You know all about the Greeks and Egyptians, and perhaps even the Hittites and Olmec. But a new exhibit featuring dazzling remains of a sophisticated yet largely unknown culture that predates them all has arrived on American soil. New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World has opened “The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 B.C.”
The people showed remarkable advancement for their time. They mastered large-scale copper smelting, the new technology of the age. Their graves held an impressive array of exquisite headdresses and necklaces and, in one cemetery, the earliest major assemblage of gold artifacts to be found anywhere in the world [The New York Times].
Because these people lived before the invention of writing, we don’t know how they referred to themselves and their settlements; many scientists simply use the term “Old Europe.” It’s also difficult to determine how homogeneous the culture was, or whether Old Europe qualifies as a full-blown civilization. At its peak, around 4500 B.C., said David W. Anthony, the exhibition’s guest curator, “Old Europe was among the most sophisticated and technologically advanced places in the world” and was developing “many of the political, technological and ideological signs of civilization” [The New York Times].
The settlers are thought to have moved north from the shores of the Aegean Sea in present-day Greece, and to have established homesteads along the lower stretches of the Danube River and near the Black Sea. Archaeologists say they brought domesticated cattle and sheep with them, and engaged in rudimentary agriculture. They had a thriving trade network between settlements, and shells from the Aegean Sea, which were used in jewelry, seem to have been traded far and wide.
Gold animal figurines, tools, and terra cotta “mother goddesses” also dot the exhibition. The spectacular artifacts now on display, on loan from more than 20 museums in Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova, have never been exhibited before in the United States [Science, Origins blog]. “The Lost World of Old Europe” will stay on display in New York City until April 25.
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Image: Marius Amarie. These figures, produced by some Old Europe craftsperson, were made between 5000 BC and 4600 BC.