Updated: Feb 17, 2019
One of that many wonderful things about the Montessori method is that it celebrates the interconnections of life, nature and the universe. When my friend Anna suggested I look into the story of the Beaker People, she said it would be a good migration story. But it is also a lesson in economic geography, fundamental human needs, food economy, chemistry, social anthropology and of course it opens the door to Handwork.
I wrote the story of the Beaker People (also know as the Bell-Beaker People, Beaker Folks and the Beaker Culture) as a follow up to my lesson on making pinch pots (not yet published, watch this space) and The story of Clay which you can find here.
A Story of Beaker People (2800 – 1800 BCE)
Now that you have learned to make pinch pots, I would like to tell you about a group of people long ago who used this technique to make very some special clay pots.
These pots were called beakers and they were so important to the people who made and used them, that archaeologists have named their whole culture after them. Historians call them the ‘Beaker People’ or ‘Beaker Folks’. These people were very important to human development in pre-historic times as they brought new discoveries that were so useful, they changed the way humans lived for ever. This is the story of the Beaker People:
Bring out the First Timeline of Humans and indicated the Neolithic period.
The people we are talking about lived in Europe, during the Neolithic period. At this time, some people were still living the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but most people lived together in villages. They worked together and farmed what they needed. Everything was shared and when people died they were buried with their ancestors in one great burial mound. Individuality was not something people really thought about, they just did their share of working for the group.
The beaker people brought a spirit of change that shook the stone age life as people knew it. Some of them went to Britain as traders but found that they liked the countryside so much that they stayed as farmers, settling in their own villages. They brought with them a very special secret that they had learned during their travels in the Middle East. This was the secret of smelting – heating and mixing metals. They knew just how to mix tin and copper together to form bronze, a new and very useful metal.
The people who did this work in the villages were considered to be very important – they were the ones who were able to make strong tools to work the land, weapons to defend the village and knives for hunting. Often the smelters were made clan chief and when they died, they were given the richest graves.
This was the beginning of the bronze age and it was a truly exciting time for human invention. Once people discovered how to work with bronze, they were able to make much longer and stronger knives than they had been able to make with stone. Some of these knives became so long that they needed a new name – can you think what we call these very long, knife- like weapons? (Swords) Smelters were able to make spearheads that could be shaped to join onto the wooden handle without coming loose. They also made a kind of metal shield that could be worn on the body to protect it battle – this was very early armour!
People who had these weapons could become very powerful as they were much stronger and more effective than any other weapons people made during the Neolithic times. But, archaeologists who have found some of these weapons say that they look like they have not actually been used very much. We are not sure why this is, but think that the Beaker People might have worn the decorative metal breastplates and swords only on special occasions as symbols of their wealth and power.
The Beaker People had one other symbol of their wealth and power – the mounted horse. Before the arrival of the Beaker people, horses had been seen as pack animals. Now they were being ridden! This allowed people to travel much faster and cover huge distances. Horses were very expensive to keep – each one eats more than a whole family of humans - so a horse’s owner must have been very wealthy.
All of these symbols of power and wealth created a new kind of society. Instead of everyone working together as equals, there were now leaders and followers. Those who knew the secrets of metalwork became leaders and took charge of community life and the farmers who worked the land and raised the animals were the followers. The chief ensured that the villages were protected from attackers so they could safely go about their labour.
You may be wondering why the people became known as Beaker People. Why would they be named after something as simple as a pot when they had so much power, wealth and the secret of smelting? Well, let’s start with the shape of the beakers. I have some pictures of beakers found by archaeologists here. Does it remind you of anything? What if I were to turn it upside down? Do you think it looks a little like a bell. You can imagine that if it had a bead hanging in the middle, it would make a musical sounds when someone rattled it. Another name for the Beaker People is the ‘Bell Beaker People’. They made these special clay cups or beakers shaped like bells and carried with them on their travels.
The beakers had rounded bases and were often large so that they were held in the cupped palms of both hands. This size and shape suggest that the content of the beakers was very precious and that it was meant to be shared. Archaeologists think that the Beaker People held the secret of fermentation - the process used to make wine. They used honey to make a kind of wine called mead in a large beaker and when it was ready, it would have been passed around the group so everyone could take a sip.
So you see, whilst the Beaker People were named after their distinctive pottery style, they actually influenced a lot more of our society and culture. They brought organised leadership, metalwork, farming techniques, horse riding and fermentation as well as some new religious ideas. These people who are remembered with a funny name, actually made a huge difference to the way our society was built.
If you would like to have a go at making a bell beaker, we have some clay here for you to use. You can use the pinch pot technique that you have practised and try to form the bell shape. If you like, you can use the tools to add rows of decoration like the ones in the pictures. You might also like to do some more research into the Beaker People and their way of life.