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Early bronze age

Únêtician crouched burial from Quedlinburg.
Typical Únêtician crouched burial from Quedlinburg (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt).

Towards the end of the third millennium BC, the local cultures gradually learned to work with a new material: bronze, an alloy of copper and smaller quantities of other substances, such as arsenic, antimony and later above all tin. There were two conditions that allowed this era of metal production to begin. Firstly, the region became included in the distribution networks for Alpine copper ore, and secondly, the technical know-how for working this metal spread from southeastern and southern Europe. The common archaeological feature that links the central European early bronze age is the custom of burying the dead in a contracted position (a 'crouched' position). This custom can be traced clearly as it is inherited from the local neolithic cultures and passed on into the first era of metal production, and so shows that religious concepts were retained across this technological divide.

Classic Únêtice cups'.
The classic Únêtice cups', a characteristic pottery form of this culture (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták).

The culture that flourished in the middle of Central Europe in the early bronze age is known as the Únêtician culture. The name is derived from the site Únêtice near Prague in Bohemia (Czech Republic), where important finds from that period were made as early as 1880. The Únêtician burial custom differs from that of all the neighbouring, contemporary cultures in that the dead person is laid out on the right side of the body, with no distinction made according to gender. This type of burial is the real identifying characteristic of this culture, even more than the shared design features of material remains like pottery and metalwork. These include the characteristic Únêtice cups ('hour-glass cups'), squat jugs and taller jugs, jars with knobs below the rim (the so-called 'Zapfenbecher'), two-handled jars, and exceptional metal forms like the 'Bohemian eyelet pins', special forms of flanged axes, daggers with solid metal hilts, and halberds.

Halberds from the deposit Dieskau II.
Halberds from the deposit Dieskau II (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták).

The distribution of archaeological finds of Únêtician graves and settlements reveals that the pattern of settlement closely follows natural geographical features. Northern and southern branches of the culture can be roughly distinguished, separated from each other by the highlands of the Thuringian Forest, Erzgebirge and Sudeten Mountains. In the northern branch, it is the East Harz region that commands the most attention. Here the most extensive concentration of finds occurs in an arc open to the west, occupying the areas of loess and black earth soils that curve around the hill-country, which itself has no such finds.

This geographical division created smaller settlement regions that to some extent develop on independent lines. In the early phase, from around 2,300 BC, the culture still appears relatively uniform, with simple burials in the ground and no special efforts undertaken in funerary practices. But from around 2,000 BC different lines of development can be seen within the 'Circumharz Group'. In the drainage basin of the lower Saale, most graves are now carefully lined with stone ('walled cists'). The grave goods also reveal regional differences.  North and south of the Harz, people almost always continued the tradition of including a number of pottery containers in the grave, but in the lower Saale region a 'metal group' forms, with the characteristic feature that the dead person wears certain typical bronze clothing accessories like the eyelet pin and the so-called tattooing needle.

The barrow of Leubingen.
The barrow of Leubingen (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták).
Gold jewellery from the princely grave of Leubingen.
Gold jewellery from the princely grave of Leubingen (© LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Photo: Juraj Lipták).

In the same period, a special form of burial is found in Leubingen (Kreis Sömmerda, Thuringia), Helmsdorf (Salzlandkreis) and Dieskau (Saalkreis): the so-called 'princely grave'. These Únêtician princely graves were equipped with gold and bronze objects of high value in both quality and quantity, and are also characterised by an elaborate grave construction - a barrow of over 30 m diameter, in the centre of which is a core of stones surrounding a tent-like wooden mortuary chamber.

Hoards from the Únêtician culture have a different distribution pattern from the funerary finds. For the most part they contain objects made of bronze, and their geographical distribution not only covers the known regions of Únêtician settlement, but they spread well beyond the limits of these areas as well.

This type of distribution pattern implies that the Únêtician centres of metalworking, probably directed by a social elite (the 'princes'), pursued an expansive economic strategy. From about 2,000 BC, they provided finished goods to the areas to their north that still stuck to late neolithic ways of life and production. It was only at the end of the early bronze age, from the 17th century BC, that the north of Europe managed to get around the Únêtician monopoly and take part in the central European distribution network for raw materials (copper and tin) and the techniques of working them. A gradual decline in Únêtician culture can be seen from around 1700 BC and it looks as if this is connected to the loss of the north European export markets for their metal products

It was in this period of transition, during which there were also changes in burial practices, that the Nebra Sky Disc (included into the UNESCO's Memory of the World register in 2013) was sacrificed and buried. The finds discovered along with it - swords, axes and a chisel - still show some characteristics of the slightly older Únêtician princely graves, but the depiction of the religious symbol of the sun-barque on the Sky Disc now brings an entirely new programme of imagery into view. Nebra thus marks the end of the early bronze age tradition and the start of a new era.