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The Beakers of Ozieri

“Manipulating liquids” is the term used by archaeologists for “pouring drinks.” Apparently in the late Neolithic period in European history, around 3500 BC, some unsung cave-genius had a brilliant idea (fire was good, the wheel also good—but this was even better): “Hey, wait a minute!”—at which point a very early version of the incandescent light bulb went on in a thought bubble above that person’s head—“I can use this opposable thingie on my hand to indent part of the rim of this clay bowl; then we can maninpul...pour drinks!” He or she (I’m betting it was a guy) was not referring to water because rivers were full of that stuff and who cared if you spilled some. He meant fermented liquids such as beer, mead, and wine. Thus were born the “beaker cultures” of Europe, peoples scattered across Europe who made drinking vessels of different shapes: the bell-beaker, the funnel-beaker, the butt beaker, the claw beaker, and the protruding-foot beaker.

   Extent of the beaker cultures
It is not quite clear whether the spread of “beaker culture” was the result of cultural diffusion by invasion of a single “beaker” people across the continent or the result of a natural diffusion of knowledge along the early trade routes of European rivers and coastlines. The pottery in question appeared rather abruptly, and the earliest examples of it are found on the Iberian peninsula. A plausible view is that the knowledge of how to make these artifacts diffused naturally across Europe; thus, you have new knowledge —rather than the people themselves—spreading out. (That is more likely than a real invasion since the purported invaders would all have been crocked, or “beakered up,” as they used to say in 3500 BC.)

Beakers are among the artifacts of the so-called “Ozieri culture” in northern Sardinia, named for the town of Ozieri near Sassari, where archaeologist have found traces of these proto-Sardinians, who pre-date even the builders of the Nuraghi, now the icons of ancient Sardinia. The Ozieri culture is also termed, in Italian, the "San Michele culture" (named after a cave near Ozieri where artifacts were found). The general dating of this culture is generally given as 3800-2900 BC. It is difficult, indeed, for the non-specialist to keep the progression of early peoples straight; specialist judgments are based on often contradictory interpretations of the same evidence. In the case of Sardinia and the Ozieri culture, both archaeology and now genetics indicate a more varied origin of proto-Sardinians than previously thought. Genetics indicates an almost certain communality with people on the Iberian peninsula but also with peoples much farther to the east, Greece and Anatolia. Also, archaeology suggests early influence from the Aegean. None of this should surprise us; Sardinia, is, after all, an island, and people on an island have to come from somewhere. (Of course, nothing says they all have to come from the same place.) We can say with some certainty that Sardinia had vital trade and contact with continental sources by the middle of the 4th century—that is, 3500 BC.

One of the most respected archaeologists to have studied the Ozieri culture is Giovanni Lilliu, whose 1967 book La civiltà dei Sardi dal neolitico all'età dei nuraghi [Sardinian Civilization from the Neolithic to the Age of the Nuraghi] (Torino, ERI edition), indicates that about 200 Ozieri sites have been found through northern Sardinia. They are small, largely undefended, and are characterized by (besides their pottery) their dedication to the dead, which means their hollowed-out rock tombs (the domus de janas, photo, right) and their megalithic, circular cemeteries (photo, left). Other than that, their sense of the divine focused on the figure of the Mother God and even the Bull God, figurines of which have been found. These early Sardinian were not the builders of the mighty nuraghi fortifications, although they may have become the builders of those fortifications. At a certain point in time, then, Ozieri artifacts become less decorative and sterner and then, little by little, the fort builders take over. They apparently perceived the need to defend themselves against incursions from as yet uncertain quarters, perhaps attackers who could not be mollified with a few beakers of good cheer.

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