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Trypillya — an enigmatic civilization
Back in 1900, Pablo Picasso on a visit to an exhibition of Trypillya ceramics which was held in Paris, exclaimed in admiration, “These works of art are excellent examples for modern artists to follow — look at these fantastic shapes of earthenware, look at these elegant ornaments!” They say that it was the Trypillya exhibition in Paris that inspired Picasso to start creating his own ceramics.
Archaeological finds made by the Ukrainian archaeologist Vikentiy Khvoyka (1850–1914) in the 1890s led to the discovery of a Neolithic culture which was named Trypillya after the place where the first finds were unearthed. The more historians learn about the Trypillya culture, the more amazed they become.
Later, similar finds were made in Moldova and Rumania and it became clear that the Trypillya (also known as Cucuteni-Trypillya) culture was a major Neolithic European culture that arose in Ukraine in the late sixth millennium BCE and spread over vast territories. The discovery of the Trypillya culture was, in fact, no less sensational than Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of the ruins of ancient Troy and excavation of Mycenae, but for various reasons Trypillya remained much less known to the general public.
According to Khvoyka, the Trypillya people were autochthones and were among the first to practice agriculture; other historians changed their views on the historical processes in Europe and argued that the Neolithic culture arose in the plains between the Danube and the Dnipro and then spread to other parts of Europe.
Artefacts and symbols
Modern archaeological methods and advanced technology make it possible to establish dates of artefacts, events and phenomena that took place in the past with a high level of precision. Thus it has been established that the Trypillya culture arose at about 5,250 BCE and lasted to about 2,750 BCE.
The Trypillya people settled along the rivers and their settlements were discovered in the forest-and-steppe zone that stretched from the Carpathians and the Danube all the way to the Dnipro River.
The available evidence suggests that the Trypillya people’s social organization centred around clans divided into families. The Trypillya people practised shifting agriculture, growing wheat, barley, millet and beans. Seeds and stones of grapes, apricots, wild plums, apples and pears were found in the excavations of some of the settlements. Trypillya houses were made of timber and woven willow branches covered with a coating of clay with admixture of chaff; the roofs were supported by wooden pillars. Characteristically, the walls of typical Ukrainian peasant huts of much later times were also coated with clay mixed with chaff. The Trypillya houses had windows but apparently no chimneys and the smoke from the hearths and sacrificial altars escaped from the windows and doors. The floor was made of clay which was then exposed to fire to harden it; the interior walls were painted brown, white or red. All the structures in a settlement were erected in concentric circles around the central “square.” Once in fifty or seventy years the settlements were abandoned and the people moved elsewhere, burning down the abandoned settlement.
The Trypillya people, in addition to farming and animal husbandry, knew metalworking, weaving and pottery. Their copper technology was quite advanced. A wide variety of implements made of copper or flint — knives, axes, bores, scrapes, sickles and others, and they are a good indication that various crafts were developed in the Trypillya culture to quite an advanced level. “Shops” were set separately and some distance away from dwellings, close to the quarries or deposits of ore. The Trypillya people invented the potter’s wheel and two-tier ovens for baking their earthenware. The earthenware vessels and other items were painted and decorated with ornaments which have preserved their colours after six thousand years of being buried in the ground. Probably the most important Trypillya discovery was the wheel. In this respect, the Trypillya people were ahead of many other cultures. Some historians are of the opinion that the Trypillya people used draft animals, oxen in particular, for pulling heavy ploughs made of horn. Some of the representations of bulls painted on vessels show them harnessed and pulling what looks like sledges.
Many of the unearthed Trypillya vessels are of elegant shapes and of various sizes, ranging from very small to very large ones. Obviously, they were used for different purposes, some of them for storage of grain and liquids. Some of the Trypillya earthenware artefacts must have been used in rituals; the purpose of others remains mysterious and their significance is highly conjectural.
Of a particular interest are clay models of what could have been temples and of other buildings, of chairs, tables and of what look like “thrones.” They provide, if their interpretation is correct, some ideas as to how Trypillya buildings and furniture looked like. Clay figurines of men, women and animals are stylized and simple in style but have the rudiments of realistic representation.
Trypillya vessels and other artefacts were painted and decorated with ornaments. Spirals are particularly numerous; symbolic representations of snakes and of the sun (a circle with the cross in it) can be interpreted as reflecting such abstract ideas as the flow of time and seasonal changes. Other popular decorative elements include stylized representations of dogs which means that dogs must have been domesticated and used for guarding the fields and houses; at the same time, such representations could have had a symbolic meaning — dogs as protection against evil spirits.
A number of symbols and signs are believed to be more than sheer ornaments — they could have been messages of some sort and thus can be interpreted as the first steps on the way to the creation of script. Some of these signs bear a certain resemblance to Sumerian cuneiform characters.
Decline and continuity
At the earlier stages of the Trypillya culture, settlements were comparatively small, made up of no more than a dozen houses, but gradually some of the settlements reached the size of a town with hundreds or even thousands of houses in it. In the 1960s, in the Land of Umanshchyna, Cherkasy Oblast, thanks to aerial photography huge Trypillya settlements, spread over areas of many hectares, were discovered — Sushkivka, 27 hectares; Chycherkozivka, 50 hectares; Pyanizhkove, 60 hectares; Kosenivka, 70 hectares; Vilkhovets, 110 hectares; Dobrovody, 250 hectares; Maydanetske, 270 hectares; Nebelivka, 300 hectares; Talyanka, 450 hectares (there are two and a half acres in a hectare).
In March 2002, the entire area of 2,045 hectares with these settlements concentrated in it, was given a status of a national culture preserve, Trypilska kultura (Trypillya culture).
The new methods and sophisticated technology used in determining historical dates enable us to get a more clear picture of the position of the Trypillya culture among other contemporaneous European cultures and cultures in other parts of the world.
The discovery of Trypillya settlements of enormous sizes which may, in fact, be called towns and which date to the fourth millennium BCE, make them unique for their time. No settlements of such sizes have been discovered so far neither in Mesopotamia nor in Egypt, the seats of the world’s most ancient civilizations. The major cities of the Indus Valley, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa arose about a thousand years later, in the mid-third millennium BCE.
After 3,500–3,300 BCE a decline of the Trypillya culture began. The reasons for the decline are not clear, but it coincided with the considerable changes in climate which brought the average temperatures down. The Trypillya people must have begun moving to other areas, losing most of their cultural and technological achievements in the process. But some of them were nevertheless preserved for posterity.
There is a growing number of historians who are of the opinion that basic features of the Trypillya culture found their reflection in the types of houses built in Ukraine in the early medieval and later times, in the ornaments used to decorate earthenware, in the cosmogonic and other symbols to be found in Ukrainian embroidery, painted Easter eggs, in the way houses were painted and decorated, even in traditions and customs. They argue there is a traceable continuity from the Trypillya culture down through the ages to the culture of Ukraine in the medieval and quite recent times. Whether these cultural features were passed on from generation to generation through the intervening cultures — Sarmatian, Scythian, etc., or whether there are direct genetic links between the Trypillya people and the people of today’s Ukraine is for the future science to establish, but some obvious cultural links are apparent even now to the discerning eye of the scholar.
Photos by Yury Tymochko
and from archive of Tovarystvo Kolo-Ra
There is a Ukrainian society, Tovarystvo Kolo-Ra, which promotes knowledge about the Trypillya culture, engages in reconstruction of the Trypillya ceramics and organizes sightseeing tours. Established in 1994 in Kyiv, the society gathers all the relevant information that comes from archaeological excavations, research, and historical studies and makes it available to all those who may be interested in the ancient history of Ukraine.
The Kolo-Ra Society organizes bus tours:
Zoloty vinok Kyivshchyny (Golden Garland of the Land of Kyivshchyna)
1- or 2-day tours
Kyiv — Trypillya with a visit to the Regional History Museum — Rzhyshchiv with a visit to archaeological excavations sites and ceramics reconstruction shops — Kaniv with a visit to the Pereyaslav Historical-Ethnographic Preserve — Kyiv
Kyiv — Trypillya — Rzhyshchiv — Kaniv — Pereyaslav-Khmelnytsky — Cherkasy — Talne with a visit to the Trypillya “proto-towns” — Uman — Vynnytsya — Ternopil — Verteba Pechera (Cave) — Kyiv
Kyiv — Trypillya — Rzhyshchiv — Pereyaslav-Khmelnytsky — Cherkasy — Talne with a visit to the Trypillya “proto-towns” — Uman — Nemyriv — Vynnytsya — Kamyanets-Podilsky — Ternopil — Verteba Pechera (Cave) — Ivano-Frankivsk — Kyiv
Kyiv — Uman — Talne — Odesa — Kyiv
If you join a tour that takes you to the town of Rzhyshchiv in early July, you can become a witness of an exciting festival, Rzhyshchivsky vinok (Rzhyshchiv Chaplet), the events of which include: a fair with a great selection of applied and decorative art wares; a folk song-and-dance contest: historical boats shows Princess Olga and Svarog; exhibitions of traditional and historical dress and of reconstructed ancient ceramics; an archaeological conference; making earthenware and ceramics vessels and baking in the Trypillya oven reconstructed for this purpose; looking for and picking medicinal herbs; ancient pagan rites, excursions, and other curious and edifying happenings.
The Tovarystvo Kolo-Ra Society has been engaged in archaeological excavations carried out jointly with the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. In the past five years, 12 new Trypillya settlements have been discovered and the foundations of several houses have been unearthed.
A historical and archaeological complex is planned to be created in the vicinity of Rzhyshchiv, in which ancient houses and household items from the times of the Trypillya culture, Bronze Age, ancient Slavs and Kyivan Rus will be recreated as faithfully as it is possible and put on public display.
The Tovarystvo Kolo-Ra Society is carrying out a project, Trips to the Ancient Cultures and Traditions of Eastern Europe, which is supported by the Embassy of Canada in Ukraine and by the Fund Ukrayina 3000.