The University of Sheffield
Beaker isotope project

The Beaker isotope project: mobility, migration and diet in the British Early Bronze Age

an AHRC-funded collaborative project with:

Andrew Chamberlain, University of Sheffield (from September 2012 University of Manchester)

Mike Parker Pearson, University of Sheffield (from September 2012 UCL)

Mike Richards, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany

Research Associates: Dr Patrick Mahoney (Sheffield), Dr Mandy Jay (Durham/Leipzig)

This research problem is older than the discipline of archaeology itself. Were the `Beaker people´ immigrants or indigenous to prehistoric Britain? Nineteenth century antiquarian barrow-diggers observed that the wide-headed (brachycephalic) skulls of Beaker burials were distinguishable from the narrow (dolichocephalic) skulls within Neolithic long barrows, and attributed these to different populations. Since then, theories of a migrant `Beaker folk´ have been contested by alternative theories which interpret the distinctive Beaker pots and associated material culture as part of a Europe-wide `Beaker package´ or cultural pattern adopted by local communities.

Pilot isotopic studies in Germany and Britain have indicated that certain people who used Beakers were highly mobile, in one case even crossing Europe to settle in Britain. The aim of this project is to resolve the `immigration versus local development´ Beaker problem in Britain and, in doing so, transform our understanding of economy and society at the time of Stonehenge by studying mobility, diet and health. The objectives of the project are a) To systematically sample a large proportion of the surviving, well-preserved skeletal remains of the Beaker period for a comprehensive range of isotopes relating to the reconstruction of individuals´ diet and mobility, b) To systematically record and/or reassess these individuals´ dentition (through studies of microwear and macrowear) and skeletal remains which will shed light on diet, health, trauma, physical stress and funerary manipulation, and c) To improve knowledge of these individuals´ social and temporal context through systematic study of their burial contexts, circumstances of discovery and chronology.