Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Folking Beaker People

I was very pleased to see the news headlines last week that a new study of prehistoric DNA appears to suggest that "at least 90% of the ancestry of Britons was replaced by a wave of migrants who arrived about 4,500 years ago" [the Guardian]. 


In the earlier 20th century, it used to be thought that 'Beaker pottery' represented a particular type of artefact belonging to an aggressive, colonising people who swept across Europe from the east bringing knowledge of metalworking with them: hence reference in the contemporary archaeological literature of the ‘Beaker Folk’.When I was at university (a few centuries ago now) we were told that such ideas concerning prehistoric migration and invasion were simply wrong - there was no such thing as 'the Beaker People' (and even the term 'Beaker-using-people' should be avoided if at all possible). 

Using a traditional approach to archaeological artefacts, of course, it is easy to argue that Beaker assemblages are the physical manifestation of a specific ethnic group, and most early attempts at explaining cultural change interpreted the arrival such material in terms of an invasion or folk migration. The invasion hypothesis was very popular in the years leading up to the Second World War and archaeological maps drawn throughout the 1930s, purporting to show the distribution of Beakers and the spread of metalworking across Europe, look instead as if they are plotting carefully planned military advances. Directional arrows became the march of armoured regiments. Artefacts were weapons. Site names became battlefields.

This view of aggressive acculturation underwent a gradual process of revision throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. The ‘New Archaeologies’ that evolved during that period stepped away from the invasion hypothesis, which appeared to provide a rather simplistic take on the evidence, and progressively replaced it with ever more subtle concepts. The arrival of Beakers and metalwork, it was argued, was due to a more passive form of cultural change. To put it simply, it was suggested that people altered their lifestyles through choice, and not because they were forced to. Change, it was argued, occurred through peaceful social interaction, such as trade. There was no need to explain the Beaker phenomenon in terms of war, migration or conquest.

Never being entirely convinced by all this, I did argue (in the books Monuments of the British Neolithic, The Early Neolithic Architecture of the South Downs and Prehistoric Sussex) that the so-called Beaker package "could easily (and quite plausibly) represent the archaeological trace of an invasion or migration – the durable remains of a small, militarily strong social group that replaced the social elite in a given area, taking ultimate control of local resources". This point (in particular) received a barrage of criticism in the reviews that followed, one writer (who still works in archaeology) describing the argument as "complete nonsense" - little more than "meaningless posturing" whilst another noted that they were "writhing in annoyance at the crass images drawn" and hoped that both myself and my books would "soon be forgotten".

At the time, such 'reviews' left me depressed and angry, not least of all because it was clear that those writing the comments appeared to have wilfully misunderstood large sections of the books condemning the conclusions as they went against their own (wholly subjective) point of view. Today, with the considerable benefit of hindsight, I've learnt to recognise that if I'm annoying people quite this much then I must, after all, be doing something right.

The news that the Beaker phenomenon could indeed have been the result of prehistoric mass migration and invasion, the degree of population replacement involved being far higher than anyone could have imagined, has pleased me inordinately.

Even taking the hyperbole that always surrounds archaeological discoveries (especially when reported in the popular press), I do sincerely hope that the academics who have long argued against the idea of population movement being the catalyst for cultural change are now chewing on their crayons in frustration.

Now, if you'll excuse me I'm off for a spot of meaningless posturing...


  1. Who wrote those awful book reviews? Tell us tell us we want to know!

    1. Ha, that would indeed be telling (!) They know who they (as do I) and it's all a matter of public record, if you dig deep enough (an appropriate metaphor) on the net. I think it was JFK who said (what has to be one of my all time favourite quotes): "Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names" - indeed :)