Art Review: Old Europe

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The Lost World
of Old Europe

By about 30,000 years ago, homo sapiens had driven Neanderthals to extinction, crowding them out of central Europe, driving them further and further south until they had nowhere else to go but gone.  Not long after that, humans were forced south too–by advancing glaciers from the north.

With the end of the last ice age, around 11,500 years ago, peoples inhabiting the Levant began a steady migration north and by 6,000 BCE had settled in southeast Europe along the Danube Valley stretching from what is now Serbia to Ukraine.  In the exhibition, The Lost World of Old Europe:  The Danube Valley, 5,000-3500 BC, at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, archeological treasures, mostly from Bulgaria, the Republic of Moldova, and Romania, tell the incomplete story of the various Neolithic cultures that thrived during these times.

Were they matriarchal Goddess worshipers?  A majority of unearthed figurines (the term for these small sculptures) depict women;  representations of men are rare.  A cache of 21 figurines with 13 chairs upon which the larger sculpted women can sit has been called, “The Council of the Goddess.”  If the two prongs on the back on one chair represent bull horns, then the grouping becomes a reference to a fertility cult.

In the exhibit, a descriptive caption elaborated on “the ubiquitous” sculptures of women nursing babies “in the Neolithic period…as evidence of a cult dedicated to a goddess of Birth and Nurturing and to rituals associated with the renewal of life.”  But not so fast, subsequent wall text cautions:  “the great variety of contexts in which [all types of female] figurines are found (burials, households, hoards, and sanctuaries) suggests that they might have assumed different social, cultural, and even religious connotations.”  This seems to strengthen rather than diminish the likelihood that the feminine was highly revered in these cultures, lending additional support to the idea these were matriarchal societies.

A stunning female figure from Hamangia (Romania) characterized a particular style.  Of fired clay, about 8″ tall, with protruding breasts, arms that run alongside the chest and across the belly, wide hips that taper into legs the shape of which echo the long, headless neck, the sculpture could easily have been used in rituals of fertility.  The long neck, a bit like a skewer, begged for a piece of fruit or bread to be stuck on it, which would have heightened its association with nurturing and fecundity.  But since the figures in “The Council of the Goddess” as well as some others had long necks with pinched clay noses and gouged out eyes, probably it was a stylistic quirk, akin to the Mannerism of a much later time.

Other arresting sculptures come from Cucuteni.  Armless with prominent shoulders, tapered waist, large hips and narrowing legs ending in small feet, they are wrapped by parallel scoring that emphasizes their shapes.  There is a simplicity and elegance about them.

Though many mysteries still remain about the uses of these figurines, as objects of art they stand on their own and are well worth seeing.

The Lost World of Old Europe:
The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC

Institute for the Study of the Ancient World
New York University

15 East 84th Street
New York, NY 10028