The project

In over 125 years of research, countless discoveries were made that are suitable for their interpretation as religious manifestations of the Cucuteni-Tripolye civilization. Over 30,000 anthropomorphic statuettes and figurines, anthropomorphic plastic or painted representations on pottery, a remarkable number of scale-models of sanctuaries and buildings that, because of their architecture and the presence of large anthropomorphic representations and peculiar topography, have been interpreted as sanctuaries. En ronde-bosse, bass-relief, plastically modeled and painted zoomorphic representations also amount to over 15,000 findings. Several ritual complexes, composed of statuettes and sacred artifacts, have been discovered in situ, affording interesting observations on the religious ideas and concepts of the Cucuteni-Tripolye populations.

The Cucuteni-Tripolye civilization offers a unique database for use in attempting a reconstruction of the religious ideas and beliefs from a part of the South-Eastern European Chalcolithic. It is known that the Cucuteni-Tripolyean artisans created an impressive number of masterpieces, particularly in ceramic painting, but also in plastic art. Our project seeks to identify the main religious ideas and beliefs of the Cucuteni-Tripolye people, and to capitalize the priceless artistic heritage of this civilization. We aim to publish several monographic studies and a synthesis work on the religious ideas and beliefs of the Cucuteni-Tripolye people.

Dan Monah, PhD — Project manager

Project presentation

During the last decades, the West has seen a rise in the interest for the prehistoric religions unveiled by archaeological discoveries. Although a Neolithic culture, dated to 5th-4th CAL millennium BC and possessing exceptional features has been identified in South-Eastern Europe, in which spectacular vestiges attesting a complex and well-structured religious life have been discovered, researchers from this region have, generally speaking, limited themselves to describing the findings and to advancing general, simplistic, interpretations. From this point of view, neither Cucuteni-Tripolye, the last great Chalcolithic civilization of South-Eastern Europe, has made an exception. Aside from a rather dated volume (Rybakov, 1965), scarcely any published papers have dealt with describing the discoveries or with certain particular aspects of the religious life of the so-called “Cucuteni-Tripolye Cultural Complex”, a syntagma which we preferred to replace with Cucuteni-Tripolye Civilization. We must express our view that the Cucuteni-Tripolye Civilization consists of the Pre-Cucuteni, Cucuteni and Tripolye archaeological cultures, an opinion agreed upon by other scholars. Due to the haphazard research conducted by Romanian archaeologists, the Pre-Cucuteni and Cucuteni cultures were separated despite the fact that it is the same population which, at a certain moment of their evolution, adopted a new technique for ceramic decoration, i.e. painting the ceramic prior to its burning. The necessity for including the Pre-Cucuteni archaeological culture into the Cucuteni civilization is warranted by the latest research, even though the traditional naming is preferred as to avoid chronological confusions. The Cucuteni and Tripolye archaeological cultures share numerous traits, but important differences also exist due to the particular Neolithic substrate on which they developed. With respect to religion, we notice an exceptional unity derived from the intense human and cultural movement across the entire Cucuteni-Tripolye area. For this reason, we can speak of ideas, beliefs and rituals congruent in both of these cultural areas. Recently, more interest has been expressed towards the spectacular Cucuteni decorative art, with countless masterpieces and ceramic pieces exhibited across Western Europe and the United States (Mantu et al., 1997; Wullschleger et al., 2008 ; Stratulat et al., 2008 ; Mares, 2009, Anthony, 2010). Nonetheless, the Cucuteni-Tripolye artistic phenomenon also lacks an in-depth volume covering the topic, as the exhibition catalogues err in simplistic explanations of the pieces depicted. We consider necessary the publishing of a synthesis work on the Cucuteni-Tripolye art, in which this phenomenon unique in European prehistory is thoroughly analyzed, and the observed differences between these two cultural areas are also equally highlighted. Western researchers have long noted the crucial position played by the Cucuteni culture in reconstructing, as much as it is possible based on archaeological evidence, the spiritual universe of the South-Eastern European Neolithic. The famous American scholar Marija Gimbutas wrote: “Cucuteni is one of the best explored and richest cultures of Old Europe, a true civilization in the best meaning of the word” (Gimbutas, 1991, p. 101). Marija Gimbutas was the first researchers who, in her own interpretation, laid stress on the discoveries belonging to the Cucuteni-Tripolye civilization (Gimbutas, 1982, 1989, 1991). Another Anglo-American researcher, D.W. Beiley, dedicated a chapter of his book to analyzing the Cucuteni-Tripolye anthropomorphic plastic art (Beiley, 2005, p. 88-121). Other western researchers have likewise used in their published works images of sacred artifacts from the Cucuteni-Tripolye civilization. Unfortunately, as they are far from the collections they cite and are also unfamiliar with the languages in which the collections are published, they commit frequent errors and often distort the original interpretation (cf. Chapman, 2000, p .71-76, 108-112; Wullschleger et all., 2008, p. 129; Anthony, 2010, p. 120).  The discoveries with clear religious character are quite few even in the Cucuteni-Tripolye area, and if their presentation in widely circulated publications is erroneous, then it follows that the interpretations subsequently advanced are also spurious.

Researchers working inside the Cucuteni-Tripolye area have produced, besides several precise papers, two monograph on the Tripolyean anthropomorphic (Pogoževa, 1983) and zoomorphic plastic art (Balabina, 1998). Although the last work has in its title the « Kukuteni-Tripol’ja » syntagma, discoveries from Cucuteni area are seldom presented, and the work is limited to a repertoire of statuettes and figurines found in Tripolye areal. As for the religious interpretation of the discoveries published in the aforementioned monographs, both only go as far as to assert the existence of a fertility cult, that is to say, extremely reduced inferences considering the sheer amount of information offered by archaeological database of the Cucuteni-Tripolye civilization. Romanian historiography contains many publications presenting discoveries suitable for being interpreted as religious manifestations: sanctuaries, some with anthropomorphic representations measuring over one meter in height, over 30,000 anthropomorphic representations (statuettes, figurines, anthropomorphic vessels, vessels with anthropomorphic motifs fashioned using the ronde-bosse, alto-reliefo, incised or painted techniques). Many of these discoveries were previously presented and analyzed in a volume (Monah, 1997) which we intend to update and to also publish in English. In the mentioned volume and in other papers we attempted to evince the dual character of the Cucuteni-Tripolyean religion based on the coincidentia oppositorum paradigm. Independent of Marija Gimbutas, we attempted to identify the major religious themes of the Cucuteni-Tripolye civilization, as reflected by the archaeological discoveries. The female divinity, whom we conventionally christened “the Great Goddess”, has features obviously corresponding to the “Great Mother” deity of life and death, possessing antagonistic attributes which combine and give birth to various hypostases of the goddess. She is a deity specific to agricultural communities originating from the Middle East. In other hypostases, the “Great Goddess” is the mistress of the animals (Potnia Theron) or is part of a divine couple: the heavenly marriage (“hieros gamos”) either with males, androgynies or with the bull. The “Great Goddess” has also been identified as kourotróphos, the protecting and “nursing” mother. Particularly important is the identification of an androgynous deity and the foreshadowing of the Demeter and Koré couple. In comparison to the material available to P. Lévêque ( Lévêque, 1972), on which he asserted the existence of a Neolithic substrate of oriental origin that disarticulated the Indo-European structure of the Greek religion, we possess numerous telling representations discovered during the last decades of archaeological fieldwork.  It is certain that during the 1200 years of existence, the Cucuteni-Tripolye civilization witnessed an evolution of religious beliefs and ideas. It was possible for some of these transformations to be discerned. For the Pre-Cucuteni-Tripolye A culture, the several religious complexes unearthed are extremely unitary: Poduri-Dealul Ghindaru (21 female statuettes and 13 thrones), Isaiia-Balta Popii (21 female statuettes and 13 thrones plus a number of other sacred artifacts), Sabatinovka II (34 female statuettes and a number of thrones). These complexes, discovered in-situ, were considered to depict a part of the pantheon of the Pre-Cucuteni-Tripolye A tribes. It would appear that once a new decorative technique was adopted – painting the ceramic prior to its burning – and which signaled the start of the Cucuteni-Tripolye B culture, a series of mutations also occur in the religious domain, mutations which we intend to ascertain. Much more obvious is the religious reform which occurred at the end of the Cucuteni A phase and the beginning of the Cucuteni A-B phase, when the type of anthropomorphic statuettes changes and the first cosmogenic representations and worship complexes appear. We propose to scrutinize these important aspects. Towards the end of the civilization, elements characteristic of the steppe populations which adjoined to eastern fringes of the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture are signaled, and to this aspect we will devote special attention.

Currently, two basic tendencies are taking shape, particularly in interpreting the anthropomorphic statuettes and the figurines. The first tendency, somewhat traditional, considers the anthropomorphic representations fashioned en ronde-basse, plastically modeled, incised or painted as depicting supernatural beings belonging to the pantheon of the Cucuteni-Tripolye populations. Mostly Eastern-European researchers espouse this approach, but also Marija Gimbutas who nonetheless conceives a Neolithic pantheon based on the impressions the analyzed representations suggest to her, an arguably contentious method despite the fact that the conclusions are sometimes upheld by analogies from ancient written testimonies (Gimbutas, 1982; Gimbutas, 1989; Gimbutas, 1991). The second hypothesis, articulated during these last years by western scholars (Beiley, 2005; Beiley, 2010), posits that the anthropomorphic statuettes and figurines are the result of their creators’ desire to portray, that they are votive offerings, toys (dolls) or even specific depictions of divinities. Although the last hypothesis, based only on the analysis of the statuettes called figurines, does not appeal to us, we nevertheless intend to analyze it without bias and to attempt to understand as possible the worldview of the Cucuteni-Tripolye people. We must also stress the fact that the interpretation of the figurines as toys (dolls) has long been expressed by amateur Russian archaeologists from the beginning of the 20th century, and it was abandoned only to be resurrected – in a post-modern touch – by some western archaeologists. In any case, both of the interpretations will enjoy from our part an unbiased and objective analysis based on archaeological facts.

Our projects seeks to investigate the religious manifestations of the Cucuteni-Tripolye civilization in its entirety: buildings used in religious ceremonies (sanctuaries), anthropomorphic and zoomorphic plastic representations, painted and plastered representations, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic vessels, rites employed in the buildings’ construction, ritual pits and deposits, handling of human and animal skeletal fragments. Neither the problem of the total absence of necropolises will be ignored, but will be examined in the context of contemporary cultural areas.  In short, we will attempt to identify, as much as the archaeological material allows us to, the religious ideas and beliefs of the Cucuteni-Tripolye tribes. We understand that archaeology has its limits which we must know and respect. We are aware of the fact that we will never be able to fully reconstruct the mythology and nomenclature of the illiterate populations and we shall never invent mythologies or names of deities.  Notwithstanding this, even if the Cucuteni-Tripolyean myths are irremediably lost, their traces have lingered in ancient mythologies and folk beliefs. To not capitalize on this fact would mean to abandon a considerable portion of our history and heritage.


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