Old Europe Collapse

By 4300–4200 BCE Old Europe was at its peak. The Varna cemetery in eastern Bulgaria had the most ostentatious funerals in the world, richer than anything of the same age in the Near East. Among the 281 graves at Varna, 61 (22%) contained more than three thousand golden objects together weighing 6 kg (13.2 lb). Two thousand of these were found in just four graves (1, 4, 36, and 43). Grave 43, an adult male, had golden beads, armrings, and rings totaling 1,516 grams (3.37 lb), including a copper axe-adze with a gold-sheathed handle. Golden ornaments have also been found in tell settlements in the lower Danube valley, at Gumelniţa, Vidra, and at Hotnitsa (a 310-gm cache of golden ornaments). A few men in these communities played prominent social roles as chiefs or clan leaders, symbolized by the public display of shining gold ornaments and cast copper weapons.

Thousands of settlements with broadly similar ceramics, houses, and female figurines were occupied between about 4500 and 4100 BCE in eastern Bulgaria (Varna), the upland plains of Balkan Thrace (KaranovoVI), the upper part of the Lower Danube valley in western Bulgaria and Romania (Krivodol-Sălcuta), and the broad riverine plains of the lower Danube valley (Gumelniţa) (figure 11.1). Beautifully painted ceramic vessels, some almost 1 m tall and fired at temperatures of over 800˚C, lined the walls of their two-storied houses. Conventions in ceramic design and ritual were shared over large regions. The crafts of metallurgy, ceramics, and even flint working became so refined that they must have required master craft specialists who were patronized and supported by chiefs. In spite of this, power was not obviously centralized in any one village. Perhaps, as John Chapman observed, it was a time when the restricted resources (gold, copper, Spondylus shell) were not critical, and the critical resources (land, timber, labor, marriage partners) were not seriously restricted. This could have prevented any one region or town from dominating others.


Figure 11.1 Map of Old Europe at 4500–4000 BCE.

Towns in the high plains atop the Balkans and in the fertile lower Danube valley formed high tells. Settlements fixed in one place for so long imply fixed agricultural fields and a rigid system of land tenure around each tell. The settlement on level VI at Karanovo in the Balkans was the type site for the period. About fifty houses crowded together in orderly rows inside a protective wooden palisade wall atop a massive 12-m (40-ft) tell. Many tells were surrounded by substantial towns. At Bereket, not far from Karanovo, the central part of the tell was 250 m in diameter and had cultural deposits 17.5 m (57 ft) thick, but even 300–600 m away from this central eminence the occupation deposits were 1–3 m thick. Surveys at Podgoritsa in northeastern Bulgaria also found substantial off-tell settlement.

Around 4200–4100 BCE the climate began to shift, an event called the Piora Oscillation in studies of Swiss alpine glaciers. Solar insolation decreased, glaciers advanced in the Alps (which gave this episode its name), and winters became much colder. Variations in temperature in the northern hemisphere are recorded in the annual growth rings in oaks preserved in bogs in Germany and in annual ice layers in the GISP2 glacial ice core from Greenland. According to these sources, extremely cold years happened first in 4120 and 4040 BCE. They were harbingers of a 140-year-long, bitterly cold period lasting from 3960 to 3821 BCE, with temperatures colder than at any time in the previous two thousand years. Investigations led by Douglass Bailey in the lower Danube valley showed that floods occurred more frequently and erosion degraded the riverine floodplains where crops were grown. Agriculture in the lower Danube valley shifted to more cold-tolerant rye in some settlements. Quickly these and perhaps other stresses accumulated to create an enormous crisis.

Between about 4200 and 3900 BCE more than six hundred tell settlements of the Gumelniţa, Karanovo VI, and Varna cultures were burned and abandoned in the lower Danube valley and eastern Bulgaria. Some of their residents dispersed temporarily into smaller villages like the Gumelniţa B1 hamlet of Jilava, southwest of Bucharest, with just five to six houses and a single-level cultural deposit. But Jilava was burned, apparently suddenly, leaving behind whole pots and many other artifacts. People scattered and became much more mobile, depending for their food on herds of sheep and cattle rather than fixed fields of grain. The forests did not regenerate; in fact, pollen cores show that the countryside became even more open and deforested. Relatively mild climatic conditions returned after 3760 BCE according to the German oaks, but by then the cultures of the lower Danube valley and the Balkans had changed dramatically. The cultures that appeared after about 3800 BCE did not regularly use female figurines in domestic rituals, no longer wore copper spiral bracelets or Spondylus-shell ornaments, made relatively plain pottery in a limited number of shapes, did not live on tells, and depended more on stockbreeding. Metallurgy, mining, and ceramic technology declined sharply in both volume and technical skill, and ceramics and metal objects changed markedly in style. The copper mines in the Balkans abruptly ceased production; copper-using cultures in central Europe and the Carpathians switched to Transylvanian and Hungarian ores about 4000 BCE, at the beginning of the Bodrogkeresztur culture in Hungary (see ore sources in figure 11.1). Oddly this was when metallurgy really began in western Hungary and nearby in Austria and central Europe. Metal objects now were made using new arsenical bronze alloys, and were of new types, including new weapons, daggers being the most important. “We are faced with the complete replacement of a culture,” the foremost expert on Eneolithic metallurgy E. N. Chernykh said. It was “a catastrophe of colossal scope … a complete cultural caesura,” according to the Bulgarian archaeologist H. Todorova.

The end of Old Europe truncated a tradition that began with the Starcevo-Criş pioneers in 6200 BCE. Exactly what happened to Old Europe is the subject of a long, vigorous debate. Graves of the Suvorovo type, ascribed to immigrants from the steppes, appeared in the lower Danube valley just before the destruction of the tells. Settlements of the Cernavoda I type appeared just after. They regularly contain horse bones and ceramics exhibiting a mixture of steppe technology and indigenous Danubian shapes, and are ascribed to a mixed population of steppe immigrants and people from the tells. The number of abandoned sites and the rapid termination of many long-standing traditions in crafts, domestic rituals, decorative customs, body ornaments, housing styles, living arrangements, and economy suggest not a gradual evolution but an abrupt and probably violent end. At Hotnitsa on the Danube in north-central Bulgaria the burned houses of the final Eneolithic occupation contained human skeletons, interpreted as massacred inhabitants. The final Eneolithic destruction level at Yunatsite on the Balkan upland plain contained forty-six human skeletons. It looks like the tell towns of Old Europe fell to warfare, and, somehow, immigrants from the steppes were involved. But the primary causes of the crisis could have included climate change and related agricultural failures, or soil erosion and environmental degradation accumulated from centuries of intensive farming, or internecine warfare over declining timber and copper resources, or a combination of all these.

The crisis did not immediately affect all of southeastern Europe. The most widespread settlement abandonments occurred in the lower Danube valley (Gumelniţa, northeastern Bulgaria, and the Bolgrad group), in eastern Bulgaria (Varna and related cultures), and in the mountain valleys of the Balkans (Karanovo VI), east of the Yantra River in Bulgaria and the Olt in Romania. This was where tell settlements, and the stable field systems they imply, were most common. In the Balkans, a well-cultivated, densely populated landscape occupied since the earliest Neolithic, no permanent settlements can be dated between 3800 and 3300 BCE. People probably still lived there, but herds of sheep grazed on the abandoned tells.

The traditions of Old Europe survived longer in western Bulgaria and western Romania (Krivodol-Sălcuţa IV–Bubanj Hum Ib). Here the settlement system had always been somewhat more flexible and less rooted; the sites of western Bulgaria usually did not form high tells. Old European ceramic types, house types, and figurine types were abandoned gradually during Sălcuţa IV, 4000–3500 BCE. Settlements that were occupied during the crisis, places like Telish-Redutite III and Galatin, moved to high, steep-sided promontories, but they retained mud-brick architecture, two-story houses, and cult and temple buildings. Many caves in the region were newly occupied, and since herders often use upland caves for shelter, this might suggest an increase in upland-lowland seasonal migrations by herders. The Krivodol–Salcutsa–Bubanj Hum Ib people reoriented their external trade and exchange connections to the north and west, where their influence can be seen on the Lasinja-Balaton culture in western Hungary.

The Old European traditions of the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture also survived and, in fact, seemed curiously reinvigorated. After 4000 BCE, in its Tripolye B2 phase, the Tripolye culture expanded eastward toward the Dnieper valley, creating ever larger agricultural towns, although none was rebuilt in one place long enough to form a tell. Domestic cults still used female figurines, and potters still made brightly painted fine lidded pots and storage jars 1 m high. Painted fine ceramics were mass-produced in the largest towns (Varvarovka VIII), and flint tools were mass-produced at flint-mining villages like Polivanov Yar on the Dniester. Cucuteni AB/Tripolye B2 settlements such as Veseli Kut (150 ha) contained hundreds of houses and apparently were preeminent places in a new settlement hierarchy. The Cucuteni-Tripolye culture forged new relationships with the copper-using cultures of eastern Hungary (Borogkeresztur) in the west and with the tribes of the steppes in the east.

Warfare and Alliance: the Cucuteni-Tripolye Tulture and the Steppes

The crisis in the lower Danube valley corresponded to late Cucuteni A3/ Tripolye B1, around 4300–4000 BCE. Tripolye B1 was marked by a steep increase in the construction of fortifications—ditches and earthen banks—to protect settlements (figure 11.2). Fortifications might have appeared just about when the climate began to deteriorate and the collapse of Old Europe occurred, but Cucuteni-Tripolye fortifications then decreased during the coldest years of the Piora Oscillation, during Tripolye B2, 4000–3700 BCE. If climate change destabilized Old Europe and caused the initial construction of Cucuteni-Tripolye fortifications, the first phase of change was sufficient by itself to tip the system into crisis. Probably there was more to it than just climate.

Only 10% of Tripolye B1 settlements were fortified even in the worst of times. But those that were fortified required substantial labor, implying a serious, chronic threat. Fortified Cucteni-Tripolye villages usually were built at the end of a steep-sided promontory, protected by a ditch dug across the promontory neck. The ditches were 2–5 m wide and 1.5–3 m deep, made by removing 500–1,500 m3 of earth. They were relocated and deepened as settlements grew in size, as at Traian and Habaşeşti I. In a database of 2,017 Cucuteni/Tripolye settlements compiled by the Moldovan archaeologist V. Dergachev, half of all fortified Cucuteni/Tripolye sites are dated just to the Tripolye B1 period. About 60% of all the flint projectile points from all the Cucuteni/Tripolye culture also belonged just to the Tripolye B1 period. There was no corresponding increase in hunting during Tripolye B1 (no increase in wild animal bones in settlements), and so the high frequency of projectile points was not connected with hunting. Probably it was associated with increased warfare.

The number of Cucuteni-Tripolye settlements increased from about 35 settlements per century during Tripolye A to about 340 (!) during Tripolye B1, a tenfold rise in the number of settlements without a significant expansion of the area settled (figure 11.3b). Part of this increase in settlement density during Tripolye B1 might be ascribed to refugees fleeing from the towns of the Gumelniţa culture. At least one Tripolye B1 settlement in the Prut drainage, Drutsy 1, appears to have been attacked. More than one hundred flint points (made of local Carpathian flint) were found around the walls of the three excavated houses as if they had been peppered with arrows. Compared to its past and its future, the Tripolye B1 period was a time of sharply increased conflict in the Eastern Carpathians.


Figure 11.2 Habaşesti I, a fortified Tripolye B1 village. After Chernysh 1982.

Contact with Steppe Cultures during Tripolye B: Cucuteni C Ware

Simultaneously with the increase in fortifications and weapons, Tripolye B1 towns showed widespread evidence of contact with steppe cultures. A new pottery type, Cucuteni C ware, shell-tempered and similar to steppe pottery, appeared in Tripolye B1 settlements of the South Bug valley (Sabatinovka I) and in Romania (Draguşeni and Fedeleşeni, where Cucuteni C ware amounted to 10% of the ceramics). Cucuteni C ware is usually thought to indicate contact with and influence from steppe pottery traditions (figure 11.4). Cucuteni C ware might have been used in ordinary homes with standard Cucuteni-Tripolye fine wares as a new kind of coarse or kitchen pottery, but it did not replace traditional coarse kitchen wares tempered with grog (ground-up ceramic sherds). Some Cucuteni C pots look very much like steppe pottery, whereas others had shell-temper, gray-to-brown surface color and some typical steppe decorative techniques (like “caterpillar” impressions, made with a cord-wrapped, curved pressing tool) but were made in typical Cucuteni-Tripolye shapes with other decorative elements typical of Cucuteni-Tripolye wares.


Figure 11.3. Tripolye B1-B2 migrations. After Dergachev 2002, figure 6.2.

The origin of Cucuteni C ware is disputed. There were good utilitarian reasons for Tripolye potters to adopt shell-tempering. Shell-temper in the clay can increase resistance to heat shock, and shell-tempered pots can harden at lower firing temperatures, which could save fuel. Changes in the organization of pottery making could also have encouraged the spread of Cucuteni C wares. Ceramic production was beginning to be taken over by specialized ceramic-making towns during Tripolye B1 and B2, although local household production also continued in most places. Rows of reusable two-chambered kilns appeared at the edges of a few settlements, with 11 kilns at Ariusd in southeastern Transylvania. If fine painted wares were beginning to be produced in villages that specialized in making pottery and the coarse wares remained locally produced, the change in coarse wares could have reflected the changing organization of production.

Figure 11.4 Cucuteni C (bottom row) and standard Cucuteni B wares (top two rows): (1) fine ware, Novye Ruseshti I1a (Tripolye B1); (2) fine ware, Geleshti (Tripolye B2); (3–4) fine ware, Frumushika I (Tripolye B1); (5) Cucuteni C ware, Frumushika II (Tripolye B2); (6–7) Cucuteni C ware, Berezovskaya GES. After Danilenko and Shmagli 1972, Figure 7; Chernysh 1982, Figure LXV.

On the other hand, these particular coarse wares obviously resembled the pottery of steppe tribes. Many Cucuteni C pots look like they were made by Sredni Stog potters. This suggests familiarity with steppe cultures and even the presence of steppe people in some Tripolye B villages, perhaps as hired herders or during seasonal trade fairs. Although it is unlikely that all Cucuteni C pottery was made by steppe potters—there is just too much of it—the appearance of Cucuteni C ware suggests intensified interactions with steppe communities.

Steppe Symbols of Power: Polished Stone Maces

Polished stone maces were another steppe artifact type that appeared in Tripolye B1 villages. A mace, unlike an axe, cannot really be used for anything except cracking heads. It was a new weapon type and symbol of power in Old Europe, but maces had appeared across the steppes centuries earlier in DDII, Khvalynsk, and Varfolomievka contexts. There were two kinds—zoomorphic and eared types-and both had steppe prototypes that were older (figure 11.5; also see figure 9.6). Mace heads carved and polished in the shape of horse heads were found in two Cucuteni A3/A4-Tripolye B1 settlements, Fitioneşti and Fedeleşeni, both of which also had significant amounts of Cucuteni C ware. The eared type appeared at the Cucuteni-Tripolye settlements of Obarşeni and Berezovskaya GES, also with Cucuteni C ware that at Berezovskaya looked like it was imported from steppe communities. Were steppe people present in these Tripolye B1 towns? It seems likely. The integration of steppe pottery and symbols of power into Cucuteni-Tripolye material culture suggests some kind of social integration, but the maintenance of differences in economy, house form, fine pottery, metallurgy, mortuary rituals, and domestic rituals indicates that it was limited to a narrow social sector.

Other Signs of Contact

Most settlements of the Tripolye B period, even large ones, continued to dispose of their dead in unknown ways. But inhumation graves appeared in or at the edge of a few Tripolye B1 settlement sites. A grave in the settlement of Nezvisko contained a man with a low skull and broad, thick-boned face like those of steppe people—a type of skull-and-face configuration called “Proto-Europoid” by Eastern European physical anthropologists. Tripolye, Varna, and Gumelniţa people generally had taller heads, narrower faces, and more gracile facial bones, a configuration called “Mediterranean.” Another indicator of movement across the steppe border was the little settlement near Mirnoe in the steppes north of the Danube delta. This is the only known classic-period Tripolye settlement in the coastal steppe lowlands. It had just a few pits and the remains of a light structure containing sherds of Tripolye B1 and Cucuteni C pots, a few bones of cattle and sheep, and more than a hundred grape seeds, identified as wild grapes. Mirnoe seems to have been a temporary Tripolye B1 camp in the steppes, perhaps for grape pickers. Some people, though not many, were moving across the cultural-ecological frontier in both directions.

Figure 11.5 Eared and horse-head maces of Old Europe, the Suvorovo migrants, and the Pontic-Caspian steppes. Stone mace heads appeared first and were more common in the steppes. After Telegin et al. 2001; Dergachev 1999; Gheorgiu 1994; Kuzmina 2003.

During Tripolye B2, around 4000–3700 BCE, there was a significant migration out of the Prut-Seret forest-steppe uplands, the most densely settled part of the Tripolye B1 landscape, eastward into the South Bug and Dnieper valleys (figure 11.3c). Settlement density in the Prut-Seret region declined by half. Tripolye, the type site first explored in 1901, was an eastern frontier village of the Tripolye B2 period, situated on a high terrace overlooking the broad, fertile valley of the Dnieper River. The population consolidated into fewer, larger settlements (only about 180 settlements per century during Tripolye B2). The number of fortified settlements decreased sharply.

These signs of demographic expansion and reduced conflict appeared after the tell settlements of the Danube valley were burned and abandoned. It appears that any external threat from the steppes, if there was one, turned away from Cucuteni-Tripolye towns.

Steppe Riders at the Frontiers of Old Europe

Frontiers can be envisioned as peaceful trade zones where valuables are exchanged for the mutual benefit of both sides, with economic need preventing overt hostilities, or as places where distrust is magnified by cultural misunderstandings, negative stereotypes, and the absence of bridging institutions. The frontier between agricultural Europe and the steppes has been seen as a border between two ways of life, farming and herding, that were implacably opposed. Plundering nomads like the Huns and Mongols are old archetypes of savagery. But this is a misleading stereotype, and one derived from a specialized form of militarized pastoral nomadism that did not exist before about 800 BCE. And Bronze Age war bands were not organized like armies. The Hunnic invasion analogy is anachronistic, yet that does not mean that mounted raiding never occurred in the Eneolithic.

There is persuasive evidence that steppe people rode horses to hunt horses in Kazakhstan by about 3700–3500 BCE. Almost certainly they were not the first to ride. Given the symbolic linkage between horses, cattle, and sheep in Pontic-Caspian steppe funerals as early as the Khvalynsk period, horseback riding might have begun in a limited way before 4500 BCE. But western steppe people began to act like they were riding only about 4300–4000 BCE, when a pattern consistent with long-distance raiding began, seen most clearly in the Suvorovo-Novodanilovka horizon. Once people began to ride, there was nothing to prevent them from riding into tribal conflicts-not the supposed shortcomings of rope and leather bits (an organic bit worked perfectly well, as our students showed in the organic-bit riding experiment, and as the American Indian “war bridle” demonstrated on the battlefield); not the size of Eneolithic steppe horses (most were about the size of Roman cavalry horses, big enough); and certainly not the use of the wrong “seat” (an argument that early riders sat on the rump of the horse, perhaps for millennia, before they discovered the more natural forward seat-based entirely on Near Eastern images of riders probably made by artists who were unfamiliar with horses).

Although I do see evidence for mounted raiding in the Eneolithic, I do not believe that any Eneolithic army of pitiless nomads ever lined up on the horizon mounted on shaggy ponies, waiting for the command of their bloodthirsty general. Eneolithic warfare was tribal warfare, so there were no armies, just the young men of this clan fighting the young men of that clan. And early Indo-European warfare seems from the earliest myths and poetic traditions to have been conducted principally to gain glory. If we are going to indict steppe raiders in the destruction of Old Europe, we first have to accept that they did not fight like later cavalry. Eneolithic warfare probably was a strictly seasonal activity conducted by groups organized more like modern neighborhood gangs than modern armies. They would have been able to disrupt harvests and frighten a sedentary population, but they were not nomads. Steppe Eneolithic settlements like Dereivka cannot be interpreted as pastoral nomadic camps. After nomadic cavalry is removed from the picture, how do we understand social and political relations across the steppe/Old European frontier?