Friday, January 22, 2016

Symbolism, Metaphors & Beaker Underworld

Reading two recent papers sparked some ideas about funerary wares. 

The first was a discussion on the transition away from positive funerary structures to negative ones in the third millennium in Portugal (Valera, 1).  The other involved gypsum inlay paste of funerary ware (Besse, 2)  (Calcium carbonate and bone paste or a combination mash seem to be more common than gypsum alone)  This got me thinking about the significance of the most basic features of Beaker pottery.

Gypsum will normally occur as stratified veins in oxidized sedimentary layers, so the image to the left is something that might be visible in a creek bed or escarpment in some regions, more often outside Europe with the exception of Portugal and the North Pontic-Caspian region. 

What I find striking is that Beaker funerary ware, despite its many influences, generally retains core characteristics that necessarily must have been important.  After all, cars have changed a lot in the last hundred years, but most still have four wheels, and having four wheels seems to be more important than the shape or size of the car. 

Funeral pottery is almost always an oxidized red and they almost always have stratified bands of horizontal, white inlay.  Red, white, horizontal, stratified. 

The actual motifs could be sometimes borrowed from other ancestral cultures. For example, the Polish cup on the right has what might be tablet weaves, especially on the second to bottom band.  Again, I'll try not to over-project (and this is all theoretical), but the character seems to be suggestive of the cavernous depths of the Earth, and in the above case, maybe weaves associated with identity.

I'll get to the point and state that character of the beaker looks to be metaphorically connected to being buried in the Earth, the underworld and the contents of the beaker itself. 

We can look to later Bronze Age religions, those of the Greeks and Egyptians, an sensibly extrapolate some concepts about the sequence of events after death to Beaker religion.  Immediately upon death, the person needed to cross a river in a ferry or solar boat.  In Egyptian religion, the sun god cycled from the sky to the underworld each day taking the day's dead with him.  The Greek paid his way across the river into the Greek underworld with the money placed under his tongue.

The Atlantic gold lunulae look very much like solar boats [this post], and while found near burial sites, don't yet seem to have been worn by the dead but were instead hidden in weird places.  Were they possibly worn by someone regularly officiating the funeral?

What we can be certain of though, is that Bell Beakers were oriented in a side-prostrated, flex position towards the rising of the sun.  A strange body preservation story may be developing as well.  The accompanying beaker seems to have contained beer, and in a few cases it appears sufficiently provable that beer was bittered with henbane (herb of the sun god in European history).

Burials might contain offerings or payment in order to find passage or protection during this crucible.  The dead faced trials, tests and trickery and that this happened in the cavernous depths of the Earth.

At the same time, I don't want to suggest that Beakers were even consciously aware of this metaphorical meaning, assuming it's at all valid.  We say and do many things that are riddled with metaphors and history, but we just do them because that's the way things are done. 

1 Valera, A. "Twilight of Enclosures" 2015
2  Besse, M "Territorialités, transferts, interculturalités dans les contextes de la diffusion du
Campaniforme en Europe" 2015


  1. Replies
    1. Welsh supports your henbane theory. BELA means both wolf and henbane. The verb form BELA means to wrangle, to war or battle. Henbane is also called CRYS Y BRENIN: the shirt of the sovereign. The other two terms listed in A Dictionary of the Welsh Language, Explained in English (1832) also firmly support your theory.

    2. Very, very fascinating. After reading your comment I found a paper by Peter Schrijver called "On henbane and early European narcotics" which discussed the etymology of 'bela' in Welsh and the insular languages. Unfortunately it's behind a paywall.

      I've discussed the history of henbane (hanno wotan - herb of Apollo) and the wolf's bane in other blog posts.

  2. BBB,
    Uh.. have you posted anything focusing on the difference/ relations between the R1b clades of the Steppe Cultures compared to the Bell Beakers published so far?.

  3. I assume you mean the cultural similarities/differences between the Steppe R1b and the Beaker R1bs?

    I have not as of yet, but I think those similarities will be deeper in time that many expect and this is complicated by the fact that Beaker was more strongly impacted by CWC than most of the other cultures that it intermingled with.

    As far as the y-chromosomal phylogeny, I let the people who are good at math do all that!

    1. I meant that it looks apparent that BBC has shown some R1b mutation that can be related with the Yamnaya, but there are also others which don't look related?.
      If CWC did impact BBC then we should see more R1a? in a simple logic of course.

    2. I think we will eventually see some R1a in a few Beakers. Eastern Scotland and Northeastern England, maybe some in the lower Rhine.

      Basically I think Beaker society promoted its own male members. So while Beakers mixed heavily with local people (marriages with local women), it wasn't charitable to stranger men.

  4. Yes, agreeing with the imagined solar boat mythology suggested here. The boat depicted on Clodgy Moor Boat Slate (beaker?) has groups of horizontal lines in its structure, zigzag patterns (Stitching of planks?) and banks of oars. These might be interpreted as shown abstracted on pots and lunulae. I interpret the lunula as worn in the hair, like a halo, hence a solar symbol rather than of the moon.

  5. I like the 'henbane' aspect too. A popular recreational drug: beer + henbane. I would amend on burial rituals that Beaker males and females appear to have been laid to rest facing in opposite directions. Buried with beakers, both sexes, so beer intoxication, it seems, was not purely a macho thing. (see Trumpington Meadows double beaker burial: the grave of a 16–18 year-old female and a 17–20 year-old male dating to c.2000-1950 BC.)