Friday, September 14, 2012

0108 - Ditches and Bell Beakers

Bell Beakers are not common in Portuguese ditched enclosures. Well, in the small ones. There, they are virtually unknown. Even in those built in bell beaker times.

But at the enclosures that grew bigger, to became large ones, like Perdigões and Porto Torrão, beakers are present and they can be very well represented (as it happens in Porto Torrão).

But that is not it. A pattern emerged in the last years. In small sites, sometimes reoccupations of walled enclosures (but never ditched ones), we tend to have beakers of a mono style (maritime, or incise, or combed geometric). But the large ditched enclosures are the only ones where we have all these styles together.

A paper of mine has recently been published on this issue here.

Notice that in the maps, Perdigões is told to only have maritime and incised beakers. Well, this summer things changed, and combed geometric beakers also are present.

In fact, as Perdigões, Porto Torrão and Bela Vista 5 chronologies show, at beaker times ditches were still being built in west Iberia. Sometimes enlarging previous enclosures (like in Perdigões), sometimes creating original enclosures (like at Bela Vista 5).

But only in the big ones we have the presence of the three main styles. Another sign of the social role of these large enclosures.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Dr. Valera.

    The maps are quite interesting. Correct me if I'm wrong but one would say that that the mysterious Horizon of Ferradeira (which, if I'm correct, represents the arrival of Bronze to SW Iberia and also the extinction of various previous towns in the area, right?) is very refractory to the Bell Beaker phenomenon (except for one case in the large enclosure of Alcalar - capital? - which is corded style and hence likely very old).

    Also what you say in the blogpost about Bell Beaker being almost exclusive from large enclosures is quite interesting, because it suggests that the "commoner" groups were less integrated in the inferred BB trading networks.

    I also take notice that you mention in the paper that BB is rare in funerary contexts, being apparently just fashion item and not, as happen in other places part of a subculture with their own standardized funerary practices.

    Of course, these are my understandings, some of which may be wrong. Feel free to correct me, please, it can only be interesting.

  2. The Bell Beakers pottery remains seem to be concentrated in the highlands of the Guadiana River basin, if I am interpreting the maps correctly, with the Horizon of Ferradeira boundary actually perhaps further towards the source of the main Guadiana river right in the core river basin rather than were it is drawn on the map.

    Is this a correct understanding of the maps in your paper (the rivers don't seem to be labeled on the maps in the paper and I'm not sure that I'm match those maps to one with river labels that I am comparing to them)?

    Is there any notable soil or elevation or geology or climate or vegetation boundary that seems to track this "Bell Beaker"/"no Bell Beaker" boundary, or does it appear to be purely arbitrary? Is this same boundary present in archaeological cultures older than Bell Beaker or does it first appear at this point? Does this same boundary appear in post-Bell Beaker era archaeology of the region?

    Have the pottery finds on the map assigned to particular dates by radiocarbon or site strata, or just by pottery type? In any case, what time frame is involved? I didn't see a time frame in the legend of the maps and wasn't able to read the text well enough to figure this out from the body text due to my limited language skills. I wouldn't want to inaccurately make presumptions or guess about the dates of the pottery finds from these sites from less reliable secondary sources if their age is known more directly.

    Alternately, could this pattern shown on the maps be a product of the data collection methods and relic preservation conditions? For example, is there a lack of Bell Beaker fragments closer to the coast in the Guadiana River basin simply because many layers of urban development and farm cultivation there have destroyed them? Is it plausible that there could there be a gap because it is is too expensive or difficult to do archaelogical work there now for some reason?

    1. Be careful, Andrew, that the maps are not exhaustive of all the area shown. For example the region of Estremadura (around Lisbon and Setubal) was a highly "urbanized" area (culture of Vila Nova de Sao Pedro, VNSP) and a center of Bell Beaker itself but in the maps it is blank. Similarly Western Andalusia only shows one site (a large enclosure near Seville) but there was much more.

      The maps appear to cover the historical Portuguese regions of Alentejo (both Baixo and Alto) and Algarve, as well as part of Spanish Extremadura (area around La Pijotilla only). All the rest is simply ignored.

      The first map indicates generic Bell Beaker findings in three categories: "large enclosures", "site with Bell Beaker pottery" and "dolmens ('antas') with Bell Beaker pottery".

      The second map indicates four different variants of BB pottery: "international" (aka "maritime", centered in the area of Lisbon, VNSP, and widespread in large parts of Atlantic Europe), "geometrically dotted", "incised" ("Spanish" variants from Ciempozuelos or Los Millares) and "corded" (AFAIK considered the oldest variant, of continental arrival).

      The second map also indicates the "Ferradeira Horizon", which is the first of three or four intrusive (?) "horizons" which are related to the arrival of bronze tech to SW Iberia (in parallel to El Argar in the SE). For what I know, these horizons are characterized by no towns (former towns like Santa Justa vanish), burials in cist with a knife except for some "princely" burials known as "grabsystem", made up of quasi-circular stone walls in a shape may remind a simplified crab seen from above (a quite original burial monument with no known similitudes - at most some Mycenean circular wall tombs but these have a different shape).

      This area clearly shows no Bell Beaker except for one early (corded style) finding. As we get into the Bronze Age these "Horizons" (we might want to call them the "Grabsystem culture" but AFAIK they have no "official" name) expanded Northwards into all the Alentejo and much of nearby Spain (see "group of Atalaia", rather "Horizon of Atalaia", the last one of the series, in this map I drew years ago for Wikipedia).

      This mystery people, which is probably precursor of later Tartessian speakers, has no relation with Bell Beaker apparently. After all BB belongs to the Chalcolithic world (incl. Megalithism) and these and El Argar are the pioneers of the Bronze Age world in a somewhat rupturist manner I suspect very strongly but that is not easy to describe in a mere comment.

    2. First, the paper on the link was presented for publication in 2005 and only published last year. The last few years, though, have seen a lot of archaeological activity in Alentejo, and some new contexts related to Bell Beaker phenomena are known. Nevertheless, they do not change the general image of the spatial cluster suggested by the maps published, that stays valid.
      Second, the text is about Bell Beaker in Alentejo region, so the maps refer exclusively to Alentejo, with the exception of La Pijotilla (in Spanish Extremadura). That was to stress the circumstance that only in the large enclosures we could find the several stylistic complexes. The peripheral areas (Portuguese Estremadura, Spanish Extremadura and West Andalucia) are not ignored. In fact, the links between Alentjo’s beakers style destributions and these peripheral areas are made in the text. But the maps focus on Alentejo´s destributions.
      Third, as to the borders, the border to Spain is clearly artificial, especially in the Guadiana valley. But to other borders are quite visible. In fact, although some interpenetration can be reported, the general area of distribution of decorated beakers and what was defined as “Horizonte de Ferradeira” tend to not overlap. And this is not a problem of chronology. In fact, if we can ascribe the later to the transition/beginning of the Bronze Age, we also know that beaker decorated styles survive during that some phase of transition, into the Early Bronze Age.
      But is also interesting to note that the border also coincides with a significant shift in geology, topography and land conditions. I will publish a map that shows precisely that in the next post.
      Fourth, there is another rough stylistic border (referred in text). The patterns characteristic of Palmela Group (from Portuguese Estremadura) are dominant in the geometric combed or incised beakers in the Sado basin (the western basin in Central Alentejo), and the Ciempozuelos patterns are clearly dominant in the incised beakers of the Guadiana Basin (the eastern basin in Central Alentejo), defining stylistic territories, with natural interpenetrations.
      Fifth, the beaker decorated pottery has already a radiometric support for Alentejo region, that clearly put it in the second half of the 3rd millennium BC, beginning of the 2nd millennium. The Ferradeira Horizont in Alentejo doesn’t have the same general radiometric support, but is generally associated (especially due to its metal components) to an Early Bronze age. Curiously, the only published date for a Ferradeira burial (in a reutilization of a Tholoi monument) is from the second half of the 3rd millennium (the only star above the “border” in the map): 2479.2211 cal BC 2 sigma (Soares, 2008).
      In fact, the Horinte de Ferradeira has been question since the late eighties of the last century, especially in the simplicity of its definition, and its operative performance has weakened. For a recent critique I suggest Mataloto paper: “Entre Ferradeira e Montelavar: um conjunto artefactual da Fundação Paes Teles (Ervedal Avis)”. I use it in the paper because in stylistic terms, it spatiality in Alentejo, in crontast with decorated beakers, seems to be significant.
      An another issue. As you can see in the map, the majority of decorated beaker contexts are not graves. Well, the great majority of the “Ferradeira” contexts in Alentejo are graves.

    3. Thanks for your interesting explanations, Dr. Valera.

      "... the paper on the link was presented for publication in 2005 and only published last year".

      Six years of delay! I really hate that! There is a lot of discussion online as of late about circumventing publishing groups and even peer review to some extent, partly for this kind of reasons.

      In any case, I made a question above that I feel has not been answered (what is normal because I said so many things...) but I'd like some knowledgeable opinion on the matter. In other geographical contexts Bell Beaker style pottery is typically associated to Bell Beaker style burials, which tend to be very specific (fetal position and standardized grave goods: copper knife, golden spiral, bell beaker, archers' wrist-plate, perforated conical buttons, flint arrow points, etc.) Can we say that in Alentejo there are no or almost no Bell Beaker tombs and that bell beakers are just a common use pottery style, found mixed with others? Would this apply to other parts of Iberia?

    4. Well, it depends on the regions. For instance, in Beira Alta the contexts with Bell Beaker pottery are dominantly funerary, with the reuse of dolmens (although the site with more beakers is a walled enclosure – Fraga da Pena). I believe that in the North Portugal is the same. In Portuguese Estremadura we have already a generalized presence of beaker pottery in non funerary contexts, but the reuse of megalithic monuments and funerary caves is also quite frequent.
      At Alentejo, on the contrary, the majority of contexts with bell beakers are in enclosures (walled or ditched) or open sites (frequently corresponding to late reoccupations) and the funerary ones (a minority) are almost constituted by the reuse of megalithic (dolmens or tholoi) ones. A specific individual bell beaker grave, with a very well defined material assemblage, like we can find in some Iberian regions or in Central Europe, is not yet something that we can assume for Alentejo (if we except the “Ferradeira” issue). Is it a problem of Archeological research? Other realities, recently recorded, were. But the Recent Prehistory of Alentejo hinterland is being under an Empirical Revolution in the last decade and a half, and that scenario is still missing. We shell see.

  3. Thank you (both of you) so much for the in depth answers to my questions. I really appreciate it.

    As far as I am concerned, this time frame and geographic area are among the most pivotal in our understanding of European prehistory as a whole. Few times and places have more potential to discriminate between alternative possibilities that are seriously possibilities based on other evidence.

    The initial arrival of the Neolithic revolution in Europe is pretty well documented, and the details from the Iron Age onward are pretty well fleshed out, but there seems to be a lot more transformative activity in the Chalcolithic and the Atlantic Bronze Age than had been realized until just the last decade or so. Ancient DNA has really unscored the fact that we are missing a lot in that time period that we hadn't known to look for, and Southern Iberia seems to be where those transformations radiate from.

    The more we know about it, the better, and the opportunity to get an up to date look at what is going on in this research at this blog, without a seven year publication lag and with an opportunity to clear up points that might not have been as obvious in a non-interactive journal article, is a great prize indeed.

  4. "... Southern Iberia seems to be where those transformations radiate from." Andrew

    I agree with you, Bell Beaker is not a phenomenon but the continuity of the network trade between neolithic in the inner land and the mesolithic people in the Sado and Tejo estuary.

    The Roman historian Pliny "considers the Celts from Iberia to have migrated from the territory of Lusitania's Celtici which he appears to regard as the original seat of the whole Celtic population of the Iberian peninsula including the Celtiberians, on the ground of an identity of sacred rites, language, and names of cities." wikipédia

    Another archeological "mystery" is the interpretation of the engraved stone plaques found in Southern Iberia dated 3000-2500 BC from Bell Beaker sites. Katina Lillios in the paper "Lives of stone, lives of people: re-viewing the engraved plaques of Copper Age Iberia (2004)" from presents first comprehensive on-line catalogue of the plaques – the Engraved Stone Plaque Registry and Inquiry Tool (ESPRIT)
    The plaques on the catalog count more then a thousand and half of tem came from the territory of Lusitania's Celtici.

    According to Katina Lillios's interpretation plaques are the first centralized system to identify people and property rights.

  5. Do you think it is possible that the motifs on the Bell beakers represent clans? That would explain why only one type is present at the small enclosures. Judith Jones