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Some Thoughts on the Maritime Bell Beakers, Iberian Graves & Egypt
Looking for non-steppe influences in the Copper Age
I wrote an article a while back looking at the impact of the 2015 genetics papers showing the reality of an invasion from around the Pontic-Caspian steppe circa 3000 BC. The response inside academia was hysterical in places, but more thoughtful in others. In particular I was struck by the discussion in a 2017 paper by Volker Heyd entitled ‘Kossinna’s Smile’. One paragraph has been floating around my mind for a while:
Something was changing dramatically at a Continental scale in the late fourth/early third millennium BC: the emergence of anthropomorphic stelae throughout Europe, including France and Iberia, is one indicator; the new flint and copper daggers and occasional hammer-axes in the west are a second; and the graves of men buried with such weapons— warriors—is a third.
Especially revealing is the recently discovered funerary complex of paramount status in the PP4-Montelirio sector of the ‘mega-site’ of Valencina de la Concepción, deep in the Iberian south. Several features are strongly reminiscent of Yamnaya/CWC graves: the date of 2875–2700 cal BC; the large barrow with burial chamber; the individual male burial, crouched on his right-side, oriented east–west; the flint dagger, and staining with red cinnabar pigment. The upper part of the chamber and the immediate surroundings offer two other significant artefacts: a long, oval African ivory ‘plate’ and a decorated gold sheet, both in the form of ‘sandals’. Further such sandals, sandal soles or sandal-shaped idols, as they are also called, made of ivory, bone or limestone, are recorded from four other sites in southern Iberia.
All are key sites of the Chalcolithic and are dated to the first half of the third millennium BC. These are fascinating features/artefacts, but they would be of little wider significance if the contemporaneous European context did not have a really extraordinary parallel to offer: foot-print/shoe/sandal-formed engravings on Yamnaya/kurgan stelae from the Ukraine, carved and erected some 4500km away. Sandals are widely seen as symbolically loaded, with interpretations ranging from signs of status, power and property to concepts (in a burial context) of walking out of the tomb, towards the underworld in the case of sandal tips facing downwards. While we may only partly comprehend the symbolism, it is just one example of pan-European interconnectivity in the early third millennium BC, centuries before the Bell Beaker expansion around 2500 BC.
This is fascinating to me and a good example of why genetics should be integrated with traditional archaeology. Something much wider than the emergence of the Yamnaya was occurring across Europe, and the existence of parallel artefacts and styles of burial seems to suggest a continental shift during the Copper Age. I want to muse on three topics which might point to other sources of cultural influence on the time period, from outside the steppe area - Neolithic anthropomorphic stelae, Egyptian influence on Copper Age Iberia and connections between the Maritime Bell Beakers and North Africa.
Stelae, Daggers & Axes
The emergence of the anthropomorphic stelae phenomenon is an interesting case to consider, classically associated with a shift from east to west as part of the general interactions between the steppe and western Europe. But there have been a number of papers recently challenging this assumption, which itself dates back to the 1920’s. The different stelae - engraved upright stone slabs - while clearly related to some degree, do show regional differences (Iberia, Trento-Adige, Lunigiana, Rouergue, Sion-Aosta, Sardinia and Languedoc). Dating them has always been a problem, and often their chronological development has been assessed by comparing the motifs within the engravings.
Stelae in both southern France and Brittany appear to be older than the appearance of the Yamnaya in the record. The Rouergue group of France can be dated to around 3500-3000 BC, while the simple Brittany stelae date to around 4500 BC, likely developing out of the standing-stone menhirs from the previous millennium. Does this mean then that, at least in some places, the stelae phenomenon predated interaction with the steppe? Or was there a much earlier connection between the areas around Ukraine and western Europe? Certainly post 3000 BC we see a common convergence on stelae motifs - belts, daggers, axes and forms of jewelry - but in which direction do these images flow? Guilaine argues in a 2018 paper that the French Rouergue axes could easily represent antler hammers or maces and that the Italian Remedello-style dagger images could have been borrowed from French Neolithic flint blades. This certainly isn’t without controversy, since flint daggers and copper daggers emerge roughly at the same time, meaning flint daggers themselves may be imitations of widely traded copper versions.
The destruction and re-use of stelae seems to match the time period for cultural and human migration from the east, according to Angelika Vierzig:
At the break between the two styles of stelae in Sion, partly also in Aosta, there was a visible cultural change, including the destruction of previous structures, reorganisation, and reconstruction. Stelae of the first phase, standing in alignment, were taken down and hewn for reuse in new tombs. For this purpose, the stone stelae were narrowed, provided with door-like entrances, or turned round. A further, second total change and destruction also took place in Sion, less than 100 years after the younger stelae had been erected, during the Beaker period. There was not one stele from the first or second phase that remained undamaged and in its original position.
It is often assumed that the alteration of many stelae in the second half of the 3rd millennium and their reuse in new graves and other contexts shows the aggressive destruction of the previous cultural self-image and its symbols. The stone tomb in Nal´čik for instance can be interpreted in this way, as all the stelae were used upside down as supporting stones of the tomb. But the careful integration of old images into new contexts, as apparent in many cases, suggests that the original symbolism was known and often still significant. The use of old stones in contexts of new world views is more a process of appropriation than of destruction. The monuments did not lose the power ascribed to them and therefore they were integrated into new contexts.
This kind of destruction, re-purposing and semi reverence mirrors the closing up and alteration of Neolithic megalithic tombs during the Bell Beaker invasion of Britain. Partly a way of stamping their authority over sacred and important places, and partly appropriating the power of those sites to their own ends.
Sandals, Ivory & Egypt
In the opening paragraph, Heyd makes the connection between sandals found at a southern Iberian Copper Age grave and images of sandals on Yamnayan stelae. He suggests that the Iberian elites were aware of the social importance of these motifs due to some long range connections across Europe. However, other explanations exist.
The Belgian archaeologist Luis Siret (1860-1934) made great advances in studying the prehistory of southern Iberia. Amongst his ideas was a connection between these communities and those of the eastern Mediterranean, in particular with Egypt. Guilaine states:
With regard to these observations it may be noted that, in the early twentieth century, the Belgian archaeologist Luis Siret (1913) compared several Iberian Chalcolithic cultural traits with those from Egypt—notably the ‘symbolic’ hoes (funerary adzes), figurines, ivory combs, ostrich eggs, alabaster vases and hippo ivory, as well as lithic artefacts.
While such observations were buried in the post-war frenzy to dismiss migration and human movement as prime factors for cultural development, they do have relevance in the light of evidence from Iberian Copper Age tombs.
Ivory artefacts are found across southern Iberia during the Copper and early Bronze ages. Biochemical analyses of these objects reveals them to be made from a mixture of Asian, African and even Pleistocene era elephant ivory, opening up the likelihood of extensive trade across North Africa and southern Spain. Some have suggested that a North African-Iberian interaction sphere dates back to the Neolithic. Studies of the objects in the 1970’s indicated a stylistic connection between Levantine Ghassulian, the Naqadian and Iberian ivory figurines. Guilaine tries to link the exceptional crystal dagger and arrowheads discovered in Copper Age graves to an Egyptian prototype, but personally I think this is unconvincing.
Equally the argument that sandals were an important symbol for Egyptian royalty, and therefore the motif could be Mediterranean rather than Yamnaya in origin, seems weak. Probably the best that can be said is that Copper Age Iberian elites were particularly concerned with acquiring foreign exotic objects, including ostrich egg-shell beads, ivory figurines, gold, crystal weapons and cinnabar. This testifies to at least sporadic trade networks with Egypt or North Africa in general. Whilst this doesn’t eliminate steppe influence on southern Iberia, it does open up the discussion that not every influence and cultural change around 3000 BC came from the steppe.
Maritime Bell Beakers
The emergence of the Bell Beaker phenomenon is still under intense scrutiny and research. An exact chronology and location of its development is ongoing but most agree that the rivers and coasts of western Iberia are the likely homeland. Bell Beaker pottery has become synonymous with the culture and splits into two main groups - All Over Ornamented (AOO) and Maritime style. The Maritime pottery style is very different, with linear horizontal bands impressed into the exterior. This type of pottery is not found anywhere else except for Morocco and Algeria. How it came to be produced in Iberia is one of those very dry and dull topics which sees little attention. A single paper published in Spanish in 1964 by Pellicer suggests that Maritime Pottery could have arisen from earlier local Neolithic styles, but the similarities with North Africa are intriguing.
In 1971 an excavation in Sidi Allal, Morocco, turned up the only known copper knot-headed pin in the country. Along with bone and stone tools were also found Maritime Bell Beaker sherds and a classic Beaker Palmela copper arrowhead. The map above shows the distribution of knot-headed pins across Europe. In fact, the connections between North Africa and Iberia are overwhelming for the Maritime Beaker period - wrist guards, pottery, halberds, arrowheads, awls and daggers have all been uncovered across Morocco and Algeria. Maritime pottery has turned up in 11 Moroccan sites and 2 Algerian, while imports of Asian and African ivory seem to have come from several coastal regions.
The author of this 2014 paper notes:
However, we have to enumerate different kinds of supposedly imported items, which confirm contact and exchange between the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb at that time. This refers to Bell Beaker vessels, Palmela points, a halberd, a tanged dagger, copper awls and a wristguard, all unearthed in the Maghreb, and the presence of African ivory in the Southwest, Southeast and Centre of the Iberian Peninsula. We therefore suggest an exchange of these prestige items for ivory between elites from the Iberian Peninsula and their emerging counterparts in the Maghreb. In the Maghreb we can find this imported material especially in the North near Tangier, the Atlantic coast between Rabat and Casablanca and the region of Oran.
The parallels for these objects point especially towards the Guadalquivir and Tagus estuary, as do the above mentioned comparisons for the Bell Beakers from Aïn Smene. Especially in the Guadalquivir estuary, and also the Southeast of the Iberian Peninsula, we could detect not only African but also Asian ivory at that time. It therefore seems possible that in this framework of an import of Asian ivory from or via Syria also some eastern knot-headed pins could have reached the Iberian Southeast and Southwest.
This back and forth between Iberia and North Africa seems important for understanding the development of the Beaker phenomenon, particularly with regard to the prestige objects and elite driven social structure emerging during the Copper Age. But how much of this flow was unidirectional and what is the relationship between the Maritime pottery styles and those found in North Africa?
Guilaine notes at the end of her paper:
Regardless of the function of the Maritime beaker, a suitable social context favouring its emergence and adoption was required in order to distinguish such a marker. In the whole of third-millennium BC Western Europe, only one region benefited from such a social environment: southern Iberia, with its unusually large sites and burials probably restricted to high-ranking leaders. A possible hypothesis could be that these elites may have called in potters (perhaps from Africa) to produce such an original beaker type, which may also have been the expression of a particular social group. This situation would then explain the strong and expanding presence of this marker within the existing material cultural tradition (from Almeria to Lisbon Bay), which would become completely different from that of the Iberian interior. The end of the regional Chalcolithic—marked by the progressive abandonment of its most characteristic sites—was not due to any external intrusion. Rather, the internal evolution of this society, driven by specific Bell Beaker development, finally led to its deconstruction.
This idea that Iberian Copper Age elites were displaying their power and prestige through exotic and unique objects does feel compelling, given the evidence for the trade in ivory. What is missing here is a classic problem in Beaker archaeology, which is the regional discontinuity. How do these various zones across southern and western Iberia link together during the formation of the Beaker culture? Kunst described this problem back in 2001:
Another strange fact is that there are several regions without Bell Beakers, sometimes separating rich Bell Beaker regions from one another, such as the Algarve between the Tagus and Guadalquivir areas. In the Algarve, several Copper Age settlements like Alcalar and Santa Justa are known, and Alcalar is one of the largest Copper Age settlements of Portugal with at least the largest necropolis, and yet there are no Bell Beaker finds there, although the area has been investigated since the late 19th century. As Teira recently pointed out, only in the last excavations at Alcalar was one bell beaker potsherd found.
This piece was really just to get some nagging thoughts off my chest, to explore some of the ideas floating around since 2015 regarding the influence of the Yamnaya across Europe. It may well be that everything I’ve written here is wrong and can be explained away, but I think its fruitful to explore non-steppe cultural expressions during the early Copper Age and look at the regional groupings of Neolithic and early copper using peoples. If nothing else the recent papers exploring outside influences during this time period shows that migration and external forces are thankfully very much back in vogue.
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