October 21, 2006
Mystery of the Beaker People They Were the First Scots to Celebrate Fashion, Good Food and Free-Flowing Drink. Now, 4,000 Years on, Scientists Are Unlocking the Secrets of the Original Party People…
By JIM MCBETH
THE smiles and convivial air say it all. They are obviously all close friends or family, dressed in their best clothes and fine jewellery for a quiet get-together. It's the Bronze Age and the first Scots to introduce the social ritual of having people round for drinks are ready to party.
Meet the ancestors the weekend wouldn't be the same without them. We take for granted the conviviality of Scottish culture, but it was defined 4,000 years ago by a mysterious race that, until now, has kept its secrets. Even their name the Beaker People is derived from the vessels they drank from and buried with the dead. They loved personal adornments and were the ones responsible for introducing alcohol to the land now known as Scotland.
Our forebears were also warlike, religious, industrious and fashion-conscious. So it is not too difficult to make a connection between modern Scots and the mysterious tribe, which created a national culture 2,000 years before the birth of Christ.
For more than a century, antiquarians and archaeologists have debated the hidden life of this enigmatic people, an apparently aristocratic class who invented a honey-based drink with the bite of a sabre-toothed tiger.
Intelligent and capable, they also farmed, crafted in precious metals and clothed the nation with the first woven garments.
Historians remain divided on what came first drink, jewellery, or the fashion statements.
But, in the sterile surroundings of a laboratory, modern technology is now beginning to reveal the life of the first Scots to dress nicely and enjoy a drink.
Using state-of-the-art technology, the scientists hope to learn all there is to know about an elusive people by examining the finest collection of their remains in Europe.
The Pounds 500,000 scientific investigation into the Beaker People, involving the Universities of Aberdeen and Sheffield, began this week.
Scientists know that they had a tradition of burying their dead with beakers or decorated earthenware jars that contained sustenance for the journey to the other world.
It was the first known evidence in Scotland of the concept of religion and an afterlife.
And, for some reason, the highest concentration of skeletons belonging to the Mesolithic and Neolithic nouveau riche appears to have been in the Northeast.
Their remains were transported this week to Sheffield, where the archaeologist Professor Mike Parker-Pearson has begun the long, slow process of eliciting their secrets.
For more than a century, the 23 skeletons discovered at various sites in the Northeast have been waiting for technology to catch up with them at the University of Aberdeen's Marischal Museum.
Neil Curtis, a senior curator at the Marischal Museum, says: 'Our collection is the result of discoveries in the 19th century by farmers and quarrymen.
'The skeletons have been in the university for more than 100 years, where they have been studied by generations of anatomists, archaeologists and curators.
'It is very exciting that we may soon get the answers to questions that have been asked for so long. It is also very exciting to be the first museum to take part in this major research project that is using the latest techniques to discover more about people who lived in the North- east many thousands of years ago.' The new study, which will last for four years, will contribute to a nationally important area of research through collaboration with the National Museums of Scotland.
The Aberdeen remains are well preserved because the Beaker People were among the 1 per cent of the population buried individually in 'cists' or stone chests.
Thus, with their bodies facing toward the sun another indication of religious practices their remains were protected from being destroyed by the land or the elements.
'We still don't truly know why they appear to have been different from the rest of the population,' says Professor Parker-Pearson. 'But, in the next few years, we hope to learn a whole lot more.' The analysis of samples from the remains will concentrate on strontium, oxygen, lead, sulphur, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the teeth. Accompanying studies will be made of wear patterns on bones, which should also yield important information on prehistoric health and lifestyle.
It is hoped that the scientists will be able to identify the movement of the people during their lifetime.
Professor Parker-Pearson says: 'It's only been a week, and we have yet to begin examining the mobility factor, but we have already thrown up some new and very intriguing insights into what they ate.
'We have been looking at the microwear on their teeth and the isotopes of nitrogen and carbon as it has been absorbed into their bones.
'They apparently ate a uniform diet of animal proteins and plant food but, even though many of them lived near the coast, none of them apparently ate seafood.
'That implies they were well off and had cattle, pigs or sheep. Seafood was not then regarded as a delicacy and it would only have been eaten if they didn't have anything else to eat.
'But perhaps the most significant new piece of information we have is in the difference in the diets of the Scottish men and women.
'From the period of 2400BC to 2000BC, there are more "pits" to be found on the men's teeth. That is an indication that they ate a wider range of plant matter.
'Conversely, the women appear to have had a higher intake of animal protein in the form of meat, milk or blood. We don't know yet why this should be, but there must have been some big, strong Scottish women back then.
'However, what makes this difference in diet doubly intriguing is that it represents a regional opposite from some earlier findings.
'When you examine similar remains discovered in Yorkshire, the women favoured the plants while the " Yorkshiremen" ate more of the meat. It's a fascinating and so far inexplicable insight.' The lives of this religious and talented people, who disappeared from the cultural landscape with the emergence of later, Celtic races, is endlessly fascinating.
By making gold jewellery, copper daggers and bows and arrows, the Beaker People were responsible for the critical prehistoric transition from a community-based culture to the beginnings of the warrior-class feudal system.
Some experts believe the Scottish Beaker people were descended from a much earlier people of Iberian origin, who spread across Europe from the third millennium BC.
John Duncan, historian and fellow of the Society of Antiquarians ( Scotland), says: 'These Iberian huntergatherers moved through France and lower Britain around 7000BC.
'The West of Scotland Islands give us a further reinforcement to the movement of these Mesolithic people by the finds of large shell mounds and various tools such as fish hooks and harpoons.
'A slow transition took place and, by 4000 to 2500 BC, they moved into a Neolithic farming life.
'Many other things must be taken into consideration, such as the introduction of new flint and stone tools, pottery, permanent settlements, new religious beliefs and structured tombs.
'Other Neolithic monuments discovered in Scotland include henges and stone circles.' It is believed that the forbears of the Scottish emigrants may have created the first version of Stonehenge, the 5,000- year- old structure on Salisbury Plain, which remains one of Britain's most important prehistoric monuments.
Mr Duncan adds: 'Henges are widely spread (across Scotland).
From 2500BC, we see the entrance of the Beaker People from Northern and Central Europe and the start of Scotland's Bronze Age.
' They are recognised as the ones who introduced metalwork to Scotland.' But it is the Beaker People's religion that marks them out in what must have been a dark and savage period. Their burial practices were the first example of individual interment, which would later become the norm.
Professor Parker-Pearson says: 'They may have been a sect or a religious group.' Beaker People's graves were often clustered in groups, which suggest family cemeteries, sometimes very close to earlier Neolithic henges and monuments. It was, say the experts, as if they were taking advantage of sites which they already regarded as sacred.
The graves were filled with goods, which indicated the status and importance of the deceased and also suggested a belief in some kind of afterlife.
Some of the goods included pottery, golden buckles, bronze daggers, cups, necklaces, and sceptres in various stones and precious materials.
Both men and women were buried. In many cases, the bodies were carefully laid with the head to the south, with men facing east and women facing west.
The influx of this extraordinary people, with their superior technologies, is believed to have been largely peaceful, but their capabilities inevitably allowed them to dominate the existing population wherever they settled.
Scottish culture was changed dramatically by their arrival and the advent of metalworking.
Learning to smelt gold and copper, and later to combine copper and tin into sturdy bronze, opened broad new vistas in trade, the arts, the accumulation of wealth, and warfare.
With metal implements, the days of thumping someone over the head with a club or throwing stones with slings were over. Expensive and beautifully crafted swords, shields, dirks, daggers and spearheads helped create the warrior aristocracy, which evolved into the nation's clan system.
There was also a change during the period to living in ' proper' round houses. Scientists believe the huts had a low, stone wall as a base, which was used to brace wooden poles and rafters. On top of this would have been a roof of thatch, turf, or hides.
Eventually, in Neolithic times, the Beaker People also favoured a pastoral pattern of agricultural lifestyle.
As the population grew, more marginal land was brought into cultivation and farmed successfully for several centuries until dramatic climate changes forced its abandonment. The Beaker People were patriarchal and, during the Bronze Age, the individual warrior- chief or kinglet grew in importance, contrasting with the community orientation of the times.
Professor Parker-Pearson says he is delighted to be in a position to finally unlock the secrets of the Beaker People.
He says: 'We don't yet know if we will answer all the questions, but the Aberdeen-Sheffield scientific study, which has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, will take us some way down the road of knowing a lot more about this fascinating people.
'I am also delighted to be working with the University of Aberdeen.
The long tradition of research on the Beaker People in Aberdeen and the quality of the collection makes it the perfect one to start with.'
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