Feature Articles – Old Europe
Before Sumer, Crete or the Maltese civilisation, there was “Old Europe”, or the Vinca culture… a forgotten, rather than lost civilisation that lies at the true origin of most of our ancient civilisations.
by Philip Coppens
There are lost civilisations, and then there are forgotten civilisations. From the 6th to the 3rd millennium BC, the so-called “Vinca culture” stretched for hundreds of miles along the river Danube, in what is now Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia, with traces all around the Balkans, parts of Central Europe and Asia Minor, and even Western Europe.
Few, if any, have heard of this culture, though they have seen some of their artefacts. They are the infamous statues found in Sumer, where authors such as Zecharia Sitchin have labelled them as “extra-terrestrial”, seeing that the shapes of these beings can hardly be classified as typically human. So why was it that few have seen (or were aware of) their true origin? The person largely responsible for the isolation of the Vinca culture was the great authority on late prehistoric Europe, Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957). He was a synthesiser of various archaeological discoveries and tried to create an all-encompassing framework, creating such terms as “Neolithic Revolution” and “Urban Revolution”. In his synthesis, he perceived the Vinca culture as an outlying cultural entity influenced by more “civilised” forces. His dogmatic stance and clout meant that the Vinca culture received only scant attention. Originally, interest in the signs found on pottery had created interest in some academic circles, but that now faded following Childe’s “papal bull”.
Interest was rekindled in the 1960s (following the death of Childe), largely due to a new discovery made in 1961 by Dr. N. Vlassa, while excavating the Transylvanian site of Tartaria, part of Vinca culture. Amongst various artefacts recovered were three clay tablets, which he had analysed with the then newly introduced radiocarbon dating methodology. The artefacts came back as ca. 4000 BC and were used by the new methodology’s detractors to argue that radio carbon-dating was obviously erroneous. How could it be “that” old? Traditionally, the Sumerian site of Uruk had been dated to 3500-3200 BC. Vlassa’s discovery was initially (before the carbon dating results) further confirmation that the “Vinca Culture” had strong parallels with Sumer. Everyone agreed that the Sumerians had influenced Vinca Culture (and the site of Tartaria), which had therefore been assigned a date of 2900-2600 BC (by the traditional, comparative methodology, which relied on archaeologists’ logic, rather than hard scientific evidence). Sinclair Hood suggested that Sumerian prospectors had been drawn by the gold-bearing deposits in the Transylvanian region, resulting in these off-shoot cultures.
But if the carbon dating results were correct, then Tartaria was 4000 BC, which meant that the Vinca Culture was older than Sumer, or Sumer was at least a millennium older than what archaeologists had so far assumed. Either way, archaeology would be in a complete state of disarray and either some or all archaeologists would be wrong. Voila, the reason as to why radio carbon dating was attacked, rather than merely revising erroneous timelines and opinions. There is no debate about it: the artefacts from the Vinca culture and Sumer are very much alike. And it is just not some pottery and artefacts: they share a script that seems highly identical too. In fact, the little interest that had been shown in the Vinca culture before the 1960s all revolved around their script. Vlassa’s discovery only seemed to confirm this conclusion, as he too immediately stated that the writing had to be influenced by the Near East. Everyone, including Sinclair Hood and Adam Falkenstein, agreed that the two scripts were related and Hood also saw a link with Crete. Finally, the Hungarian scholar Janos Makkay stated that the “Mesopotamian origin [of the Tartaria pictographs] is beyond doubt.” It seemed done and dusted.
But when the Vinca Culture suddenly predated Sumer, this thesis could no longer be maintained (as it would break the archaeological framework, largely put in place by Childe and his peers), and thus, today, the status is that both scripts developed independently. Of course, we should wonder whether this is just another attempt to save reputations and whether in the following decades, the stance will finally be reversed, which would mean that the Vinca Culture is actually at the origin of the Sumerian civilisation… a suggestion we will return to shortly. But what is the Vinca Culture? In 1908, the largest prehistoric and most comprehensively excavated Neolithic settlement in Europe was discovered in the village of Vinca, just 14 km downstream from the Serbian capital Belgrade, on the shores of the Danube. The discovery was made by a team led by Miloje M. Vasic, the first schooled archaeologist in Serbia.
Vinca was excavated between 1918 and 1934 and was revealed as a civilisation in its own right: a forgotten civilisation, which Marija Gimbutas would later call “Old Europe”. Indeed, as early as the 6th millennium BC, three millennia before Dynastic Egypt, the Vinca culture was already a genuine civilisation. Yes, it was a civilisation: a typical town consisted of houses with complex architectural layouts and several rooms, built of wood that was covered in mud. The houses sat along streets, thus making Vinca the first urban settlement in Europe, but equally being older than the cities of Mesopotamia and Egypt. And the town of Vinca itself was just one of several metropolises, with others at Divostin, Potporanj, Selevac, Plocnik and Predionica. Maria Gimbutas concluded that “in the 5th and early 4th millennia BC, just before its demise in east-central Europe, Old Europeans had towns with a considerable concentration of population, temples several stories high, a sacred script, spacious houses of four or five rooms, professional ceramicists, weavers, copper and gold metallurgists, and other artisans producing a range of sophisticated goods. A flourishing network of trade routes existed that circulated items such as obsidian, shells, marble, copper, and salt over hundreds of kilometres.”
Everything about “Old Europe” is indeed older than anything else in Europe or the Near East. To return to their script. Gimbutas had a go at trying to translate it and called it the “language of the goddess”. She based her work on that of Shan Winn, who had completed the largest catalogue of Vinca signs to date. He narrowed the number of signs down to 210, stating that most of the signs were composed of straight lines and were rectilinear in shape. Only a minority had curved lines, which was perhaps due to the difficulty of curved carving on the clay surface. In a final synthesis, he concluded that all Vinca signs were found to be constructed out of five core signs:
– a straight line;
– two lines that intersect at the centre;
– two lines that intersect at one end;
– a dot;
– a curved line. Winn however did not consider this script to be writing, as even the most complex examples were not “texts”; he thus labelled them “pre-writing”, though Gimbutas would later claim they were indeed “writing”. Still, everyone is in agreement that the culture did not have texts as that which was written was too short in length to be a story, or an account of a historical event. So what was it?
In Sumer, the development of writing has been pinned down as a result from economical factors that required “record keeping”. For the Vinca Culture, the origin of the signs is accepted as having been derived from religious rather than material concerns. In short, the longest groups of signs are thus considered to be a kind of magical formulae. The Vinca Culture was also millennia ahead of the status quo on mining. At the time, mining was thought not to predate 4000 BC, though in recent years, examples of as far back as 70,000 years ago have been discovered. The copper mine at Rudna Glava, 140 km east of Belgrade, is at least 7000 years old and had vertical shafts going as deep as twenty metres and at the time of its discovery was again extremely controversial.
Further insights into “Old Europe” came about in November 2007, when it was announced that excavations at an ancient settlement in southern Serbia had revealed the presence of a furnace, used for melting metal. The furnace had tools in it: a copper chisel and a two-headed hammer and axe. Most importantly, several of the metal objects that were made here, were recovered from the site.
The excavation also uncovered a series of statues. Archaeologist Julka Kuzmanovic-Cvetkovic observed that “according to the figurines we found, young women were beautifully dressed, like today’s girls in short tops and mini skirts, and wore bracelets around their arms.”
The unnamed tribe who lived between 5400 and 4700 BC in the 120-hectare site at what is now Plocnik knew about trade, handcrafts, art and metallurgy. The excavation also provided further insights into Old Europe: for example, near the settlement, a thermal well might be evidence of Europe’s oldest spa. Houses had stoves and there were special holes for trash, while the dead were buried in a tidy necropolis. People slept on woollen mats and fur, made clothes of wool, flax and leather, and kept animals. The community was also especially fond of children: artefacts that were recovered included toys such as animals and rattles of clay, and small, clumsily crafted pots apparently made by children at playtime.
It is but two examples that underline that Old Europe was a civilisation millennia ahead of its neighbours. And Old Europe is a forgotten culture, as Richard Rudgeley has argued: “Old Europe was the precursor of many later cultural developments and […] the ancestral civilisation, rather than being lost beneath the waves through some cataclysmic geological event, was lost beneath the waves of invading tribes from the east.” Indeed, Rudgeley argued that when confronted with the “sudden arrival” of civilisation in Sumer or elsewhere, we should not look towards extra-terrestrial civilisation, nor Atlantis, but instead to “Old Europe”, a civilisation which the world seems intent on disregarding… and we can only wonder why.
“Civilisation” in Sumer was defined as the cultivation of crops and domestication of animals, with humans living a largely sedentary life, mostly in village or towns, with a type of central authority. With that definition of civilisation, it is clear that it did not begin in Sumer, but in Old Europe. Old Europe was a Neolithic civilisation, living of agriculture and the breeding of domestic animals. The most frequent domestic animals were cattle, although smaller goats, sheep and pigs were also bred. They also cultivated the most fertile prehistoric grain species. There was even a merchant economy: a surplus of products led to the development of trade with neighbouring regions, which supplied salt, obsidian or ornamental shells.
In fact, they were not actually a “Neolithic civilisation” – they were even further ahead of the times: in the region of Eastern Serbia, at Bele Vode and (the already discussed) Rudna Glava, in crevices and natural caves, the settlers of Vinca came in contact with copper ore which they began fashioning with fire, initially only for ornamental objects (beads and bracelets). They were more “Bronze Age” than “Stone Age”… this at a time when the rest of Europe and the Near East was not even a “Stone Age civilisation”. One scholar, the already cited Marija Gimbutas, has highlighted the importance of Old Europe. So much so, that many consider her to have gone too far. She interpreted Old Europe as a civilisation of the Goddess, a concept which has taken on a life of its own in the modern New Age industry, extending far beyond anything Gimbutas herself could ever have imagined. Bernard Wailes stated how Gimbutas was “immensely knowledgeable but not very good in critical analysis… She amasses all the data and then leaps to conclusions without any intervening argument… Most of us tend to say, oh my God, here goes Marija again”. But everyone agrees that her groundwork is solid, and it is from that which we build.
Gimbutas dated the civilisation of Old Europe from 6500 to 3500-3200 BC. It was at that time that the area was overrun by invading Indo-Europeans. The local population could do two things: remain and be ruled by new masters, or migrate, in search of new lands. It appears that the people of Old Europe did both: some went in search of a haven to the south, on the shores of the Aegean Sea, and beyond. Harald Haarmann has identified them as being responsible for the rise of the so-called Cycladic culture, as well as Crete, where the new settlers arrived around 3200 BC.
For Gimbutas, the difference between Old Europe and Indo-Europe was more than just one people invading another. It was the difference between a goddess-centred and matriarchal and the Bronze Age Indo-European patriarchal cultural elements. According to her interpretations, Old Europe was peaceful, they honoured homosexuals and they espoused economic equality. The Indo-Europeans were warmongering males. And it’s that conclusion with which many have great difficulty, for nothing is ever as distinct as that. Today, artefacts of the Vinca culture grace the display cabinets of several museums, for they are magnificent ceramics – of an artistic and technological level which would not be equalled by other cultures for several millennia. It is believed that their writing originated out of sacred writing. Like Crete, they were a peaceful nation; Crete’s palaces had no defensive qualities.
The recovered artefacts of the Vinca culture equally show they had a profound spiritual life. The cult objects include figurines, sacrificial dishes, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic dishes. When we note that their number (over 1000 examples at Vinca alone) exceeds the total number of figurines discovered in the region of the Greek Aegean, we can only wonder why Old Europe is not better known today.
Life was represented on these objects as embodying the cycle of birth and death of Nature, along with the desire of man to get Nature’s sympathy or to mollify it in the interest of survival. Shrines were discovered in Transylvania with complex architectural designs, indicating the involvedness of the rituals which were conducted in them. It may not have been a matriarchal, Goddess worshipping civilisation, but it was definitely a complex and established religious framework. Though nothing suggests it was a Goddess cult.
The same mistake has been made in Malta, where for generations certain statues were interpreted as “Mother Goddess” statues, whereas alternative thinkers as Joseph Ellul pointed out that there was nothing specifically feminine about these statues; that they showed a deity, but that it could equally be male or female. Recently, Ellul’s point of view has become shared by other experts on Malta, such as Dr. Caroline Malone, who argued that the theory that the Maltese temples were erected as part of a goddess-worshipping culture is no longer valid. In her opinion, Maltese prehistoric society was a relatively stable, agricultural community, living on an intense and densely populated island, which celebrated cyclical cycles of life, rites of passage, transitions between different stages of life, from separation to reintegration, fertility, ancestors, all of this within a cosmological context… and very much like Old Europe. Around 3200 BC, the culture of Old Europe migrated, to the Aegean Sea and to Crete. Today, they are considered to be the origin of the Minoan civilisation, though it is a dimension that few Minoan scholars have included in their writing, instead largely opting to see Crete as yet another “stand alone” civilisation. Gimbutas stated that: “the civilisation that flourished in Old Europe between 6500 and 3500 BC and in Crete until 1450 BC enjoyed a long period of uninterrupted peaceful living.” Motifs such as the snake, intertwined with the bird goddess motif, the bee and the butterfly, with the distinctive motif of the double axe, are found both in Old Europe and Crete. But the best evidence is in the writing of Old Europe and the Linear A script of Crete, which are to all intents and purposes identical.
But it is equally clear that contacts between Sumer and Old Europe existed at the time of the Ubaid culture, in Eridu – the site which inspired Sitchin so greatly in his formulation of the Annunaki theory and his identification of these statues as “Nephilim”. The Ubaid culture is ca. 4500 BC and though we should perhaps not go as far as concluding that Sumer was a child of Old Europe, the two cultures obviously knew each other. Indeed, in recent years, Old European artefacts were even discovered in Southeastern France, suggesting that the civilisation of Old Europe travelled not merely to the East, but also to the West. Perhaps we should even consider them to be at the origin of the megalithic civilisation? But no-one, it seems, has dared to topple that stone yet.