Trypillian towns 7,000 years old
Nadiya Dovzhenko, a historian, tells an amazing
of the discovery of the most ancient “towns” in Europe.
The village of Trypillia in Ukraine is one of many
thousands, but for over a hundred years it has been in the focus of
attention of archeologists, and not only Ukrainian. The village gave the
name to ancient settlements — or rather an ancient culture — the
first of which was discovered in the village’s vicinity. The more we learn
about the Trypillia culture, the more mysterious this culture begins to
look, and some historians even compare it to the mythical Atlantis.
The end of the 19th century was the time when great
archeological discoveries were made — Schliemann discovered Troy,
Evans revealed the Knossos Palace in Crete to the world; long-forgotten
civilizations of the Middle and Near East, and East Mediterranean about
whose existence was known only from the writings of ancient historians, or
even not known altogether, began to be brought into the history books
thanks to the untiring efforts of archeologists and history enthusiasts.
Eastern Europe seemed, for some time, to have contributed but little to
the development of European civilization in the “prehistoric” times.
But in the year 1893 a discovery was made that was to change
the historians’ view on the progress of civilization in Eastern Europe, or
in fact, in the whole of Europe — a Ukrainian archeologist, V.
Khvoyka, who later became one of the founders of the National History
Museum of Ukraine, found in an archeological dig remnants of big-sized
adobes, shards of ornamented earthenware, statuettes representing women
and copper weapons which definitely dated to the times much more ancient
that had been previously thought possible. The finds showed that millennia
ago the people who lived in this territory tilled the land, knew
handicrafts and had some kind of religious beliefs.
A little later, another discovery, this time in the vicinity
of the village of Trypillia, not far from Kyiv, showed that big
settlements, in fact prototowns, existed in Eastern Europe long before any
similar settlements came into being in the rest of Europe. The name Trypillia
was given to a culture (in English tradition: Cucuteni-Tripolye
culture) that existed about three thousand years before the Common Era and
that spread over a vast territory of what is now Ukraine — and
beyond. Further discoveries made in Moldova and Eastern Rumania showed
that the Trypillia civilization stretched over a very large territory and
was a phenomenon of all-European importance.
After the initial discoveries of the nineteenth century, a
further line of research was suggested by aerial photographs taken when
new detailed maps of the forest and steppe areas of Ukraine in the land of
Kyivshchyna and elsewhere in Ukraine were being made. The photographs
showed spots on the ground with traces of what might have been ancient
Archeological excavations proved it was a correct
guess — what was discovered amounted not just to individual albeit
very big houses but rather to what could be called “prehistoric towns.”
These “towns” in Maydanetsky, Dobrovody, Talyanky and
Zhvanets had a definite structure like any town, with buildings placed in
concentric circles, or forming squares, or parallel lines, or groups.
The size of these settlements is one of the things that
impresses you most — some of them cover from 150 to 450 hectares
(there are 2.5 acres in a hectare). The geography of these “Trypillia”
settlements is very wide — from the Dnipro River to the Bug River.
Similar sites were found in Moldova as well.
Some of the buildings were truly immense — from 300 to
600 meters long, with many rooms. The walls and ceilings were decorated
with black and red patterns. The clay beds and other features of the
interior were decorated with intricate designs in bright colours.
Some of the clay statuettes found in the archeological
excavations must have been representations of the people who lived in
these huge buildings of the prehistoric towns. The male faces are
elongated, deep-set eyes, with prominent noses. So far, not a single
statuette representing a woman has been found without a sort of a mask on
the face and it is one of the mysteries of the Trypillia culture. The
number of male statuettes is very small compared to the great profusion of
female statuettes unearthed in the Trypillia settlements — and in all
of them the featureless oval of the face or a mask is all we can see. Most
of the female statuettes are graceful, long-legged, some are naked, some
are garbed in what looks like festive clothes. The reason why they are
“faceless” is not clear but it must be connected with some kind of a
ritual. A closer study revealed that the “masks” carried representations
of sheep, swine, lizards, turtles, snakes and birds — cocks, hens,
ducks, storks, hawks and other birds of prey. Why was the face covered
when the body was revealed? The close examination of the statuettes showed
that the women’s bodies were tattooed in several places, the stomach and
the back being the most covered with tattoos. The most popular ornamental
designs were spirals, rhombs, meanders — and the Tree of Life. Some
of the statuettes still carry signs of black and red colours which
indicated details of the clothing. The most popular garment seems to have
been the skirt of various lengths with fringes at the hem; aprons were
The later stages in the development of the Trypillia culture
reveal a change in the style of dress — women must have begun wearing
dresses tightly clinging to their bodies; and probably even something like
“hot pants.” These close-fitting garments were lavishly decorated with
spirals and meanders. The statuettes and pictures on the vases indicate
that women also wore high boots, red in colour.
The hair was worn in various styles. The representations on
the earthen ware and vases show that women’s hair was made either in a
sort of the pinned-up, bun style, or was plaited in two braids which were
arranged like crowns on their heads. However, the short or combed back
styles predominate, with fancier styles probably reserved for some special
It is known that the Trypillia people bred cattle, pigs and
horses, and grew wheat, barley and vegetables. Paleobotanists discovered
that the Trypillia people had orchards providing them with fruit. The
first cheery trees in the territory of Ukraine were cultivated by the
Trypillians. Their agriculture was well advanced for their time and they
used ploughs to till the land.
The Trypillia people used the potter’s wheel and ovens to
bake the pottery in. In the village of Vesely Kut (Cheerful Corner —
a nice, cheerful indeed name for a village!), remnants of quite
sophisticated ovens dating to the Trypillia culture were found. The
pottery was of many kinds and many styles, decorated in at least 20
different manners. In the Trypillia settlement of Nebelivka, close to
Maydanetsky, the archeologists unearthed what may be regarded as the most
ancient set of ceramics in Central and Eastern Europe, with plates, bowls
and cups decorated in a similar manner to make them distinctly belonging
to one set.
The Trypillia “metallurgists” knew alloys, the ones of
copper and silver included. In one of the caches, unearthed millennia
after it was hidden, 552 objects made of metal were discovered. At the
later stages of the Trypillia culture development, fortifications began to
be built around the “towns” — earthen walls, stockades and moats. The
Trypillia people defended themselves against raids of the more aggressive
neighbours engaged in animal husbandry and against the nomads. The
archeologists, geophysicists and paleobotanists engaged in the study of
the Trypillia culture have discovered that at the latest stages of
development of this culture, the ecological situation worsened and it
could have been one of the factors that caused the decline and eventual
downfall of the Trypillia civilization. But the actual reasons for the
disintegration of the Trypillia culture are not yet known.
It is known though that the tribes that later formed the
Trypillia culture must have migrated from the territories of what today
are Rumania and Hungary, and settled in the territory of the present-day
Ukraine in about the sixth millennium BC. We have no clear evidence as to
what language they spoke.
The Trypillia culture passed through three distinctive
phases of development which have been called Stage A, Stage B and Stage C.
At Stage A, the Trypillia dwellings were relatively small, some were dug
in the ground. At Stage B, the size of the settlements expanded and the
houses grew in size, with some having two floors and many rooms. The Trypillia
people knew many handicrafts, including weaving and knitting. At
Stage C, the Trypillia people began making sophisticated earthedware but
at the same time they started making weapons, both metal and stone. Their
religion and cults dealt, in all evidence, with such issues as cosmogony
and afterlife. Among the more developed cults were those of Mother Earth,
Cult of the Bull, and that of the Fire. The artifacts found in the
archeological excavations suggest that the Trypillia people maintained
trade with other tribes of Central and Eastern Europe, or may be even
spread even further.
At the moment we have more questions about the Trypillia culture than answers — but the search goes on and who knows what the
next revolutionary discovery will bring.
Photos by Yury Tymochko