At MAA they really know how to give a warm welcome! Upon arrival at the lower gallery, visitors soon come across two Early Bronze Age handled pottery vessels that seem to say: let’s toast and celebrate!
This type of finely handmade pots, richly decorated, more frequently shows a distinctive S-shaped profile which looks like an inverted bell. The German archaeologist Paul Reinecke drew attention to this resemblance in 1900, and first coined the term Glockenbecher. A few years later, Lord John Abercromby who systematically studied the Bronze Age pottery of the British Isles, translated the term into English, and the name Bell Beaker, or just Beakers in short, has been widely accepted amongst scholars ever since.
Bell Beakers are not exclusive to Britain. By the mid-third millennium BCE, generally speaking between c. 2,500 and 2,000 BCE, they were deposited in graves all over central and western Europe and north-western Africa, even though the burial rites varied. Some graves also included other objects, such as tools, weapons, and adornments. Consequently, burial sites have constituted the main source of information about Beakers. Occasionally they are also found in settlements and domestic contexts, but they comprise only a small proportion of the total ceramic assemblages, which are dominated by undecorated vessels. It seems, then, that Bell Beakers were a special ware only appropriate for certain occasions.
But what were they used for? After unearthing many Beaker pots at burial barrows of Wiltshire, in 1812 the English antiquarian Sir Richard Colt Hoare referred to them as ‘drinking cups’, although the nature of the drink consumed was elusive then. Certainly, the size and capacity of these pots make them appropriate for liquid manipulation, and their thin-walled designs make them unsuitable as cooking vessels. Additional evidence to support their relationship with liquids was found in 1866 at the Broomend of Crichie henge near Inverurie, in Scotland. The excavation of one of the burial cists, containing an adult male and an infant female, provided an ox-horn ladle inside a Beaker.
All across its distribution area Beakers seem to have been used for the consumption of liquids. Really it seems reasonable to interpret certain Beaker pots as drinking vessels.
The Ciempozuelos style, one of the late regional variants of Beaker pottery in Central Iberia, comprise a set of three vessels (the Beaker itself, a large carinated bowl, and a small hemispheric bowl) that apparently constituted a special ritual service that may have been used for libations.
Ok, then, Beakers were drinking sets. But what about Bell Beaker pottery made it so successful in prehistoric times? The archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe, in a revised edition of his influential work The Dawn of European Civilization (1939: 213) clearly articulates why: Beaker pottery symbolises beer as one source of their influence, as a vodka flask or a gin bottle would disclose an instrument of European domination in Siberia and Africa respectively. Consequently, the logical implication is that the prestige attached to Beaker pottery may have derived from its alcoholic content rather than from any inherent value in the pots themselves.
The alleged association of Bell Beakers with the consumption of alcohol was well received by archaeologists. Fair enough! The resemblance of the vessels from Bottisham and Fordham with actual beer mugs, as this one from the collections at the MAA, is uncanny.
Interestingly, a yellowish soil spilling out from a Beaker over the skeleton’s feet was documented in a burial at Barnack, also in Cambridgeshire, which was excavated in the 1970s.
About the same time, a burial cist on Ashgrove Farm, in Fife, Scotland provided the earliest possible indicator of alcohol. Analysis of pollen adhered to the Bell Beaker deposited in the tomb revealed a remarkable concentration of Tilia cordata (lime tree) and Filipendula ulmaria (meadowsweet), suggesting a honey-based content. One amazing issue about this find is that lime tree species are not naturally found in Scotland neither in Beaker times nor in the present day. This indicates that honey was brought from northern England and prepared as a special funerary offering… maybe mead, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey?
However, direct evidence for fermented beverages in Beaker pots is still rather limited. Residues suggestive of beer or ale have been reported on a handful of Beaker pots all over Europe. These interpretations rest primarily on the detection of cereal grains/pollen, chemically altered starches, and/or calcium oxalate as evidence for brewing. But few claims are accepted without challenge, as any other cereal-based product cannot be excluded, nor some post-depositional fermentation process. Thus, it would be wrong to conclude that Beaker pots served as beer mugs in all cases.
Anyway, it may not be so relevant if each and every Beaker pot originally contained alcohol. It seems clear that they served as drinking vessels which were used in the course of social gatherings, hence the importance of decorating their bases.
At the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE, Bell Beakers were gradually replaced by other pottery and metal forms for serving liquids. In northern Europe, this process ran in parallel to the emergence of a type of singular vessels made of gold, silver, amber or jet, the shape of which resembles that of the handled Beaker pots from Central Europe. These ‘precious cups’, as they have come to be known, are not very stable, as they cannot stand upright on a flat surface by themselves. They would require to be held permanently in order to drink individually, to be used for a libation or to be passed around the participants.
So, these communal drinking events, where beer and ale were probably consumed, rather than being everyday meals, were ritual feasts that contributed to reinforce the shared identity of the prehistoric societies 4,500 years ago. No wonder why the archaeologist Andrew Sherratt referred to Bell Beakers as ‘cups that cheered’.