Review – The Beaker People: isotopes, mobility, and diet in prehistoric Britain

5 mins read
By Mike Parker Pearson, Alison Sheridan, Mandy Jay, Andrew Chamberlain, Michael Richards, and Jane Evans (eds)

Oxbow Books, £49.99
ISBN 978-1789250640
Review by Rob Ixer

It was said that astronomy was divided into two: study of the Crab Nebula and the rest. Similarly, in British prehistory, the Beaker Phenomenon with all its expansive bling outshines all others. The last decade has seen an almost nova-like explosion of impressive, Beaker-led, wonderfully illustrated texts, memoirs, and catalogues – notably Woodward and Hunter’s bracer and well-furnished grave (‘bling’) volumes and the Amesbury Archer monograph. Truly our beaker runneth over.

This 600-page edited volume, incorporating and glossing much from those earlier works, continues the tradition for erudite, well- and sensibly illustrated tomes, and it sells it short to say this is ‘yet another’ important book. Detailing the results of the Beaker People Project and the more spatially limited (northeastern Scotland) Beakers and Bodies Project (the subject of chapter 5), it cannot be picked up and read lightly, but it is the essential reading required to make any sense of the redtop headlines (or, indeed, the Beaker People), as it gives the data – provided in abundance – alongside balanced, sensitive, and nuanced interpretations.

After an introduction, two chapters discuss the Beaker Folk, and their immaterial and material culture, and includes extensive analysis of the accompanying flint and eponymous beakers that were intentionally omitted from the ‘bling’ book. Hence, finally, a full, modern description or summary of these grave goods has been completed, and completed well, barring the odd contentious sentence regarding the provenance of early jade/jade-like bracers.

Two osteological chapters include much craniometry and dental work with revisions, corrections, and augmentations of earlier studies. Throughout these and the following chapters it appears that the finest wisdom is to be extracted from the first adult mandibular molar.

Five chapters – taken together they are an impressive exposition of the value of these studies in archaeology – feature isotope data, namely new radiocarbon dates (Bayesian modelling the start and finish of Beaker times) and stable isotope results for carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, strontium, and oxygen. Sinking their teeth into the work, from detailing the theory and methodology through to inherent problems and ambiguities of the samples and paucity of geological sampling, the authors manage to pull out (surprisingly?) consistent interpretations on diet, provenance, and mobility. There are few ‘wow moments’ – though determining when weaning begins is one – but masses of careful, solid data on ‘little people’, if ‘little people’ have expensive grave goods.

Britain’s wildly varying but often repeating rock types, and the length and influence of its coastline, are both a bane and blessing for detailed determinative strontium and sulphur isotope work, and this is correctly reflected in the limited, realistic conclusions that are read from them. Incidentally aberrant bone strontium values in the White Peak, Derbyshire, may be because the area lies in the barite zone of the South Pennine Orefield rather than indicating an unknown granitic source.

What do all these data show? The final synthetic chapter suggests that the Beaker People were small groups of disparate European economic migrants importing a few treasured belongings (and skills?), and that their locally mobile descendants became less culturally isolated (distinctive) with time. Unambiguous evidence for long distance (ex-British Isles) travellers is rare. (The Amesbury Archer increasingly adds to his ‘uniqueness’, so perhaps Beaker Studies are the Amesbury Archer and everything else.) Beaker burghers were much like us with parochial lives, and it is ‘luck’ that many lived or were buried on the isotopically highly distinctive Cretaceous chalk and so are trackable.

In the 20th century, the Beaker Folk became the Beaker Package, but new DNA results have reinstated them (see CA 338). Their ‘package’ rests less on a collection of cultural and physical attributes but is something more virile, precipitating the question of how and why there was such a rapid population replacement. This consummate volume (essentially written just before the recent DNA work) provides the full ‘Beaker Experience’ that must guide/control the answer to that question. Who thought a few old bones could say so much?

This review appeared in CA 354.

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