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Trypillya  a culture that was contemporaneous with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia


We are accustomed to thinking that ancient cultures and ancient civilizations we read about in history books, are those that sprang up in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Aegean, China and India from about 3,000 to 2,000 B.C.E. It comes as a great surprise to many people in Ukraine and elsewhere to learn that from about the sixth millennium B.C.E. to about the third millennium B.C.E., there flourished in Ukraine a Neolithic European culture which produced big settlements of the kind that can be called proto-cities, which knew land tilling and which created art. This culture, now referred to as Trypillya, (or the Cucuteni-Trypillya) was of the kind that could have led to the emergence of a powerful civilization on a par with the Egyptian or Mesopotamian ones. But something interfered and the cultures development was brutally disrupted.


In 1896, an amateur archeologist, a teacher by occupation, discovered ancient settlements in the land of Kyivshchyna in the vicinity of the village of Trypillya. The settlements were dated to the fourth millennium B.C.E. Later, it turned out that the settlements discovered close to Trypillya, were similar to the ones unearthed earlier, in the 1870s and 1880s, in the land of Ternopilshchyna, which were, upon their discovery, called the culture of painted ceramics.

Gradually, as archeological evidence accumulated, it became clear that the Trypillya culture, as it came to be called, extended over a vast territory of the present-day Ukraine. Trypillya settlements were also dug up in Moldova and in Eastern Romania in the vicinity of the village of Cucuteni. Further fieldwork, excavations, classification, dating, and interpretation of the materials found, showed that this culture flourished approximately between 3800 and 2600 B.C.E., and that it passed through three main stages of development.


Before we continue with the story of the Trypillya culture, it will be worthwhile to say a few words about the discoverer of the Trypillya culture, Vikenty Khvoyka (or Khvoyko; 18501914). He was born outside Ukraine, in what is now the Czech Republic. Completing his studies, he came to Kyiv in 1876 to work as a teacher. In the early eighteen-nineties his interest in history and archeology led him to amateur digging, and similarly to some other great amateur archeologists of the nineteenth century  of who Schliemann is the best example, Khvoyka was exceptionally lucky. In 1893 he discovered a late Paleolithic settlement at Starokyivska Mount in Kyiv; in 1896, he unearthed the first settlements of what later was called the Trypillya culture; in 1899, he brought to light artifacts of the Zarubinetska culture (3rd century B.C.E.); in 1900, he dug up artifacts and settlements of the Chernyakhivska culture. These are his major discoveries and there was, of course, much more to them than sheer archeological luck. With the passage of time, Khvoyka graduated from an amateur to a professional, and the sphere of his archeological research widened to include the medieval times of Kyivan Rus. Khvoyka was one of the founders of the Kyiv Museum of Antiquities and Art (now  the National Museum of History); as a historian, he promoted a theory of the Eastern Slavs being the autochthons in the territory of Ukraine since the dawn of time.

Since the groundbreaking (both in literal and metaphoric sense) discoveries of the late nineteenth century, a great many artifacts and settlements of the Trypillya culture have been unearthed. Over a thousand Trypillya settlements have been found in a vast territory of over 200,000 square kilometres stretching from the land of Kyivshchyna in the east and to the land of Chernivtsi in the west (and, in fact, still further west into Moldova and Eastern Rumania).

Paradoxically, all this wealth of accumulated evidence has not provided answers to the crucial questions that emerged as new artifacts and new settlements were unearthed. If anything, the number of unanswered questions grew exponentially.

The very basic question  Were the Trypillyans autochthons or migrants who had come to Ukraine from other lands?  remains unanswered. Is there enough ground to regard the Trypillya phenomenon a civilization of the magnitude of Ancient Egypt or Crete, or should it be classified as just one of the European Neolithic cultures? No consensus on these and other questions has been reached among the historians and archeologists.

What we do know with a varying degree of certainty is approximately as follows. Sometime about the sixth millennium B.C.E. (in earlier history and reference books the earliest date was given as the fourth millennium B.C.E.; more recent archeological finds have pushed the date further into the past) there arose in what today is Ukraine a culture whose most distinctive feature was the settlements of the size and complexity that could qualify them for being called proto-cities. Some of these settlements, Maydanetske, for example, covered an area of 450 hectares (and thus in size were much larger that the Greek or Roman cities of much later times). For comparison, the medieval city of Kyiv spread over only 380 hectares.

According to some historians, the proto- Trypillyans must have migrated from southern Anatolia in Asia Minor, then through the Balkans and Transylvania to Ukraine. Some other original starting points from which the proto-Trypillyans could have migrated are also cited. Others are of the opinion that the Trypillyans were the autochthonous population of Ukraine, and thus can be regarded as proto-Ukrainians (Khvoyka, the discoverer of the Trypillya culture, believed the Trypillyans to be the ancestors of Eastern Slavs). The available evidence points to certain similarities in the ethnographic features of the Trypillyans and later Slavs who were the direct ancestors of the Ukrainians.

Three stages in the development of the Trypillya culture are clearly discernable, and they have been designated as Stage A, Stage B and Stage C. Each stage, in its turn, is subdivided into several successive phases. Some differences are also observed between the Trypillya settlements and artifacts of different geographical areas.

At Stage A, the settlements were small in size, with mud huts, dugouts as housing. At the same time, the Stage A Trypillyans already practised animal husbandry, they cultivated some crops, they knew some craftsmanship, they made earthenware and tools (mostly made of flint), they knew weaving and spinning.

At Stage B, land cultivation improved considerably; draft animals began to be used, earthenware became more elaborate, new crafts developed. There was even trade going on with various tribes, mostly from the Danube and Balkan areas. And the settlements grew in size to become, as we have said, proto-cities.

At Stage C, the settlements and the houses in them began to shrink in size; they were built mostly on the high river banks or on the tops of hills, and provided with earthworks. On the other hand, weapons and tools became to be more sophisticated and in addition to flint, other kinds of stone were used as well. It was also the time when copper made its appearance. It is not clear what led to the demise of the Trypillya culture in the middle of the third millennium B.C.E., but the ever increasing pressure of the steppe nomads plus the lack of the state structure and low level of the material production are most often cited as the contributing causes.

At the height of its development, the Trypillya culture must have been close to becoming what is traditionally  though somewhat loosely  called a civilization. A large Trypillya settlement was inhabited by as many as 10, 000 or even 15, 000 people who lived in hundreds of houses, some of which were two- or even three-story high. The houses were placed in concentric circles, contiguously to each other, so that they formed defensive lines, not dissimilar to much later castles. The houses did not have any windows or entrances on the outer sides, and could be accessed only from the inner side. Some evidence suggest that the exteriors of the houses were painted and one wonders whether it is this tradition that has survived so many centuries in Ukraine, with peasant houses still decorated in a similar way. The interiors of the Trypillya houses must have been decorated with murals or copious ornaments as well. The colour schemes were rather bright and somewhat unusual  yellows, browns, reddish hues, pink in combination with black.

The Trypillyans left behind a great many ceramic pieces, a lot of which are of unclear use. Some of the discovered earthenware pieces were definitely used in every day as household items; others must have been used in some sort of rituals, but all of them were lavishly covered with ornaments and symbols.

Among Trypillya artifacts we find statuettes of women, animals and what looks like models of houses. Statuettes of women suggest that Trypillya women wore embroidered, smart dresses, decorations and rather fancy hairdos or headwear in the form of nets and close fitting skullcaps. There is enough evidence to suggest the Trypillyans knew various cults, worshiped the Mother Earth and totems (mostly bulls), and fire. Among the deciphered symbols are those of eternity and fertility.

One of the most challenging mysteries of the Trypillya culture lies in the remains of houses which look as though they were burned down by the Trypillyans themselves rather than by invaders. In these burned-down houses  or rather in what was left of them  archeologists find shards of plates and vases, statuettes of humans and animals, tools and pieces of them, animal and human bones. One of the theories has it that they were once ordinary houses, later abandoned by the living, or barns or maybe even temples. With the passage of time, as the older generations died out, their souls came to inhabit these houses demanding sacrifices  richly decorated earthenware, agricultural implements, animals or even humans. Then came a time, when it was considered to be a better option to abandon the settlement altogether and move on to a new place to start life anew. From what we know, old settlements were abandoned and new ones founded every sixty to eighty years. Before leaving, the Trypillyans burned their houses down.

Other theories propose that the Trypillyans were almost constantly at war with each other and with the nomads whose incursions were becoming ever more persistent. However, none of the big Trypillya settlements show any signs of having been stormed and destroyed by violence. The earthworks and houses like fortified walls must have been intimidating enough for any foe, argue some of the historians.

Scholars suggest several basic features that a culture should possess to be elevated to the status of a civilization; among such features are cities, alphabet and writing, and the potters wheel. The Trypillya culture definitely had settlements which could be easily called proto-cities. It is uncertain whether many mysterious signs found on the Trypillya pottery and earthenware and statuettes can be interpreted as evidence of incipient writing; the potters wheel the Trypillyans most certainly knew the use of.

Whatever happened to the Trypillya culture, it had not sunk without a trace for the future generations of people who inhabited Ukraine in later times  the traditional Ukrainian culture most surely has preserved some of the features of the Trypillya culture  the type of housing in the steppe regions; ornaments; decoration of the houses and of the pottery; patterns and symbols used in embroidery and in decorating pysanky (Easter eggs).

There are a lot of historical mysteries and puzzles that are yet to be solved but one thing stands out vivid and clear  cultural continuity spanning the past six thousand years has not been broken.


Based on the materials provided by Lesya Hryhoryiva

Photos by Yury Tymochko


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