Bell Beakers Today: International Colloquium on Pottery, People, Culture, and Symbols in Prehistoric Europe
Riva del Garda, Trento, Italy
1-16 May 1998

reviewed by J. Turek


The Servizio Beni Culturali Ufficio - Beni Archeologici of the Autonomous Province of Trento organised an international meeting of 'Beaker archaeologists' in the beautiful environment of Lago di Garda. These archaeologists have devoted their studies to the renowned Bell Beaker 'phenomenon' or 'archaeological culture', evidence of which is widespread in central and north-western Europe in the late Neolithic Period and Early Bronze Age (c. 2500-2000 BC). Franco Nicolis, the Coordinator of the International Scientific Committee, must take most of the credit for the exceptional organisation of the meeting. The services available for the participants were of a very high standard, including the simultaneous translation into English, French, and Italian. The beginning of the colloquium was the opening ceremony of the Beaker exhibition in the Museo Civico Riva del Garda -- 'Simbolo ed enigma: Il bicchiere campaniforme e l'Italia nella preistoria europea del III millennio a.C.' (May 12 - September 30, 1998). The exhibition includes an excellent display of Italian Bell Beakers and new discoveries dating to the third millenium BC. The exhibits are divided into three parts: finds from Northern Italy, Central Italy, Sicily and Sardinia, respectively.

The conference trip was taken to the brand new exhibition of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano. The interest of all visitors was focused on Ötzi the Iceman, the frozen Copper Age body found in 1991 in Hauslabjoch. The general meeting of the Association Archéologie des Gobelets also took place during the colloquium in Riva.

In five days, 34 lectures and over 30 posters were presented. Papers were divided into four blocs discussing: (1) the Beaker phenomenon and ideology, (2) research on particular regional groups, (3) extraction of raw materials and technology, and (4) burial rites.

In the inaugural speech, A. Gallay discussed the relations of regional Bell Beaker material culture to the possible background of ethnogenesis of particular branches of Indo-Europeans. This was followed by the first bloc of papers, which included discussion of the analysis of the technology and design of Beakers, so as better to understand what L. Salanova called the 'Beaker European Union' and its spread across the continent. Attention was also given to reviewing the relevant radiocarbon chronology and to the connection of Bell Beakers to social rank of early metallurgists. The second bloc concerned studies of Bell Beakers from different parts of Europe and the comparison of associated material culture among these regions and between these regions and others in which the phenomenon is not attested. Special discussion was devoted to the margins of the Beaker area. The third bloc of papers on Beaker technology and materials included papers ranging across all of Europe -- from central to northern, and from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean littoral. Discussion ranged from the long-distance exchange of materials to their social context. The final bloc focused on evidence of gender and age-group differences in graves from eastern Europe, especially Bohemia and Moravia. Significant remarks were made about how determination of sex based on analysis of gender-associated grave goods and that based on biological analysis do not always match.

The final discussion touched various subjects mentioned earlier during four days of lectures. It seems that studying the local sequences and understanding Bell Beakers in their regional cultural background is exercising specialists more than the question of their origin and 'homeland'. The issues of the physical anthropology of Bell Beaker populations were discussed only marginally. The importance that used to be attached to the specific brachycranial character of some Beaker individuals was at this conference only rarely used as an argument for cultural-historical interpretation of Bell Beaker distribution in Europe. Science is being frequently employed in an attempt to examine particular problems of the Beaker period. Petrographic, palaeometallurgical, or palaeoenvironmental analyses are becoming a standard part of Beaker research. Let us hope that at the next Beaker conference we will be able to discuss the crucial problems associated with population dynamics, using the data of macromolecular biology. DNA analysis may in future give answers to various problems that puzzle us, since with traditional methods we have hardly been able to solve them. The distribution of the Bell Beaker material culture over the vast area of the European continent is today most commonly explained as the result of a spread of an enigmatic phenomenon -- ideology. The question of the origin of Bell Beakers was not even this time satisfactorily answered. If we ask the question: 'Was there any progress made in the Bell Beaker Archaeology since Oberried 1974?' then the answer must be a resounding yes, but, as Laure Salanova said in Feldberg 1997, 'There is still long way to go'.

Copyright © J. Turek 1998


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