Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fascinating

Now comes ‘Old Europe’. The Oxford exhibition is small, but utterly spectacular. Its objects – the figurines, the painted ceramics – are irresistible. Its message adds a new page to the conventional history of ‘civilisation’. Some 7000 years ago, in south-eastern Europe around the lower Danube, groups of farmers with loosely similar ways of life settled in an area reaching from modern Bulgaria and Romania across into Ukraine. In the transitional period between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, they flourished and multiplied. They evolved an elaborately beautiful material culture of painted pottery, goldwork and beads. They modelled and treasured clay figurines of women – and a few men. They mined copper and gold, and imported fashionable seashells from the distant Aegean. They seem to have lived in peace and equality. Before the first big cities arose in Mesopotamia, the peoples settled between the Carpathians and the Dnieper (heftily named the ‘Cucuteni-Tripolye culture’) lived in enormous ‘villages’ with up to 8000 inhabitants. These were the largest communities anywhere in the world. But such ‘megatowns’ show no trace of palaces or temples or other structures of central authority. If this ‘Old Europe’ had survived and spread westwards and northwards, the human story of the whole continent might have developed along a different track – perhaps a happier one.

But it did not survive. ‘Old Europe’ became a ‘Lost World’. Between 4000 and 3000 BC, invaders rode in from the eastern steppes, mobile warriors who used horses and who were pastoral herders rather than farmers. The mounds (‘tells’) inhabited for thousands of years were deserted and the ‘megatowns’ burned down. The copper mines were abandoned and the wonderful pottery and figurines forgotten. So much for theories of inevitable, linear progress. In Europa’s family tree, there is a sawn-off branch.

Archaeologists have known about ‘Old Europe’ for a long time. At first, they studied the pottery and the statuettes, and classified them into ‘cultures’. But it took them longer to move on from the objects and to grasp the extraordinary nature of the society that produced them, to understand this immensely remote ‘false dawn’ of authentic European civilisation. The Cold War isolation of the countries where it all happened – Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine – has meant that until now the general public has never seen this material.

The figurines are the stars of the show. Almost all of them are the stylised bodies of women, their legs squeezed tightly together, their heads often represented by a blank knob, their thighs and sometimes torsos incised with swirly patterns which seem to represent clothing. In some of the sets of Cucuteni figurines, the women are sitting in a circle on tiny chairs. At another site, they were found arranged inside a curious bowl which may represent a building. They seem to be holding a meeting.

What are they up to, and what is going on? The late Marija Gimbutas, who introduced the ‘Old Europe’ term, was sure she knew. They were mother goddesses, worshipped in a peace-loving society run by women. Reaching into her own background in Lithuania, the last pagan country in Europe, she identified a White Goddess of Death and all the deities of a maternal fertility cult. According to Gimbutas, this ancient matriarchy was finally overthrown by an invasion of primitives from the Black Sea steppes, horse-riding tribes dominated by male warriors. Agriculture, the earth-loving mode of life practised by women who controlled fertility in a society without hierarchy, was replaced by the male activities of stock-breeding, raiding and battle under dominant warlords.

Gimbutas, a professor of archaeology at UCLA, became wildly popular with the American womens’ movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Her books (starting with The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe in 1974) inspired feminists and neo-pagans throughout the world. But other archaeologists backed away. They found her conclusions arbitrary, her associations with other cults far-fetched, her selection of evidence wilful. Where was the proof that these societies were controlled by women? Why should the figurines be goddesses worshipped in some Greek-style pantheon, rather than something humbler? Peter Ucko, the late director of the Institute of Archaeology at UCL, thought that the statuettes were probably just toys or dolls. The American scholar Douglass Bailey, writing in the exhibition catalogue, finds them intensely moving, but guesses that making them mattered more than using them. Experiments have shown that fashioning or handling tiny representations of reality slows up the sense of time passing and sharpens perception. So the women (and men?) who modelled these figurines were finding a way to stand outside themselves, to study their own membership of their community.

Wandering from one showcase to another, I noticed that a fair minority of the figurines are in fact male. Unlike the women, they are naked except for a girdle and sometimes a shoulder holster, perhaps for a dagger. They sprawl on their chairs with their legs apart, showing what they’ve got. And yet the fact that the men are a minority among regal women – this is far more suggestive than if they were not there at all. Tolerated, but not in charge? Maybe Gimbutas had something after all.

From the London Review of Books (h/t Chris Floyd).

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