Minimal Corded Ware culture impact in Scandinavia – Bell Beakers the unifying maritime elite


Chapter The Sea and Bronze Age Transformations, by Christopher Prescott, Anette Sand-Eriksen, and Knut Ivar Austvoll, In: Water and Power in Past Societies (2018), Emily Holt, Proceedings of the IEMA Postdoctoral Visiting Scholar Conference on Theories and Methods in Archaeology, Vol. 6.

NOTE. You can download the chapter draft at

Abstract (emphasis mine):

Along the western Norwegian coast, in the northwestern region of the Nordic Late Neolithic and Bronze Age (2350–500 BCE) there is cultural homogeneity but variable expressions of political hierarchy. Although new ideological institutions, technology (e.g., metallurgy and boat building), intensified agro‑pastoral farming, and maritime travel were introduced throughout the region as of 2350 BCE, concentrations of expressions of Bronze Age elites are intermittently found along the coast. Four regions—Lista, Jæren, Karmøy, and Sunnmøre—are examined in an exploration of the establishment and early role of maritime practices in this Nordic region. It is argued that the expressions of power and material wealth concentrated in these four regions is based on the control of bottlenecks, channels, portages, and harbors along important maritime routes of travel. As such, this article is a study of prehistoric travel, sources of power, and maritime landscapes in the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age of Norway.

Interesting excerpts:

(…)The [Corded Ware culture (CWC)] in Norway (or Battle Axe Culture, 2750–2400/2350 BCE) is primarily represented in Eastern Norway, with a patchy settlement pattern along the Oslo fjord’s coast through the inland valleys to Trøndelag in Central Norway (Hinsch 1956). The CWC represents an enigmatic period in Norwegian prehistory (Hinsch 1956; Østmo 1988:227–231; Prescott and Walderhaug 1995; Shetelig 1936); however the data at the moment suggests the following patterns:

  • Migration: The CWC was the result of a small‑scale immigration, but did not trigger substantial change.
  • Eastern and limited impact: The CWC was primarily located in small settlement patches in eastern Norway.
  • Terrestrial: In terms of maritime practices, the CWC does not represent a significant break from older traditions, though it seems to have a more pronounced terrestrial bearing. It is conceivable that pastures and hunting grounds were a more important political‑economic resource than waterways.

The mid‑third millennium in Norway, around 2400 BCE, represents a significant reorientation. Bell Beaker Culture (BBC) settlements in western Denmark and Norway archaeologically mark the instigation of the Nordic LN, though much of the historical process leading from the Bell Beaker to the Late Neolithic, 2500 to 2350 BCE, remains unclear (Prescott 2012; Prescott and Melheim 2009; Prieto‑Martinez 2008:116; Sarauw 2007:66; Vandkilde 2001, 2005). Still, the outcome is the establishment of the Nordic region of interaction in the Baltic, Northern Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. The distribution of artifact materials such as Bell Beakers and flint daggers attests to the far‑flung network of regular exchange and communication. This general region of interaction was reproduced through the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age.

The Nordic region in the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age. Sites and regions discussed in the text are marked (ater Prescott and Glørstad 2015:fig. 1).

The transition from the preceding Neolithic period hunter‑gatherer societies was rapid and represents a dramatic termination of hunter‑gatherer traditions. It has been argued that the transformation is tied to initial migrations of people to the western coast of Norway from BBC areas, possibly from northern Jutland (Prescott 2011; Prescott and Walderhaug 1995:273). Bifacial tanged‑and‑barbed points, often referred to as “Bell Beaker points,” probably represent an early, short phase of the BBC‑transition around 2400 BCE. In Norway these points have a predominantly western and coastal distribution (Østmo 2012:64), underscoring the maritime nature of the initial BBC‑expansion.

Distribution routes for LN1 flint daggers type 1 suggesting communication routes and networks. (Redrawn after fig. 9, Apel 2001:17).

(…) In response to the question about what attracted people from Bell Beaker groups to western Norway, responses have hypothesized hunting products, political power, pastures, and metals. Particularly the latter has been emphasized by Lene Melheim (2012, 2015:37ff).

A recent study by Melheim and Prescott (2016) integrated maritime exploration with metal prospecting to explain initial excursions of BBC‑people along the western coast and into the fjords. Building on the archaeological concept of traveling metal prospectors as an element in the expansion of the Bell Beaker phenomenon, in combination with anthropological perspectives on prospecting, the article explores how prospecting for metal would have adjusted to the landscapes of western Scandinavia. Generally speaking, prospecting seldom leads to successful metal production, and it is difficult to study archaeologically. However, it will often create links between the prospectors’ society and indigenous groups, opening new territories, and have a significant transformative impact—on both the external and indigenous actors and societies.

While the text echoes the traditional idea that Corded Ware spread Indo-European languages, Prescott (since Prescott and Walderhaug 1995) is a supporter of the formation of a Nordic community and a Nordic (i.e. Pre-Germanic) language with the arrival of Bell Beakers.

An identification of the Corded Ware language as of a previous Proto-Indo-European stage is possible, as I have previously said (although my preference is Uralic-related languages).

This CWC language would thus still form the common substrate to both Germanic and Balto-Slavic, both being North-West Indo-European dialects, which spread with Bell Beakers over previous Corded Ware territory.

NOTE. This pre-LPIE nature could be in turn related to Kortlandt’s controversial proposal of an ealier PIE dative *-mus shared by both branches. However, that would paradoxically be against Kortlandt’s own assumption that the substrate was in fact of a non-Indo-European nature

See also:

Tracking material cultures with ancient DNA: medieval Norse walrus ivory trade, and leather shields from Zanzibar


Two papers have been recently published, offering another interesting use of ancient DNA analysis for Archaeology and, potentially, Linguistics.

Open access Ancient DNA reveals the chronology of walrus ivory trade from Norse Greenland, by Star, Barrett, Gondek, & Boessenkool, bioRxiv (2018).

Abstract (emphasis mine):

The search for walruses as a source of ivory -a popular material for making luxury art objects in medieval Europe- played a key role in the historic Scandinavian expansion throughout the Arctic region. Most notably, the colonization, peak and collapse of the medieval Norse colony of Greenland have all been attributed to the proto-globalization of ivory trade. Nevertheless, no studies have directly traced European ivory back to distinct populations of walrus in the Arctic. This limits our understanding of how ivory trade impacted the sustainability of northern societies and the ecology of the species they relied on. Here, we compare the mitogenomes of 27 archaeological walrus specimens from Europe and Greenland (most dated between 900 and 1400 CE) and 10 specimens from Svalbard (dated to the 18th and 19th centuries CE) to partial mitochondrial (MT) data of over 300 modern walruses. We discover two monophyletic mitochondrial clades, one of which is exclusively found in walrus populations of western Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. Investigating the chronology of these clades in our European archaeological remains, we identify a significant shift in resource use from predominantly eastern sources towards a near exclusive representation of walruses from western Greenland. These results provide empirical evidence for the economic importance of walrus for the Norse Greenland settlements and the integration of this remote, western Arctic resource into a medieval pan-European trade network.

(A) Population distribution, historic trade routes and sample locations of Atlantic walrus in the northern Atlantic region. The range of modern Atlantic walrus (dark grey) and putative dispersal routes (black arrows) follow (58) and (31). Eight breeding populations are recognized (58); 1 – Foxe Basin, 2 – Hudson Bay, 3 – Hudson Strait, 4, – West Greenland, 5 – North Water, 6 – East Greenland, 7 – Svalbard/Franz Josef land, 8 – Novaya Zemlya. Historic trade routes from Greenland –including the location of Norse settlements– and northern Fennoscandia/Russia (yellow) indicate possible sources from which walrus ivory was exported to Europe during the Middle Ages. The Svalbard specimens (orange) were originally from hunting stations of the 1700s and 1800s. The other Atlantic walrus specimens (red, grey) were obtained from museum collections. (B) Bayesian phylogenetic tree obtained using BEAST (84) based on 346 mitochondrial SNPs using Pacific walrus (PAC) as an outgroup. Numbers represent the different specimens as listed in Table S1, and colors match the sampling locations as in Fig. 1A. Branches with a posterior probability of one (grey circles) are indicated. (C) Distribution of RFLP and control region (CR) haplotypes of modern Atlantic walrus populations. The RFLP clade classification follows Born, Andersen et al. (2001). The distribution of a distinct ACC CR haplotype is from 306 modern specimens (see material and methods).

Determination of the geographical origin of leather shields from Zanzibar using ancient DNA tools, by Bastian, Jacot-des-Combes, Hänni, & Perrier, J Arch. Sci (2018) 19:323-333.


Zanzibar shields are documented in several books and preserved in many European, African and Omani museums. They are relatively small and decorated; therefore, we can assume that they served to not only to protect the hand during sword combat but also to attract the attention of the attacker. As with all shields, they are also an object of prestige and armorial bearing to identify the owner’s army corps. Within the incredible cultural and ethnic mosaic of this part of the Indian Ocean, the shield enables alliances, protection systems and allegiance to be specified and clarified.

This study is a step towards understanding the nature of the relationships between Oman and the various communities living on the western coast of the Indian Ocean based on their material culture, especially their shields. Identifying the animal species used to make the shields was crucial in establishing both the manufacturers and the consumers of these objects. DNA analyses indicated that the leather used for the studied Zanzibar shields is rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis michaeli); a subspecies historically only present on the coast of East Africa. Our results also indicate that the shields, used mainly in Oman, Zanzibar and other regions with a strong relationship with Oman power, were made in Zanzibar and the Arabian Peninsula.

Ancient distribution of Diceros bicornis michaeli (eastern black rhinoceros) from southern Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia through Kenya into northern-central Tanzania. Dark grey represents the presence of both species. At the tip of the arrow: Zanzibar Island. Copyright: Fabiola Bastian.

In a time when many geneticists seem to have shifted their full attention to novel statistical methods applied to a few ancient individuals, it feels good to see some of them using their research to complement traditional academic disciplines instead.

This kind of studies may help track with more detail the most obvious harbinger of potential prehistoric language change: the diffusion of material culture.

See also: