Saturday, June 28, 2014

Life in Copper Age Britain (review)

Quick Review

Julian Heath brings us up to date on the latest research of the Neolithic - Bell Beaker transition period in his recent book on Chalcolithic Britain.

Click to view E-book [link]

The British Islands are a particularly interesting study for Beakerists due to the diversity and saturation of Beaker cultures there.  Heath covers the origins of several distinct Beaker immigrant cultures in Britain in addition to the poorly understood Grooved Ware people who overlapped early on.

He suggests AOC beakers may signify the earliest prospectors or traders moving from Ireland eastward across Wales and then England.  I've also thought it more reasonable that Ireland and small islands, such as Ross, would be scouted and implanted initially since establishing large agricultural settlements peacefully in Southern Britain seems a little 1960's to me.

On pottery, he mentions a theory by the late, great Andrew Sherrat that the AOC beakers were actually impressed, or corded, with hemp.  Hemp has recently been discovered among Beaker stuff in Southern Portugal.  Antonio Valera posted the find [here]

The "cup and ring" motifs in the Art chapter reminded me of this, even though it's probably a stretch.  Finally, in the last chapter, evidence of flint arrowheads in the graves of Beakers is given consideration.  It has been assumed, uncritically, that a lone arrowhead in the grave of a woman was a keepsake or memento, or that scattered arrowheads in the grave of a man were tributes.  New evaluation is painting a grimmer picture.  It's a quick read; two or three chapters are accessible for free.

*BTW, He gives some history on the age system controversy in Britain.  Obviously the title of his book 'Life in Copper Age Britain' gives his position.  In fairness to the Brits, the age system rarely makes sense anywhere.  This is an especially big problem for Beaker studies.*

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Continuity and changes of manufacturing traditions of Bell Beaker and Bronze Age encrusted pottery in the Morava river catchment (Czech Republic) (Vsiansky, Kolar, Petrik, 2014)

Pavla Růžičková pasting a beaker "Beaker Days, 2005"

Unfortunately, I cannot see the Vsiansky paper examining the pasting of Moravian beakers since it is behind a paywall.  However, the abstract and link is documented below.

An article in 2010 looked at the inlays of Scottish beaker pottery and describes recent understanding of just how common beaker bone pasting was in various regions.  In essence, the Prehistoric Society article suggests that pasting may have been very common in beaker pottery but only survived in certain soil conditions.  They further suggest that beaker pottery was 'tattooed' with white-dipped incision tool.

In short, the abstract from the Vsiansky paper mentions up to four materials used for pasting.  That kind of torpedos any previous notion of bone paste having a special significance.  Coloration seems to have been very important to Beaker people.

A Pasted Beaker replica.  "Beaker Days, 2005"


The white inlayed decorations represent a distinctive phenomenon of prehistoric Europe, and are known to have been produced in diverse areas since the Neolithic. This paper reveals how the raw materials were gathered and utilized, as well as the complex technological processes of the inlay decorations, from the period of their widest production and use. A large set of shards of Late Copper Age Bell Beakers and Early Bronze age vessels from Moravia (Czech Republic) were examined, with a focus on material analyses of the white inlay decorations. Based on x-ray diffraction analyses, five technology groups were defined: kaolin, bone material, carbonates, gypsum plaster, and mixtures of some of those materials. The gypsum plaster inlay represents the oldest evidence of gypsum production and application in Central Europe. The results indicate both regional and chronological aspects in the selection of the raw materials. In contrast to the bone and gypsum, the kaolin inlay was not thermally treated. Based on the physical properties of bones and the crystallinity of bone hydroxylapatite, it can be presumed that the encrusting slurry was prepared out of fired bones. These facts prove a knowledge of the different properties of the individual raw materials; hence, the need for different production chains.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Bell Beaker Shields?

The image of a Bell Beakers holding shields is not something that immediately comes to mind when we think of the classic personal inventory of the warrior.  But did they have them?

Origin of Hardened-Leather, Wood-Backed Shields?

"Clonbrin Shield"  800 B.C. Irish National Museum
The Kilmahamogue shield remains the oldest European example with the radiocarbon date slightly post-dating the Amesbury Archer,  1,950-1,540 B.C. (AF Harding, 2000) The wooden frame dates to the first part of the second millennium, putting it within the tail end of the Beaker period of County Antrim, Ireland.

Early shields, like the much later Clonbrin to the right,  were made of thick, hardened leather and formed over a wooden backer.  The impregnation and conditioning of the leather with wax and other materials hardened it to a Kevlar-like state which would have provided considerable protection against arrows and tanged daggers.

In fact, most of early (tentatively dated) Middle Bronze Age shields (below) were either non-functional or not-very-functional and merely mimicked "real shields" although growing more useful with time.  We shouldn't assume the Kilmahamogue represents the very first shield ever made which was subsequently thrown into a bog, and then more subsequently tripped over by an archaeologist.  Uckelmann and Mödlinger give a good overview with maps on known European shields to the Middle Bronze Age (Bronze Age Warfare: Manufacture and Use of Weaponry)

Bronze Shield, Found in River Thames, c. 1200 B.C.
(British Museum, 1856,0701.1350)
It is an easier leap to suggest that shielding was common in the Early Bronze Age of the Northwest facade, however it is much more difficult to suggest that shields were used over the entire Beaker world.  But, I think there are some important indicators within the arms inventories of Beaker graves that tell us a little about how they were equipped.

All of this stemming from a deeper look into the Beaker Bow which I should have named "Estimating the Draw Weight of a Beaker Bow" instead of "Calculating" but in any's a blog.

Did the Palmela Point evolve because of shields?

Every design has a hierarchy in what it needs to do functionally. 

A wheel is round because it needs to roll.  A long rifle is long in order to be accurate at distance.

The copper Palmela Point used by Beakerfolk presents a design problem to me because it doesn't do most everyday arrow jobs better or cheaper, but instead presents several drawbacks to everyday Chalcolithic use despite being positively identified with archery.

Palmela Point
Palmela Points were:

-  too heavy for small game (grain + shaft)
-  too valuable to lose on long shots
-  too valuable to bury on a short shot (lose in ground)
-  too valuable to bury in a tree
-  too valuable to lose in the underbrush
-  not barbed, so not really a good arrowhead to have run off in an animal
-  not barbed, so not the torturous, un-removable murder weapon of the Late Neolithic

And if you did hunt large game with a Palmela Point, despite not being barbed, there's always a chance that the animal will take off with the arrow in its hindquarter never to be seen again.  Rarely do animals just drop in place, even with a fatal shot.

We do know however, the average grain of the points and the size of the tangs.  Therefore, we know the approximate diameter of the arrowshaft.  Taken together, we can guess the Palemela Point was delivered with sizable force.  Also, we can look at similar points of the Bronze Age, Iron Age and through the Medieval Period to gain a better understanding of its usage.  As iron and steel body armor reaches increasing hardness in the Medieval period, armor-piercing arrowheads also continue evolving into narrower, nippled blunts.

Looking at Palmela Points, it would appear that their purpose in life was to punch holes in things; like shields.  Of course, copper may have been too soft to do this effectively.  The simple explanation is the current one, that it is just a high status item.

Tanged daggers and close combat, another view

Tanged Dagger, Beaker grave, British Museum
Metal allowed knives to get longer and wider.  In hand to hand combat, reach is half the battle, which is why knives progressively grow to about four feet long in the Middle Ages.

A single punch from a tanged dagger anywhere on the body would have been followed by a quick bleed-out.  There were no second chances for the individual being assaulted.  At some point though, a Beaker man was forced to throw down his bow when the assailant came within close range and fight mano to mano.

Because all early shields on Earth were organic, it's hard to know when or where they came from, but they seem to be of enough antiquity to have been familiar to Late Neolithic Europeans.  The length of tanged daggers seems to grow through the Beaker Age, and I will guess that with it the instinctive desire to protect an increasingly shrinking and vulnerable footing.

Of course this is all speculative on my part, but I would be interested to know if there are any representations of shields from rock art of Neolithic Europe. (?)  Perhaps depictions of ditched enclosures may in fact be depictions of the leather shields??

>>> I'll be adding page three to the Beaker Blog soon.  (Thirty random Bell Beaker burials!)<<<

*  I'll add from my own archery experience in the woods:  I've buried a few aluminum arrows in the woods that archaeologists might find a thousand years from now.

(1) Osgood, Richard; Monks, Sarah (2011) "Bronze Age Warfare" ISBN-13: 9780752476025

(2) Modlinger, Marianne; Uckelmann, Marion (2011)  "Bronze Age Warfare:  Manufacture and Use of Weaponry"  [link in text]