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An Introduction to the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik Culture

6 Dec

A recent post of mine discussed the fickle nature of constructing and using databases when conducting archaeological research, however in that post I didn’t much expand upon the culture that I had studied in my dissertation for the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield.  So here is a brief introductory post, taken and edited from my own research, of the Linearbandkeramik culture of Central Europe, one of the first major agricultural practicing cultures in the European Neolithic period.  The Linearbandkeramik were named, somewhat imaginatively, after the linear bands found on their pottery and are hereby after referred to as the LBK.

Origins and Expansion of the Linearbandkeramik Culture

The LBK are an early Neolithic Central European culture dating from 5500 BC to 4900 BC, although there are sites dating to just before and after this period (Whittle 1996: 146).  The origin of the LBK culture and the exodus point is thought to be from the Starčevo–Kőrös–Criş cultures from the Hungarian Plain dating to around 5600 BC, which has been primarily identified due to similar incised pottery and similar radiocarbon dates for the location of the earliest LBK sites (Price et al. 2001: 593).  Largely known for their homogeneity in their architectural and material culture, the LBK distribution across the seemingly favoured loess plains was fairly rapid in archaeological terms.  Arching across from the Hungarian Plain in its origin to reaching the Paris Basin and Ukrainian plains at its zenith, two distinct geographic areas having been established for early and late LBK periods (Figure 1 below, Whittle 1996: 146).

The early phase originated from western Hungary and followed the Danube and other river corridors, rapidly reaching the Rhine and Neckar valleys within a few centuries (Jochim 2000: 186).  The second phase often mapped in studies includes the rapid extension into the Paris basin in eastern France, the Netherlands, and Belgium in western Europe, towards the loess boundaries of the northern European plain in Germany and Poland, with extension as far as western Ukraine (Bogucki 2000: 198).  There are slight differences in regional chronologies, with evidence of LBK settlements as late as the middle of the 5th millennium BC in north eastern Europe (Vanmontfort 2008: 157), and evidence of the fragmentation of late LBK sites into different cultural entities in the northern and central European LBK sites (Hofmann & Bickle 2011).


Figure 1. The distribution and spread of LBK in Central Europe, where A is earliest LBK (5500 BC) and B is late LBK expansion (4800 BC) (Bogucki 2000: 198).

In general LBK settlements are found on loess soils, near water in valleys and in low lying situations, typically in woodland at its climax phase of post-glacial growth, although the archaeological evidence suggests that little or limited inroads were made into the surrounding woodlands (Whittle 1996: 149).  It is noted however that a few sites and exceptions lie outside the loess boundaries, particularly in Poland, near Kujavia, although no distinguishing features have been noted at these sites (Whittle 1996: 146).  It has also been pointed out by some that the inland environments the LBK favoured were naturally devoid of hunter-gatherer populations (Price 2000i: 4), although this has been argued against by some, especially in the earlier and middle period of the LBK cultural expansion where it is to be expected that some hunter-gatherer/LBK interaction would have probably occurred (Vanmontfort 2008: 151).

Throughout the distribution and period time frame of the LBK culture the climate was somewhat warmer than it is today, with the temperature sitting a few degrees higher which resulted in a relatively dryer central and eastern European plain (Bogucki 2000: 198).  It is thought that this relative rise in temperature could have a positive effect on agricultural and farming practices, providing an advantageous environment for the growth of plant material (Bogucki 2000).  One of the main points of discussion between researchers of the LBK culture concerns their expansion during the early Neolithic period is the nature of the mode of transmission of both their culture and their expansion into the Central European Plain (Bellwood 2005).  This echoes the expansion of the early Neolithic in Europe and, as the LBK are one of the first major and well documented farming cultures, there has been an increasing amount of research in the relationship between LBK centres, pre-existing hunter-gatherer cultures, and the rate of LBK expansion (Shennan 2011, Tresset & Vigne 2011, Vanmontfort 2008, Vencl 1986).  As such it is important to consider the individual LBK sites within their surrounding context and within the culture as a whole.  By making broad sweeping generalizations, nuances in the archaeological record are generally missed.

Linearbandkeramik Society

Gimbutas (1991) was one of the many early prehistorians who have argued that the Neolithic represented the continuation of the matriarchal society from the Upper Palaeolithic, as represented by one idea of the Venus figurines as symbols of matriarchy throughout European prehistory (Scarre 2005: 395).  Recent archaeological and genetic investigations have displaced this theory, particularly those regarding early Neolithic communities (Bentley et. al. 2012).  Evidence from the varying disciplines of linguistics (Fortunato 2011: 108), spatial models (Rasteiro et al. 2012) and biomolecular evidence (Lacan et al. 2011: 18255), amongst others, have highlighted the general trend of patrilocal kinship based societies amongst the Neolithic societies in Europe.  The continued use of isotopes in archaeological studies, including strontium as a marker of migration (Bentley et al. 2012), and carbon and nitrogen as dietary markers (Durrwachter et al. 2006, Oelze 2012), in the understanding of kinship and community differentiation in the LBK culture, in particular, is having a sustained impact on the perceptions of the society in the Neolithic period (Bentley et al. 2012: 1).

In Bentley et al.’s (2012: 4) study of over 300 individuals from 7 well known LBK sites (Vedrovice, Aiterhofen, Schwetzingen, Nitra, Kleinhadersdorf, Souffelweyersheim and Ensisheim) across the LBK distribution compelling evidence was uncovered that suggests that the LBK society, as whole, was patrilocal in nature.  Evidence gathered from the strontium isotope program highlighted significantly less variance in the geographic signature amongst males than amongst the females tested, and with less variance amongst burials with ground stone shoe last adzes than those without (Bentley et al. 2012: 1).  Durwachter et al. (2006: 41) and Oelze et al. (2011: 276) studies indicate no substantial difference between male and female diets at LBK sites or any preferential access to differing foodstuffs.  Bentley et al. (2012: 4) however do suggest that males, particularly those with an adze present in their grave, represent individuals who have preferential access to preferred loess soils.  Bentley et al. (2012: 4) go on to state that, generally speaking, the results indicate that ‘male inheritance of land means that males tend to live where they were born, while females marry and moved elsewhere’.  Bentley et al (2012: 4) conclude that ‘unequal and inherited land access developed over time among the early farmers of central Europe’, with evidence of differential access to goods being able to be traced back to the early Neolithic.

Linearbandkeramik Material and Mortuary Culture

The architectural and material culture of the LBK was fairly standardised and remarkably consistent throughout their cultural lifespan although regional variations did exist, especially towards the end of the LBK chronology (Bogucki 2000: 205).  Often clustered into villages, the LBK people practised agriculture in a subsistence economy, cultivating cereals and legumes such as barley, emmer, einkorn, pea, lentil and flax, using intensely cultivated garden sized plots to grow the produce.  Animals, such as cattle and pigs, were also kept, as well as hunting animals which were locally available (Bogaard 2004).  Many LBK settlements were open, without any defined or bounded perimeter, and consisted of 8-10m long timber built longhouses spaced apart by 2-3m from each other, which were often orientated in the same way (Bradley 2001).  The size and numbers of longhouse dwellings at LBK sites varied from just a few to a more than 40 (Hofmann & Bickle 2011).  No LBK longhouses have been found with the floor intact, limiting exact evidence and, with the de-calcification of the loess soils since LBK times, much organic material and evidence has been further lost from the archaeological record (Whittle 1996: 160).  In the late LBK period (5000 BC onwards) there was a proliferation of ditched enclosures, varied in shape and form, though most occupying a space no more than 2 ha. in size, throughout the geographic spread of the LBK (Whittle 1996: 174).

Typical artefacts such as shoe last adzes, stone axes, flints, stone hammers, polished adzes, incised pottery decorations, spondylus shells shaped into beads and necklaces, are found at sites throughout the distribution of the culture (John 2011: 41, Whittle 1996: 171).  Material culture is also the social inward and outward expression of a culture, with goods often in daily use and in circulation between families, friends and communities throughout the LBK settlements.  Pottery throughout the LBK period was incised with linear bands, which may have been imbued with some meaning or statement as regional styles proliferated throughout (Whittle 1996: 173).  Whittle (1996: 173) further suggests that although adzes are and have been seen as status indicators (Bentley et al. 2012), the key question is the ownership of such objects.  That a male or female may be buried with an adze, does not necessarily mean that they owned the artefact during life (John 2011).    It seems increasingly likely, however, that during their working lifetime adzes were worth acquiring, even by forager communities associated around the LBK periphery, such ‘as seen at (the) Skateholm II’ site in Scania, southern Sweden (Whittle 1996: 174).  The spondylus shells are also indicators of trade and circulation of goods with areas such as the Adriatic and north Aegean (Bentley et al. 2012: 1), which are often taken as indicators of status and community differentiation, which is often correlated with reproductive advantages (Bocquet-Appel et al. 2012: 335).

The mortuary culture of the LBK has been evidenced by the excavation and evaluation of several large cemeteries, such as the early LBK Vedrovice site and late LBK sit of Aiterhofen (as discussed in my dissertation thesis), and by the less well investigated cremations at various other sites (Hofmann & Bickle et al. 2011: 185).  Inhumations are typically single crouched burials, with the individual placed on their left side (Figure 2 below, Bickle et al. 2011).  Inhumation and cremation are not mutually exclusive as both have been found at several sites together, obstinately having been practiced at the same time as each other (Whittle 1996: 168).


Figure 2. A ‘typical’ LBK crouched inhumation burial from the mid period LBK site of Aiterhofen, Germany.  Notice the stone tool behind the skull of the individual and the spondylus shells draped around the head (Bickle et al. 2011: 1247).

Whilst the majority of burials from the LBK period have come from cemetery sites, inhumations are also sometimes found under settlement structures with the majority of these belonging to female or juvenile individuals.  Added to this are other inhumations which have been found inside settlements, pits, or in ditches outside settlements (Bentley et al. 2012).  Polished shoe last adzes, incised pottery, lithics, spondylus shells and beads, are just some of the artefacts found at LBK sites and in inhumations throughout the LBK cultural lifespan.  Both Bentley (2012ii) and Bentley et al. (2012: 4) studies have shown a positive correlation between the presence of shoe last adzes and male burials, whilst their 87Sr/86Sr studies have shown a pattern of a patrilocality society amongst the populations considered in the studies.  Empty burial plots (of either body or funerary goods) have also been discovered at numerous LBK cemeteries, with the possibility that the grave sites were meant to remain empty as a symbolic act (Lenneis 2010i: 164).

Late period LBK ‘death pits’, such as at Talheim and Herxheim in southern Germany and Asparn Schletz in Austria, represent something altogether more different, possibly massacre sites although this is heavily debated (Bentley et al. 2008, Bishop & Knusel 2005, Wahl & Konig 1986: 150).  Evidence of violence is not uncommon in the preceding Mesolithic and Neolithic periods in Europe (Duday 2006, Lillie 2004, Schulting 2006), however Whittle (1996: 171) states that at Talheim in particular the ‘scale of violence (here) is unexpected’.  The above three sites have been explained as possibly symptomatic of the LBK world towards its end.  Whittle states that the most general inference to be drawn is that it is consistent with the rest of the LBK evidence, that the massacre sites size and their victims represent the strong norms of ‘communally sanctioned behaviour’ (1996: 171).

  • The abstract for my dissertation, focusing on patrilocality and the use of isotopes, can be found here.
  • Previous posts discussing the Linearbandkeramik culture can be found here.
  • If you would like a copy of the dissertation thesis please email me (address is in the about me tab).


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