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The Beaker People
Nestled in a quiet corner of our archaeology room is the skull of a young boy. His journey to the Museum, although short in distance, was extraordinarily long in years. He lay undisturbed for millennia before being excavated from a cist at Ivy Lodge Round Barrow near King’s Stanley in 1928. He was only six or seven when he died between 2700 and 2100 BCE, but was given a high class burial which included a distinctive pottery drinking vessel on which small traces of alcohol still remained. It is this drinking vessel, known as a Beaker, that gives us the biggest clue as to who he was and the life he may have lived.
The Beaker people were part of a wide reaching archaeological culture that arose during the late Neolithic and continued into the early Bronze Age, around 2800 to 1800 BCE. The term 'Beaker culture' was coined by the Scottish archaeologist John Abercromby and was based on the pottery drinking vessels that are prevalent amongst archaeological finds from this time. These vessels all share certain characteristics, most notably their inverted bell shape. They are almost always decorated with impressed patterns that would have been created using a pointed piece of bone or stick, as can be seen on the Beaker that our young boy was buried with.
There is evidence of Beaker culture throughout Europe, but there has been a longstanding debate amongst archaeologists as to exactly how this took place. Until the mid twentieth century it was thought to have occurred with the migration of a group of people. More recently it was proposed that it may have instead involved the transference of a ‘cultural package’ – a set of ideas, skills and beliefs that were adopted by groups of local people. Current thinking, aided by advances that include genetic testing of Beaker remains, is that it was likely a combination of the two: population movement resulted in cultural contact, enabling the spread of new ideas which became integrated with established traditions.
So what exactly did this ‘cultural package’ contain? Perhaps most significantly, Beaker people appear to have been the first metal workers in Europe. Burials finds have included items of copper, gold and bronze. New types of weaponry also came about at this time, from copper knives to refined flint arrowheads. They introduced woven garments to Britain and there is even evidence that they were the first to undertake larger scale production of alcohol, with traces of mead and beer remaining in many discovered beakers.
Another significant change that took place involved religious custom and ideology, which can be inferred from changes in burial practice. There was a shift from the Neolithic tradition of communal burial sites – the long barrows, to that of individual sites – the round barrows (like the one our Beaker boy was discovered within). It is not uncommon to find long barrows and round barrows within close proximity of each other, illustrating that the importance of such sites remained significant whilst the new cultural practices took hold. The most famous example of such a site is that of Stonehenge, which was extensively developed during this period and is surrounded by many barrows, some dating as far back as 4000BCE.
So what was life like for our Beaker boy? Whilst we can't be sure, it is possible to make some educated guesses. We can reasonably assume that he might have worn woven clothes and been familiar with metal tools. His father could have been an archer (in fact a flint arrow or spearhead was discovered within his burial cist) and he may have watched his parents enjoy a cup of mead as they shared a meal of grains, vegetables or meat. It is remarkable to think that with his presence in the Museum, the story of this little boy and his people continues to be told, four thousand years after his death.
Did you know?
There are a number of ancient burial sites to be found locally. In Randwick woods there is an enormous, partially excavated long barrow and two round barrows within a couple of hundred metres of each other!
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