Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum has an exceptional exhibition on at the moment. For one, it’s a stunning display, of things you are unlikely to have seen before, showing prehistoric items from a Europe we know little about: an ‘Old Europe’ of Neolithic farmers who settled and prospered in the fertile plains and valleys of the Danube River in southeast Europe between 7000 and 5,500 years ago.
The Lost World of Old Europe: the Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC displays over 250 artefacts from settlements and cemeteries.
The items on show were so early that I had to keep pinching myself to remember that they dated from before the invention of the wheel, before writing, before the first cities were established in Mesopotamia and Egypt. (To put it into context, Wayland’s Smithy dates to around 3000 BC and Stonehenge 3000-2000 BC.) At their peak (the period covered by the show), the cultures of ‘Old Europe’ — what is today Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova -— were among the most technologically advanced and sophisticated places in the world.
The exhibition is a coup for the Ashmolean. Fresh from New York where it was shown to great acclaim at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University (ISAW), and destined for Athens after Oxford, it was the brainchild of the National History Museum of Romania, Bucharest, organised in collaboration with ISAW, and includes loans from over 20 museums in Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova.
Visitors to the Ashmolean exhibition, the first to take up all three of their spacious new temporary exhibition galleries, can experience the same sense of discovery and wonder the archaeologists themselves would have had.
For, although archaeological work has been going on the region since the late 19th century, this is the first time the wealth of these relatively unknown (even to most archaeologists) prehistoric cultures has been shown in Britain and the US, largely due to ‘Cold War’ restrictions.
So much has yet to be understood about the finds that it makes looking at them totally intriguing.
What did they mean? Many are strange, puzzling. Others are very fine — like the spear foreshaft with gold fittings, clearly a prestige weapon, and the astonishingly long finely-worked flint blades. Not to mention the ceramics and amazing metal work.
What do they tell us about the people, their lives, beliefs, views of the after-life? It’s ripe for speculation.
And this is an exhibition where the visitor can make as good as guess (or almost) as the archaeologists as to what these artefacts actually represent.
Why does the ‘Thinker’ sit there so pensively, for example? What were those female figurines for? And what of those laid-back women sitting on chairs in a circle?
These cultures developed complex metalworking in copper and gold very early on — the oldest worked gold found anywhere in the world comes from the Varna cemetery, Bulgaria where huge quantities of gold objects were found in 1972 (the show includes two appliqué bulls, a gold sceptre, bracelets).
It is likely copper metallurgy was invented first in Old Europe, the Balkans, rather than the Near East as thought.
The exhibition raises so many questions, many unanswerable. Essays in the exhibition catalogue discuss interpretations of the figurines, Copper Age traditions, the villages that grew to city-like proportions, their ‘architectural’ models, and long-distance trade networks for precious materials, including Spondylus shells from the Aegean worked into armlets and bracelets.
The modern-looking decorated pots are shown to their best in an open case, without glass, not to mar their striking beauty, while nearby some odd little anthropomorphic pots are great fun to see.
One absolute treasure is the ‘Thinker’ and his female counterpart. This pair of black fired clay figurines date to 5000-4600 BC yet look as if Henry Moore could have made them. Found in the Cernavodã necropolis in 1956, the man sits on a stool, elbows on his knee, hands to his face, while the woman sits on the ground beside him One theory says they are mourning. We are so lucky to see them — these two figures are the national symbols of Romania.
There’s a good number here of their enigmatic terracotta female figurine, fashioned in their hundreds and left behind in households, burials, hoards, sanctuaries, for us to puzzle over. Sometime thought to be ‘mother goddess’ figures, one is shown side-on the better to see her curves; all have vestigial heads, no arms, wide hips, and are elaborately decorated, incised or painted in different styles.
But the ‘star’ piece among the figurines has to be the dinky set of 21 terracotta female figurines seated on low chairs. They sit in two circles, two possibly on ‘thrones’, and are dubbed the ‘Council of Goddesses’. The symbolic meaning to their makers is speculative. Were they votives? Toys? Were there female-centred cults? Was it a matrilineal society?
I have been in danger all through writing this of overusing words like ‘extraordinary’. But I make no apology. The exhibition is exactly that. Do try to see it. It is on until August 15.
Tickets: £6/£4 concessions, available from the museum shop, the exhibition entrance on the third floor, or ashmolean.ox.ac.uk