Bournemouth University

School of Conservation Sciences

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Is there a British Chalcolithic?

People, Place and Polity in the later Third Millenium BC

Friday 18th - Sunday 20th April 2008




The abstracts for each paper appear below in order of the surname of the presenter.

Martin Bartelheim
Queen’s University, Belfast
Sense and non-sense of the term “Chalcolithic”

According to a wide-spread view the introduction of metals denotes a crucial event in the history of mankind. In large areas of Europe they appeared within a period of rapid evolution of technology, economy, society and settlement structures. It is believed that the production of metals, especially copper, was closely linked with the emergence of a complex economic organisation like the one we begin to see during that period in some parts of Europe. The intense use of metals, especially for symbols of prestige, became consequently a defining factor for the Chalcolithic which was added to the traditional three period system as an intermediate step from the Stone Age to the full Metal Ages.

In this paper I will analyse the importance of metals for the developments of that epoch by looking across continental Europe and discuss the relevance of “chalkos” as an eponymous element.

Dr Joanna Brück and Neil Carlin
University College Dublin

Searching for the Chalcolithic: continuity and change in the Irish Final Neolithic/Early Bronze Age

It is widely acknowledged that the Irish Early Bronze Age was significantly different in character to that of its neighbour, Britain.  For example, Beaker burials of the type found elsewhere in north-west Europe are absent, yet as a major source of early copper, Ireland was far from marginal or insular.  This paper will examine settlement, mortuary practices and depositional activities to consider whether there was a distinct ‘Chalcolithic’ in Ireland.  Contrasts and comparisons with the periods before 2500/2400 BC and after 2200/2100 BC will be addressed to reflect on how the earliest metal-using communities might have differed from contemporary groups in Britain. 

Harry Fokkens
Leiden University
Ideal Ancestors: Beaker problems as seen from the Lower Rhine

The question whether there is a Chacolithic or not, has – already years ago – been solved in the Lower Rhine Basin by the definition of the Beaker Period as the Late Neolithic. In that trajectory the Bell Beaker Period (2500-2000 BC) represents the Late Neolithic B, the Single Grave Culture (2850 – 2600 BC) and subsequent AOO (2600-2500 BC) represents the Late Neolithic A. Our Early Bronze Age starts 2000 BC with the introduction of the first (imported) bronzes, but like in Denmark the real Bronze Age does not start until 1800 BC. Only then both settlement record and burial records change significant as well.

Our Late Neolithic Beaker Period in fact seems to represent one and the same unbroken tradition, where around 2500 copper metallurgy is added onto the existing traditions. But even in burial ritual not much seems to change. Copper daggers replace the already flint equivalents which during the AOO-period have the form of Grand Pressigny daggers and in the Early Bronze Age the form of elaborate Nordic flint daggers. Even if there is copper, and even if the Lower Rhine Basin appears to take in a prominent place in copper production, the whole of the cultural repertoire remains Late Neolithic in essence.

In our opinion the Beaker burials, even if they show elaborate finds now and then, are not representing developing local or regional elites. It can be demonstrated that the set of burial gifts is a distinct repertoire representing a selection of qualities that may have been favoured in a person. For one or more of these qualities standard representative objects accompany the dead person, but never more then one or two of each object. The Beaker Complex is an standard set that over a period of about 1000 years remains almost the same. In our opinion the complex represents an idealized image of ancestors, rather than rich burial of emerging elites. Even the Amesbury Archer fits very well in the pattern: the burial is rich in terms of number of objects, but nicely conforms to the existing repertoire and it is – in a way – just as standard as all others from Brittain to Bavaria.

Paul Garwood
Birmingham University

The present dead: the making of past and future landscapes in the British Chalcolithic

Despite the excavation of hundreds of Beaker burials in Britain since the early 20th century, their cultural and political significance remains ambiguous. Representations of mid- to late 3rd millennium BC funerary traditions have oscillated between models of radical change and continuity, yet the chronology, distribution and frequency of burials is not well-understood even at a local scale. Prevailing interpretations of monuments, bodies and artefacts as symbolic media for constructing identities in death are attractive, but it is altogether less clear how, why and by whom these identities were created. In particular, the focus on grave contents has marginalized the wider landscapes of cultural and political discourse in which burial events took place.

This paper explores the nature of early Beaker burials from a landscape perspective, to show how a series of distinctive spatial strategies articulated relationships among monuments, spaces, people and practices. These addressed tensions between past and present, foreign and native, reconfiguring past landscapes in efforts to delineate imagined landscapes of the future. It is also evident that the chronology of these changes, from the 25th century BC, must raise doubts about the coherence of a unitary ‘British Chalcolithic’.

Dr Frances Healy
Cardiff University

Chronology, corpses, copper, and lithics

The additional chronological precision afforded by Bayesian statistical modelling of radiocarbon dates can help to pose questions about Britain in the third millennium cal BC and to clarify some aspects of the period. These include continuity or the lack of it in burial rite and the relation between the uptake of metallurgy and the character of contemporary lithic procurement and use. The possibility that that metal artefacts were in use in Britain before they began routinely to be buried keeps the options open and the speculative soup bubbling.

Volker Heyd
University of Bristol
Chalcolithisation of North-Western Europe? A perspective from the Continent...

There is no doubt that the pan-European Bell Beaker Phenomenon shall be classified as Chalcolithic (synonymously as Eneolithic or Copper Age). Although by far not a coherent entity and regionally diverse, this is justified by its societal level with established individualism, core family social order, its beginning social stratification, functional differentiation (e.g. craftsman’s graves), and indications of an inherited status (e.g. lavishly equipped children graves), all displayed in the graves & cemeteries. This level of organisation is also demonstrated by the wide international exchange (e.g. amber) from 2500 cal BC, specialisations in the economy & production, by the frequent use of objects of special symbolism, prestige & perhaps even status (e.g. tusk pendants; wrist-guards; daggers); and – not the least – the use of metals (gold & copper), the regular exploitation of its sources, the technical know-how, and its wider distribution. Many of those aspects are also visible in the Bell Beaker graves & settlements of the British Isles. Here, this is even topped by additional expressions such as communality, monumentality, and durability.
So, this should not be the big question. My question and the problem to raise is rather: Are there already Chalcolithic structures in North-Western Europe, including the British Isles, prior to the appearance of Bell Beakers and their users; and if so: Since when?

There has been a long discussion on the Continent on how to define a Chalcolithic period, and how to apply this to countries in Europe where the conventional nomenclature does not only not know the term ‘Chalcolithic’, but where 150 years of heritage management has not brought to light that many metal artefacts. In this respect, Von Pulszky’s ‘Copper Age’ (1877), Childe’s ‘Urban Revolution’ (1936), Chernykh’s ‘Balkano-Carpathian Metallurgical Province’ (1977), Sherratt’s ‘Secondary Products Revolution’ (1987), Lichardus’ ‘Copper Age as Historical Epoch’ (1991), and a few more, are milestones in this search between the ‘power of tradition’ and our struggle to find appropriate definitions for developments in human culture.

A. Sherratt, Plough and Pastoralism: Aspects of the Secondary Products Revolution. In: I. Hodder, G. Isaac & N. Hammond (eds.), Pattern of the Past: studies in honour of David Clark (Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1981). Reprint in: A. Sherratt, Economy and Society in Prehistoric Europe: changing perspectives (Edinburgh: Univ. Press, 1997), pp. 261-305.
• J. Lichardus (Hrsg.), Die Kupferzeit als historische Epoche. Symposium Saarbrücken und Otzenhausen 6.-13.11.1988. Saarbrücker Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 55 (Bonn: Habelt, 1991).
• V. Heyd, Families, Prestige Goods, Warriors and Complex Societies: Beaker Groups of the Third Millennium cal BC along the Upper and Middle Danube. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 73, 2007, pp. 321-370.

Mandy Jay, Mike Parker Pearson and Mike Richards
Durham University and Sheffield University

The Beaker Isotope Project: the evidence for diet, environment and economy from the organic skeletal analyses

The ‘Beaker Project’ is a major AHRC-funded programme which includes the isotopic analysis of 250 Beaker period individuals from across mainland Britain, as well as their radiocarbon dating, osteological and dental microwear analysis, and burial context review.  The isotopic analysis itself is intended to shed light on mobility, diet, local environment and economy for this period in the UK and involves carbon, nitrogen and sulphur analysis of organic collagen from both bone and tooth dentine, as well as strontium and oxygen analysis of inorganic tooth enamel.

This paper introduces the project and discusses the results obtained so far from the organic analyses (carbon, nitrogen and sulphur data).  The data presented are from material from the north of Scotland down to the south of England.

Stuart Needham
The British Museum

Magnetic Monuments meet Mysterious Metal. The British Chalcolithic, Clash of Cultures or Meeting of Minds?

A part of the late third millennium BC, approximately three centuries in duration (c. 2450 – 2150 BC), can be defined as the Chalcolithic, a term that has historically been eschewed in relation to Britain. This paper will start by explaining why the definition and labelling of this period are essential if we are to lay to rest terminological confusion. The fact that a phase of copper metallurgy synchronises closely with the phase of overlap between late Grooved Ware and early Beaker cultural complexes gives us a convenient dual-aspect to the definition of the British Chalcolithic, even if that synchronism is in part mere coincidence.

Even this relatively short period saw massive cultural change rooted in the social dynamic brought about by the coexistence and then partial fusion of two different cultures with their respective radically different outlooks on the world. The coexistence of distinct cultural groups is hotly debated for other passages of prehistory, but for this period it assumes much greater tangibility now that social interpretation has swung round behind hard scientific evidence that the earliest Beaker culture was brought to Britain by people settling in small numbers from the Continent. This should encourage us to renew attempts to interpret a historical process driven by the interactions of two ‘opposing’ world views, and especially by the interactions of key cultural representatives. This paper will be speculative in terms of human interactions, but will try to show how they may account for the evidence drawn from monuments and material culture alike. One of the most fascinating questions, though perhaps also one of the more intractable ones, is the extent to which two initially disparate world views may in time have accommodated to one another in a ‘meeting of minds’.

Mike Parker Pearson
Sheffield University

The Chalcolithic at Durrington Walls

No metal artefacts have been found in the recent excavations at the Durrington Walls settlement but there is circumstantial evidence that its inhabitants were using copper tools in some numbers at this time, during the 26th or early 25th centuries BC. Stone and flint axes are virtually absent from the 80,000 items in its lithic assemblage. Given the necessary scale of carpentry for building wooden houses and larger timber monuments at this site, this is a remarkable absence. As well as stone axes and chisels, flint knives and awls are also very rare – it is possible that these types had also been replaced by metal counterparts. Marks on chalk dug from the slightly later henge ditch may also have been made by a thin-bladed axe of metal rather than of stone.

In 2007 a deposit of green-stained animal bones was found at the base of an outdoor hearth at Durrington Walls, and this staining’s composition was revealed by XRF analysis to include copper. Similar copper staining has been claimed at Stonehenge, beneath the giant trilithon and within a recently dated cremation burial. This evidence and its stratigraphic contexts are re-assessed in this paper.

Ben Roberts
British Museum

To what extent can we refer to a British Chalcolithic?

The idea of a distinct Chalcolithic, Eneolithic or Copper Age in Britain has yet to be entirely accepted. Debates have concentrated instead on the dynamics underlying the appearance and development of Beaker burial rites, the nature of early metal objects and metal production, and the creation of monuments for the living and the dead. This paper begins by looking at how a Chalcolithic period could be defined in Britain from the continental European perspective. It then assesses the extent to which Britain can be regarded as a coherent entity during the mid-late 3rd millennium BC. Finally, it examines our understandings of the communities involved and the issues that remain to be explored.

Ian AG Shepherd
Aberdeenshire Council

Searching in the North

Reviews the Scottish evidence in terms of the presence and absence of possible indicators. A definition involving early beaker graves and copper metalwork is offered and the implications for a potentially very long-lived polity explored.

Alison Sheridan
National Museums Scotland

A Rumsfeld reality check: what we know, what we don't know, and what we don't know we don't know

This contribution follows on from Ben Roberts' introductory paper by reviewing our current state of knowledge about the second half of the third millennium in Britain and Ireland and asking: are our past and current approaches conducive to gaining a good understanding of this period? Do we need to adjust our perspective? What are the outstanding questions that we need to resolve, and how best can we set about resolving them? And, most pressingly, can the Amesbury Archer's pre-eminence as the 'poster boy' for 'the Beaker People' be challenged? A thumbnail sketch of developments in different parts of Britain and Ireland will be offered, inviting robust discussion.

Marc Vander Linden
University of Cambridge

The importance of being insular: British Isles in the context of continental north-western Europe during the 3rd millennium BC

There is a major interpretative gap between the minimal definition of the Chalcolithic as a period during which copper is used, and its identification as a truly historical epoch, with its own (inegalitarian) social structures and its (individualistic) ideology. Although the latter view remains favored by many authors, this all-encompassing narrative must be questioned, as it does not account for the variability of the material record, especially in western Europe. Furthermore, the putative recognition of such unique historical trajectory rests on a comparative research, which would allow to distinguish local peculiarities from wider trends.

Through a systematic confrontation of the archaeological sequences of the British Isles and of continental north-western Europe (Netherlands, Belgium, northern France) , this paper will assess cross-Channel relationships for the 3rd millennium cal. BC and their significance in the "Chalcolithisation" of the area. Alternative interpretations, explicitly departing from the aforementioned classical view, will be proposed.

Dr Ann Woodward
Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, University of Birmingham

Grave goods: materials, craftsmanship and social function

Objects found in the earliest Beaker graves in Britain have seldom been studied in detail. An interdisciplinary research project based at the University of Birmingham is currently recording and analysing grave goods from Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age contexts in England. Themes to be addressed include origins and sourcing of raw materials, the nature of the exotic substances employed and the technology of manufacture. The incidence of use-wear, the role of heirlooms and the possible symbolic and social functions of individual objects are also being considered.

Using some of the results gathered so far by the team of eleven (John Hunter, Ann Woodward, David Bukach, Mark Maltby, Alison Sheridan, Mary Davis, Stuart Needham, Fiona Roe, Rob Ixer, Peter Webb and John Watson), preliminary conclusions concerning selected items of copper, bone toggles and belt rings, pommels, V-perforated buttons, early necklaces and stone wristguards will be presented.

Matthias Merkl
University of Edinburgh
Current research on Bell Beaker metallurgy in Central Europe

This poster will present an outline of my PhD research into Bell Beaker metallurgy in central Europe. It sets out to investigate:

  1. The question of whether Chalcolithic metalworkers used specific types of copper (eg Singen copper) for specific purposes relating to the function of the object. In other words, does the impurity content give the copper specific properties such as hardness, ease of casting etc? The results of previous trace element analyses will be used to investigate this question.
  2. Whether and how Bell Beaker metalwork differs from that used by other archaeological groups (ie Corded Ware communities) in central Europe. Did it offer a technological advantage over this other metalwork? And could this be one of the reasons behind the extensive spread of the Bell Beaker phenomenon, and for its diversity when compared with other contemporary archaeological groups?