In the National Museum of Antiquities, Dublin, on a sunny fine day in May 2008, I encountered an assemblage of pots made by the Beaker People of late Neolithic-early Bronze Age Europe. Finely engraved with linear geometric patterning, thin-walled and dark bodied, these exquisite little receptacles and carriers had come to name their makers: beakers made by Beakers.
The Beaker people were farmers, metalworkers and, it has been deduced, brewers of grains. Alongside their earthenware pots, were gathered finely-wrought metal tools and receptacles that carried the same linear engravings and presence as the fired vessels—a delicacy of touch, a fluid marking hand and a precision of making without overworking. The objects remain fresh; they have a spontaneity and lightness. They seemed, uncannily, both very contemporary and ancient in look and ‘feel’. I could not quite fathom what I was seeing. Sealed in their glass cases, I could not handle them to divine more understanding. They carried no artist-maker name or mark, of course. I wished that I could meet the people who made them.
I had been making ceramic ‘beakers’ long before I saw these pots in Dublin, and have a growing, diverse array that is used, amongst other things, for drinking rainwater from. Recently, I have added to the beaker assemblage with stoneware and porcelain forms carrying ash glazes of my living-place and the eucalypt wood collected from home tree fall, sawed, split, stacked and burned over winter for warmth. The porcelain ash beakers have come to be the most articulate ‘markers’ of this old Woonjeegaribay spot of Wadi Wadi and Yuin Country, and of the Gundungurra nation, in what is now more commonly called the Southern Highlands Wingecarribee, a hemisphere away from the Irish gathering. They catch and release the brilliant clarity of highland light, the intense seasonality of its qualities, its abundance and its complementary, lingering absence over winter months. They have become my light catchers as much as any other function. They ask to be watched, picked up and held to early, unbruised light, or the warmed, low, south-of-west late spring sun that shafts through doorway and window in October and November. Sometimes, this action takes my breath away—the fluid synthesis of light, nuanced colour, and layered translucence into a new, unexpected and impermanent dance. A momentary stilled movement. Just momentary, a collection of breaths, before the earth rotates a little more and the sun and the light move with it. This ephemeral offering from such a permanent substance that is ceramic.
The beaker has no handle; an addition dictated by metal drinking vessels with hot beverages, and subsequently added to those of ceramic. It is cuppable in two hands, or one, and the infinite possibilities of form and size confer different drinking experiences. Bell beakers carried bell-shaped bases—a little ‘belly’—and a more vertical upper half, slightly flared to the rim for gentle exit of fluid to the mouth. An upturned hand-bell, in fact.
The Beaker People did not name themselves. It is not known definitively what they called themselves, and how they perceived their lives, their ceramics, their metal forms. They wrote no artist statements, had no blog, released no press statements, yet their presence is still very real in the twenty-first century, a hemisphere and several millennia away.