Wednesday, November 5, 2014

International Bell Beaker & Egyptian C-Ware Comparison

The Beaker Blog is on the archaeological road to hell.  The Apostasy continues.

Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UC14285

In the absence of any big archaeological news, I'll give a comparison of Egyptian White Cross-Lined Ware and early Bell Beaker International pottery.

I'm not going to suggest an especially close relationship between the two types, but rather suggest that a relationship is possible and that both typologies, being distinct from other potteries, fit into a stylistic scheme of the Central Saharan Pastoralist Societies.  (Read that carefully)

First, a few things about Egyptian White Cross-Lined (C-Ware).

C-Ware appears only very briefly in Egypt during the pre-dynastic Naqada IC sequence and probably last no more than a few generations to around IIA, possibly slightly overlapping the Gerzean period.
Naqada II probably heralds the arrival of Mespotamian invaders, at least it would appear so, whereas its predecessor, Naqada I, may involve a limited number of individuals integrating into Egyptian society from the Western Desert or the Southwest.

The latest absolute chronologies of the pre-dynastic era have been compressed to about 800 years and have shifted it to the right (Dee et al, 2013)  The exact timeframe in which C-Ware appears is sometime around 3600-3500 B.C.

Of the several daily-use pottery classes in Egypt, C-Ware is generally a mortuary ware and is found in the graves of about a third of the people in several cities.  Overall, the body of the ware is no different than the preceding Badarian and if fact, was probably made by the same potter houses that made the former and common wares in the centuries preceding.
Amratian Naqada IC (Princeton)
The vast majority of C-Ware contains a scheme consisting of triangle, slashed-line and cross motifs, such as the beaker above, but occasionally animals and human figures appear of similar petroglyphic design of the Western Desert (Egypt).  Curiously, great emphasis is given to the Barbary Sheep when non-abstract depictions occur (mostly unique to this style but petering out later on)

Because C-Ware motifs are overlaid on previous pottery bodies, some of the symmetry can be awkward, which along with other archaeological indicators may point to disparity between scheme and body.  C-Ware is red slip burnish with contrasting white paint before firing, although some of it is encrusted with white paste.  C-Ware vases appear only later, but beakers comprise a third and dishes another third, usually one vessel per occupant (no information on sex distribution).

Beaker Supping dish, Rome, 2500-2200 B.C. Vitrbo, State of Lazio, Museum of Rome [Link]

Without further ado, here's some things that are similar between Beaker and C-Ware (and some differences).

1.  Both potteries are always red.  The base coloration was extremely high in the design hierarchy.  Most potteries vary considerably in color.  These two follow strict conformance (regional soil dependent)

Achieving this was difficult for European Beaker potters due to the geology of Europe.  In some cases potters resorted to painting it red.  It's clear, however, that an ideal beaker looks this>
Sardianian Bell Beaker 'coffee cup'
This is especially noteworthy because much of the Beaker pottery was actually manufactured by native European potter houses.  Even with native potter influences, the design was already settled.

2.  White line highlights contrast the base color.  This is usually done through encrustation with white paste in Beaker pottery, C-Ware is usually lined with white slip before firing (although sometimes encrusted).

3.  Triangle, zig-zag and cross motifs are the most common schemes of both.  C-Ware sometimes has less abstract depictions, as does Beaker ware, but C-Ware sometimes also includes animals and human figures.

4.  They occupied a special significance in burial, and one that is apparently foreign to the more localized common ware.  The peculiar pottery is cohesive to a multi-regional identity and occurs in the graves of some people over a large geographical area who possess this identity.

5.  The two potteries appear with the desiccation of the grassy savanna (that became desert).  C-Ware appears around 600-700 years before the first Maritime Iberian Beakers, but this number may yet be compressed with ongoing excavations.

Barbary Sheep with Mountain Triangle Background

6.  Both potteries exhibit foreign elements and native elements within their respective regions.

This last point is crutial and very subtle.  What is most interesting of the two is not where they are similar, but what deviances were not acceptable.

Certain elements of both potteries are variable, such as the adaptation of local shapes, but other elements are more ridged.  An example of this would be the red/white coloration or the motifs.

I've talked repeatedly about functional requirements within a design hierarchy in this blog.  Everything made by men, arrowheads or boats, differ by the need to do specific things in a certain order to satisfy his maker (with the assumption he is rational).  Factors may include efficiency, appearance, weight, performance, material availability, speed of manufacture, training requirement, etc, etc.  So the difference between a leaf-shape shape arrowhead and a barbed arrowhead aren't the result of some cosmic gelatin; instead a close look of their attributes reveal the subtle needs of their maker.

Typology can be a real pain in the ass because you can create a list of similarities between any two items, say pencils and steak knives.  Deciding which similar traits weigh more than others can skew our interpretation of their genetic relationship.  So I understand that an argument could be made for similarities between Beaker ware and Corded Ware, but again the depth of the genetic relationship depends on what and how heavy we weigh each factor.

Once again, there is nothing necessarily connecting these two potteries other than that may have come from the pastoral belt pictured below.  If you look at other pottery from Morocco or the Tassili region of Algeria, its possible to find other variations of this phenomenon.

Cattle Pastoralist Rock Art Belt (Marina Gallinarido)

Why is it more reasonable to believe that the immediate origin of the bell beaker is to be found 6,000 miles away and not a few miles away?


  1. I'll be out of pocket for the next day or so. I'll reply to any comments addressed to me when I return.


  2. Given the age of the North African Beaker site do you suspect a possible origin there or that both the Rhine Beaker & North African Beakers evolved from say Ozieri Culture?

    1. The Beaker phenomenon, wherever it is found, derives from Iberia. However, where Beaker culture originally came from is a another question. I believe it originates in North Africa, but this shouldn't be conflated with the later North African Beaker sites.

      As far as Ozieri Culture, there definitely foreign influences from the Eastern Mediterranean which probably also influenced Los Millares and a host of the Late Neolithic sites. I think this is a totally different cultural phenomenon, some aspects of which were carried forward by later Beaker immigrants.

  3. Interesting. Maybe I haven't arrived there yet on your blog but aren't the Iberian Beaker sites younger than many of the Beaker sites throughout mainland Europe and the Isles?

    1. Carbon dates have greater margins of error within the first half of the third millenium, also the geology of Iberia and Holland presents a few additional problems, I believe. Overall, the older nominal dates are in the Tagus estuary and Northern Portugal, but because Beaker artifacts spread so quickly through Europe, I don't know how much stock to invest in this one metric. I don't think the degree of resolution is there unless you average large quantities of dates by region, but even this would have problems.

      Excluding carbon dates, there are other reasons to see a cultural and genetic synthesis being carried forward from Iberia. For example, the major maternal lineages of Western Europe undergo a dramatic shift at this time and this most definitely emanates from Western Iberia (Brotherton, 2013). Similar things could be said for flints (Apel, 2014) or the pottery itself. (Humphrey Case) and (probably Michael Kunst, although I don't know if his views are limited to the Maritime Beaker or not.)

      I agree with aspects of Van der Linden's "Polythetic Network" theory in that no one set of material items can be called diagnostic, but I disagree that the culture is a kind of conglomerate. (I other words, I view the phenomenon as a genetic shift)

  4. What is the margin of error from that time period? Have they determined why there is a greater margin of error?

    I find it very interesting they were able to colonize and move over such as large area over such a short period of time. Even for a maritime culture it seems so unusual. The outpost in Sicily was cropping up around the same time they were moving into Ireland etc. To me it suggests a trading based culture but hard to say for certain.

    1. High deviation occurs in the 2900 2700 BC range (Vogel, 1986) which is exactly the time frame we are concerned. More recent work has determined why, I can't remember the cause, Volcano(??)

  5. "Why is it more reasonable to believe that the immediate origin of the bell beaker is to be found 6,000 miles away and not a few miles away?"

    I can easily imagine a connection between NW Africa and the Atlantic megalith culture with both genetic and cultural influence then spreading from SW Iberia along the coasts but at the moment that seems to me more likely to have been connected to E1. I think R1 is more likely to have gone the other way looking for that west African gold but we'll see how the dna goes.

  6. There is an online description from Standford which states the following:

    "As of 1993 a radiocarbon date of 4500 yrs. converted to 3120 BC. In other words, one should subtract 1380 from the radiocarbon date to determine the BC calendar date.) For an abbreviated chronological index click"

    So the above is saying 4,500 years (2,500 BC) and not 4,500 BC to get the value so that's suggesting the carbon dated age is less than it should be from the volcanic activity? Did I read that correctly? It makes sense if the carbon dated age was 4,500 BC then you subtract the 1380 to get 3120 BC.

    George Chandler

    1. I used volcano as an example. I'm not sure exactly what changed the atmospheric conditions at that time. It may have been climate change as well.

  7. I only mentioned it because volcanic activity was also mentioned in other conversations on the subject. I have no idea personally what would have caused the testing inconsistencies and was just wondering if you were familiar with the above method of calculating it?

    1. Ok sorry, I understand. I look for calendar dates. Really, I'm focused like a laser beam on a thousand year period so most everything is in a fairly narrow range. On the deviations, I don't know what the possible causes are, but it could have been climatic given the changes occurring at the time.

      As far as the Beakers' emergence (reasonably assuming a population movement of any size) iy was so rapid through the maritime routes and at a time of high deviations for dating that only a large number of dates are useful. But I would agree with Cardoso that a working framework exists for Iberian projection based on other factors (generally agreed to within the archaeological community).

  8. Ok thanks. Excellent blog by the way.