in JORGE, S. O., ed. – Existe uma Idade do Bronze Atlântico? Lisboa: Instituto Português de Arqueologia, p.189-191.
In this session, a number of papers will address the issues of hierarchy and conflict. I
will introduce them by making some general remarks on models that try to explain the
emergence of complex societies in the Bronze Age. In particular, I want to stress the need
for analysis of social processes on local and regional scales of research.
The Bronze Age is considered to be the period in which almost everywhere in Europe
complex societies developed. This process is supposed to have already started in the Late
Neolithic and the Copper Age when in the context of the Bell Beaker tradition the use of
metal was introduced. The correlates for complexity are generally of the same order: burials
with elaborate grave gifts, fortified settlements, monumental and ceremonial structures, evidence for long distance exchange, etc. Sometimes even the slightest difference in quality or
quantity is used as an indication for hierarchy.
In England the first stone phase of Stonehenge is built in the Beaker Period which indicates,
according to Renfrew (1973), that after 2200 BC Wessex develops into a real chiefdom
type of social organisation. In Brittany, similar and probably closely related developments
occur. In Scandinavia, according to Kristiansen (e.g. 1989), chiefdoms emerge a little later
and during the whole of the Bronze Age they are competing for access to metal supplies.
Also in Central Europe, south-eastern France and the Iberian peninsula the Bell Beaker period
is the episode in which the circulation and consumption of metal starts. In these areas,
fortified settlements like Villa Nova de San Pedro, Zambujal and Le Lebous appear to support
the models of emerging Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age hierarchies.
Metal and the struggle for access to metal, are in most cases used as an explanation for
the origin of hierarchies. Harrison, for instance, explains this in the following manner: in
the Iberian peninsula innovations like the plough, the cart and olive and vine plantations
represented costly energy investments that Òhad to be protected from the greedy clutches of their neighbours (1980, 164). According to Harrison, the newly formed bell beaker elites could
offer that protection against raiding. For their services they were paid with luxury goods of
bronze and gold. Hence, the lavish display of luxury goods and weapons, hence also, the fortifications that appear in Bell Beaker contexts in many areas. This model explains, still in
Harrisons interpretation, also the rapid expansion of chiefdoms all over Central and
This is, of course, a rather simplistic scheme, most other models are much more
sophisticated and plausible, but they all have a common denominator: they want to explain
the spread of Bell Beaker complex as the result of the same process everywhere in Europe.
The same applies to the models for the emergence of hierarchies: Wessex-type chiefdoms
seem to have been present everywhere. Patrice Brun has shown us in his contribution how
he thought that this process worked: the elites that are able to obtain goods and associated
ideas redistribute these in their local communities, which leads to homogeneity over large
I find it very difficult to accept such a scenario. Yes, of course, bronzes and other items
probably wre obtained by only a few people in the society who had access to the exchange
networks. But is not right to characterise them Europe-wide as a Wessex-type of chiefly
elite. In the Netherlands, for instance, they probably were the leaders of kinship groups and
their authority was not based on the manipulation of goods and land but on age and sex
(Lohof, 1994; Fokkens, 1997). In other regions their basis for power may have been entirely
different and their status as well. Moreover, communities were differently organised
everywhere, with different economic structures, cosmologies, ritual structures, etc. This
precludes cross-cultural models for the spread of the bell beaker or the emergence of hierarchies.
In this respect it should also be clear that the introduction of metal does not automatically
lead to hierarchies and complex societies, like Harrison seems to think. It is the social
and ritual structure of the regional group that determines in which way innovations are
accepted and internalised. The premises on which power is based are different for all regional
communities because they all have different histories. Only careful analysis of local and
regional social structures will provide explanations for the construction of, for instance,
Stone Henge and for the construction of fortified sites in Portugal and their subsequent
abandonment in the Early Bronze Age.
There is one other point that I want to make. The metal objects that are exchanged
tools, weapons, ornaments are often implicitly considered to have had a fixed meaning: a
sword, is a sword, is a sword. Again, however, I think that in every community these objects
were interpreted, read, differently. Therefore, their meaning will have been different everywhere, depending on the relation to person who obtained them, the intentions with which
he or she gave them, the obligations that are associated with them, the history or biology of
the objects, etc. There is not such a thing as an intrinsic meaning. Therefore the meaning
of an artefact or class of artefacts cannot be generalised and needs to be studied in its context
of use and deposition.
To conclude this brief introduction, what we need are careful analyses of regional
structures and of the way in which metal was used and interpreted by local or regional
communities. Moreover, we need to get rid of evolutionist concepts like chiefdom, ranking
and redistribution. They have served their purpose, but by now they have devalued
into labels with a stereotype content that has no descriptive value if it ever had any.
Instead, we need alternative ways for describing the social organisation of prehistoric
One other thing that is definitely needed, is a critical analysis of our correlates for
hierarchy and conflict. Almost thoughtless we are using equations like Kristiansen proposed
during this conference: ritual and rank mean coercion and distance and exclusiveness
mean value. I think that we should not any longer accept this type of simplification of very
complex and diverse processes. Neither, for that matter, do I think that World Systems
theories will bring us much further in understanding the emergence of hierarchy and
Manuscript closed 21 March 1996
FOKKENS, H. (1997) - The genesis of urnfields: economic crisis or ideological change? Antiquity. Cambridge. 71,p. 360-373.
HARRISON, R. J. (1980) - The beaker folk: Copper Age archaeology in Western Europe. London: Thames and Hudson.
KRISTIANSEN, K. (1989) - Value, ranking and consumption in the Bronze Age. In NORDSTR.M, H.-A.; KNAPE, A.,
eds.- Bronze age studies. Transactions of the british-scandinavian colloquium in Stockholm, may 10-11, 1985, Stockholm,p. 21-24.
LOHOF, E. (1994) - Tradition and change. Burial practices in the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age in the north-eastern
Netherlands. Archaeological Dialogues. 1.2, p. 98-118.
RENFREW, A. C. (1973) - Monuments, mobilisation and social organisation in Neolithic Wessex. In RENFREW, A. C., ed.-The explanation of culture change. London: Duckworth, p. 539-558.
* University of Leiden, Faculty of Pre- and Protohistory. PObox 9515. NL-2300 RA, Leiden. The Netherlands.