The exhibition, titled "The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000 - 3500 BC," is not the product of new archaeological finds, but is a new interpretation of old artifacts and discoveries gathered from nearly two dozen museums in eastern Europe. The sites of this Neolithic, pre-Indo-European society were first unearthed in the 1930's, and they were originally thought to be disparate and unconnected settlements. In the 1970's and 80's, new discoveries and scholarship led to the conclusion that they were part of a cohesive civilization that stretched across southeastern Europe, one that was, in fact, highly sophisticated for its time.
The Old Europeans' contemporaries in the Middle East and East Asia are far better understood, but this exhibition provides some fascinating insight into the structure and culture of this society. The show is organized around thematic elements and materials used in their artwork, many of which highlight the connections between Old Europe and the rest of the ancient world. Stylized pregnant female figurines are similar to those found in Anatolia, and sea shells from the Aegean Sea used in jewelery show that they were part of a trade network extending from Turkey to the English Channel. More copper and gold artifacts have been discovered at these sites than anywhere else in Europe dated before 3500 BC, and their pottery designs are highly advanced for their time.
The exhibit also explores the important place of the built environment in Old European art. They made architectural models of their settlements (pictured at right), and, as one display notes, "The miniaturization of human figures and architectural structures indicates a complex relationship between the Old Europeans and the built spaces defining their communities." No evidence of palaces, temples, or other public buildings has been found at any excavations, suggesting that their lives revolved around domesticity, and these small figures could be arranged around the home to allow daily interaction with art and spirituality. Despite the absence of grand buildings, some settlements found in western Ukraine dating to 3500 BC contained 1,500 to 2,000 buildings, making them the largest cities on earth at the time.
So, what happened to this vibrant culture, which appears to have simply disappeared more than 5000 years ago? The arrival of Indo-European peoples from the Eurasian steppe may have caused their decline, but many communities persisted for centuries after these horse-riding nomads made their first appearance. So much remains unknown about Old Europe, but this unique exhibit offers a fascinating new imagining of this ancient culture.
The museum is open every day except Monday, from 11am to 6pm, and until 8pm on Friday. This exhibit runs through April 25, 2010.
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