Friday, July 17, 2020

Stereotype: The Role of Graveset in the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker... (Wentink, 2020)


Why does a thing have worth?  This research helps clarify what was valuable to Beakers.  An object's value says something about it's owner, his connectedness, his needs.  Does a gallon of water have more or less worth than a chest of gold?  If your house caught on fire and you could only save one thing, what would it be?

I think many archaeologists have offered a very one-dimensional concept of worth when it comes to prestigious objects of Beaker burials.  The scarcity and novelty of copper technology has often been touted as something lusted for by a big man society that valued gaudiness and prestige.  For example, the Amesbury Archer was buried with many package objects, so he's often said to be an important man.  But how do we know that, or are we just making shit up?  Could the Amesbury Archer be just a very ordinary man?  What does his burial set really say?

As I've mentioned, I'm trying to peck away at this thesis because I like the underlying questions and I think the answers to the questions add more natural dimensions to the desires and ideals of these ancient people.  So this post is a mess, but it's reading and editing real-time.

"Throughout northern Europe, thousands of burial mounds were
erected in the third millennium BCE. Starting in the Corded Ware culture, individual people were being buried underneath these mounds, often equipped with an almost rigid set of grave goods. is practice continued in the second half of the third millennium BCE with the start of the Bell Beaker phenomenon. In large parts of Europe, a ‘typical’ set of objects was placed in graves, known as the ‘Bell Beaker package’.

Thiis book focusses on the signi cance and meaning of these Late Neolithic graves. Why were people buried in a seemingly standardized manner, what did this signify and what does this reveal about these individuals, their role in society, their cultural identity and the people that buried them?

By performing in-depth analyses of all the individual grave goods from Dutch graves, which includes use-wear analysis and experiments, the biography of grave goods is explored. How were they made, used and discarded? Subsequently the nature of these graves themselves are explored as contexts of deposition, and how these are part of a much wider ‘sacri cial landscape’.

A novel and comprehensive interpretation is presented that shows how the objects from graves were connected with travel, drinking ceremonies and maintaining long-distance relationships."

Wentink speaks of the specificity of objects placed in Beaker graves as the source of true worth, not the objects' innate or material value.  The objects placed in Beaker graves are valuable because they are specific, not because they are valuable.   Objects of material value are "systematically excluded" from Beaker graves, unless of course they complement the specific objects.
"...therefore not simply a context of ‘showing wealth or status’. Instead it appears that specific things were selected for deposition in specific places."
Using this distinction, I think you could say that a copper dagger is valuable in a grave setting because it is a dagger, not because it is copper.  Or maybe the dagger is valuable because it was a gift?  The fact that it is copper only highlights the value of the specific object (copper, crystal or whatever) not the value of the material.  (We've discussed heirloom beads here as well)

There's a lot of thought in this and will return again tomorrow...

***Next day, Chapter 10 - "The Traveler"

If you're interested in the Indo-European question of the Bell Beakers and don't want to read an eye-bleeding thesis, you may want to at least visit this chapter as it compares a number of characteristics of the Beaker Culture to the theoretical framework of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.  Chapter 10 is totally devoted to the Beakers' adventurous nature as expressed in their funerary objects.  

Wentink describes an experience in Northwest Africa where he was received in a home for formal tea that was served from a specialized silver tea set, around a specialized table, in a room dedicated for the matter.  Anyone who has been received as an honored guest in the Middle East or Central Asia could probably well identify with the pomp, pageantry, largesse and all the 'extra' of hyper-hosting.  Wanting relates this experience to what he suspects was a Beaker social front and a host/guest culture.

In a way, this makes some sense.  The cumbersome bell beaker is in more ways a statement than a practical pot for drinking liquid.  (I mean, who sits down to supper with a gallon of ____?)  I've thought the metaphorical statement related to death, and while that may also be true, the bigness could very well be part of a broader expression of being 'extra' at important occasions like hosting.  Consider you are a weary traveller and you bang on the door of a man's home in the early night seeking a place to sleep.  He welcomes you in and his wife fetches you a very tiny beer stein.  Probably not.

An important part of host culture Wentink suggests, is the fear the traveller may be a supernatural character in disguise (then describing a number of mythological examples).  The host is motivated by a sometimes superstitious self-preservation, but of course the guest is in reality more vulnerable.  As Wanting alludes, this cultural phenomenon is deeply re-enforced in the spiritual dimension.

He quotes David Anthony concerning Yamnaya:
"Guest-host relationships would have been very useful in a mobile herding economy, as a way of separating people who were moving through your territory with your assent from those who were unwelcome, unregulated, and therefore unprotected."
And that is absolutely true in a number of modern places.  Once you've been a guest at the big man's house, you're essentially protected from at least some bad guys, maybe all bad guys.  Certainly his immediate family and extended relations.  Beakers must have had some way of discerning between good guys and people-you-kill.  Given their propensity to prospect and trade, and being stateless, they must have had some social guidelines for being guests.

Gift-giving is discussed in the context of early European Cultures and what this means for the exchange of prestigious objects.  He refers to the "souvenir", not necessarily in that the exotic items traded are that, but that it is a good pivot point for a discussion of why something is valuable, like a souvenir, heirloom, or whatever.

more tomorrow...


  1. I suspect that Beaker burials were accompanied by shared sacrifices to help bring back together separated relatives (thus reinforcing common purpose and reducing the prospect of future conflict). This was especially important to Beaker folk, who travelled widely.

    In the Nordic sagas, skalds would remind all of their shared ancestry and the debts of gratitude owed to their common ancestors, and would help negotiate sacrifices, the amicable sharing of endowments, and the exchange of gifts (including women and possibly children). All would be sealed by sacred poetic language/stories (vows) and alcohol consumption to add spiritual/legal force.

    On Olvadi's death, his substantial wealth was divided between his sons (with perhaps some being sacrificed in his memory), accompanied by 'secret language' and all taking 'mouthfuls' to give power to their agreement.

  2. Not sure why you call the author 'Wanting'?

    I can't claim to have read Wentink's book yet, but he seems to have misunderstood Helms' work, which stresses just as much the rarity and magical properties of certain raw materials, and the role of magical transformation in creation. Value may be an unhelpful term, and perhaps that is what he objects to, but to suggest that everyone in Beaker Europe had access to copper daggers, for example, is mistaken. His discussion of amber was very disappointing, as it fails even to discuss what a remarkable substance it is (simply to call it 'exotic' really under-rates it).

  3. Forgot to say this. On your first point about the Amesbury Archer, he is of course not just someone with a set of Beaker objects buried with him, but an excessive display of removal of objects from circulation, with multiple examples of several items, and overall far more burial goods than any other Beaker burial in Britain. He also has a unique (so far) history of long-distance movement over the lifetime. These two things together might just be a coincidence, but I'm not sure that is much of an argument.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Hopefully the comment was auto-approved. I have too many spammers so I have to keep up with my filters. Been away for a few weeks.

  4. Hi Nick, thank for poining out my name "Wentink" :) but before suggesting I misunderstood something, perhaps you should first read what I have to say. My previous work was entirely about the innate powers attributed to certain raw materials and the transformations in creation. Both volumes are available to download for free :) As for the amber, it certainly is an extraordinary raw material, but in that (sub)chapter I had to limit myself to what we actually know, not speculate on how it might have been perceived.

    1. I apologize for the massive delay in the comments approval. I have been away for a few weeks. Thanks for commenting

    2. I apologize for mis-spelling your name! Auto-Correct always gets me! Luckily it didn't make a bad word this time.