John Noble Wilford has written a fascinating article in the Science section of the New York Times (its location in the paper is telling) about an exhibit currently on view at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Entitled “The Lost World of Old Europe: the Danube Valley, 5000-3500 B.C.,” the show includes more than 250 artifacts from museums in Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania. These treasures are being shown for the first time in the United States and will be on view through April 25.
This is the culture that was of particular interest to the legendary archaeologist, mythologist and anthropologist Marija Gimbutas. Two of her books have been on my shelves since they were first published—The Language of the Goddess (published in 1989) and The Civilization of the Goddess (from 1991). Introduced to her work by Stephanie Hobart and Deborah Rose, I was stunned by the exquisite images of artifacts that she included in her publications, the likes of which I had never seen before.
Why was this culture so relatively unexplored, particularly when compared to our knowledge of Sumerian, Egyptian and Prehistoric Greek cultures? Part of Gimbutas’ explanation for this was encapsulated in her strong statements about who these people were. She promulgated a view that the culture of Old Europe was matristric (woman-centered), a term she invented, and that its stories were lost when androcratic (male-centered) cultures invaded the region. Her theories were controversial when she first made her case, and the controversy continues even now, 15 years after her death.
That ongoing debate is referenced in Wilford’s review of the show as well:
An arresting set of 21 small female figurines, seated in a circle, was found at a pre-Cucuteni village site in northeastern Romania. “It is not difficult to imagine,” said Douglass W. Bailey of San Francisco State University, the Old Europe people “arranging sets of seated figurines into one or several groups of miniature activities, perhaps with the smaller figurines at the feet or even on the laps of the larger, seated ones.”
Others imagined the figurines as the “Council of Goddesses.” In her influential books three decades ago, Marija Gimbutas, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, offered these and other so-called Venus figurines as representatives of divinities in cults to a Mother Goddess that reigned in prehistoric Europe.
Although the late Dr. Gimbutas still has an ardent following, many scholars hew to more conservative, nondivine explanations. The power of the objects, Dr. Bailey said, was not in any specific reference to the divine, but in “a shared understanding of group identity.”
As Dr. Bailey wrote in the exhibition catalog, the figurines should perhaps be defined only in terms of their actual appearance: miniature, representational depictions of the human form. He thus “assumed (as is justified by our knowledge of human evolution) that the ability to make, use and understand symbolic objects such as figurines is an ability that is shared by all modern humans and thus is a capability that connects you, me, Neolithic men, women and children, and the Paleolithic painters in caves.”
Or else the “Thinker,” for instance, is the image of you, me, the archaeologists and historians confronted and perplexed by a “lost” culture in southeastern Europe that had quite a go with life back before a single word was written or a wheel turned.
Wherever you come out on the extrapolation of who these people were, the artifacts deserve much more attention than they have received previously. Hats off to NYU for mounting this exhibit.