Early Cultures: The Beaker Folk

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The Beaker Folk, predecessors of both the Celts and Picts in Early Britain, were a patriarchal and warlike society believed to have migrated from the European mainland around 3,000 B.C.E.

Prior to that time they had come into close contact with a Russian tribal culture known as the Battle Axe people, with whom they soon merged to form a single population. The Battle Axe culture is believed to have radically influenced the speech of the Beaker Folk, both those who migrated into Britain and those who remained on the European mainland, effectively ensuring the spread of an Indo-European language into eastern Europe and beyond.

Early in their development as a society, the Beaker Folk pursued skills in metalworking, first in gold and copper and later in bronze. They are attributed by some as being instrumental to the beginning of the Early Bronze Age. At any rate, it is important to understand the Beaker Folk’s keen interest in metals, because it was their search for alternative sources of gold and copper that brought them into Britain and then convinced them to stay.

Once established in Britain, the Beaker Folk asserted claim to more and more land, for they were also farmers and herders for whom vast expanses of land ensured prosperity. Their warlike natures enabled them to expand territories quickly, and soon they were grazing cattle in much of Britain. They formed warrior-king societies, which brought drastic change to Britain after the community-based lifestyle of earlier Neolithic populations.

They built burial barrows, in which a single individual was buried with an often lavish assortment of grave goods, including gold and copper jewelry, daggers, cups, and sceptres inlaid with assorted precious stones. They also buried their dead with pottery beakers of a distinctive horizontal design; it is from these unique objects that the name “Beaker Folk” was coined. Barrows were clustered in circles to accommodate different members of a family group. Many of these practices would suggest the presence of a form of spirituality in the Beaker culture that embraced a belief in the afterlife.

Both men and women were granted burial in barrows, but in many instances the orientation of the bodies were different. Men were often interred with their heads directed east, and women with their heads directed west. The reason for this is not known, but we can speculate that they may have attributed gender-specific qualitites to physical direction or certain natural phenomena, or that they believed the dead should be able to see the sun at different times of the day, based upon gender.

The Beaker Folk were accomplished archers, and are believed to have been among the first to employ the use of metal and stone wrist guards to protect archers’ arms from injury. Tanged daggers and copper spearheads were also used in warfare, which is yet another testament to the level of the skill attained in metalworking.

They are also believed to have originated the barrow house, comprised of a low stone wall forming a circular enclosure, and providing a base for wooden supports and rafters upon which a covering of thatch would be laid. On a lighter note, the Beaker Folk are also credited with the introduction into Britain of the first alcoholic drink – a tasty, honey-based mead.

Some sources would attribute the Beaker Folk with the beginning of construction of stone circles in Britain, but no hard evidence exists to affirm or refute this. There is evidence that the Beaker Folk were involved in a renovation of the circle at Stonehenge, and were perhaps to be credited with expanded earthworks around the original circle. Certainly they were contemporary with henge construction, since the oldest portion of Stonehenge is believed to have been constructed beginning around 3,000 B.C.E. and the massive circle at Avebury beginning around 2,400 B.C.E.