Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Iberian Bell Beaker Artifacts And Other Out Of Place Artifacts In Poland

Bell Beaker blogger reports on the discovery of distinctively Iberian Bell Beaker artifacts, including distinctively Southwest Iberian style objects and a fragmented West Iberian Chalcolithic slate plaque. A naive anthropologist seeing the artifacts without being told their context would have assumed that they originated somewhere to the Southwest of Madrid, although a more careful analysis of all of the artifacts would have resulted in confusion. 

The find is remarkable, because these artifacts were found not in Iberia, but in a cremation style grave in Suprasl in northeast Poland, dated to 5,110 ± 35 cal years BP (95.4% confidence interval 3,976–3,799 cal BCE). At the time of this grave, the region was not even a part of a peripheral area where there was previous evidence of influences from an actual Bell Beaker cultural area.

This newly discovered Copper Age archaeological site in Northeast Poland has a mix of local, innovative and remote artifact styles that are out of place of this time and place which was then inhabited by European hunter-gatherers. Its location, which while inland has access to a river network to the sea, and the eclectic mix of artifacts and practices found there, along with innovations found nowhere else, suggests that its founders had roots in the heartland of the Atlantic Maritime Bell Beaker culture. This site was probably one of the farthest frontier outposts of a far flung Bell Beaker trading network that was predominantly maritime in character, but also had connections to some terrestrial trade routes in different parts of Europe, both local and distant from this outpost.

1. Location of Suprasl archaeological site (yellow star); 2 physicogeographical border of the West and East of Europe; 3 range of the Neman Cultural Circle; 4 range of the Bell Beaker phenomenon (4a culture, 4b peripheries).

The prevailing archaeological culture in the region at the time was a European hunter-gatherer culture called the Neman cultural circle, in a place where repeated efforts to transition to farming and herding didn't take, and while herding replaced hunting and gathering there soon enough (with the last hunter-gatherers gone by 1000 CE), farming wasn't well established there until the 20th century of the common era. This late adoption of food production modes involving domesticated plants and animals was presumably because the local climate was ill adapted to a package of domesticated plants and animals developed original in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. 

The Neman Cultural Circle cultural background of the region is described by the authors as follows in the body text of the paper that Bell Beaker blogger reviews:

The area of modern north-eastern Poland, which consists of the Masurian Lake District and the North Podlachian Lowland, was still dominated by hunter-gatherer societies of the Neman Cultural Circle (NCC) in the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. In the Early Bronze Age they became apart of the Trzciniec cultural circle, which formed at that time. It is difficult to find a reason why these groups changed their cultural profile. The recurrent attempts to populate this region in the Neolithic, made by farming and pastoral communities, did not bring substantial changes in the traditional economic and social structure of the autochthonic populations which would be visible in archaeological material. Archaeological discoveries from the Masurian Lake District were the first to shed some light on the transformation of these local groups into Early Bronze Age societies. 
However, the absence of evidence necessary for conclusive identification of ‘West European immigrants’ in north-eastern Poland was a major cognitive dissonance. This big area delivered only isolated small fragments of vessels with zone-metopic decoration, which were identified with the influence of the Iwno culture (IC)– a group with a marked BB component. 

The situation changed only when features with artefacts characteristic of BB were discovered at site 3 in Supraśl in north Podlachia. The artefacts from that site can be regarded as critical for discussion of BB in northeastern Poland. It is even more interesting that up to that moment the frontier of the northeastern ecumene of this cultural phenomenon was marked by discoveries from areas previously populated by agricultural societies. 

This makes the find remarkable and paradigm modifying because the diffusion of Bell Beaker style cultural artifacts is usually assumed to have involved serial cultural transmission infused with local influences at each step, causing Bell Beaker artifacts from the epicenter of the phenomena in Southwest Iberia to become more and more different from those at the source with overland distance, particularly because if these fragile ceramic objects were actually made in Iberia and then transported by sea, they would still have had to have been transported by land and river over a substantial distance inland to the most eastern area where Bell Beaker artifacts have ever been discovered. 

As the authors explain in the body text of their new paper: 

The eco- and artefacts from these assemblages are difficult to interpret conclusively in the context of the classical BB package, and in terms of its transformations in the course of the journey ‘from neighbour to neighbour’. For this reason, the most important research issue is to establish the origin of the unearthed sources and the associated socio-cultural activity. This will also answer the question as to whether this is a case of diffusion of ideas or migration of individuals.

The mix of artifacts was eclectic, however (quoted from the body text of the cited paper):

One of the most interesting specimens in this group is a fragment of a decorated bowl with an incised zone-metopic pattern of the saltire motif, which originated in the area east of the Rhine River and is usually associated with the Veluve type. 
Another interesting item is a fragment of a profiled bowl witha wide mouth, decorated with an incised criss-cross pattern on the rim, below which a zone-metopic decoration was made with the same technique. Two decoration zones were made on the outer surface – horizontal cord impressions in the upper part, with a band of incised criss-cross pattern below. Due to its form and style, the bowl has parallels in the south-western BB zone, where the cord motifs are found together with motifs incised or impressed with a comb. Cord decoration was made in the upper portion of the vessels, sometimes on the inner surface just below the rim, and the pottery was characterized by a red-brown or reddish colour, which fully corresponds with the specimen in question. However, cord impressions are regarded as foreign in Western Europeand associated with the influence of the Corded Ware culture (CWC) (from another perspective, as one of the results of the Rückstromm). Whole it is the only specimen of pottery decorated in this manner which has been found in Podlachia, a few vessels decorated in a similar way have been discovered in north-eastern Poland – in the Masurian Lake District, where CWC and BB materials have also been unearthed. Therefore, it is possible that the vessel from Supraśl was made in the area of the Masurian Lake District.
The arrowheads at the site are typical of those found at Bell Beaker sites in the Czech Republic, central Poland, and southwestern Norway, rather than the style found in Atlantic Bell Beaker sites or the style common in Central Europe. 

The arrow shaft straighteners found at the site are of a type typical of local Mesolithic hunter-gatherers that have never been found in a Bell Beaker context before. 

The stone knives found at the site were an innovation that has no close parallels in any known prehistoric context and are made from stone probably imported from Scandinavia. 

The flint objects were not made from local materials and are typical of those found in southeastern coastal Baltic areas and southeastern French settlements and only two other examples of flint objects of this type have been found in Poland, some at the nearby Ząbie site in the Masurian Lake District, where pottery bearing BB features was also unearthed and single specimen was discovered at Święcice in Lesser Poland.

The mix of amber, stone and bone jewelry also shows diverse origins:

Cylindrical amber beads are known from BB contexts, but their territorial range is basically limited to the British Isles. The nodular bead is a form which can be found in BB burials in the Czech Republic. As opposed to the beads, the pendant was made of a natural chunk of amber and was only minimally processed to alter its shape and drill a hole in it. Parallel pendants are not known from BB contexts, but are associated with local societies from the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age occupying the Vistula and Oder Rivers basins. 
The processing marks visible on the surfaces under microscope as well as comparative and experimental research indicate that metal tools (a drill and a‘knife’), made of copper or copper alloy, were used in the production process. Since no traces of the use of such tools from the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age have been found at amber processing ‘workshops’ on Baltic coasts, it should be assumed that these artefacts originated in other areas of production. Available data suggest that in this period corresponding ‘jeweller’s’ tools were used in the British Isles and the area of the Aegean Sea. Considering other arguments, connected with the context of the analysed amber artefacts, their origin might be found in ‘jeweller’ traditions of the British Isles. Nevertheless, it does not mean that they were made there as they might as well be the products of a incomer. 
These artefacts include two pendants made of different raw materials. One of them is a mudstone pebble turned into jewellery by drilling a perforation in it. The other is a broken oval plaquette-like form made of slate and has surfaces covered with decoration, whose motifs correspond with the ones found on pottery. It shows a surprising similarity to geometric plaquettes from the south-western part of the Iberian Peninsula, dated to 3500–2750 cal BC. Some researchers regard them as representations of the Mother Goddess. Others believe these plaquettes express ‘collective heraldry’ understood as lineage identifiers, which were used as an ordered and important system for transmission of information. The latter group also emphasizes their significance in funerary rituals. However, a phylogenetic analysis recently conducted by Daniel García Riveroand Michael J. O’Brien showed that such plaquettes cannot be genealogical systems for recording generations. They also concluded that these artefacts might have had a common origin in terms of concepts, e.g., religious or apotropaic ones, and their variety was connected with different developments from the initial idea, which resulted in many variable elements, that is, mutations and variants. 
These include two objects made of different types of sandstone, two fragments of white rock: calcareous sinter and limestone rock, as well as some badly burned and fragmented human and animal bones. One of the artefacts is a small flat slab with an incised saltire and a plano-convex form made of a pebble with an incised three-arm cross on the convex surface. Neither of these objects have parallels in BB contexts. However, they are similar to pottery tokens from the Near East, used from the 8th to the 3rd millennium BC as symbolic counting aids for particular goods or their measures, e.g., for a sheep or large measure of grain.
The overall context of the find as a whole also adds more to the overall eclectic impression it leaves (although I seem to recall Bell Beaker blogger and/or the Old European Culture blog discussing the intentional destruction of artifacts in funerary-like contexts, sometimes without bodies at all, in the British Isles, possibly as a means of making a sort of divinely sanctioned oath or promise, so the authors awareness of the literature here may be limited):
[T]he origin of the ritual involving the deposition of fragments of objects, confirmed in all the features, and its incorporation into ritual practices cannot be accounted for. This practice was applied mainly in the case of pottery and some pieces of amber jewellery, or, rather rarely, weapons. Similar acts of intentional fragmentation of artefacts (mostly pottery) deposited in burials, pits and treasure contexts are known from the Neolithic and Chalcolithic discoveries in the Balkan Peninsula.

The abstract of the new paper and its citation are as follows:

The Bell Beaker (BB) cultural package is one of the concepts explaining the extensive diffusion of this phenomenon in Europe. Artefacts associated with the package, discovered mainly in the graves of men, form groups defining the status of the deceased. The BB package is a dynamic turn of events, changing depending on the region, but preserving certain characteristic traits. The complete set of its initial ingredients was not copied in any location, and new local elements wereadded in various areas of its diffusion. The ritual features unearthed in north-eastern Poland, which contained elements of the BB package, are the assemblages located the furthest in the East European periphery of the phenomenon. The eco- and artefacts from these assemblages are difficult to interpret conclusively within the framework of the classic BB package, as well as in terms of its changes associated with its diffusion. This is connected with the fact that they include elements unknown among the local cultural entities, which reflect the broad circle of contacts their owners maintained.

The authors attempt to cobble together a narrative of a long single journal that might explain this odd and out of place mix of materials in their discussion section, but I omit it, as it only barely hangs together and close this post with their conclusions, beginning with a description of the physical geographic context of the site which resembles an English moor with associated bogs:

Supraśl site 3 is an isolated sandy elevation situated among water-logged meadows associated with wetlands of the Supraśl River, which is now a regulated watercourse. They occupy a stretch of land which is more than a kilometre wide. The landscape in its vicinity consists of barren moraine hills covered with forests as well as lakes and ponds, mostly with peat vegetation. Palynological analysis shows that these areas were only sporadically used for farming from the Early Bronze Age to the 20th century AD. At the same time, they were a perfect location for the economic activity of hunter-gatherer societies, which were represented by NCC in the late 3rd and early 2nd millennium BC. For this reason, it could be surprising that BB representatives arrived in this region.

The answer can be found in the analysis of the natural and archaeological context. On one hand, there existed a water communication network which served for transport and isolated artefacts with typical BB components were found. On the other hand, it was close to chalk flint mines located along the Ros River and flint workshops situated in the vicinity of the mines. 

All these indicate that this was most likely an attempt to find trade partners and organize communication routes or take control of the existing ones. For these reasons, it should not be surprising that mainly isolated BB artefacts without a clear settlement or funerary context were unearthed in north-eastern Poland. 

The discoveries from Supraśl 3 escape this pattern. They cannot be conclusively classified as isolated finds, settlement relics, or classic burials. 

Both the choice of the place (an isolated ‘island’ among wetlands, with access from the river-side, surrounded by large forests – a secret place for the initiated) and the selection of the objects in the discovered features suggest that relics of a certain form of a ritual system, most probably funerary practices, were found. This is indicated by the presence of human cremation remains identified in two features as well as sets of artefacts found in burials of BB men – archers/warriors (beakers, archer’s accessories, daggers, jewellery). The recurrence of the sets of eco- and artefacts and their arrangement in the assemblages suggest the existence of ritual traditions. 

Although most pottery vessels and the decorated slate plaquette/pendant may suggest their Iberian lineage, it is difficult to list parallels in terms of place and behaviour relics. This is relevant to both autochthonic and allochthonic societies occupying north-eastern Poland.

This site seems analogous to the the Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site in rural Southeastern Colorado that was operational from 1833 CE to 1849 CE, and which, for much of its 16-year history, was the only major white American permanent settlement on the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and the Mexican settlements close to the Arkansas River.

Bent's Fort was an early, long term frontier trading post and military destination of a geographically remote, comparatively technologically advanced culture to the local one, trading (and intermarrying, in the case of Bent's Fort, it is hard to tell at this northeast Polish site) not just with the local populations (at least two linguistically distinct Native American tribe in the region), but also with different but with members of other comparably technologically advanced cultures (mostly Mexican and French) exploring and trading in this frontier region at the same time, as part of a very far flung trade network, resulting an eclectic mix of goods and practices that were highly atypical of the general region.


Ryan said...

This is close to one of the amber trade roots, isn't it? Perhaps they got these objects through trade.

andrew said...

It is. That may have been one of the original draws to establish a trading outpost there.