Friday, July 22, 2016

"A Feature for Your Cap" (and basket earrings)

Until a frozen Bell Beaker is discovered in an Alpine pass, we can only speculate about their headgear from those few and over-representative things that have survived.  I'll now run naked through the soccerfield of ideas and speculate on something may have been present but did not survive, Beaker plumage.  This is just an exercise, so don't take it too seriously.  Also, please excuse the cursed autocorrect.

I think it's likely men and women of the Beaker period wore large feathers tucked in their hatbands or affixed to their hair.  They were an archery people and ancestors of the Bronze Age, so colorful fletching and ornamental feathers might have had a special significance in their culture.  It's possible that European falconry was first practiced at this time and for a people bathed in solar symbolism, it's possible that some men wore the feather of birds-of-prey, often associated with European and Egyptian solar deities in later times.

More on this in a moment, but first a little comparative ethnography...

Tarim Basin Mummies of West China  
Early European adventurers in North America were always intrigued by, and often wrote about the culture and dress of the Native Americans.  One early 17th century intellectual remarked how the Indian braves wore a feather 'as our own young men might put on their hats'.  As anthropology matured, those similarities between cultures became more distant and more difficult to explain.  But should we just relegate those similarities to a past that is unattainable and not seriously entertain those questions?


In the English language, to say that a man 'has earned a feather to his cap' is to suggest that he has gained a new skill or passed an important milestone.  Similar traditions around Europe can be found as Richard Hansard noted in the Description of Hungary (1599):
"It hath been an antient custom among them [Hungarians] that none should wear a fether but he who had killed a Turk, to whom onlie yt was lawful to shew the number of his slaine enemys by the number of fethers in his cappe."
This was also true among the Luwian-speaking Lycians:  (Korach and Mordoch, 2002), and this can be easily expanded on in various regions throughout much of early Europe.  This short article by Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania has a few good illustrations, especially of the Beauty of Loulan [here].

Sioux, Blackfoot, Navajo, Quecha, Chickasaw, Witchita, Seminole and Ute Peoples (North and Central Americans) (commons)

Another similarity found across feather-wearing cultures is that there does not appear to be any meritorious or hierarchical purpose for feather-wearing women other than it is attractive or indicative of her tribal affiliation.  That also seems to add some weight to the possibility that this was a learned behavior, not a coincidental phenomenon.  (At the bottom of this post there are two papers that consider the possibility of head-feathers among the Paleolithic Magdalenians and Gravattians.)

Cavaliers, Musketeers, Infantrymen, Chiefs, Dragoons, etc. (commons)
At least for men wearing feathers, the common denominator is virility and warriorhood expressed by merit, social role or the making of a social statement.  In fact, most European coats of arms are crested with a helmet bearing a plume.  In Caxton's woodcut of the Canterbury Tales, it is only the military men of the entire party (the knight and his squire) that are adorned with a feather.  The boundaries appear to have been very loose in Europe, but among Native Americans feathers almost define the very ethos of the Indian.  The 'regulation' of the wearing of feathers could also be quite complex as with the Sioux [See here].

Another commonality that can be found across Eurasia and America is that it often appears to have been a personal martial decoration.  For example, in Scotland it went to the best marksman, hunter or chieftain, in Hungary to the man who had killed a Turk. (basically a more ancient version of medals, badges and service ribbons).  Feathers were also use as a trophy, as when The Black Prince slayed King John of Bohemia, taking King John's ostrich plume for his personal coat of arms.

Maori and Papuans (commons)

You can find similar traditions throughout Oceania, the Ethiopian highlands and a few other places.  It's almost certainly a Paleolithic custom that survived in pockets of Eurasia; but I would be hesitant to chalk this up to some universal human behavior.  It is part of the identity of some peoples in Eurasia and Oceania, but not others, and this can be seen the Egyptian stereotype of a Libyan who always dons two ostrich feathers and is always tattooed on the quarters.

Book of Gates (commons)

So now, back to the's two quick arguments.

1.  There's a few items discovered in the grave's of men that archaeologists have struggled to understand.  One of these is the gold basket earrings*, which almost always appear in two's, but never more than this; also, never with a woman (at least not yet), and more specifically, in the cases where they were found with a body, found with high status men with weapons.

The missing Kirkaugh half (photographer Elisabeth Langton-Airey)  (see also Pennies)
What's interesting is that the baskets' circumference is about what should be expected for the quill of larger birds, such as a raptor, goose or ostrich.  I've done some analysis on these items based on measurements taken by the British museum and they appear to curl between 22mm and 30mm and, with a few exceptions, are remarkably close to each other.  This recently discovered (and unmolested) Kirkhaugh basket has an interesting shape because it could be taking the form of an eagle flight feather quill (which is not perfectly round, but more of a spherical triangle).  See [here]

One of two theories I have about the basket earring is that it encased the quill of an ornamental feather right below the veins.  (As a side note, quills aren't perfectly cylindrical either; many are slightly U-shaped or grooved which could explain the open back of the baskets).  For a Bell Beaker man wearing an ostrich tail feather (more round) or an eagle flight feather (not round), it might add a little pizazz to an important item of the dress.  Assuming exotic feathers were imported, and certainly ostrich shells were, then it is possible that the wealthy and powerful men would accentuate those rare things in their uniform and make them a bit louder.

A Golden Eagle Feather w/ a Amesbury Archer basket earring
If basket earrings were attached to a quill, then it may have been the custom for Beaker men to wear two feathers, similar to Bronze Age men of Algeria/Libya.  And at least for Bronze Age Libya, the two-feather configuration can be satisfactorily demonstrated from Equestrian period D-stretch rock art and also from the many copies of the Book of Gates (as the two-feathered Libyan above).  It should be stressed also that the Libyan in the times of the Book of Gates (New Kingdom) would literally owe some or much of his ancestry to a poorly defined but present North African Beaker Culture (however influenced or settled by Europe).

So basically of my two basket earrings theories, this is option A.  The weirdly-long Orbliston baskets might indicate those items were attached to a longer feather, like ostrich or Congo pea fowl.  But as with the Scottish chief in the collage, the quill of a Golden Eagle may be more likely for the Isles.

2.  Headbands.  A number of Beakers (men and women) from Iberia to the Czech Republic appear to have been buried with elaborate headband or headdress.  Again, 99.9% of any headdresses would have disintegrated and we have just a few gold squares that give us any clue at all.  But what did these headbands look like and what did they hold?  Feather?  Many feathers?

Note:. I'll add the artists and photographers tomorrow as I am having trouble with captions

Slide 22, Dvořák & Matějíčková et al, 2014

La Sima by Luis Pascual Repiso, Aratikos Arqueólogos S. L.

See also:

Street, M. & Turner, E. 2015: “Eating crow or a feather in the cap? The avifauna from the Magdalenian sites of Gönnersdorf and Andernach (Germany). Quaternary International (2015), ArticleinQuaternary International · October 2015with50 ReadsImpact Factor: 2.06 · DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2015.10.006

 Fowling during the Gravettian: The avifauna of Pavlov I, the Czech Republic,  Article (PDF Available)inJournal of Archaeological Science 36(12):2655-2665 · November 2009with82 ReadsImpact Factor: 2.20 · DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.08.002

* The overwhelming majority of basket earrings are found in the Isles.  However, one was found in Poland, but lost in WWII. 



In many of these cultures women sometimes wear feathers as well but in none of them does there appear to be any merit associated with it.  A scientific explanation of why this is the case can be found [here].


  1. Don't you think it is more likely that the "basket earrings" were actually hair binders i.e. to hold together the ends of plaits to stop them unwinding.

    1. There's several issues I have with hair objects, one is that most are found in Britain which has a high frequency of male pattern hair loss.

      One way to partially test this is to look at the 40 something Amesbury Archer's traits when his genome comes out. He was buried with baskets so if he the genes that would be a problem.

    2. Aside from that, they seem oddly uniform for a hair attachment

  2. The so-called "basket earrings" are just part of a pattern of similar objects found in graves in pairs, such as the spiral forms in Yamnaya and Bell Beaker, which are known in German as Lockenringe (hair rings). See

    1. I think we'd agree then that they are not earrings at least.

      I'm not convinced about the hair tress theory. Here's another reason..

      Most of the evidence concerning male hairstyles near this period in time and space (bog bodies, idols to d-strech) suggest pompadour style hair, hair pulled up in a bun, styled hair with hairgel or cropped hair.

      I don't see any evidence to suggest men had 2 dangling braids like Orthodox Jews.

      The comparison to Lockenringes can be problematic because they were first compared to Trojan basket earrings and similar earrings of the MBA. Those left green stains on the skull so they were definitely earrings, but they are definitely not earrings (which Sherratt convincingly argued against).

    2. The British basket earrings/tresses are definitely not earrings, as Sherratt argued against.

      Messed up that last sentence

    3. Greek statues of the Archaic Period show both men and women with multiple braids (behind their ears generally, not in front like Orthodox Jews). In the Iliad the Trojan hero Euphorbos has his tresses bound with gold and silver.

      Bog bodies are generally not supplied with any jewellery and seem often to be murdered/sacrificed. So I don't think that they are much of a guide to the use of hair ornaments.

    4. Maybe a future discovery will help clarify. Until then I'm open to several possibilities

  3. Maybe you have already seen this, but just in case...

    Bell Beaker connections along the Atlantic façade: the gold ornaments from Tablada del Rudrón, Burgos, Spain
    Andrew P. Fitzpatrick

    School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester, GB-LE1 7RH, United Kingdom
    Germán Delibes de Castro and Elisa Guerra Doce
    Dpto. de Prehistoria, Arqueología, Antropología Social y CC.TT. Historiográficas, Universidad de Valladolid, Plaza del Campus, s/n, 47011 Valladolid, Spain;
    Javier Velasco Vázquez
    Dpto. de Ciencias Históricas, Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, C/Pérez del Toro, 1, 35004 Las Palmas, Spain

    The gold ornaments from a well-furnished burial in the Bell Beaker tumulus at Tablada del Rudrón, Burgos, in northern Spain are very similar to ornaments best known in Britain and Ireland. The insular ornaments, which were either earrings, tress rings or parts of headdresses, have been found in well-furnished graves of the 24- 23rd century BC and were symbols of high status. Although the Tablada del Rudrón ornaments are similar to finds from England, they are not identical and their decoration is related to those on a different type of object found in Ireland. This fusion of ‘similar but different’ reflects the nature of the Bell networks along the Atlantic façade.

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  5. Ye olde soccerfield streaker...
    - - -

    Might the feather basket be flipped into a feathered cap?
    Did it have a handle that could double as a chinstrap?
    Did some of the lacrosse/jai alai/Olmec-Maya-Aztec "football" game players have helmets like that?
    Could have beakers been game balls (catch)?

    I recall Neanderthals got a lot of head injuries, might they have worn cookskin caps or ptarmigian scalp caps? They surely would have been good rugby players.

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    The name Mahiole, I would say, relates to dome-shield-shelter, as in many languages.