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The Beaker Period 2500 - 1700 BC
Museum Guide

Gallery Contents
Curator's introduction

Yes Sir, that's my Beaker
You're Late

The situation is grave
All for one
Upwardly mobile
Creeping up...
Beaker Folk, anyone?
I knew it!

List of Displays

Curator's introduction

Three Thanet Beakers

Three Thanet Beakers
Artefact scales in centimetre divisions

Feature scale in 0.1 metre divisions

In the Third Millennium BC a new form of pottery, known to archaeology as a Beaker, began to appear in Britain.
Beakers were a continental innovation that spread throughout Europe. The Netherlands may have provided a particular source of inspiration for some of the British Beaker forms (Darvill 1987).

A Beaker-dating project conducted by the British Museum established an overall date range of c.2600-1600 BC for these vessels, with most dates  concentrated in the period 2250-1750 BC (Jay 1995).

It has been suggested that some Beakers  occur as early as circa 2800 BC. They are broadly dated in these pages to circa 2500-1700 BC.

This period of Prehistory spans the transition between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age and is one of the pivotal points in our ancestor’s story.

Metal working was first introduced into Britain at this time. Initially copper was worked, but this was swiftly replaced by bronze - an alloy of copper and tin.
An Early Bronze Age Flat axe reputedly found at Gore End, Birchington along with a Flanged axe

An Early Bronze Age Flat axe, reputedly found at Gore End, Birchington

The spread of Beaker pottery throughout much of Europe seems to have been intimately associated with the spread of the new copper working technology.
The Beauforts North Foreland Beaker

North Foreland Beaker

Fingernail-rusticated Beaker sherds from QEQM

Fingernail-rusticated Beaker sherds from QEQM Margate

'Yes Sir, that's my Beaker'

In general Beakers were made to a high standard, using local clays. The vessels are frequently thin-walled, intricately decorated and well-fired; distinct in style and quality from the other contemporary Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age ceramics.

Beakers are usually decorated with impressions of cords (mainly on earlier vessels) or the teeth of combs. Comb decoration can form complex geometrical patterns that created vessels of great style and beauty.

Coarser Beakers also exist and these may have been domestic pots in 'everyday' use. These vessels were also decorated, sometimes with fingernail impressions ('fingernail-rusticated') or simple incised lines.

While the decorative schemes of some Beakers show similarities with others, no two are exactly the same. This is particularly true of the later comb-decorated vessels which seem to intentionally display a distinct individuality.

The quality of  manufacture and the decorative form of the best Beakers distinguish them as an innovation that would not be bettered in the later Prehistoric periods, or indeed afterwards! 

Detail of the North Foreland Beaker

Detail of the North Foreland Beaker

You're Late!

Before the advancements in radiocarbon-dating, researchers had attempted to create a typological ‘timetable’ of the various Beaker styles arranging them in order from ‘Early’ to ‘Late’.

The results of the British Museum's Beaker-dating project (which included carbon-dating some of the Thanet Beakers) demonstrated that some of these forms have a long life span.

There appear to be  significant overlaps between the suggested ‘Early’ and ‘Late’ styles. However these labels are still useful in broadly describing Beaker forms.

Manston Beaker burial grave goods

Manston Beaker burial grave goods

The situation is grave

Our best evidence of this period generally comes from burials.
Complete Beaker pots are primarily found in graves and in this context have been seen as indicators of status.

The Beaker Period saw a revolution in burial traditions, with the practice of interring quality grave-goods and the widespread adoption of the ‘roundbarrow’. These burial monuments
generally focused attention on a single individual, unlike the communal tombs favoured previously in the Neolithic.
Coldrum Neolithic tomb chamber

Coldrum Neolithic tomb, Kent

All for one ...

In the Neolithic
the dead were generally buried  in large communal monuments such as longbarrows and chambered tombs.

Here the bones of an individual were mixed with those of their ancestors; to which they may have been actually or only symbolically related. Prestigious grave-good tributes are rare.

Neolithic funery traditions seem to indicate a culture that did not set its citizens apart in death.
St. Peters Beaker

St. Peters Beaker
and stone wristguard

Upwardly mobile

Beakers are sometimes accompanied by other high-status items which also make a first appearance around this time. These include daggers of copper, bronze and flint; barbed and tanged flint arrowheads; jet buttons and belt-sliders; stone wristguards and battle-axes.

The displays of status expressed by Beaker grave-goods show a fundamental change of attitudes in Prehistoric society. They appear to express the elevation and celebration of rich and powerful individuals.

New activity at Lord of the Manor

New activity at
Lord of the Manor

Painting by Len Jay

Creeping up on the outside

The earliest occurrences of Beaker pottery seem to be confined to the periphery of  Neolithic society, first appearing at the long abandoned Earlier Neolithic Causewayed Enclosures and in the final ‘blocking deposits’ in chambered tombs.

Research by Alasdair Whittle (Darvill 1987) indicates that Early Beaker burials seem to be absent from the vicinity of the Henge monuments, which were the focus of Late Neolithic ceremonial life.

However it was not long before Beakers were at the heart of a changing Neolithic society. Their appearance at Britain’s major Henges coincides with a period of renovation and revitalisation of these important ritual monuments.
QEQM Margate Beaker burial

QEQM Margate Beaker burial

Scale in 0.1 metre divisions

Photo by Susan Deacon (TTA)

Beaker Folk, anyone?

The appearance of this ‘package’ of new objects and traditions was once seen as evidence of a migration of a new people to Britain – ‘the Beaker Folk’
. The true story is probably far more complicated.

Archaeological developments previously seen as innovations of the 'Beaker Folk', such as roundbarrows and single inhumations, as well as some of the forms of decoration seen on the vessels, have an indigenous ancestry that precedes the Beaker Period.

There was no doubt some migration into Britain at this time, but the artefacts probably represent a movement of new ideas, technologies and cultural influences, rather than a large incomming population.

Not everyone who is found buried with a Beaker need now be considered as originating on the Continent.
Recording the Beaker burial at QEQM Margate

Recording the Beaker burial at QEQM Margate

Photo by Susan Deacon (TTA)

I knew it!

Having said that, the spectacular Beaker burial of the Amesbury Archer (discovered near
Stonehenge) does indeed contain the final resting-place of such a person, probably born in central Europe.

New techniques used to analyse isotopes of oxygen, absorbed during childhood and preserved in teeth, allow us to broadly locate where some of our ancestors may have been born and where they may have lived and traveled in their lifetime.

If such analyses could be applied to the Beaker burials across Britain we would surely discover a lot more about the movement of people and ideas in this important period of our Prehistory.

We may even have to revise our revised theories of the Beaker Folk!
Beaker Period flint 'Thumb' scraper

Beaker period flint 'Thumb' scraper

List of Displays

Display 1: Finds from Beaker Burials on Thanet
A close-up view of some of the artefacts recovered from Beaker burials on Thanet.

Display 2: Beaker burials on Thanet - Part 1
Gazetter of known and possible Beaker burials on Thanet.

Display 3
Beaker burials on Thanet - Part 2
An overview of the Beaker heritage of the Isle of Thanet.

Display 4: Radiocarbon-dates from Beaker
                      burials on Thanet
Pictures of Thanet Beakers with associated radiocarbon-dates presented in descending date order.



TTA - Trust for Thanet Archaeology.


Darvill T. 1987.  Prehistoric Britain. Routledge.

Jay L. 1995. Thanet Beakers. Trust for Thanet Archaeology.

The text is the responsibility of the author; the photographs are by the author  unless otherwise stated.

Paul Hart

Version 1 - Posted 23.03.06
Version 2 - Posted 07.04.06
Version 3 - Posted 21.06.06
Version 4 - Posted 21.10.06
Version 5 - Posted 16.12.06

All content © Trust for Thanet Archaeology