Bell Beakers and the North African Late Neolithic


In his chapter in the 2012 Background to Beakers, Jan Turek suggests that we reject the presumption of a single discrete center of origin for Bell Beaker pottery and practices and instead think in terms of a piecemeal fusion of stylistic elements and social functions, with especially important developments emerging out of two zones of contact — (1) between the Mabhreb and the midwestern Iberian Peninsula and (2) across the western frontier of the late Corded Ware.

Most of the piece is devoted to urging a more serious consideration of North Africa’s place in Bell Beaker “multiregionalism”:

One of the earliest Beaker styles is the “Maritime tradition” that probably originated from the Early Copper Age “Copos” in the area of the mouth of the River Tajo in Portugal. The pedigree of the specific Bell Beaker stamped decoration may be found in the northwestern Morocco Late Neolithic cemeteries of Skirat and El Kiffen. It is therefore possible that the origin of the Bell Beaker phenomenon was based on the cultural communication between the northwest Africa and Estr[e]madura.

The relevant North African localities:

There are two cemeteries on the Moroccan Atlantic coast dated roughly to the mid-4th and beginning of the 3rd Millennium BC. For these cemeteries pottery is characteristic with a bell beaker style stamp decoration (Camps-Fabrer 1966, pl. XLIII) that is identical with the later Bell Beaker ornament in the region of northern Morocco and in Europe. The cemetery at Skhirat – de Rouazi is located on southern outskirts of the Moroccan Capital Rabat. With 101 inhumation burial and total number of 132 pottery vessels (Fig. 3-5), it represents yet the richest site of the “pre-campaniforme” horizon in Morocco (Lancombe and Daugas 1988).

The second site uncovered at El-Kiffen, southwest of [Casablanca], is an abri/cave cemetery. Here 43 pottery vessels were found together with inhumation burials. Not entirely reliable (TL) absolute dates set the interval 3350-2660 BC (Bailloud et al. 1964). The decoration (Fig. 6) that is characteristic for the Moroccan Late Neolithic/Chalcolithic (Camps-Fabrer 1966, pl. XLIII) has no analogy in the European Prehistory apart from the Bell Beaker Period.

[. . .] The number of Maritime Beakers currently known from Morocco is limited (Harrison 1977, 41-42). There are only two sites in the coastal area of Northern Morocco represented by Maritime Beakers. They suggest the relations to the Tagus estuary region in Portugal: Kahf-Taht-el-Gar (Tarradell 1957-1958) and Gar-Kahal (Harrison and Gilman 1977, 91-104; Bokbot 2005, fig. 3). However, the current state of knowledge on Moroccan and Algerian Bell Beakers is rather limited.

Later “back-migration”?

We have to bear in mind that the majority of bell beakers in this region are of fully developed Spanish Ciempozuelos style (Bokbot 2005). A well preserved example of such Ciempozuelos beaker (Fig. 7) comes from the Dar-es-Soltan cave located on outskirts of Rabat (Fig. 8).

Key caveats:

Seen from this point of view it is possible that Bell Beaker phenomenon, such as we know it from Western and Central Europe, originated in the first half of the 3rd millennium BC based through cultural communication between the Northwest Africa and Estramadura. This hypothetical model was not yet tested and it is facing range of problems, such as lack of radiocarbon dates for Moroccan beakers. [Another] problem [is] the lack of Bell Beaker finds in Algarve dividing Estramadura from the Western Andalusia (Cadiz region, south of the Guadalquivir River), where we can presume a natural connection to Morocco. The resolution of such a hypothesis would require a targeted systematic research project covering the whole area mentioned above.

Turek’s conclusion:

So while the Maritime Beakers are clearly a south-western element (Case 2004, 14, with further references), [t]he symbolic system of the burial rites is based on the eastern Corded Ware and even earlier Yamnaya tradition (Harrison and Heyd 2007, 193-199, fig. 45). Maritime Beakers were thus only one investment into the creation of a new phenomenon together with the tradition based on already existing symbolic system of individual burials under round barrows, emphasizing gender and social position of individuals and sometimes their craftsmanship, solar cult and drinking beakers. For the casting of such a new phenomenon the Lower Rhine area was perhaps important, as it was the westernmost region with occurrence of the Corded Ware (SGC). There it was the AOC [All-Over-Corded Beakers] and AOO [All-Over-Ornamented Beakers] beakers that together with the Maritime beakers created a new Bell Beaker style. This establishing process was result of the cultural interaction between Iberian Peninsula and Lower Rhine region.

So if the question is where and when the Bell Beaker (Maritime) style originates from, then we have to state that it was in first half of the Third Millennium BC between Estr[e]madura and Morocco, but if the question is where was the Bell Beaker phenomenon created it needs to be said that it was before the Mid-third Millennium as result of communication between the Maritime style in Portugal and the western late Corded Ware groups.

Not hugely convincing, given chronological uncertainties about the Moroccan material, but definitely enough to prompt closer attention to the North African record.

Turek, J. (2012). “Origin of the Bell Beaker Phenomenon: The Moroccan Connection.” In: Fokkens, H., & Nicolis, F. (Eds.), Background to Beakers: Inquiries into the Regional Cultural Background to the Bell Beaker Complex, pp. 191–203. Leiden: Sidestone Press.

And here’s a 2013 presentation by Turek; thanks to “Bell Beaker Blogger” for the pointer.

Jan Turek – The Bell Beaker Phenomenon, its Echoes and Traditions in Europe and Beyond from Maison Archéologie & Ethnologie on Vimeo.