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UCD School of Archaeology

Scoil na Seandálaíochta UCD

Beaker material culture and social change in Ireland: a study of Beaker associated settlement, ritual and funerary practices
Neil Carlin

Supervisor: Dr. Joanna Brück
Funded by: UCD AD ASTRA Scholarship Abstract


The ‘Beaker phenomenon’, a complex of novel material culture (including ceramics, the earliest metalwork, stone wristguards, arrowheads, and v-perforated buttons) appeared across much of Western Europe at the beginning of the Bronze Age. The occurrence of Beaker pottery and associated artefacts with the earliest single burials in many regions is widely considered to indicate the emergence of an ideological emphasis upon the individual and the development of Europe’s first hierarchical societies, whereby status was attained and represented by the competitive exchange and display of exotic goods, particularly metalwork. Numerous theories have been developed to explain the spread of Beaker pottery and its relationship with contemporary social and technological change (Clarke 1970, 271; Harrison 1980; Burgess & Shennan 1976), yet, the exact origins, method of distribution and social significance of Beaker ‘culture’ remain matters of debate. 

In the case of Ireland, the manifestation of this complex differs from elsewhere because settlements are comparatively common while stereotypical Beaker burials are rare. The recent increase in development-led excavations has resulted in the discovery of many new Irish Beaker-related funerary and ritual sites. However, much of this information remains unsynthesised, despite its potential to advance Beaker studies at a European-wide level. Across Europe in general, the meaning that Beaker objects held for their users is little understood, but the high level of settlement evidence in Ireland can facilitate an analysis of the Beaker phenomenon within the domain where meanings are socially constructed through everyday action.

Extensive typological studies of Irish Beaker objects have been carried out in the past (e.g. Brindley 2005; Harbison 1976, Case 2001); however, no overarching study of the Beaker complex has been conducted that interlinks all the material culture from settlement, funerary and other contexts in order to understand the social practices represented by the Beaker phenomenon. Thus, Irish views of the Beaker complex have been based upon British models (e.g. Cooney & Grogan 1999, 78), an approach which ignores the differences that exist in the manifestation of this tradition in these regions.

This project will study the context of use and deposition of Beaker material culture in Ireland by analysing the manner of its occurrence within the archaeological record. All data pertaining to Irish Beaker activity will be collated in order to gain a better understanding of the settlement, funerary and ritual practices associated with this phenomenon. This synthesis will be used to establish the regional and diachronic development of Irish Beaker associated material culture and to facilitate comparative analysis with other European studies. The landscape setting of Beaker associated elements including domestic structures, wedge tombs, and burnt mounds will be examined within a number of defined geotopographical regions including the Boyne Valley and the north Wicklow-south Dublin area. An assessment of changes in both the domestic and ritual practices associated with the immediately preceding and succeeding cultural packages (Grooved Ware and Food Vessels) will be undertaken as part of these case studies in order to locate Beaker-associated activities within their historical context. This research will achieve new insights into the Irish Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age transition that will further our understanding of the nature and meaning of the Beaker phenomenon in Ireland and Europe.


Brindley, A. L. 2005. The Prehistoric Mine: Specialist Studies. In O’Brien, William. Ross Island . Mining, Metal and Society in Early Ireland. Bronze Age Studies 6, 331-338. Dept of Archaeology, NUIG.

Burgess, C & Shennan, S. 1976. The Beaker Phenomenon: some suggestions. In Burgess, C & Miket, R. (eds.)  Settlement and economy in the third and second millennia BC : papers delivered at a conference organised by the Department of Adult Education, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, B.A.R 33, Oxford, 309-331.

Case, H.J. 2001. The Beaker Culture in Britain and Ireland: Groups, European Contacts and Chronology. In Bell Beakers Today. Pottery, people, culture, symbols in prehistoric Europe. 361-77.

Clarke, D. L. 1970. Beaker Pottery of Great Britain and Ireland. Cambridge

Cooney, G. and Grogan, E. 1999. Irish Prehistory: A Social Perspective. Wordwell, Dublin.

Harbison, P. 1976. Bracers and V-perforated Buttons in the Beaker and Food Vessel Cultures of Ireland. Archaeologica Atlantica Research Report 1. Bad Bramstedt.
Harrison, R. J. 1980. The Beaker Folk. Copper Age Archaeology in Western Europe. London.

Additional Information

Research Poster (PDF) >>