The Beaker Culture of the Neolithic Bronze Age is, perhaps, one of the “purest” cultures that existed way back when. We’re talking 2900 – 1800 B.C.E, here, that’s some serious staying power. And some serious membership material. From Britain to central Europe, everyone everywhere had the same stuff buried with them. If you wanted to be part of the Beaker club, you had to have the right pottery, an awesome archery arm-guard (or two), copper daggers, and some fancy decorated buttons.
Not to mention, you had to buried in the right way: in your own individual mounds with all your amazing Beaker Culture stuff around you. This was a massive change from earlier burial practices. Before, everyone was laid to rest in large stone structures called “megaliths” (aka “large stones”, because archaeologists are simple and straightforward folk) and brought out on special occasions to join the rest of the tribe/town in the event. To go from group burial in open structures, where the ancestors remained part of the living community, to single burials in closed-off mounds, which required just as much work to make, is a huge step. From the group, to the individual; from the “present” ancestors, to the “absent” dead.
Why the change? Honestly, we don’t know. Without written records or folk stories, we never will. We can only track the change and acknowledge the difference in the materials left behind. Welcome to the frustrating part of the archaeological world.
But getting back to the Beakers…
Here’s the other strange thing about this new, fashionable burial style: It doesn’t change. Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Italy – all of the burials have exactly the same things included in them. Any differences are superficial; certain decoration motifs may only appear in one area and not another, or perhaps one group of people prefer their beakers to have longer necks. Other than that, nothing else deviates from the set pattern.
Burial mounds. Daggers. Archery arm guards. Buttons. Beakers. This is what makes a Beaker Culture burial, no matter where or who you are apparently.
Except in one place.
The Carpathian Basin in and around Hungary is the furthest East the Beaker Culture ever travelled, arriving around 2500 B.C.E. Did it catch on? Yep. Was it just as unaltered as elsewhere? Absolutely not.
The people of the Basin mixed the traditional Beaker recipe with their own ideas of what should be included as grave goods. They placed swords, arrows, and spears alongside the usual copper daggers. Brooches and belts accompanied the buttons. A single Beaker vessel was alright, but would the dead need more? Well, they included cups, bowls, and larger storage vessels with food or drink in the mounds.
As with anything else in archaeology, this leads us back to the eternal question: why? What was it about the Carpathian people that made them alter the set formula so much? Is this an example of people not respecting the Beaker traditions enough to follow it like everyone else, or a case of people liking it enough to include it into their usual burial traditions? Was this Basin an area where several cultures met, so the people had no problems with adopting a bit of this or that? Was that why we don’t see this sort of change anywhere else?
With more research and excavations, perhaps we’ll be able to answer these questions. For now, share your ideas and theories below, and keep on digging!