3) Trade, beer and cannibalism: A tour of Bronze Age Bohemia

Bronze artefacts from Středokluky

The Bronze Age on the territory of the modern day Czech Republic, a period running from roughly 2,300BC to 800 BC, saw the rise and fall of several distinct cultures. Modern archaeology shows that some of them were far more interconnected with the wider Bronze Age world than previously thought. Meanwhile, the remnants of battles unearthed in Bohemia and Moravia show that the Bronze Age Collapse may have also had echoes in this part of the world. Archaeologists have also found evidence of cannibalism among some of the Bohemian settlers and were even able to recreate the curious millet beer that some of their warriors would have drunk.

The amber and tin traders of the Únětice culture

In 1879, Czech surgeon and archaeologist Čeněk Rozner discovered a burial ground of over 50 people on a hill overlooking the Bohemian village of Únětice. They belonged to a distinct culture that established itself across a large swathe of Central Europe ranging from Germany to western Slovakia from roughly 2,300 to 1,600 BC. As is often the case in archaeology, the location of the find would become our name for this ancient civilisation - the Únětice culture.

The people who made up this culture were most likely the descendants of the Bell Beaker and Corded Ware cultures both of whom seem to trace a significant amount of their ancestry to the proto-Indo-European peoples that moved into Europe during the previous Neolithic period, possibly from the area of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, and would leave a lasting imprint on Europe’s languages, gene pool and polytheistic religions.

"There clearly was a way of transporting amber down south to the Mediterranean and we are quite certain that this route passed through the Czech lands."

For the next several decades, many more burial grounds belonging to the Únětice people were being unearthed across the territories that they used to reside in. The finds became so frequent that museums started declining the ever increasing numbers of skeletons that were being dug up and many of the skeletal remains were simply reburied.

More recent discoveries of Bronze Age hoards in Germany, such as the one around Dermsdorf in 2011, have led to theories that at least parts of this civilisation showed signs of a sophisticated, stable and highly stratified society with a ruling class of “princes” who lived in longhouses and commanded organised “units” of over a hundred warriors that carried bronze axes, daggers and halberds.

In 1999, the discovery of the so-called Nebra Sky Disc by a German metal detectorist led to further astounding finds. The gold that is featured on the disc came from as far away as Cornwall in Britain.

These wide-ranging contacts of the Únětice culture seem to have been made possible by the extensive trade routes that were formed after the discovery of bronze - a metal that is made by smelting copper and tin. While bronze was more common in the inhabited parts of Europe and the Middle East at the time, tin was a relatively rare resource, which could be found in significant amounts only in some regions Europe, often very remote from the beating heart of Bronze Age human civilisation - the Eastern Mediterranean.

Aside from Britain and the Iberian Peninsula, tin could also be found in the Ore mountain range that forms today’s border between the Czech Republic and Saxony. This was the sole location for mining tin in Central Europe. It is here and around the nearby Elbe River that some archaeologists place the core of the Únětice culture.

Nebra Sky Disc | Photo: Anagoria,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 3.0

Luboš Jiráň from the Institute of Archaeology at the Czech Academy of sciences says that aside from tin, there was also another resource, highly sought after in the south, which the Únětice people would have had access to.

“What we can say for certain, is that there was a trade route through which amber was moved from the Baltic coast of Poland through our territory to the South of Europe. We know this, because Baltic amber has been found in Mycenaean graves and in the wider Aegean. This means that there clearly was a way of transporting amber down south to the Mediterranean and we are quite certain that this route passed through the Czech lands, because our discoveries here from the time of the Únětice Culture feature many amber artefacts and in a greater density than in nearby Germany. It is therefore clear that the amber route passed through here.

“It should also be said that we find considerably more amber items on this territory during the Únětice Culture than in later periods.”

Únětice necropolis | Photo: MartinVeselka,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

Amber seems to have been northern Europe’s chief export to the more developed civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze Age. In Ancient Egypt, amber was called the “the tears of the eye of Ra”, Egypt’s sun god. This connection of amber to the sun made it a highly sought after material out of which much splendid jewellery was made well into the times of the Roman Empire.

Dr Jiráň says that while the archaeological evidence found on the territory of Czech Republic does not indicate the existence of any local “princely” class, as has been hypothesised in Germany, there is material evidence of an extensive presence of Únětice culture people in the Czech lands.

“A large segment of the discoveries that we have come across dating to the Únětice Culture are bronze tools. They can be found in quite massive quantities on the territory of Bohemia and Moravia. Just on the territory of Bohemia we have found around 300 such depots.”

"It does seem that there was not just a single North-South migration occurring at this time, but that various peoples were moving in different directions within Central Europe."

Typically, these metal items include decorative objects and ring ingots. The latter strongly support the existence of the aforementioned trade routes, which would most likely have followed the flow of rivers, connecting eventually to the Danube further south. People may have carried these rings as a form of currency. Dr Luboš Jiráň again.

“We have found dozens of fortified settlements in Southern Bohemia belonging to the Únětice culture, but we are not sure whether they housed a permanent population or if they just served as a place of refuge for the locals in times of danger.

“We do know, by studying a fort on the confluence of the Lužnice and Vltava rivers [the latter eventually merges into the Elbe], that a major trading settlement was located there, because we can find ceramic objects that come from the Danube basin. The most effective form of transportation at that time in Southern Bohemia was using waterways and this settlement was located on the confluence of the two rivers.

Bronze objects - Únětice culture | Photo: Zde,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

“Above that settlement was a fort, which surveyed the route. It was also found that the rear palisade of the fort also served as the rear wall for the buildings there. But these forts were small, so we can’t imagine hundreds of people living inside.”

It should be noted that the finds related to the Únětice culture that are located in Southern Bohemia are slightly different to those found in other parts of the country. The artefacts are more varied and of a higher quality. Meanwhile, the establishment of a network of fortified areas in South Bohemia resembles those found in the Eastern Mediterranean.

These finds date towards the end of the Únětice period, between the mid-1,700s to the mid-1,600s, and point to areas of the modern day southern Czech Republic and Slovakia being influenced by more developed, proto-urbanised civilisations of the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean.

The arrival of the mound builders

Luboš Jiráň | Photo: archive of Luboš Jiráň

Archaeological finds show that the seemingly sophisticated Únětice culture suddenly collapsed around the 17th century BC. It is unclear how this happened, but, as in most cases of civilizational collapse, it may have been the result of several factors such as climate change, the deterioration of farming land and invasions.

According to one hypothesis, put forward by Economics Professor Serge Svizzero from the University of Reunion in France, the Únětice culture’s downfall may have been caused by the source of their wealth itself. The civilisation may have fallen prey to the so-called “Dutch Disease”, wherein an initial mining boom may have led to the decline of other sectors of the economy such as farming and construction which would have led to a gradual decline in purchasing power for the general population.

It seems likely that, around this time, a new group of people moved into the Únětice culture’s territory. Archaeologist Luboš Jiráň explains.

“During this period, it looks like there was a large population exchange, although we do not have DNA data to back this up. Thereafter however, we have no evidence nor theories that point to another large population exchange.”

Late Bronze Age artefacts | Photo: Luboš Jiráň,  Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

The people who seem to have moved into the territory of Bohemia and Moravia at this time belonged to the so-called Tumulus culture, who bear this designation due to the mounds of earth and stone that they built for their dead. This culture, which is characteristic for the middle Bronze Age in the Czech Republic, mainly established itself in the western, central and southern parts of Bohemia and in Moravia, but less so in Northern Bohemia.

The people of the Tumulus culture are sometimes called the ancestors of the Celts, because no fundamental societal changes seem to have occurred between their arrival and the eventual Celtic period of the Iron Age, says Dr Jiráň.

“Their development seems to have been continual into the latter Urnfield culture and thereafter.

“However, this development is noticeable in the southern parts of Czech territory. The people in the northern parts, where we see the settlement of the so-called Lužice culture, are slightly different to the Tumulus culture. They seem to have their origins from the same culture, but their practices likely developed somewhere else – in Northern Moravia, Poland and elsewhere.

“Meanwhile, the Knovíz culture, the Štítarská culture and others in Moravia are part of the Urnfield culture coming in from the upper Danube area. I think that these southern cultures show a clear continuity from the middle Bronze Age onwards.”

Nevertheless, despite this seeming ethnic continuity, Central Europe does seem to have experienced significant upheavals around the 1,300s BC, exactly when most of the great Bronze Age civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean collapsed. The relatively recent discovery of the Bronze Age battlefield around Tollensee, Northern Germany, where between 2,000 to 6,000 warriors clashed in a merciless battle, has been dated to exactly this period. Dr Jiráň says that archaeological evidence points to similar battles also occurring on the territory of the modern day Czech Republic.

“Here in Central Europe we also come across a catalogue of military clashes and catastrophes. We find areas where there are mass graves containing dozens of people who would have lived in the local region, for example Blučina in Moravia, or Velimská Skalka near Kutná Hora. The latter was a religious and political power centre which was evidently destroyed during some sort of invasion and a resulting massacre.

“It is also during this period, when we can see a clear upheaval of the relatively peaceful previous period, that a major battle seems to have taken place in the Tollensee valley in North-Eastern Germany. What is interesting is that the archaeological exhibits that have been dug up there, such as the axes that were used, could just as well have been found in places such as the aforementioned Velimská Skalka. This shows that these battles took place during the same period.

“We do not know whether the invaders came from southern parts of Europe. It cannot be said for certain. However, it does seem that there was not just a single North-South migration occurring at this time, but that various peoples were moving in different directions within Central Europe.

“Tollensee shows that one of these groups likely also turned up in this region of Northern Germany and were not welcomed by the local population.”

The proto-Celts of the Urnfield culture

Out of these clashes emerged the final culture to dominate the territory of Bohemia and Moravia, as well as that of wider Central Europe, until the end of the Bronze Age - the Urnfield culture.

Named after their characteristic urn burial grounds, this culture burned their dead and reached a level of settlement sophistication unprecedented in this region before. Dr Jiráň says that fortified settlements dating back to this period of the so-called Late Bronze Age (after 1,300 BC) could have housed hundreds of individuals.

“The beer has a characteristic acidic flavour that will remind you of cider or wine, rather than beer. It has the colour of beer, it smells like cider and tastes a bit like lemon.”

Some of the Urnfield peoples arrived from the Danube region in the south. Meanwhile, parts of the western and southern parts of Bohemia were settled by the Lužice culture, which arrived from the north east, and parts of central of Bohemia became the home of the Knovíz culture. Evidence, such as smashed human bones, points to the Knovíz people having been practicing cannibals.

Peoples of the Urnfield culture were able to build on the knowledge that had been established over the previous millennium and used bronze in a much greater variety of ways than their predecessors. Archaeological evidence shows that population numbers increased at this time. There was also further development of skilled crafts and a trade seems to have been more intensive than ever before.

Source: Xoil,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the most significant finds to have emerged from this period in recent years is undoubtedly the bronze drinking vessel near the village of Kladina in Eastern Bohemia that dates back to around 1,000 BC. Traces of the liquid that were stored in the vessel allowed archaeologists to reconstruct this several thousand year old drink, which turned out to be a type of herbal millet beer.

Chemist Lukáš Kučera from the University of Olomouc, who was able to brew this ancient beverage, described what it tastes like to Czech Radio last year.

“The beer has a characteristic acidic flavour that will remind you of cider or wine, rather than beer. It has the colour of beer, it smells like cider and tastes a bit like lemon.”

Archaeologist Luboš Jiráň, says that the bowl resembles those found in areas such as Hungary or South-East Europe.

“We have quite solid proof that people who lived on our territory did know alcohol and that they would indulge in wild celebrations. Where we find especially strong evidence of this is in the ceramic artefacts that are excavated. We often find ceramic bowls that we believe would have been used for ritual drinking and were then buried in the ground.

“Here in Central Europe we also come across a catalogue of military clashes and catastrophes."

“It belongs to a time when the ruler would have had an armed group of companions (družiníci). We know that these men would have had their own special ‘parties’ where they would drink alcohol and we now know that this would have included drinking beer thanks to this discovery.”

The Urnfield culture, along with many subgroups, remained dominant in the territory of the modern day Czech Republic until the end of the Bronze Age around the 8th century BC, when iron started to take over as the primary metal. Although iron would usher into revolutionary civilizational changes, the people who now used it were the descendants of the Bronze Age farmers, smelters and warriors who had lived on the territory of Bohemia and Moravia since the beginning of the late Bronze Age.