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European Kingdoms

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Early Cultures IndexEarly Southern Europe

The pre-history of Europe is a long and largely uncertain period in which small windows of opportunity to view events can be gained through archaeology. Masses of material are found each year by archaeologists, and a system was long ago needed to help organise all these findings. The system that evolved in the early twentieth century was one that involved cultures, with each culture being defined by distinct similarities in burials, settlements, technology, or objects in space and time. Archaeological cultures remain the framework for global prehistory.

These cultures are defined on the basis of pot sherds, grave types, architecture, and other material remains. They are meant to capture and define regional variation within a broad sweep of generally similar artefacts. They show the progress of cultural advancement, where such advancement usually means replacing one culture with another to highlight a marked progression. This practice tends to result in a profusion of cultural names, some of which refer to the same culture but which bear different names when they cut across modern national borders. Every attempt has been made here to combine different cultural names that refer to the same culture. The relationship between the archaeological cultures listed here and the living cultures which they represent may seem tenuous, but every attempt has also been made to link, where possible, perceived social and linguistic cultures with their matching archaeological cultures. The social and linguistic fields are more theoretical than the archaeological ones, and there is resistance on both sides by academics when it comes to accepting the other, but recent progress has shown that both disciplines can work well together.

Prehistory IndexEurope's earliest cultures are perhaps the easiest to catalogue and also amongst the most frustrating, the latter due to the relatively small number of artefacts (and also population figures) left behind to provide evidence of existence. These early cultures include the near-universally widespread Aurignacian and Gravettian (the latter with Venus figurines as one characteristic feature), and the Solutrean (which was characterised by finely-made microliths). The last two are especially interesting as they chart human progress after around 25,000 BC, roughly around the time at which the most recent ice age was building to a peak (much more severely in Europe than in Central Asia) and shortly after the last of Europe's Neanderthals had died out. Now humans had no cultural competition except from other humans, provided of course that they could survive another 15,000 years of Ice Age (see the 'Prehistoric World' index for information on pre-modern human Earth, via the link on the right).

Once the ice had retreated and Europe had become a much more hospitable place, human cultures became increasingly regionalised, or at least confined to areas less expansive than the entirety of Europe. The Magdalenian culture of circa 17,000 to 12,000 BC includes the well-known cave art of Lescaux (in France) and Altamira (in Spain), with the earliest dated sites being in France. These people were the classic 'reindeer hunters', although roe deer and horse among other animals were also hunted. However, this is where complexity begins to appear, with the uncertain Badegoulian Interlude (around 18,000-14,000 BC) causing some debate. Such complexity only increases as human populations increase. Cultures become increasingly regional in order to define differences in archaeological terms. Sadly, identifying humans on ethnic and linguistic terms is even harder, if not entirely impossible before a certain level of recentness is reached. The linguistic side of identification really comes into its own with the appearance of proto-Indo-Europeans in the fifth and fourth millennia BC.

Cataloguing the vast range of human cultures is a complex process. It starts off reasonably easily, with the result that most early European cultures can be included on one page. As cultures become more numerous, and rival cultures spring up in different regions at the same time, listing them on one page becomes more complicated. Care has been taken to log rival and neighbouring cultures in each entry but, after a certain point, Europe can be divided up into increasingly smaller regions, starting with the north/south divide used here. The easiest way to view it all is as the roots of a tree, with the main trunk starting here and heading down through the page (ie. into the soil) and the ever-smaller roots forking outwards to link into other pages.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, and Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds).)

Homo Neanderthalis

Early Cultures IndexAzilian Culture (Epi-Palaeolithic / Upper Mesolithic)
c.17,000 - 12,000 BC

This Epi-Palaeolithic (Late Palaeolithic) culture succeeded the Magdalenian in Spain and southern France. The Magdalenian continued in the north to evolve into more than one regional type, including the Hamburg and Sauveterrian (which stretched from northern France and into Central Europe). The Azilian was a much simplified form of the Magdalenian with nowhere near the richness of Magdalenian culture (especially its art). The latter's success seems to have been built on an abundance of food, allowing time for leisure and the development of religion and aesthetics. The Azilian existed in a region and during a period in which resources seem to have been tougher to access. The more time that had to be spent on hunting and gathering, the less there was to spend on creating art.

Discovered by French archaeologist E Piette in 1887-1889, the culture was named after the Mas-d'Azil cave in the department of Ariège in southern France. It was found primarily on the territory of France and the then-Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). The people of this culture formed tribes of hunters (hunting red deer, roe, and wild boar), fishermen, and gatherers. It was characterised by small silicon tools: insets of geometric contours (microliths), flat harpoons from antlers of the red deer, and the so-called Azilian pebbles (small flat river pebbles, mainly of quartzite, painted in conventional patterns with red ochre). More than two hundred such pebbles have been found in the Mas-d'Azil cave. They are considered to be close to the Australian churinga and are believed to have had religious and magical significance. In time the Azilian, weak as it already was, came to be influenced by the Sauveterrian - and then dominated by it.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Pervobytnoe obshchestvo, P P Efimenko (Third Ed, Kiev, 1953), from Istoriia pervobytnogo obshchestva, V I Ravdonikas (Part1, Leningrad, 1939), from Préhistoire de France, F Bourdier (Paris, 1967), from Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Moravia, Martin Oliva (Moravian Museum, 2005), from Europe in the Neolithic: The Creation of New Worlds, A W R Whittle (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and from The Origins of European Thought, R B Onians (Cambridge University Press, 1988).)

c.6000s BC

Although post-dating the specific Azilian period, a find that is dated to the seventh millennium BC is ascribed to the Azilian. The Ofnet Caves on the edge of the Nördlinger Ries in Germany are the remnants of an underground karst system. A 1908 discovery by R R Schmidt turns up thirty-three human skulls in two dish-shaped pits, described as sitting there 'like eggs in flat baskets'. The larger of the pits contains twenty-seven of the skulls. Each has been arranged so that it faces towards the setting sun before being covered with a thick layer of red ochre. The removal and positioning of the heads is presumed to be linked to religious overtones.

Azilian culture pebbles
Azilian pebbles have been found in large numbers, and the prevailing theory is that they provided some form of religious and/or magical relevance

Early Cultures IndexBell Beaker Culture (Europe) (Chalcolithic Age / Bronze Age)
c.2800 - 1800 BC

The Bell Beaker started out as an horizon rather than an archaeological culture. A horizon is different from a culture because it is less robust - it is defined on the basis of just a few traits - and is often superimposed on local archaeological cultures as a kind of trend. The Bell Beaker in Late Neolithic Europe is defined primarily by a widespread style of decorated drinking cup (beakers), this being the source of the culture's name (whose practitioners can also be labelled as Bell Beaker Folk). Burials with these pots alongside the dead have been used by archaeologists to chart the growth and expansion of the Beaker folk. In many places the culture also introduced a few new weapon types (such as copper daggers and also including polished stone wrist-guards) which diffused through Europe alongside a new fashion in social drinking. In most places these styles were superimposed upon pre-existing archaeological cultures.

Bell Beaker society expanded to cover all of Iberia, reaching most of modern Germany when it met the newly-arriving West Indo-European groups which had just migrated into southern Germany and northern Italy as part of the Yamnaya horizon. When they took it up it became a true culture as many of them continued to migrate - into what is now France (excluding the Central Massif) and into the British Isles. Bell Beaker introduced a patriarchal society in which the individual warrior-chieftain became the most important and powerful figure. This governing structure had been a key feature of the later Indo-European cultures during their time on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, so it seems that they retained it here, adding it to their version of Bell Beaker. This reinvigorated culture replaced the existing Mesolithic egalitarian societies that it met, perhaps most notably the people who built the earlier stages of Stonehenge in ancient Britain.

There is still a good deal of debate about just what propelled the expansion of the Bell Beaker culture, but the view outlined above is certainly a favourite. DNA research published early in 2018 in Nature did a lot to seal the argument. Limited genetic affinity was detected between Beaker-complex-associated individuals from Iberia and those in central Europe, excluding migration as an important mechanism of spread between these two regions and therefore classifying this first stage as an horizon, which doesn't require physical migration. However, migration was found to have had a key role in the further dissemination of the Beaker complex, most clearly in Britain, where the spread of the Beaker complex introduced high levels of steppe-related ancestry and was associated with the replacement of approximately ninety percent of Britain's gene pool within a few hundred years, continuing the east-to-west expansion that had brought steppe-related ancestry into central and northern Europe over the previous centuries.

This replacement of much of the Neolithic population by one with a steppe-related ancestry also changed the language. The previous language may plausibly have been related to Basque, and possibly even Kvenish, the remnants of a European-wide post-ice age language which had been shared across southern Europe while its speakers were sheltering from the worst of the ice. This new language seems most likely to have been of a Q-Italic type, similar in many respects to that spoken by the Latins of Italy. When the Bell Beaker folk carried on migrating westwards after reaching central Europe, the Latins and other Proto-Italics stopped and developed in a different direction. What seems to have been a later migratory Indo-European group speaking Q-Celtic joined these proto-Italics to become the Proto-Celts. By around 1200 BC the first Q-Celtic speakers were arriving in Britain, and they may well have been able to comprehend much of what the descendants of the Bell Beaker folk were saying.

(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 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, from The Celts, TGE Powell, and from External Link: The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe (Nature).)

2800 - 2000 BC

A shift to drier conditions has been taking place since about 3300 BC. Pollen core samples from across Eastern Europe - notably across the Pontic-Caspian steppe between the Don and the Irtysh (in Kazakhstan) - show that forests sharply decline and Artemisia (an arid herb indicator) increases. As a result the steppe has been growing and the steppe people have kept on increasing their herds, feeding them by moving them more often, and their new wagons help them to do this almost constantly.

This has resulted in a flood of migration into central Europe and northern Italy, part of the Yamnaya horizon. It is these West Indo-Europeans who now pick up the influence of the originally-Iberian Bell Beaker horizon. They do so enthusiastically, turning it into a true culture, and they continue their migration westwards into France while others of their number remain in northern Italy as the Proto-Italics. As Bell Beaker is also introduced into northern Italy, it must be through these proto-Italic people.

Bell Beaker pots
Shown here is a selection of highly distinctive bell-shaped pots which were created by the Bell Beaker folk between around 2900-1800 BC in Europe and the British Isles

c.2700 - 2500 BC

The Beaker culture begins to arrive in Britain in this period, intermingling fairly peacefully with the existing Neolithic culture and adopting its henges. The Beaker folk bring new burial practices with them so that Neolithic long barrows or cairns are replaced by smaller barrows or tumuli. They also bring new metalworking techniques with them, in copper and gold, heralding the start of the Chalcolithic age.

from c.2500 BC

Central Europe's Bronze age (2500-900 BC), which flourishes around 1700 BC, marks the approximate beginning of the Unetice culture (which emerges out of the Beaker group). This is found on both sides of the Elbe and northwards to the Baltic Sea in what is today the Czech Republic, western Poland and Germany. It represents a fusion of the Corded Ware and Beaker traditions and is considered by many to be Proto-Celtic.

It is this Unetice group which introduces bronze objects into the region and makes prestigious objects mainly for the elite of the area and mainly as status symbols. Many of these bronze objects end up as votive offerings in bogs. It is not clear whether these people are ancestors of the eastern Hallstatt and La Tène Celts, but they may be cousins, and may also lay the grounds for a later possible presence of Belgae in the northern central European region.

One of the better-documented sites of this period is Auvernier on Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. Radiocarbon and dendochronological dates suggest two occupations, in 2350 BC and 1950 BC (Suess and Strahm, 1970). There are remarkable similarities between sites in France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, and Italy (particularly around Lake Garda) at this time which shows extensive contact between the trans-Alpine and southern Alpine areas.

2200 - 1800 BC

Bell Beaker culture gradually fades in mainland Europe as it is replaced by successor cultures. In Italy this could be by the Terramare culture. Its progression westwards and subsequent dissipation can be seen as a wave-front effect, sweeping all before it but not able to maintain such a dramatic dominance behind that wave-front.

Stonehenge
Completed by Bell Beaker folk, Stonehenge was probably abandoned in the seventeenth century BC as an anachronism that was no longer part of the lives of the people

c.1200 BC

MapBell Beaker culture in Britain is disrupted, possibly by the arrival of Q-Celtic-speaking Proto-Celtic settlers during a period of intense disruption that is taking place as far afield as the Middle East, where the collapse of the Hittite empire is a major act in a century of turmoil. Although many Bell Beaker people will remain where they are and accept their new Celtic overlords, some will migrate westwards to avoid them, or are already in the west. Here they remain safe from Celtic domination for much longer, and when that domination finally comes, it may only be through the imposition of a warrior elite.