+ A Lost European Culture: Pre Egypt and Greece and Writing

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From an article by John Noble Wilford in the NY Times, we learn that artifacts suggest that 5,000-year-old farming cultures in Old Europe reached surprising levels of social and political sophistication.

Farmers brought wheat, barley, sheep and cattle north from Greece and Macedonia beginning about 6200 BC.  They founded settlements that predated the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Before the glory of those civilizations, people living in the Lower Danube valley and the Balkan foothills were ahead of their time in art, technology and long-distance trade.

They farmed and built sizable towns, a few with as many as 2000 dwellings.

They perfected large-scale copper smelting, the new technology of the age.  An impressive array of exquisite headdresses and necklaces have been found in their graves.  In one cemetery appeared the earliest major assemblage of gold artifacts to be found anywhere in the world.

The pottery, with its striking designs, speaks of the refinement of the culture’s visual language.

Until recent discoveries, the most intriguing artifacts were the ubiquitous terracotta “goddess” figures, which were originally interpreted as evidence of the spiritual and political power of women in society.

But new research has brodened understanding of this long over-looked culture, say archaeologists and historians.  At last, these cultures seem to have approached the threshold of  “civilization” status.

Writing had not yet been invented, so no one knows what the people called themselves; scholars are calling the people and the region “Old Europe.”

Exhibit at NYU Until April 25, 2010

The Lost World of Old Europe: the Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC,” is rescuing this little known culture from obscurity.  It opened in November 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.

Says David W Anthony, the exhibition’s guest curator, “Old Europe was among the most sophisticated and technologically advanced places in the world.”  People were developing many of the technological and idealogical signs of civilization.

Dr Anthony is the author of “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern 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 BC.

Roger S Bagnall, director of the Institute, confesses that until now a great many archaeologists had not heard of these Old Europe cultures.  A specialist in Egyptian archaeology, Bagnall admires the colorful deramics on display and says “Egyptians were certainly not making pottery like this.”

Although excavations over the last century uncovered traces of ancient settlements and the goddess figurines, it wasn’t till local archaeologists in 1972 discovered a large fifth-millennium BC cemetery at Varna, Bulgaria that they began to suspect that these were not poor people living in unstructured egalitarian societies.

But confined  in cold war isolation behind the Iron Curtain, Bulgarians and Romanians were unable to spread their knowledge to the West.

Now the story emerges: pioneer farmers moved north into Old Europe from Greece and Macedonia after about 6200 Bc.  They brought wheat and barley seeds as well as domesticated cattle and sheep.  They established colonies along the Black Sea, and in the river plains and hills. 

These colonies evolved into related, but somewhat distinct, cultures which maintained close contact through networks of trade in copper and gold.  They also shared patterns of ceramics.

The Spondylus shell from the Aegean Sea was a special item of trade.  Perhaps the shells, used in pendants and bracelets, were symbols of their Aegean ancestors.

Other scholars view such long-distance acquisitions as being motivated in part by ideology in which goods are not commodities in the modern sense, but “valuables,” symbols of status and recognition.

Michel Louis Seferiades, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, notes the diffusion of these shell at this time.  He suspects “the objects were part of a halo of mysteries, an ensemble of beliefs and myths.”

Writes Dr Seferiades in the catalog, the prevalence of the shells suggest the culture had links to a “network of elaborate exchange systems — including bartering, gift exchanges and reciprocity.”

The people settled into villages over a wide area of what is now Bularia and Romania.  They created villages of single- and multiroom houses crowded inside palisades.

Some houses had two stories and were framed with wood.  They had clay-plaster walls and beaten-earth floors.  For some reason the people liked making fired clay models of multilevel dwellings, examples of which are exhibited.

A few towns of the apparently robust group now called Cucuteni,  came later.  In the north of Old Europe, this collection of towns grew to more than 800 acres.  Archeologists consider this the largest area of any human settlements of the time.

But excavations have yet to turn up definitive evidence of palaces, temples or large civic buildings.  Archaeologists have concluded that rituals of belief may have been practiced in the homes, where cultic artifacts have been found.

Household pottery is decorated in diverse, complex styles and suggest the practice of elaborate at-home dining rituals.  Huge serving bowls on stands were typical of the culture’s “socializing of food presentation.”

At first the absence of elite architecture led scholars to assume that Old Europe had little or no hierarchical power structure.  But the graves in the Varna cemetery dispelled that.

For two decades after 1972, archaeologists found 310 graves dated to about 4500 BC.  According to Dr Anthony, this was “the best evidence for the existence of a clearly distinct upper social and political rank.”

Vladimir Slavchev, a curator at the Varna Regional Museum of History, says the “richness and variety of the Varna grave gifts was a surprise.  Varna is the oldest cemetery yet found where humans were buried with golden ornaments.”

More than 3000 pieces of gold were found in 62 of the graves, along with copper weapons and tools, as well as ornaments, necklaces and bracelets of the prized Aegean shells.

“The concentration of imported prestige objects in a distinct minority of graves suggest that institutionalized higher ranks did exist,” notes a text panel accompanying the Varna gold.

But what is puzzling is that the people who wore these gold costumes in their public lives went home to very ordinary houses, according to Dr Anthony.

Copper, not gold, may have been the main source of Old Europe’s economic success, he feels. 

As copper smelting developed about 5400 BC, the Old Europe cultures tapped abundant ores in Bulgaria and what is now Serbia; they learned the high-heat technique of extracting pure metallic copper.

Smelted copper cast as axles, hammered into knife blades and bracelets must have been valuable exports.  Along the Volga River, 1200 miles east of Bulgaria, Old Europe copper pieces have been found in graves.  Archaeologists have recovered more than five tons of pieces from Old Europe sites.

An entire gallery is devoted to figurines, which have been found in virtually every Old Europe culture and in several contexts: in graves, house shrines, and in other possibly religious spaces.

All of this flourished before  Egypt — or Greece — or written language.

sole source:  John Noble Wilford’s article in the NY Times on 12/1/09. www.nytimes.com

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021  or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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