Cups that Cheered: Bell Beakers and Alcohol in Bronze Age Europe

7 minute read

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!

A collage of two images of two handled beakers. The one on the left is caramel coloured and shorter than the one on the right, which is of a more darker brown. Both beakers have broad bands of incised decorations of a zig zag pattern.

Figures 1 and 2: Left – A Beaker with a handle, decorated with two broad bands of incised decoration, consisting of lozenges. Fordham, Cambridgeshire. Bronze Age. Purchased by Ronald Livett at the Bland Sale in 1903 for Anatole von Hügel. MAA 1903.204. Right – A handled Beaker with bands of incised decoration, with geometric designs including lozenge, chevrons, zig-zag and concentric circles on the base. Bottisham, River Cam. Bronze Age. MAA Z 11491/Record 1.

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.

A collage of two images of two beakers, both of a caramel, muddy colour. The beaker on the left is a bit taller than the one on the right. Both beakers have simple notched and banded decorations.

Figures 3 and 4: Left – A Beaker with simple notched decoration, consisting of four evenly spaced zones, each made up on short vertical notched lines, bands of horizontal notched lines, and a band of a notched lattice pattern. Chippenham Park, Cambridgeshire. Bronze Age. MAA 1944.14. Right – A smaller Beaker decorated in relief with a design stamped in vertical lines. Snailwell, Cambridgeshire. Bronze Age. MAA 1896.183.

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.

A dark brown coloured ladle with the following painted on it: 'EQ37'

Figure 5: Ladle of horn, from Broomend of Crichie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. National Museums Scotland. X.EQ 37.

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.

A wide mouthed bowl with a stand. It has banded and incised decoration on the body and on the stand.

Figure 6. Footed bowl with Beaker decoration | Cave I of S. Pedro do Estoril. Photograph: Câmara Municipal de Cascais.

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.

A set of three pieces of pottery with incised and banded decorations. On the left is a beaker, in the centre a large bowl, and on the left another small bowl.

Figure 7. Ciempozuelos style pottery trio from the eponymous site of Ciempozuelos, Madrid. Bell Beaker to the left, Beaker Carinated bowl in the centre and Beaker Bowl to the right. Photograph: Museo Arqueológico Nacional.

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.

A collage of two images of a beer jug. The image on the left shows the front profile of the jug, and the image on the right the side profile. On the jug are engraved three figures.

Figures 8 and 9: A beer jug of Cullen (Gres de Flandre) ware, decorated with a design in relief representing three female figures in the dress of the period standing in three niches. The three female figures are Judith holding a sword and the head of Holophernes, Queen Esther standing with her hands folded, and Lucretia holding a dagger to her breast. Downing Street, Cambridge. Post Medieval. Rev. Prof. G. F. Browne. MAA Z 16574.

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.

A beaker with incised and banded decoration of chevron and horizontal lines.

Figure 10. A Beaker decorated with zones of chevron and horizontal lines on the neck, a similar pattern on the body, and zones of cross-hatched and horizontal lines. Barnack, Cambridgeshire. Early Bronze Age. Donated by Burghley Estate. Photograph: The British Museum.

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.

The base of a beaker with incised and banded decorations.

Figure 11. A Beaker with a decorated base. National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

A gold cup decorated with concentric corrugations, and a handle made of a thinner material.

Figure 12. A Bronze Age gold cup, formed from a single sheet of gold and decorated with horizontal concentric corrugations terminating at the bottom around a central boss and flattening out at the top to create a rim. The handle is made of a separate, flat piece of gold and is riveted to the body. Excavated in 1837 in Rillaton, Cornwall. Royal Collection Trust/© His Majesty King Charles III 2022. Photograph: British Museum.

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’.

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