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European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Bell Beaker Culture (Chalcolithic / Bronze Age) (Western & Central Europe)
c.2800 - 2300 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.

Initial Bell Beaker society expanded to cover all of Iberia and then the Early Balearic Islands. Then it reached most of modern Germany where 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. It no doubt also provided a heavy layer of early influence on the Alpine groups, the Raeti and Euganei, and the Italian plains and coastal tribes of the Ligurians and Veneti.

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 they retained it here, adding it to their version of Bell Beaker. This reinvigorated culture replaced the existing largely-egalitarian Neolithic Farmer societies which it met, perhaps most notably the people who built the earlier stages of Stonehenge in 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 which had brought steppe-related ancestry into central and Northern Europe over the previous centuries.

It also added an early Indo-European layer (seemingly of Q-Italic-speakers) to Iberia, where ancestry would become increasingly muddled by later Urnfield and Hallstatt arrivals alongside the native Aquitani.

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 the aforementioned 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.

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 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 Links: The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe (Nature), and Gran Enciclopedia Aragonesa (in Spanish), and Celtiberia.net (in Spanish), and Lista de pueblos prerromanos de Iberia (in Spanish, Hispanoteca.eu), and Euskomedia (in Spanish).)

c.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.

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

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 Bell Beaker 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.

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 period.

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 today's Czechia, western Poland and Germany. It represents a fusion of the Corded Ware and Beaker traditions and is considered by many to be Proto-Celtic.

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
This map showing Late Bronze Age cultures in Europe displays the widespread expansion of the Urnfield culture and many of its splinter groups, although not the smaller groups who reached Britain, Iberia, and perhaps Scandinavia too (click or tap on map to view full sized)

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.

c.2200 - 1800 BC

Bell Beaker culture gradually fades in mainland Europe as it is replaced by successor cultures (largely the Unetice in Central Europe, the Atlantic Bronze Age in the west (from about 1300 BC), the Terramare culture in Italy, the Argaric culture in Iberia, the Wessex culture in Britain, and the Armorican Tumulus 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.

Completed by Bell Beaker folk, Stonehenge was probably abandoned in the seventeenth century BC as an anachronism which 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 which is taking place as far afield as the Near 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.

c.1200 BC

Bell Beaker culture in Western Europe is largely succeeded between about 1300-1000 BC by the Atlantic Bronze Age which emerges in western Early France and Early Iberia before spreading outwards to succeed the Bell Beaker in Britain while, in Central Europe, Early Italy has the Canegrate and Villanova cultures.

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