From the Middle Copper Age in the mid-4th millennium cal BC, and throughout the whole Late Copper Age, we observe the emergence of supra-regional, expansionistic ‘cultures’. Originating in south-east Europe, they expanded into central and northern Europe, eventually reaching the west and the margins. Typical of these are the Černavoda III/Boleráz cultures; then, later, the Baden sequence, along with the Globular Amphora Culture adjacent to the northern arc of the Carpathian mountains. The Corded Ware/Single Grave Cultures, and finally the Bell Beaker Culture, follow in a third stage from the first quarter of the 3rd millennium cal BC. The latter expand – emerging from the Iberian Peninsula according to current research – towards the east in a fourth stage, reaching Britain and Ireland, Central Europe, and the central Mediterranean by 2500 cal BC. It is now common knowledge that this Bell Beaker phenomenon does not represent a homogeneous unit, but splits into at least four supra-regional groupings. Of these, the Central European, or Bell Beaker East Group, is the focus of this study.
The many published and well-dated assemblages along the Danube between southern Germany and western Hungary, and also in the Czech Republic, allow us to pose questions concerning the social organisation of these Beaker societies. Extended families, without visible hierarchies between them, are mirrored in cemeteries as the basic social unit. The settlement pattern seems to consist of single farmsteads, often closely spaced and each inhabited by one of these extended families. As self-sufficient, but flexibly organised and already partly specialised economic units, they demonstrate an equal exchange of information, goods, genes, and social values. Existing fundamental hierarchies within these families are demonstrated, however, by unequal burial customs, in particular the inclusion of prestige objects in some graves, and by some lavishly equipped child burials of both sexes, as well as in the portrayal of some individuals in death as hunters or warriors, buried with archery equipment.
Bell Beaker society displays an intermediate position between ranked and stratified societies, with signs that it was evolving towards simple chiefdoms. However, this stage of social organisation is only fully reached in Central Europe during the second half of the Early Bronze Age, from 2000 cal BC onwards.