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|
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):
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]."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."
|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)|
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 Beakers...here'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)|
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|
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.
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.|