Seascapes: Tracing the emergence and spread of maritime networks in the Mediterranean in the 3rd millennium BCE

by Eve Derenne (Vienna Institute for Archaeological Science, University of Vienna), Maria Ivanova-Bieg (Vienna Institute for Archaeological Science, University of Vienna) and Lucy Cramp (Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Bristol)

The pivotal societal shifts that took place during the third millennium BCE in Europe have received considerable scholarly attention in the last decade, as genomic data on Late Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age individuals from across the continent revealed increased human mobility from 3000 BC onwards (Brotherton et al. 2013; Haak et al. 2015; Olalde et al. 2018, 2019; Marcus et al. 2020; Seguin-Orlando et al. 2021; Saupe et al. 2021).

This crucial period saw the development of new long-distance networks, particularly around the Mediterranean. Lavishly equipped Early Chalcolithic graves from Southern Iberia testify to the latter, their funerary offerings including artefacts made of ostrich eggshell, African and Asian elephant ivory, as well as Sicilian amber (Schuhmacher et al. 2009; Garcia Sanjuàn et al. 2013). Maritime networks in particular seem to have expanded remarkably around 2500 cal BC. These circulation routes enabled large-scale cultural phenomena such as the Bell Beaker complex to spread across the Mediterranean and integrate a variety of local Chalcolithic groups, both on islands and in coastal or mainland areas.

The Bell Beaker phenomenon itself remains an enigma in many respects. To date, there has been little agreement on its nature, emergence, and diffusion processes (e.g. Sangmeister 1963; Lanting & van der Waals 1976; Nicolis 2001; Vander Linden 2012; Guerra-Doce & Liesau von Lettow-Vorbeck 2016; Abegg et al. 2022; Ryan-Despraz 2022). Some scholars have even disputed whether or not it should be characterized as a cultural phenomenon (Besse 2015; Furholt 2020).

The artefacts typically used to define the Bell Beaker complex include the decorated beaker (many authors consider the ‘maritime’ or ‘international standard’ style to be its initial archetype) as well as pieces of archery equipment, copper weapons (e.g. daggers and Palmela points) and personal ornaments (e.g. v-perforated buttons). See Figure 16. This ‘package’ (or elements thereof) has been uncovered in regions ranging from North Africa to Poland, and from Scotland to Sicily. This large geographic distribution probably went hand in hand with a broad—and, depending on the regions, asynchronous—temporal distribution as revealed by radiocarbon dating targeting Bell Beaker contexts (Müller & van Willigen 2001; Piguet & Besse 2009; Lemercier et al. 2014). Notwithstanding the existence of long-distance exchange and circulation networks, Bell Beakers were seemingly produced locally, ruling out trade as a sole explanation for the presence of these similar-looking pots and accompanying objects across Europe (Convertini 1996; Vico Triguero et al. 2018; Carloni et al. 2021).

Figure 16: The Bell Beaker ‘package’. From left to right: the maritime Bell Beaker, the v-perforated button, the copper dagger, the wristguard, the arrowhead, and the Palmela point. © Eve Derenne. Used with permission.

One striking aspect of this phenomenon is that it is found in highly diverse archaeological contexts ranging from the collective megalithic graves of southwestern Europe to the strict gender-differentiated single graves of Central Europe, and from small, open-air settlements to imposing fortified sites (Strahm 1998; Besse & Desideri 2005; Kunst 2006; David-Elbiali et al. 2019). Considering the above as well as the arrhythmic development of the phenomenon, the question of its social, economic, or symbolic significance thus reasonably cannot be answered by a single, all-encompassing explanation.

However, as its most widespread artefact, the Bell Beaker must have appeared somewhere. Finding this locus of origin and the dissemination channels that subsequently allowed its diffusion by land or sea thus became the focal point of many studies over the years. Since the early 20th century, theoretical models addressing this issue mostly centred on typological pottery sequences which were later refined following advances in absolute chronology (e.g. Lanting et al. 1973; van der Leeuw 1976; Harrison 1988; Gallay 2001).

Historically, the Iberian Peninsula has figured prominently in most of these arguments. Many scholars first saw Andalusia and, later, Portuguese Estremadura, as a likely place of origin of what is arguably still considered the principal component of the complex: the archetypal ‘maritime’ Bell Beaker with its horizontal bands of shell- or comb-impressed hatches (e.g. Schmidt 1913; Sangmeister 1963; Kunst 2001; Salanova 2009). This ceramic type could have been born from a cultural entanglement between the Chalcolithic societies of Iberia and the coastal communities of northwest Maghreb. The latter’s pre-Bell Beaker ceramic tradition featured extensive comb-impressed decoration, a rare fact that is yet to be observed in any Late Neolithic pottery production from the European continent (Turek 2012).

The lack of chronological resolution, however, has been a major hindrance to the understanding of these issues, particularly in western Europe, where Bell Beakers are frequently—and sometimes solely—found in collective graves. Even though the number of radiocarbon measurements has increased significantly since the 1990s, most of the datasets for the Mediterranean still suffer from important limitations. An extensive proportion of these measurements were made on unidentified charcoal samples which are potentially subject to the ‘old wood effect’ and which present large error margins. Many of the samples dated also stem from uncertain contexts, casting doubt as to whether they were originally associated with Bell Beaker material. Furthermore, some critical regions, such as the western Maghreb, remain severely under-investigated from a chronological point of view (Souville 1986; Bokbot 2005). As a result, research on the Bell Beaker phenomenon has found itself at an impasse: almost all theoretical models remain plausible, as radiocarbon datasets geared toward Bell Beaker contexts cannot validate or invalidate any of them at the resolution which is currently available.

Seascapes’ aims and methods

Based on this observation, the Seascapes project was thus developed with the specific aim to refine the absolute chronological framework in the western Mediterranean and investigate the spatio-temporal dynamics of the Bell Beaker complex from a maritime perspective. Seascapes received a 3-year grant from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and is led by Maria Ivanova-Bieg (Vienna Institute for Archaeological Science, University of Vienna) and Lucy Cramp (Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Bristol).

The project will first collect and evaluate all existing radiocarbon dates tied to Bell Beaker contexts for the western Mediterranean, together with characteristic material culture elements often associated with the complex—i.e., Bell Beaker pottery styles, decoration techniques, copper daggers, Palmela points, arrowheads, v-perforated buttons, etc. The quality and reliability of the 14C dates will be assessed on the basis of scientific and archaeological criteria, such as the nature of the sample (material, species), laboratory method, security of the context (potential for intrusive or residual samples), and level of association with Bell Beaker artefacts. Whenever possible, Bayesian models will be produced at the scale of the site.

In addition to the published dates, short-lived material from secure contexts will be sampled to produce an estimated 360 new radiocarbon measurements at the BRAMS laboratory (Knowles et al. 2019). The targeted regions encompass the Portuguese Estremadura, Andalusia, the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Sicily, and northern Morocco. For the first time, sampling materials for dating from Bell Beaker contexts will include potsherds, both decorated Beakers and associated wares.

During the second phase of the project, these pottery samples will undergo lipid extraction and dietary analysis. The analytical process will first entail a quantitative screening, followed by the structural identification of compounds using gas chromatography (GC) and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC/MS) (Correa-Ascencio & Evershed 2014). Taking into consideration the likelihood of marine fish and mollusc consumption in these coastal and near-coastal areas, samples will also go through highly sensitive detection of low-abundance compounds (e.g., aquatic biomarkers), using GC/MS in SIM mode or high-resolution GC/MS (GC-quadrupole-time of flight-MS, GC-q-TOF/MS) (Hammann & Cramp 2018; Cramp & Evershed 2014). Further classification of animal fats will be performed using compound-specific stable carbon isotope analysis (GC/C/IRMS). Samples presenting sufficient lipid concentrations will be further mobilised and will undergo compound-specific radiocarbon dating (Casanova et al. 2017; 2018; 2020), potentially offering the first direct dating of Bell Beakers.

The existing and newly produced radiocarbon measurements will then be combined to create Bayesian models for several key sites across the Mediterranean, using OxCal v4.4 (Bronk Ramsey 2009) and the latest northern hemisphere atmospheric curve (Reimer et al. 2020). This chronological modelling phase will focus on pluri-stratified settlements such as the fortified sites of Zambujal (Torres Vedras, Portugal) and Los Millares (Almería, Spain), or the open-air settlement of Case Bastione (Villarosa, Sicily, Italy).

Finally, spatio-temporal modelling of (1) the collected and newly produced dates, (2) the subsistence data, and (3) the cultural data, combined with existing environmental and topographic data, will aim at identifying potential routes of circulation, contact points, and direction of movement.

The project’s planned outcomes

The detailed site-based Bayesian models will allow the Seascapes team and their local collaborators to test the Bell Beaker chrono-typological sequences proposed thus far in each region and to refine the absolute chronology of specific pottery styles (e.g. impressed ‘maritime’, impressed geometric, incised, incised and incrusted, etc.). From this refined framework, an overall interpretation will be provided for the Mediterranean Beaker groups. The latter will, in turn, allow the re-evaluation of the existing theoretical models centred on the phenomenon’s diffusion in the Mediterranean.

Ultimately, the body of radiocarbon dates, combined with subsistence, environmental, and cultural data, will be modelled to discuss the emergence and evolution of contact and exchange networks between Mediterranean sites during the third millennium BC. A particular emphasis will be placed on observing the appearance, period of use and spatio-temporal relationship between each element of the Bell Beaker ‘package’ in order to understand whether some of them were part of the same initial cultural impulse and how they diffused across southwestern Europe.

Project members and their involvement:

  • Assoc. Prof. Maria Ivanova-Bieg (co-PI, University of Vienna): Project supervision, data and sample collection, archaeological interpretation.
  • Assoc. Prof. Lucy Cramp (co-PI, University of Bristol): Project supervision, lipid residue analysis and interpretation of subsistence data.
  • Dr. Eve Derenne (University of Vienna): Data collection (existing radiocarbon dates and material culture), sample collection for radiocarbon dating and lipid residue analysis, lipid extraction and sample preparation for radiocarbon dating, Bayesian modelling and overall interpretation.
  • Dr. Alex Bayliss (Historic England): Sample collection, Bayesian modelling.
  • Prof. Mark Thomas (UCL): Spatio-temporal modelling.
  • Dr. Adrian Timpson (UCL): Spatio-temporal modelling.

Local collaborators:

Dr. Michael Kunst (German Archaeological Institute, Madrid); Prof. Ana Catarina Sousa, Prof. Victor Gonçalves (University of Lisbon); Prof. Juan Antonio Cámara, Dr. Alberto Dorado Alejos (University of Granada); Dr. Enrico Giannitrapani, Dr. Filippo Iannì (Arkeos, Sicily); Prof. Carlo Lugliè, Assoc. Prof. Riccardo Cicilloni (University of Cagliari); and Prof. Youssef Bokbot (INSAP, Rabat).


  • Abegg, C. et al. (eds) (2022) The Bell Beaker Culture in All Its Forms: Proceedings of the 22nd Meeting of ‘Archéologie et Gobelets’ 2021 (Geneva, Switzerland). Oxford: Archaeopress (Archaeopress Archaeology).
  • Besse, M. (2015) ‘Territorialités, transferts, interculturalités dans les contextes de la diffusion du Campaniforme en Europe’, in N. Naudinot et al. (eds) Les systèmes de mobilité de la préhistoire au Moyen Âge : XXXVe Rencontres Internationales d’Archéologie et d’Histoire d’Antibes. Juan-les-Pins: Editions APDCA, pp. 419–430.
  • Besse, M. and Desideri, J. (2005) ‘La diversidad Campaniforme : hábitats, sepulturas y cerámicas - Bell Beaker diversity : settlements, burials and ceramics’, in M.A. Rojo Guerra, R. Garrido Pena, and I. Garcia Martinez de Lagran (eds) El Campaniforme en la Peninsula Ibérica y su contexto europeo - Bell Beakers in the Iberian Peninsula and their european context. Valladolid: Universidad de Valladolid (Arte y Arqueologia, 21), pp. 61–106.
  • Bokbot, Y. (2005) ‘La civilisation du Vase Campaniforme au Maroc et la question du substrat Chalcolithique précampaniforme’, in M.A. Rojo Guerra, R. Garrido Pena, and I. Garcia Martinez de Lagran (eds) El Campaniforme en la Península Ibérica y su contexto Europeo – Bell beakers in the Iberian Peninsula and their European context. Valladolid: Universidad de Valladolid, pp. 161–173.
  • Bronk Ramsey, C. (2009) ‘Bayesian Analysis of Radiocarbon Dates’, Radiocarbon, 51(1), pp. 337–360. Available at:
  • Brotherton, P. et al. (2013) ‘Neolithic mitochondrial haplogroup H genomes and the genetic origins of Europeans’, Nature Communications, 4, p. 1764. Available at:
  • Carloni, D. et al. (2021) ‘Raw material choices and material characterization of the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC pottery from the Petit-Chasseur necropolis: insights into the megalith-erecting society of the Upper Rhône Valley, Switzerland’, Geoarchaeology, 36(6), pp. 1009–1044. Available at:
  • Casanova, E. et al. (2017) ‘Use of a 700 MHz NMR Microcryoprobe for the Identification and Quantification of Exogenous Carbon in Compounds Purified by Preparative Capillary Gas Chromatography for Radiocarbon Determinations’, Analytical Chemistry, 89(13), pp. 7090–7098. Available at:
  • Casanova, E. et al. (2018) ‘Practical Considerations in High-Precision Compound-Specific Radiocarbon Analyses: Eliminating the Effects of Solvent and Sample Cross-Contamination on Accuracy and Precision’, Analytical Chemistry, 90(18), pp. 11025–11032. Available at:
  • Casanova, E. et al. (2020) ‘Accurate compound-specific 14 C dating of archaeological pottery vessels’, Nature, pp. 1–5. Available at:
  • Convertini, F. (1996) Production et signification de la céramique campaniforme à la fin du IIIe millénaire av. J.-C. dans le Sud et le Centre-Ouest de la France et en Suisse occidentale. Oxford: Archaeopress (BAR International Series 656).
  • Correa-Ascencio, M. and Evershed, R.P. (2014) ‘High throughput screening of organic residues in archaeological potsherds using direct acidified methanol extraction’, Analytical Methods, 6(5), pp. 1330–1340. Available at:
  • Cramp, L. and Evershed, R.P. (2014) ‘14.20 - Reconstructing Aquatic Resource Exploitation in Human Prehistory Using Lipid Biomarkers and Stable Isotopes’, in H.D. Holland and K.K. Turekian (eds) Treatise on Geochemistry (Second Edition). Oxford: Elsevier, pp. 319–339. Available at:
  • David-Elbiali, M., Gallay, A. and Besse, M. (eds) (2019) Fouilles archéologiques à Rances (canton de Vaud, Suisse) 1974-1981. Campaniforme et âge du Bronze. Lausanne: Cahiers d’archéologie romande 175.
  • Furholt, M. (2020) ‘Social Worlds and Communities of Practice: a polythetic culture model for 3rd millennium BC Europe in the light of current migration debates’, Préhistoires Méditerranéennes, (8), p. online (viewed February 26, 2021).
  • Guerra Doce, E. and Liesau von Lettow-Vorbeck, C. (eds) (2016) Analysis of the economic foundations supporting the social supremacy of the beaker groups. Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology.
  • Haak, W. et al. (2015) ‘Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe’, Nature, 522(7555), pp. 207–211. Available at:
  • Hammann, S. and Cramp, L.J.E. (2018) ‘Towards the detection of dietary cereal processing through absorbed lipid biomarkers in archaeological pottery’, Journal of Archaeological Science, 93, pp. 74–81. Available at:
  • Knowles, T.D.J., Monaghan, P.S. and Evershed, R.P. (2019) ‘Radiocarbon Sample Preparation Procedures and the First Status Report from the Bristol Radiocarbon AMS (BRAMS) Facility’, Radiocarbon, 61(5), pp. 1541–1550. Available at:
  • Kunst, M. (2001) ‘Invasion? Fashion? Social rank? Consideration concerning the Bell Beaker phenomenon in Copper Age fortifications of the Iberian Peninsula’, in F. Nicolis (ed.) Bell Beakers today: pottery, people, culture, symbols in prehistoric Europe. International Colloquium (11-16 May 1998; Riva del Garda, Trento). Trento: Provincia Autonoma di Trento, pp. 81–90.
  • Kunst, M. (2006) ‘Zambujal and the Enclosures of the Iberian Peninsula’, in A. Harding, S. Sievers, and N. Venclová (eds) Enclosing the Past. Inside and Outside in Prehistory. Sheffield: J.R. Collis Publications (Sheffield Archaeological Monographs, 15), pp. 76–96.
  • Lanting, J.N. and van der Waals, J.D. (eds) (1976) Glockenbecher Symposion Oberried 1974. Bussum; Haarlem: Fibula-Van Dishoeck.
  • Lemercier, O. et al. (2014) ‘Chronologie et périodisation des Campaniformes en France méditerranéenne’, in I. Sénépart et al. (eds) Chronologie de la Préhistoire récente dans le Sud de la France. Toulouse: Archives d’Écologie Préhistorique, pp. 175–196.
  • Marcus, J.H. et al. (2020) ‘Genetic history from the Middle Neolithic to present on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia’, Nature Communications, 11(1), p. 939. Available at:
  • Müller, J. and van Willigen, S. (2001) ‘New radiocarbon evidence for European Bell Beakers and the consequences for the diffusion of the Bell Beaker phenomenon’, in F. Nicolis (ed.) Bell Beakers today: pottery, people, culture, symbols in prehistoric Europe. International Colloquium (11-16 May 1998; Riva del Garda, Trento). Trento: Provincia Autonoma di Trento, pp. 59–80.
  • Nicolis, F. (2001) Bell Beakers today: pottery, people, culture, symbols in prehistoric Europe. Proceedings of the International Colloquium in Riva del Garda (Trento, Italy, 11-16 May 1998) (2 vol). Trento: Provincia Autonoma di Trento, Servizio Beni Culturali, Ufficio Beni Archeologici.
  • Olalde, I. et al. (2018) ‘The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe’, Nature, 555(7695), pp. 190–196. Available at:
  • Olalde, I. et al. (2019) ‘The genomic history of the Iberian Peninsula over the past 8000 years’, Science, 363(6432), pp. 1230–1234. Available at:
  • Piguet, M. and Besse, M. (2009) ‘Chronology and Bell Beaker common ware’, Radiocarbon, 51(2), pp. 817–830.
  • Reimer, P.J. et al. (2020) ‘The IntCal20 Northern Hemisphere Radiocarbon Age Calibration Curve (0–55 cal kBP)’, Radiocarbon, 62(4), pp. 725–757. Available at:
  • Ryan-Despraz, J. (2022) Practice and Prestige: An Exploration of Neolithic Warfare, Bell Beaker Archery, and Social Stratification from an Anthropological Perspective. Archaeopress Publishing.
  • Salanova, L. (2009) ‘Emergence du Campaniforme en Atlantique ou en Méditerranée ? Retour à la typologie des vases’, in De Méditerranée ou d’ailleurs, Mélanges offerts à Jean Guilaine. Toulouse: Archives d’Ecologie Préhistorique, pp. 685–692.
  • Sangmeister, E. (1963) ‘Exposé sur la civilisation du vase campaniforme’, in Les civilisations atlantiques du Néolithique à l’âge du Fer. Actes du premier colloque atlantique (Brest, 1961). Rennes: Laboratoire d’anthropologie préhistorique, pp. 25–56.
  • Saupe, T. et al. (2021) ‘Ancient genomes reveal structural shifts after the arrival of Steppe-related ancestry in the Italian Peninsula’, Current Biology, 31(12), pp. 2576-2591.e12. Available at:
  • Schmidt, H. (1913) ‘Zur Vorgeschichte Spaniens’, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, XLIV, pp. 238–253.
  • Seguin-Orlando, A. et al. (2021) ‘Heterogeneous Hunter-Gatherer and Steppe-Related Ancestries in Late Neolithic and Bell Beaker Genomes from Present-Day France’, Current Biology, 31(5), pp. 1072-1083.e10. Available at:
  • Souville, G. (1986) ‘Témoignages sur l’âge du bronze au Maghreb occidental’, Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 130(1), pp. 97–114. Available at:
  • Strahm, C. (1998) ‘Il bicchiere campaniforme: fenomeno e cultura’, in F. Nicolis and E. Mottes (eds) Simbolo ed enigma. Il bicchiere campaniforme e l’Italia nella preistoria europea del III millennio a.C. Trento: Provincia autonoma di Trento, pp. 21–44.
  • Turek, J. (2012) ‘Origin of the Bell Beaker phenomenon: The Moroccan connection’, in H. Fokkens and F. Nicolis (eds) Background to Beakers. Inquiries into regional cultural backgrounds of the Bell Beaker complex. Leiden: Sidestone Press, pp. 191–203.
  • Vander Linden, M. (2012) ‘Demography and mobility in North-Western Europe during the third millennium cal. BC’, in C. Prescott and H. Glørstad (eds) Becoming European. The transformation of third millennium Northern and Western Europe. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 19–29.
  • Vico Triguero, L. et al. (2018) ‘studio tecno-tipológico de las cerámicas del Cobre Reciente de los Castillejos (Montefrío, Granada)’, SPAL - Revista de Prehistoria y Arqueología, 27(2), pp. 29–53.

Go back to top