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3 December 2009
A lost European Culture, pulled from obscurity

Before the first cities of Mesopotamia or temples along the Nile, there lived in the Lower Danube Valley and the Balkan foothills people who were ahead of their time in art, technology and long-distance trade. For 1,500 years, starting earlier than 5000 BCE, they farmed and built sizable towns, a few with as many as 2,000 dwellings. They mastered large-scale copper smelting, the new technology of the age. Their graves held an impressive array of exquisite headdresses and necklaces and, in one cemetery, the earliest major assemblage of gold artifacts to be found anywhere in the world.
     The striking designs of their pottery speak of the refinement of the culture's visual language. Until recent discoveries, the most intriguing artifacts were the ubiquitous terracotta 'goddess' figurines, originally interpreted as evidence of the spiritual and political power of women in society. New research, archaeologists and historians say, has broadened understanding of this long overlooked culture, which seemed to have approached the threshold of 'civilization' status. Writing had yet to be invented, and so no one knows what the people called themselves.
     The little-known culture is being rescued from obscurity in an exhibition, 'The Lost World of Old Europe: the Danube Valley, 5000-3500 B.C.,' which opened last month at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. More than 250 artifacts from museums in Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania are on display for the first time in the United States. The show will run through April 25.
     At its peak, around 4500 BCE, said David W. Anthony, the exhibition's guest curator, "Old Europe was among the most sophisticated and technologically advanced places in the world." Historians suggest that the arrival in southeastern Europe of people from the steppes may have contributed to the collapse of the Old Europe culture by 3500 BCE. At the exhibition preview, Roger S. Bagnall, director of the institute, confessed that until now "a great many archaeologists had not heard of these Old Europe cultures." It was not until local archaeologists in 1972 discovered a large fifth-millennium BCE cemetery at Varna, Bulgaria, that they began to suspect these were not poor people living in unstructured egalitarian societies.
     The story now emerging is of pioneer farmers after about 6200 BCE moving north into Old Europe from Greece and Macedonia, bringing wheat and barley seeds and domesticated cattle and sheep. They established colonies along the Black Sea and in the river plains and hills, and these evolved into related but somewhat distinct cultures, archaeologists have learned. The settlements maintained close contact through networks of trade in copper and gold and also shared patterns of ceramics.
     Over a wide area of what is now Bulgaria and Romania, the people settled into villages of single- and multiroom houses crowded inside palisades. The houses, some with two stories, were framed in wood with clay-plaster walls and beaten-earth floors. A few towns of the Cucuteni people, a later and apparently robust culture in the north of Old Europe, grew to more than 800 acres, which archaeologists consider larger than any other known human settlements at the time. But excavations have yet to turn up definitive evidence of palaces, temples or large civic buildings.
     At first, the absence of elite architecture led scholars to assume that Old Europe had little or no hierarchical power structure. This was dispelled by the graves in the Varna cemetery. For two decades after 1972, archaeologists found 310 graves dated to about 4500 BCE. More than 3,000 pieces of gold were found in 62 of the graves, along with copper weapons and tools, and ornaments, necklaces and bracelets of prized Aegean shells. Yet it is puzzling that the elite seemed not to indulge in private lives of excess.
     Copper, not gold, may have been the main source of Old Europe's economic success, Dr. Anthony said. Smelted copper, cast as axes, hammered into knife blades and coiled in bracelets, became valuable exports. Old Europe copper pieces have been found in graves along the Volga River, 1,200 miles east of Bulgaria. Archaeologists have recovered more than five tons of pieces from Old Europe sites.
     An entire gallery is devoted to the figurines, the more familiar and provocative of the culture's treasures. Many of the figurines represent women in stylized abstraction, with truncated or elongated bodies and heaping breasts and expansive hips. The explicit sexuality of these figurines invites interpretations relating to earthly and human fertility.

Source: The New York Times (30 November 2009)

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