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Kingdoms of the British Isles

Early Cultures


Bell Beaker Culture (Chalcolithic / Bronze Age) (Britain)
c.2700 - 1800 BC

The Bell Beaker culture arrived in Neolithic Britain around 2700-2500 BC. It was long thought that these incomers had intermingled fairly peacefully with the people of the existing Neolithic culture, adopting their henges and their henge-building ways.

A wrinkle in this cosy view was detected with the publication of DNA research in an early 2018 edition of Nature. It had been found that the spread of the Beaker complex had introduced high levels of Indo-European steppe-related ancestry, and was associated with the replacement of approximately ninety percent of Britain's gene pool within a few hundred years (this can easily be achieved by sidelining existing indigenous males rather than through outright genocide).

It is unclear whether the Bell Beaker arrival was an invasion of a self-contained people, complete with families and herds of cattle, or an influx of a new ruling elite. Later arrivals of Celtic groups would eventually dominate the country in much the same way as the Beaker folk, but these were more likely to be small numbers of arrivals who simply ruled the existing population (their cousins, given that Beaker folk and Celts stemmed from the same West Indo-European origins).

With the Beaker folk the jury is still out, although they do seem to have shifted across eastern and Central Europe as entire populations. There, the first wave of them appear to have been ninety per cent R1b in DNA terms, indicating that they either drove away, killed or (most likely) sidelined males of the Neolithic Y-DNA type I (I1, I2) peoples who originally inhabited Central Europe.

In Britain, even if they only formed a new elite, they would seem to have taken the native women for themselves and left the native men almost entirely without hope of producing their own families. Whatever the form of their migration, these people were farmers and archers, wearing stone wrist guards to protect their arms from the sting of the bowstring.

They introduced the roundhouse, which echoed in shape both henges and barrow mounds, made their own distinctive pottery, and were eventually responsible for producing the first woven garments in Britain. They also appear to have introduced the first known alcoholic drink, a form of honey-based mead. This new drinking culture was a key part of Bell Beaker culture across Western Europe, along with the distinctive pots.

They brought with them new burial practices so that Neolithic long barrows or cairns were replaced by smaller barrows or tumuli. They also brought in new metalworking techniques, in copper and gold, heralding the start of the Chalcolithic period.

They came from a society which stretched across Europe (with fellow West Indo-Europeans covering much of Germany and northern and southern France excluding the Central Massif, and with cultural dominance also across most of Iberia).

They introduced a patriarchal society in which the individual warrior-chieftain became the most important and powerful figure, replacing the existing egalitarian society which built Stonehenge. They gained their name, which is sometimes given as Bell Beaker Folk, through their use of a large number of bell-shaped drinking cups and jars called beakers. Burials with these pots alongside the dead have been used by archaeologists to chart the growth and expansion of the Beaker folk.

MapIt was later Beaker-created culture which was disrupted in the twelfth century BC. The Atlantic Bronze Age reached southern Britain around this time, possibly being transported by Proto-Celtic settlers (see map link) into Prydein during a period of intense disruption which took place as far afield as the Near East, where the collapse of the Hittite empire was a major act in a century of turmoil.

Although many would have stayed put and accepted their new proto-Celtic overlords, some would have migrated westwards to avoid them, or were already in the west. Here they remained safe from Celtic domination for much longer, and when that domination finally came, it may only have been through the imposition of the aforementioned warrior elite.

Today's Wales still provides hints of where the Beaker folk and Neolithic people remained to some extent separated. South Wales has Bell Beaker types with a Neolithic admixture, while the mountains of central Wales contain the stockier, more round-headed Neolithics.

Judging from that alone one would posit that West-Indo-Europeans took over and settled the South Wales lowlands, without substantially settling the mountains of central Wales, possibly one of those few, ten percent survival areas of Neolithic DNA.

Egtved girl of the Bronze Age

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from the documentary programme, Secrets of the Stonehenge Skeletons, with Mike Parker Pearson, first screened in the UK by Channel 4 Television in 2013, from The Celts, TGE Powell, from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, and from External Links: Stonehenge, and The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe (Nature), and Vast Neolithic circle of deep shafts (The Guardian), and East Anglian Fens were covered in yew trees (The Guardian).)

c.2600 - 2500 BC

With the influx of the Beaker folk adding fresh impetus to the work, the construction of Phase III of Stonehenge is begun at this time and continues until around 1600 BC. Aligned with the sunset of the winter solstice, the monument undergoes a complicated sequence of settings of large stones. This starts with a series of Bluestones placed in the Q and R Holes (Sub-Phase 3i).

The most impressive stages in the construction of Stonehenge took place between 2600-2500 BC, but work continued for another millennium

The Bluestones are subsequently dismantled and a circle of sarsens and a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of Trilithons is erected (Sub-Phase 3ii). The Sarsen Circle is comprised of thirty upright sandstone blocks (only seventeen now remain standing).

They support sarsen lintels which form a continuous circle around the top, with each sarsen probably being brought to the site from the Marlborough Downs, about thirty kilometres to the north.

FeatureA huge settlement, one of the largest seen in Britain, is used by the people who build Stonehenge. Its remains are discovered by archaeologists in 2006. This site at Durrington Walls seems to be occupied seasonally, being used for ritual feasting and funeral ceremonies.

Neolithic people from all over the region are probably drawn here, enjoying massive feasts in the midwinter, where prodigious quantities of food are consumed. The bones are then tossed onto the floors of the houses to be unearthed 4,600 years later.

Durrington Walls
Durrington Walls, the discovery of which was announced by archaeologists in 2006, is surrounded by the even more amazing find (announced in 2020) of Durrington Shafts

Durrington also has its own henge made of wood, which is strikingly similar in layout to Stonehenge but which aligns to the sunrise of the winter solstice.

c.2550 - 1600 BC

The final stages of the construction and use of Stonehenge, Phase III Sub-Phase 3vi, comprises two circles, one inside the other, known as the Y and Z Holes. These are dug for the placement of stones but are never filled.

Probably also dating to Phase III are the four Station Stones. These sarsen stones stand just inside the bank on more or less the same line as the Aubrey Holes. Also assigned to Phase III are Stoneholes D and E and the recumbent sarsen known as the Slaughter Stone.

The earthwork known as the Avenue is probably laid about now, extending north-east from the break in the bank-and-ditch. Located further along is the so-called 'Heel Stone' (Stone 96).

c.2200 BC

A 2023 study of hundreds of tree trunks which have inadvertently been dug up by fenland farmers in modern England's historic East Anglia region finds that this woodland abruptly disappears around 2200 BC. The disappearance is thought to be due to a rapid rise in the North Sea which floods this low-lying region with saltwater.

East Anglia's fens
The flat landscape of the East Anglian fens is known for its vast arable fields and a distinct absence of large numbers of trees, thanks to intense flooding in the late third millennium BC

This sea level rise coincides with other big climatic changes which are taking place elsewhere around the world, including a mega-drought in China and the Near East.

The latter involves an intense dry period in a fragile farming region which results in the decline of Sumerian civilisation, the Akkadian empire, and the Egyptian Old Kingdom, and the start of Egypt's ' First Intermediate' period.

c.2000 BC

The beginning of the Bronze Age in Britain can be placed around this point in time. Although not certain, it is generally thought that the new bronze tools and weapons which are identified with this period are introduced from continental Europe, with this possibly informing the new Wessex culture which now emerges.

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