which makes clear that the hoards were not simply rubbish pits. The cups seem to be the remains of feasts and rituals connected to various social occasions, like rites of passage, and suggest the consumption of alcoholic beverages on such events, after which the vessels used were buried.

Indeed, one of the most important, archaeologically visible, prehistoric ritual activities was the deposition of hoards of copper, bronze, and gold objects. Although previous generations of archaeologists tended to interpret these as personal or communal property buried in times of danger and never subsequently retrieved, an interpretation that views the hoarding as an element of ritual is becoming more and more accepted. Many of the hoards were buried in special, isolated locations in the landscape: in rivers, lakes, or fens; under large rocks; in caves; in mountain passes; on top of hills or mountains. Sometimes the contents and the mode of deposition of the hoards point at their ritual nature as well. Objects were deposited in waters or fens from where they could never be retrieved. The arrangement of the buried objects sometimes shows a great degree of care, which contradicts the interpretation that the items were hastily hidden valuables. In other cases the objects were deliberately damaged or fragmented, seemingly in order to avoid further profane use. The deposition of such votive assemblages now appears to represent a gift exchange between humans and supernatural forces through which people hoped to establish reciprocal obligations and influence the gods. At some of these sacred places the burial of hoards continued through hundreds of years; such places later became sanctuaries dedicated to gods. For example, around Melz in northern Germany a large concentration of Early Bronze Age hoards was observed. At Dresden-Dobritz four metal hoards, one pottery deposition, and a hoard of metal vessels were found within a small area, on a strip of land 200–300 meters long and 80 meters wide along the river Elbe. At Berlin-Spandau remains of a post-built structure, a sort of pier leading into the water, were recovered. A selected group of objects had been deposited here in the Early and Middle Bronze Ages, probably not at the same time, but over a long period. All the artifacts were weapons, and some of them arrived here from longer distances. Two swords came from northern Germany or Scandinavia, a solid-hilted dagger came from Denmark, and another sword came from eastern France. This and similar sites show that these sacred locations had interregional significance, similar to the famous sanctuaries of classical Greece.

A unique and highly significant find from the Bronze Age fortified settlement of Mittelberg near Nebra in central Germany shows again that such settlements were indeed ritual centers as well. Beside a hoard of bronze objects (two swords, two flanged axes, a chisel, and fragments of arm spirals) dated to around 1600 b.c., a bronze disk with gold inlays was recovered in a stone cist (fig. 1). The inlays represent the sun, the crescent moon, and the starry sky, with the Pleiades constellation of seven stars clearly recognizable. Two gold bands on the rim present the horizon while a third band between them seems to be a representation of a ship—an object that will gain significant ritual connotation in the later history of the Bronze Age—traveling across the nocturnal celestial ocean. Although a full study of this new find has not been published yet, it will most certainly enrich our understanding of prehistoric astronomy, mythology, and cosmology.

exchange networks

Trade and exchange were important factors in the social and economic development of any given area, triggering important changes and contributing to the increase of social complexity. In addition to the flow of raw materials and finished objects, exchange networks also provided a framework for the flow of information through which important inventions,

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innovations and new technologies spread throughout Europe. These networks can be mapped by identifying the distribution of rare materials (e.g., amber, tin, copper, and gold) or the appearance of objects outside their densest distribution area where they were most probably manufactured.

The most important and widely exchanged raw materials of the Bronze Age were, obviously, tin and copper, used to manufacture bronze objects. Although the sole source of tin in central Europe is the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) in Bohemia, copper is more widely found, as described above. Amber is found on the shores of the Baltic Sea and western Jutland in Denmark. Other traded raw materials must have included gold, probably from Transylvanian sources, and salt from seashores and surface deposits, for example in the area around Halle on the Saale River in central Germany. Exchanged finished products include bronze objects, sometimes pottery, and also archaeologically invisible, or almost untraceable, items like textiles, furs, and possibly foodstuffs.

Although traffic in these commodities wove a web of connections throughout central Europe on the basis of already existing trade patterns, by the Bronze Age central Europe also had become part of a much larger exchange network that is sometimes

labeled a "prehistoric world-system." Although temperate Europe played only the role of a "margin" in the system of the Near Eastern "core area" and an important "periphery" in Anatolia, these links were a significant factor in the development of social and economic complexity.

It seems that emerging urban centers in Anatolia established connections with European communities around the mouth of the Danube and beyond. During the Early Bronze Age (c. 2300–1600 b.c.), the Danube became an important axis of exchange along which objects and information about new technologies were exchanged. Ring ingots and so-called Cypriot wound-wire pins reached Troy (in northwest Asia Minor), Egypt, and Byblos (modern Jubayl, Lebanon) on the Levantine coast. Transylvanian gold might have traveled to Anatolia. The systematic use of copper alloys might have been begun as a result of Anatolian contacts: indeed, a non-European source for the tin of the earliest European bronze artifacts, produced before the exploitation of Bohemian tin started, cannot be excluded. A few exotic items—like a slotted dagger of Anatolian or Aegean origin found together with amber beads, wound-wire pins, and an ingot ring at Kyhna in Saxony—made their ways into the center of the Continent. These stimulated already existing local exchange cycles and triggered a demand for prestige items obtained through long-distance connections.

In the later Early Bronze Age another innovation reached the Carpathian Basin and central Europe via this route: the two-wheeled "chariot." Although constructions probably remained simple, these were still elite items and remained so for a long time, as rich wagon burials of the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age show. Decorated antler cheekpieces for bridle bits found in Slovakian and Moravian fortified sites also attest their connection to the local elites. These fortified sites along the tributaries of the Danube were located on the most important trade routes to the north: the source of amber. Prestigious bronze objects such as decorated shaft-hole axes and solid-hilted swords produced in the Carpathian Basin or a small bronze vessel manufactured in the Únětice area reached Denmark via this network (fig. 2, left). Central Europe also had important connections with the Atlantic area, as shown by the appearance of so-called Armorico-British-type daggers in the cemetery of Singen in southwestern Germany or two amber beads from Switzerland: one with gold casing found at Zurich-Mozartstrasse and a star-shaped one from Arbon-Bleiche, both probably manufactured in the Wessex area in Great Britain.

In the Middle Bronze Age this axis of trade shifted. The Danube became less important, routes to northern Europe realigned along a north-south axis via Germany, and the passes through the Alps from central Europe to Italy gained significance. Through this route European communities came into indirect contact with Mycenaean communities establishing connections with the Tyrrhenian coast in western Italy. Baltic amber reached Mycenae and was found in the famous Shaft Graves. Since at this time no other amber finds are known to Greece, this seems to be an instance of directional trade with only few intermediaries (fig. 2, right). At Bernstorf (Bavaria, southern Germany), in a Middle Bronze Age fortified hilltop settlement dated to about 1600–1400 b.c., a number of amber beads were found (together with the hoard of gold objects mentioned above), two of which deserve special attention. One of them had a face of a man carved on one side with a few incised signs on the other side. The other one had four incised signs on it, three of which have been identified as Linear B signs—the writing of the Late Bronze Age Mycenaean kingdoms of Greece—whereas the fourth probably represents a ship. It seems that the raw material—amber—reached the Aegean world from the Baltic area where it was written on using the local writing system. Later on it returned to central Europe and was deposited at a local fortified center.

society and community

In the early third millennium b.c. a new concern with prestige and social stratification, and the representation of these through the deposition of copper objects, is observable in the archaeological record. In the first phase of the Early Bronze Age (c. 2300–2000 b.c.), this tendency continues, although with regional differences: in Bohemia and central Germany, only a narrow range of variation in grave goods is observable, whereas in the Danube Valley an increase in the differentiation of grave goods—suggesting slightly greater social differentiation—is apparent from the beginning of the Bronze Age. This incipient social ranking seems based on an increasing intensification of the subsistence economy, since greater social stratification seems to emerge in fertile and agriculturally very productive regions not too far away from metal sources. Later on, however, with the increase of bronze production, metal artifacts do not simply reflect social status. It seems that access to, and control of, metal sources and prestige items circulating in exchange networks became necessary sources of political and economic control.

In the later phase of the Early Bronze Age (c. 2000–1600 b.c.), the different nature of economic and political power and a greater social differentiation is also reflected by the emergence of two-level settlement hierarchies in certain regions, where one or two fortified sites surrounded by a number of smaller, undefended settlements dominated and controlled smaller areas, usually along river valleys. These settlements were probably the residences of local chiefs and their immediate retinue and served as nodal points in exchange networks and as centers of economic production. Various regions, however, reacted in various ways to the intensification of bronze production. In the northern periphery, in central Germany and Poland, the chiefly burial mounds and their rich grave goods are probably witnesses of the emergence of the monopolistic position of local elites in terms of access to metal and prestige-goods exchange. Such a monopoly of the elite could not develop in areas closer to metal sources with more dense exchange networks. In those areas a much more competitive situation emerged, leading to warfare and the construction of fortifications around local centers. This was accompanied by the crystallization of a male warrior ethos, expressed in the much more elaborate and richly decorated weaponry of the elite, deposited in large numbers in graves and hoards.

The Middle Bronze Age (c. 1600–1350 b.c.) saw again a transformation of these structures. It has been argued that the changes in material cultural distributions during this period, showing a much greater uniformity throughout the whole of central Europe, are characteristic of more expansive communities with an economy placing greater emphasis on stock raising and mobility. The warrior ideology seems to have spread to the west and was adapted to a more decentralized social and political environment, as monumental burial mounds furnished with weaponry and other symbols of wealth show. Similarities not just in material cultural in general, but also in the combination of weapons and status symbols over large areas, indicate the existence of a warrior elite without centralized leadership. These communities probably formed loose alliances strengthened by the exogamous marriage practices of their leaders. This phenomenon is easily reconstructable on the basis of the appearance of foreign female ornament sets in various areas. These connections delineate a north-south axis of connections and movement of women that coincides with the main axis of trade relations. This may be related to new strategies of transmitting properties as well. Exogamous marriage is usually a characteristic of decentralized, expansionist societies and is accompanied by the paying of bride wealth mostly consisting of movable wealth (instead of land). Thus, in this period marriage patterns were more open, enabling the formation of alliances between smaller chiefdoms and establishing long-distance exchange networks.

Similar changes are observable during the later prehistoric development of European societies as well. The processes of centralization (with an emphasis on access to land and characterized by fortified centers) and decentralization (with greater mobility and dispersed settlements) return almost cyclically, leading finally to the emergence of archaic states just before the expansion of the Roman Empire, which substantially transformed the social and economic landscape of the Continent.

See alsoMilk, Wool, and Traction: Secondary Animal Products (vol. 1, part 4); Late Neolithic/Copper Age Central Europe (vol. 1, part 4); Bell Beakers from West to East (vol. 1, part 4); The Significance of Bronze (vol. 2, part 5); Spišský Štvrtok (vol. 2, part 5); Late Bronze Age Urnfields of Central Europe (vol. 2, part 5).


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Vajk SzeverÉnyi

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The Early and Middle Bronze Ages in Central Europe

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