Milly was with us during the summer and has completed some interesting research around our collection of Beaker peoples’ artefacts.

Beakers are a distinctive form of pot which were popular in Europe and consequently spread to Britain around 4 500 years ago (Malone 2001). Although their specific origin and development is contested (Clarke 1970), it is thought that the pots were adopted in Britain in the later Neolithic (Wessex Gallery). Other trends which coincided with beaker pottery and beaker burials include individualistic burials focused on demonstrating prestige, the development of metal working skills and internationalism resulting in long distance trade (Malone 2001). It was previously thought that the purpose of beakers was to hold beer, however, the general consensus nowadays is that they were for food and non-alcoholic drinks. Malone (2001) even goes as far as to argue that they were more than just a pot, and instead were intimately linked with the social, economic and technological changes of the time.

Various beakers from Pitt Rivers’ collection. If you look closely you can see the horizontal decorations which are different on each beaker.

Source: Wessex Gallery.

Beakers came in various styles and decorations which developed and changed over time. Some of the decorations were achieved with cord, finger tips or twigs (Wessex Gallery). The first beakers in Britain are thought to be associated with the Netherlands because they were made from a red clay and had an s-shaped silhouette with a low belly (Malone 2001). Cord and comb was used to decorate these beakers in horizontal patterns (Malone 2001). Later on, beakers became even more decorative and had shorter, wider necks (Malone 2001). Beakers continued to change and from about 2000 to 1700BC they had bulbous, short bodies and practically vertical necks (Malone 2001). This changing of shape and decoration has allowed archaeologists to date beakers with more accuracy.

There were 3 main ways in which beaker burials could differ according to Clarke (1970); orientation, position and type. Below is a diagram from Clarke’s (1970) book which demonstrates the four common positions of the beaker in relation to the body. Although beakers could be prestige ware, general duty ware or heavy duty ware, the form of beaker found in burials tends to be prestige ware (Clarke 1970). Stone (1958) argues that people were buried with beakers so they could use them in the afterlife and so they could provide a sense of identity. Male and female beaker burials also tended to differ (Malone 2001). A typical male beaker burial was most likely a single grave, with the possibility of family being buried nearby, and included shale and jet beads, a copper or bronze awl and weapons like a dagger (Malone 2001). Contrastingly, female beaker burials did not usually contain weapons but had more beads and tools. According to Malone (2001), the contents of one’s grave suggests one’s status and position within the local hierarchy.

A diagram showing the four main burial positions of a beaker where ‘X’ represents the beaker.

Source: Clarke (1970).

There are multiple examples of beaker pottery used in burials in the Wessex Gallery, the most famous being the Amesbury Archer. Unearthed near Stonehenge, he was a seminal discovery as it is thought he was one of the earliest beaker burials in Britain. Interestingly, although most beaker burials only contain one beaker, the Amesbury Archer had five and the Boscombe Bowmen’s grave which contained five adult males, one teenager and two children had the remains of eight beakers (Wessex Gallery). The latter was the largest number of beakers excavated from a single grave and is an impressive addition to the Wessex Gallery.

A beaker which was found in between the knees and feet of a skeleton in Winterslow, alongside a wrist guard and arrowhead.

Source: Wessex Gallery.


Clarke, D.L. (1970) Beaker Pottery of Great Britain and Ireland Volume 1 (Cambridge University Press).

Clarke, D.L. (1970) Beaker Pottery of Great Britain and Ireland Volume 2 (Cambridge University Press).

Malone, C. (2001) Neolithic Britain and Ireland (Tempus).

Stone, J.F.S (1958) Wessex Before the Celts (Thames and Hudson).

Wessex Gallery, Salisbury Museum.

From Encyclopedia Britannica :The Beaker People received their name from their distinctive bell-shaped beakers, decorated in horizontal zones by finely toothed stamps. (Their culture is often called the Bell-Beaker culture.) The graves of the Beaker folk were usually modest single units, though in much of western Europe they often took the form of megalithic tombs. A warlike stock, they were primarily bowmen but were also armed with a flat, tanged dagger or spearhead of copper, and a curved, rectangular wrist guard. Their extensive search for copper (and gold), in fact, greatly accelerated the spread of bronze metallurgy in Europe. Probably originally from Spain, the Beaker folk soon spread into central and western Europe in their search for metals. In central Europe they came into contact with the Battle-Axe (or Single-Grave) culture, which was also characterized by beaker-shaped pottery (though different in detail) and by the use of horses and a shaft-hole battle-ax. The two cultures gradually intermixed and later spread from central Europe to eastern England.

Ed: In fact it is now thought that the Beaker people eventually almost completely replaced the DNA of earlier peoples in England.