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The Beaker People

This Beaker-period man from Bee Low in the Peak District had his skull modified by cradle-boarding as an infant; his isotope levels are consistent with him growing up in mainland Europe
Beakers were placed in graves of the continent-derived Beaker burial rite; this beaker is from Netheravon Flying School in Wiltshire

The Beaker phenomenon has been documented across Europe in the late third and early second millennia BC, defined by a particular style of pottery and, in northwestern and central Europe, its inclusion in burials. This project examines Beaker mobility, migration and diet in Britain in the period 2500-1700 BC.

Since the 19th century antiquarians and archaeologists have argued whether the appearance in Britain of burials with pots known as Beakers marked the arrival of continental migrants around 2400-2200 BC. These people have been variously credited with introducing metalworking to Britain, spreading the Indo-European language group and building Stonehenge.

In recent decades many prehistorians have argued that the changes in material culture were due to the introduction of a 'Beaker package' rather than a wave of immigration but isotope results from the skeleton of the Amesbury Archer, found near Stonehenge, indicate that he grew up in Europe.

This map shows the variation in strontium isotope values across Britain

This project, on which Parker Pearson was the PI, was a major scientific research programme, carried out jointly by Sheffield, the Max Planck Institute, and the Universities of Durham, Bradford and British Columbia with the British Geological Survey, the British Museum and the National Museums of Scotland, together with many local and regional museums across Britain.

It has analysed 285 Beaker-period burials from England, Scotland and Wales for strontium, oxygen, sulphur, carbon and nitrogen isotopes in order to investigate their dietary and mobility histories. Accompanying studies of tooth wear and osteology are also yielding important insights into prehistoric health and lifestyle.

The research phase of the project is now complete and a monograph is in preparation. The results are being published in combination with those of Aberdeen University Museums’ ‘Beakers and Bodies’ project.


Related outputs

  • Jay, M., Parker Pearson, M., Richards, M. P., Nehlich, O., Montgomery, J., Chamberlain, A. and Sheridan, A. 2012. The Beaker People Project: an interim report on the progress of the isotopic analysis of the organic skeletal material. In M.J. Allen, J. Gardiner and A. Sheridan (eds), Is There a British Chalcolithic? People, place and polity in the later 3rd millennium. Prehistoric Society Research Paper No. 4. Oxford: Oxbow. 226-36.

  • Larsson, M. and Parker Pearson, M. (eds) 2007. From Stonehenge to the Baltic: cultural diversity in the third millennium BC. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 1692.

  • Sheridan, A., Parker Pearson, M., Jay, M., Richards, M. and Curtis, N. 2007. Radiocarbon dating results from the Beaker People Project: Scottish samples. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 8: 222.

  • Sheridan, A., Parker Pearson, M., Jay, M., Richards, M. and Curtis, N. 2006. Radiocarbon dating results from the Beaker People Project: Scottish samples. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 7: 198-201.

  • Parker Pearson, M. 2006. The Beaker people project: mobility and diet in the British Early Bronze Age. The Archaeologist 61: 14-15.

Funding

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