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Ancient ceramics in a private collection built up by an enthusiast
When in 1967, a scientific conference was to be held in the city of Lviv, it was decided to organize an exhibition of pottery and ceramics which would illustrate the history of earthenware in Ukraine from the times of the Trypillya culture (4–2 thousand years BC) down to the twentieth century. The exhibition was to be coincidental within the conference, which dealt with historical and cultural issues. However, the organizers were dismayed to discover that there were practically no pieces of earthenware to be found in Lviv from the period of the twelfth century of our era down to the seventeenth century, which meant that, for some strange reason, there were no artefacts available to illustrate very important stages in the earthenware development. At the very last moment when it seemed that there was nothing else to do but to announce that no exhibition would be put on, a restorer from the Lviv National Museum, Petro Linynsky, came forward and said that he could offer a number of pieces from his own private collection which could help “to fill the gaps”.
In 2002, Mr Linynsky gave his unique (unique not only in Ukraine but in the whole world) collection of more than 1,300 exhibits as a gift to the Lviv Museum of Ethnography and Artisanship.
Nataliya KOSMOLINSKA tells a story of her encounter with the world of ancient ceramics, and of her acquaintance with a remarkable collector
I had met Petro Linysnky several years before he made his extraordinary gift to the museum at the exhibition, held in the Lviv Art Gallery, of ancient ceramic tiles from the Land of Halychyna in Western Ukraine. The exhibition was so comprehensive, well-organized and impressive that I made it a point to meet the person who privately owned such a collection of most amazing items. I did meet him. He turned out to be an irresistibly charming man and a very colourful personality. When I discovered that the book offered for sale at the exhibition, Povernennya z nebuttya: vynyknennya i rozvytok relyefnykh kakhliv u Halychyni (Return from Oblivion: Origin and Development of Relief Tiles in Halychyna) was authored by Linysnky, my desire to learn more about this man became irresistible. I asked for an interview and my request was kindly granted. He invited me to come to his place. On the designated day, when I went out to go to Linynsky’s place, it was snowing very hard. I faced a long trip to Bryukhovychi, the suburb of Lviv where Linynsky lived; buses to Bryukhovychi were not running because of the blizzard — but nothing could prevent me from going there to see the collector. It took me quite a while and a lot of walking in the knee-deep snow to find Linynsky’s small house in the neighbourhood overgrown with tall pines and dotted with cottages under construction. A piece of fancy wood carving nailed to the front door gave me a sure sign that the collector must be living behind that door. He was.
Our talk lasted for several hours and when at last I reluctantly said goodbye and started on my way home, I discovered it was absolutely dark outside and that it was snowing harder than earlier in the day. I realized that it had been good that I had walked around so much in search of the collector’s house in the daytime — it helped me to find the way to the highway. Buses did not seem to be running; few cars rolling by ignored my frantic flagging, and I began to think that I’d freeze to death there, by the side of the road, and my body would be buried in the snow and would be discovered only in the spring and what a pity it would be not to be able to tell others of what I had learnt from that wonderful man… But a miracle happened — a bus pulled up and took me aboard and delivered me, safe and sound, to a place in Lviv from which I made my way home with no more adventures.
I met Petro Linynsky several more times, and what was planned to be an interview developed into a big essay which was published in a Lviv magazine. I was advised by the collector’s friends to present a copy of the magazine to the collector on the day of his patron saint, Peter. The day before I was to go to the party at Linynsky’s place to celebrate the occasion and give him the copy of the magazine with my essay about him in it, his wife called me on the phone, and from the tone of her voice I immediately understood that something very dreadful had happened — Linynsky was no more. Another remarkable person was gone from the Lviv world of refined culture, the last of the Mohicans among those who devoted their life to preserving whatever could be salvaged from the old traditions and culture of Halychyna. His way of life, his wisdom, his ideas, his noble intellectualism became a thing in the past. He was one of the fine cohort of Lviv intellectuals, authors, historians and artists — Roman Selsky, Leopold Levytsky, Roman Turyn, Karl Zvirynsky, Illarion and Vira Sventsitsky, Roman Lypka, Volodymyr Vuytsyk, Yaroslav Koval — who lavishly shared with us their experiences of life and culture in the twentieth century and their understanding of the terrible and happy events of that turbulent epoch. Fewer and fewer of them are left to tell us their stories. Soon, there will be no one around to tell our children what the twentieth century was about in a philosophical, artistic and existential sense. Only books will preserve some of their ideas — if we’re good enough to write those books.
It may be a banal observation but it is nevertheless true — Linynsky is no more but his collection and memory of him live on. He remembered the story of practically every piece in his collection. He told me how his collecting had started. It was in 1959 when he happened to be prowling around in Urych, an outcropping of rock in the vicinity of the town of Drohobych, where an old fortress used to stand, looking for “something interesting that I felt I could find there.” The place was known to be potentially rich in archaeological discoveries. Walking up the hill to the place where the fortress once stood, he saw that there were many shards strewn around, half buried in the ground. “I began picking them up and having a closer look I realized they must be quite old. There were hundreds of them around! As it turned out later, I inadvertently stumbled into the part of hill that stretched between the cliff and the walls of the fortress. People who lived in the fortress used to throw the garbage and broken earthenware plates and vessels over the walls onto the slope of the hill. I was so excited by my discovery. In fact, after I passed word around, it led to a further detailed study of the area and archaeological excavations were conducted. They confirmed that there had once been a fortress standing on the top of the hill and that the shards I had found were several centuries old. It was then that I caught this shard collecting sickness which over the years developed into a passion for old ceramics, tiles and other ancient earthenware things. I may tell you it was an overwhelming passion — I seemed to think of nothing else but old pottery and tiles and ceramics. I don’t seem to remember how it came about that I had sired children (he said it tongue-in-cheek, of course; even when he was over eighty, Linynsky had a good sense of humour), what with ancient civilizations and their artefacts on my mind day and night. It’s a passion stronger than sex. Shards and Sex was a tentative name I gave to my book which I regard as a sort of a testament. My wife is an embodiment of patience, really. I can’t understand how she could stand me with my potsherds.”
“After my discovery in Urych I realized that my infatuation with ancient pottery is more than just a passing hobby. I felt it was my civic duty to do everything I could to make my nation aware of such an interesting phenomenon of its culture as ancient pottery and tiles produced by our ancestors. But in the soviet times I could not be officially engaged in digging into history or archaeology — I was a dissident, “a Ukrainian bourgeois nationalist” who had spent ten years in a concentration camp and in exile in Siberia, but I did find a way out. I knew I had some talents, I was clever with my hands, and I began asking around for a job. They found me one at the National Museum in Lviv, and later I landed a job at the Lviv Restoration Studios (now it’s a big art and architecture restoration centre, Ukrzakhidproektrestavratsiya). This work gave me some money to live on, and a bit higher social status. And all my free time was devoted entirely to looking for ancient earthenware and acquiring what I could for my collection. For a reason which I don’t quite understand, professional archaeologists concentrated on much earlier times, going back thousands of years, and practically ignored the period of time in the development of earthenware from the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century down to the eighteenth century when industrial production of ceramics began. I thought it would be a good idea to fill in the gaps. I travelled the length and breadth of Halychyna and I think I explored every hole in the ground, every ditch which, in my opinion, could contain potsherds that could be of interest to me. I used every opportunity to explore the pit and holes dug in the ground for laying the foundation of a building or for laying pipes, or for doing some repairs. In the whole of Halychyna, and in Lviv in particular, every inch of the ground seems to have been impregnated with history, and every dig seems to bring to light a message from the past. Probably I was just lucky — but on every trip of mine in search of items for my collection I always found something.”
“My friends also helped me. Whenever someone of them spotted anything that could be of interest to me, they let me know and I was on my way. Once, a friend brought a bagful of shards from Zbarazh and the next day I was there, looking for more. I explored the place and discovered many more pieces of ancient ceramics. God Himself must have been guiding me. Also, my experience of work in a mine that I had gained in exile must have helped too. I carried around with me, in my backpack, an instrument that I had made myself for careful digging. I would loosen the earth with it and then go through the dirt with my fingers, so that I would not miss even the tiniest pieces. At home, I would wash all these shards, this “gold” I had dug up, and tried to put them together, hoping I’d manage to form a whole piece, or at least more or less considerable part of a possible whole. In forty years of searching and collecting, I had built up quite a collection, in which the most valuable, I think, is a section of ceramic tiles of about three hundred pieces. It can give you a very good idea of the development of relief tiles production in Halychyna. Very few tiles in this collection were discovered whole, in one piece. It took me days, or sometimes weeks, to solve these ceramic puzzles, putting together fragments of what once was a complete tile. As my collection grew, my knowledge about ceramics and earthenware expanded, and my curiosity grew as well. I wanted to find answers to many questions, one particular question being, When and where and how did the production of earthenware and ceramics start in Halychyna? I read scholarly books, I talked to historians but what I learnt did not seem to be convincing. Once, in Pyatnychany, I was looking for my shards around a medieval donjon that used to be a part of a castle which controlled the road from Halych to Zvenyhorod, an important trade route. Among my finds was a strange looking piece of a tile, actually one half of it. After a thorough examination of the strange tile, I came to the conclusion that it was very similar to the tiles discovered in Krylos, Halych, which were dated back to the twelfth century. It made it possible to tentatively establish the date of the earliest known time of tile production in Halychyna — twelfth century. I’m of the opinion that these earliest tiles were used mostly for facing stoves in the palaces of the then rulers.”
Linynsky did develop his own theory of the origin and development of tiles in Halychyna and in Europe. His vast experience of studying tiles, assembling them from shards, restoring them, came in very handy and substantiated his theoretical work. He was convinced that the tiles in medieval Europe were first made in Halychyna and the idea of facing stoves with them also originated in Halychyna, whence it spread all across Europe. It was from Halychyna, he insisted, that the whole system of heating houses with the stove at the centre of such system, was borrowed.
“In our climate, you could not do without heating your home in some way. Several methods must have been tried, and then people of the Trypillya culture hit upon the idea, four or five thousand years ago, of building clay stoves in their houses. Some stoves were made of heat-resistant ceramic tiles. Many European historians strongly believe that heating homes with stoves is an East European Slavic tradition. I would make it more specific — it’s a tradition that originated with the Slavs who lived in the forest-steppe zone rather than in the steppe, because those who lived in the steppe used bonfires edged on all sides by big stones to warm themselves. My research has led me to believe that the idea of tile-faced stove spread from the east to the west, rather than the other way round. The idea of facing the stove with tiles could have born out of a sheer necessity to do something about clay stoves which needed to be regularly repaired — their outer layers must have been falling off all the time. I have a clear vision of the wife of a prince who is scolding her husband, “Look, my dear hubby, do something about this stove! All this clay and dirt on the floor is no good! I want the place neat!”
Many of the Ukrainian professional historians were sceptical about Linynsky’s ideas. They called his theories “na?ve” and “too simple.” I’m not a historian, I’m a journalist, and thus I am not in a position to pass judgement. But I do believe you cannot dismiss ideas of a person who devoted more than forty years of his life to ancient ceramics, studying them, collecting them, restoring them, assembling tiles and other earthenware items from small shards. He was not financed by the state or art patrons, he did it all alone. It was a truly heroic effort indeed. He wanted to throw light on one aspect of our history and our culture, he wrote a book to summarize his findings. And he gave his amazing collection as a gift to a museum!
When he was eighty, Linynsky was taken badly ill and had to be put into the intensive care unit in a hospital. He survived, though the doctors said that he had been “clinically dead” for some time, thus giving the lie to the saying, You only die once. He told me afterwards he had had a vision which must have come to him when he had been in a coma, and which he had remembered when he had regained consciousness. “I was standing at the Gates of Paradise, and Apostle Peter asked me, ‘Have you finished writing your book? Have you made arrangements for your collection to be in good hands? No? Then go back to earth and do what you must. And come back here only when you’ve done everything that needs to be done.’ ”
He did as he was bidden. And he came back on the Day of St Peter and St Paul, and I’m sure he was admitted with the kind words of welcome. He does deserve a place in heaven.
Photos by Roman Shyshak
Some of the photographs have been kindly provided by the Linynsky’s family