Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Media and the Message

Here's another way to look at Beaker pottery.

Regardless of the variation in the shape of Beaker pottery, it is usually easily recognizable.  It's decoration says "I'm a beaker".

In graphic A you have a media - coffee cups.  Most have the same fabric and the same shape.
In graphic B you have a message - Coca-Cola, which is a cultural phenomenon that can appear on any media, including a coffee cup, as in graphic A.

In some ways Beaker is like Coca-Cola.  It's the projection of an identity and social value that extends beyond the beverage.  Also, like Coke, the medium is not too important, even for the drink containers which vary.  But Coke's message is conveyed through the coloration (red background - white message) and a certain stylistic motif (cursive coca-cola).  Idealic people smile and hold a coke suggesting that you should as well.

Here's various forms of Beaker pottery from around Europe over a thousand years.  In order to be honest, I chose some of the weirder ones, including a few very late ones.  I also excluded a few of the marginal for simplicity.  Without getting too wrapped up in the selection, I think the point is still fairly easy to see.  Most of the Beakers appear to have been reddish with white encrustation on many with very similar, repetitive motifs.  

The interpretation of the message is another subject.  Many beakers will have an abstract motif that is somewhat reminiscent of the tartans depicted in anthromorphic figures of the Iberian Early Chalcolithic**.  Like Borderlander Tartans, these may reflect tribal differences or clan descent.  (This had been previously hypothesized for anthromorphic slate plaques in funerary arrangements)

Beakers also tend to have banding, either cord, herringbone, plain grooves or acacia* (IMO*).  Like Sherratt, I've thought that this indicates the principle bittering adjunct to the beverage.  [here]  Also, many beakers feature a solar emblem on the bottom, which is unfortunately rarely photographed.  This is significant given the burial position of those buried with them.  In fact, the triangular patterns may sometimes depict a sort of 'blazing', although the abstracting makes it difficult to know for sure.

The techniques used to style the beakers is another interesting story to cover later.

**pre-Beaker.  Also, similar motifs can be found on the dress of anthromorphic stelae from the EBA in various places.


  1. Yes, the problem is which is the message embedded in the icon. But good analysis anyhow.

  2. I am not sure you seen the paper on the following link It’s about Neolithic beakers in Sudan at the border with Egypt. The similarity with the Bell beakers is striking. Another resemblance is that they were used for burial practices too. It seems that they were part of a religious/magical belief (see the rock art, really impressive). I wonder if they were used to hold foods or drinks with the belief that the dead will need them during his trip to the afterlife. I am curious to read you comment on this.

    1. I hadn't seen this. Thanks for posting. The one from Gebel Ramlah is interesting. There is an example of a bow-shaped pendant on the blog sidebar from the same place (I don't know if it is from the same time frame).

      There is a power point presentation called 'echos and traditions of the Beaker phenomenon' or something similar that has a number of slides on either beaker influence in the wider periphery of the Beaker area. It has several graphics of Nubian pottery. I found a cazuela from Lazio, Italy that was nearly identical to a thicker rimmed Nubian that had a nearly identical decoration.
      I believe there is also formal interest in seeing precursors to certain decorative techniques from Northern Sudan and the Central Sahara. The pin-wheel, rockerband and comb techniques can be seen in European beakers. There is a French website on Neolithic Saharan pottery that illustrates these decorations. I'll find it and post it within the next day or two.

    2. Also, I had planned to follow up this first post on Beaker pottery with another on popularly believed influences, in particular North African techniques. I have a few papers I need to post first. It's a busy week.

    3. That's indeed interesting, Abou, thanks. Three things come to mind:

      1. I found the design more similar to funnelbeaker than BB but it's clear that the style of the top vase is a common feature among these, as well as the copos of pre-BB Portugal.

      2. The concept "chaliciform" is very intriguing: makes me think about Christian concepts of the chalice and its strange presence especially in the "Arthurian cycle" (guess that a Crusade's romantic fashion but there may be something more), whose concept relates to the female sexual organs in plants and animals (humans included). Just brainstorming here.

      3. Nubia is also important related to the stone circle concept (Nabta Playa). It may not be the first one (Göbekli Tepe seems a related concept if not the same idea) but it's certainly among the oldest ones.

      4. I recently found (→ raw mass comparison table) that Basque and Nubian languages may well be related in some way. Basque has, in preliminary look, like 20% Nubian "strong" apparent cognates (and more dubious or blurrry ones). Nubian language family is not very much studied, much less in comparison to European languages, but it seems that it may have got a bigger role than today in the past. Instead I could not find any Afroasiatic connection for Basque, leading me to suspect that the "Basal Eurasian" (African-like and probably just NE African) element in the early European farmers of Thessalian founder effect (mainline Euro-Neolithic, excluding only Eastern Europe) is Nubian not just in a genetic but also in a linguistic sense.

    4. The Nubien connection is very interesting indeed. In my view we are being too much European centric (West, East, ....) in terms of understanding the pre-BB issue. To think out of the box, we should think out ofEurope, we may find nothing but then we still have the box. I was googling around to find some information on the old peopling of the Sahara. The link below is to Leicester university in the UK. They have an interesting archeological project on the Sahara topic overall.
      notice the position of the burial in the image at the end. Isn't interesting? Also look at the Fazzan project. More information information on Fazzan are found at the BP web site:
      The fabric patterns remind me of the BB cap depicted in one of the images I saw in a Spanish web site. Notice the pattern of the small piece of pottery.

    5. I will have to respond tomorrow, but I agree that people are locked into one of two paradigms. I think you go where the data takes you but of course that takes a working narrative which has so far been mostly lacking. It is interesting to note that the very first theories regarding the BB phenomenon as coming from North Africa were advanced over a hundred years ago but never gained traction. Sometimes your first reaction is the correct one.

      I will look at these tomorrow. Thanks,

    6. I see the fragment you are talking about. It seems these motifs lasted quite a while in this area. Certainly Beaker pottery has been identified as far as Tunisia and influences further afield. In fact, it might have been Flinders Petrie (?) who associated some aspects of traditional Kabyle Berber pottery with Bell Beaker pottery.

  3. Agreeing with parallels between Beaker pottery and North African examples. C.B.M. Mc Burney on pages 253-5 of The Stone Age of Northern Africa (1960) Pelican, illustrates from 'Cave of Dar es Soltan: Moroccan variants of Neolithic-of-Capsian Tradition' an 'archer's wrist guard' and 'pottery resembling Bell-Beaker style of Spanish Early Bronze Age'. The 50+ year old book makes a convincing case for a connection, however I will look elsewhere for dating evidence.

    1. Thanks for the reference, I'll try to get that. There are a number of views that see the proto-Beaker coming from that direction as well. Mc Burney is interesting because it's earlier so I'd like to see his argument. Two should be linked in the sidebar.