Culture

How Vinča culture changed the way we think about the Stone Age

Ever since its first discovery in 1908 by the Serbian archaeologist Miloje Vasić, the so-called Vinča culture — a Neolithic community that spanned most of Serbia and parts of Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia, but named after a part of Belgrade where artifacts were originally discovered — has been of great interest to the lay public and scientists alike.

Last year, archaeologists led by Sanja Crnobrnja Krasić digging in Vitkovo in Serbia made an important discovery, a 6,000-year-old monumental figurine of the female form thought to represent a fertility goddess. The figure, dubbed Venus of Župa is the latest such figure to be found. Previously, three more complete “venus” figures were found along with a number of damaged ones.

This discovery made waves in the local media and rekindled an interest in the Vinča culture, a community of people living some 7,000 years ago that once discovered irrevocably changed the scientific and common understanding of life in the Stone Age.

For Dragan Janković, archaeologist and curator of the Belgrade City Museum at the Vinča site, there’s no overstating just how important the Vinča culture is.

“The sites of the Vinča culture have dramatically changed our views of that time [the Neolithic]. After the digs in Vinča it became clear that we all had a wrong notion of the people of those times,” he tells Emerging Europe.

Research and analysis of the artifacts and the settlements reveal a culture and a community of people that actually had a very advanced way of life, for the time. Remains of houses show traces of insulation against the elements and inside the houses, there were intricate multi-room layouts. Findings of decorative ceramic cups and sophisticated tools all speak to a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

The settlements themselves even had what we would call today public communal spaces. As the culture advanced, tiny villages developed into spatially organised blocks divided by streets and enclosed by ditches discovered at the Belo Brdo, Belovode, Oreškovica, Stubline, Gradac and Pločnik sites. These advancements represent the fist signs of proto-urban development in Europe.

The sheer number of objects found at the Vinča sites, coupled with the ease and skill with which they were fashioned is reminiscent of contemporary industrial production. Experiments with the thermic reactions of malachite show that in times of plenty the Vinča culture’s inquisitiveness made strides toward creating a modern civilisation like the one we know today.

Possibly the most interesting finding is the presence of copper objects and metallurgy which date from well before the Metal Ages began. Early copper metallurgy was confirmed in several sites, adding further proof of the advanced nature of the Vinča culture. Since they made metal objects, we know that the lifetime of the Vinča culture actually stretches from the late Neolithic age into the Chalcolithic age (also known as Eneolithic), a period still considered part of the broader Stone Age but in which humans began to use metal tools for the first time.

Copper chisels, axes, pendants, bracelets, and beads have become the new prestige goods. Although it does not seem so, this community had been changed, shifting from the Stone Age into the world of metals, and the idea of owning possessions was born.

According to Dr Vera Bogosavljević-Petrović, the curator of the Late Neolithic and Eneolithic collection at the National Museum of Serbia, the story of the Vinča culture and its people begins in mid-sixth millennium BC, when the second wave of migration came to the Balkans from the shores of Asia Minor.

“The first inhabitants slowly spread out in the territory [of the Balkans] and developed in their settlements new technological and spiritual advances based on the heritage they brought along with them,” she explains.

The achievements are not related to just technology and metalwork, as the Vinča culture was also very well connected to other areas of Europe.

“There is a wider flow of people and ideas in a larger geographic area. Obsidian from the Carpathian mountains, shells from the Aegean and Black seas, axes from the rare Alpine rock nephrite, and the salt trade is also confirmed,” Dr Petrović says about the flow of people and goods. This period of Vinča history shows trading connections with other parts of Europe as metal objects began to be exported from Vinča territory.

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Evidence exists to suggest a high level of complexity in Vinča society. There were people who specialised in the processing of a single kind of material and different settlements engaged in raw material and finished product exchanges.

But while a lot is generally known about the technologies used, the beliefs and mores of the people of the Vinča culture are still shrouded in mystery.

The National Museum of Serbia is home to many artifacts from the period, some dating back to when Vinča was first discovered (in 1908), but one of them is still the subject of much discussion. Lids in the shape of a human head were found, but their exact function remains unknown. Scientists are still debating if these objects had a utilitarian or a ritual use. It’s far from the only object archaeologists are uncertain about, but it does paint the picture of how little is known about some aspects of Vinča culture.

Funerary practices are also a matter of much debate, as only two necropolises were ever found. All of this has created an air of intrigue and generated much public interest, according to both Dr Petrović and Mr Janković.

“There is an increased interest among the public in Vinča, and that’s evidenced by an increased numbers of visits we have as well as an increase in foreign tourists visiting the site,” says Mr Janković.

In recent years, Dr Petrović explains, archaeological research has begun moving from the material to approach the actual, personal side of life of the people who made up these ancient cultures.

As such, there is a shift from the term culture into the term community. According to contemporary science, this better describes the importance of human activity.

The archaeological technology and methodology is becoming more advanced too, allowing researchers to find out much more than they were able to do before.

Techniques like absolute dating and wide spectrum forensic analysis are able to answer some more specific questions and shed light on both the technological processes used in a stone age community and the daily lives of the people.

The National Museum of Serbia is in possession of many items used in the everyday goings on in a typical Vinča settlement. Dishes, stone, bone and metal tools, figurines, measuring cups used in cooking, as well as jewellery and decorative architecture elements such as bucramiums (carvings of ox skulls on walls) and other wall decorations.

But even with this rich collection of objects, much remains to be discovered as scientists are still working on solving the mysteries of the Vinča community.

However, Dr Janković tells Emerging Europe that right now, preservation is much more important that new digs.

A significant threat to the archaeological sites is illegal digging, something that Mr Janković says has sadly been happening more and more. Illegal diggers can damage the sites irreparably, and they take artifacts that are part of global human heritage to sell to private collectors, thus depriving the public and scientists from access to these important objects.

“It’s better to preserve the site, for a future time and future generations that will be able to use new technologies to find out much more than we can today,” he says. “If we keep getting the same information [from a dig], then there is a question, why dig at all?”

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