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Trypillya Culture — an ancient civilization?
Andriy HLAZOVY presents his arguments in favour of the Trypillya culture having been a civilization on a par with the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian ones.
The more I learn about the Trypillya culture, the more fascinated I become. It turns out that history in Ukraine begins not with the state of Kyivan Rus that was a Christian bulwark against encroaches of the nomads from the Wild Steppe into the Eastern Europe, but much, much earlier. It turns out that in the territory of the modern day Ukraine, there existed a civilization long before the Cimmerians and Scythians began to roam the Ukrainian terrains.
Since the medieval times, Ukraine has been considered a country of grain growing. Now archaeological evidence suggests that grains began to be grown between seven and five thousand years ago by the Trypillya people. At about the same time metals began to be produced and horses were domesticated. The wheel could also have been the invention of the Trypillya people.
Patterns and designs of Ukrainian embroidery, pottery and Easter eggs reveal close affinity with those that were found in the Trypillya culture artefacts.
Trypillya settlements looked more like cities rather than primitive and haphazard aggregates of small houses. Trypillya settlements were evidently built according to a certain plan, their houses were big and some of them were more than just one-story buildings.
The Trypillya culture stretched across a large part of Ukraine into Moldavia and eastern Rumania. They did not build pyramids or ziggurats but they left behind artefacts of such a kind that it merits to be called a civilization rather than just an ancient culture. Archaeologists continue to unearth new evidence but it seems that the number of questions that need answers grows rather than diminishes. Let’s take a look at some of the regions of Ukraine where Trypillya settlements and artefacts have been discovered.
The Land of Khmelnychchyna
In the vicinity of the village Bilche-Zolote a cave was accidentally discovered in 1822. Now, so many years later, it is believed to have been a Trypillya shrine or a grave yard.
Back in the early nineteenth century the village and the lands in the vicinity were a part of the huge estate of the Sapega family, among whom you can find, at various stages of the late medieval and early modern times, generals, courtiers, Lithuanian hetmans and chancellors; the Sapegas were among the most powerful magnates of the Polish Commonwealth. One of the Sapega’s palaces was situated in the Bilche-Zolote estate.
Even the initial exploration of the newly-discovered cave called Verteba produced staggering results — in the underground corridors, which were a sort of maze, pottery, ceramics shards and other artefacts were found in great numbers. Prince Leon Sapega invited archaeologists to take a better look. They discovered burials and niches with what looked like benches, whose purpose was not clear. As a matter of fact, even now almost two hundred years later, most of the questions that the cave posed remain without satisfactory answers.
Some archaeologists and historians are of the opinion that numerous signs to be seen on many Trypillya artefacts are in fact a sort of hieroglyphs; however no convincing deciphering has been produced yet. It is not clear whether the Trypillya people had a stratified social organization; neither it is known whether they rose in arms to repel any enemy attacks on their cities, whose population could have been counted in thousands of people.
The fact that very few weapons were found among Trypillya artefacts leads some to theorize that the Trypillya people were of a very peaceful disposition. The presence of slaves in the Trypillya culture has not been established either. It is not clear yet whether the Trypillya people had chieftains or leaders of some sort but it is highly likely they had priests, who must have acted as leaders. Anyway it is what some of the burials suggest.
Prince Leon Sapega became very enthusiastic about the finds in Cave Verteba and did some of the archaeological digging himself. As the amount of unearthed artefacts grew, he used some of his wine cellars for storage. Later, the greenhouse, where his wife grew flowers, began to be used for storing Trypillya artefacts too.
The palace is now in ruins; the collections, which were bequeathed by Prince Sapega to a museum in Krakow, remained stored in 900 boxes until 2001 when at last Trypillya artefacts from his collection were put on display.
The Land of Ivano-Frankivshchyna
A Trypillya settlement in the vicinity of the village Bilshovtsi.
Reconstructions of Trypillya houses show that most of them were two-storied. Near a house in this settlement, remains of what must have been a pottery kiln were found. Artefacts found all around suggest that the settlement must have been abandoned abruptly.
The settlement must have existed for about a thousand years. The Trypillya people practiced shifting agriculture, and when all the lands around the settlement were exhausted, they moved on to a different place, leaving behind pottery, tools and other things — probably for the souls of the dead to use them.
Many Trypillya statuettes and figurines give me an uncanny feeling of inner life; I find them truly beautiful.
The Land of Khmelnychchyna
In the village of Zhvanets a lot of pottery and other ceramic things were unearthed.
Archaeologists are of the opinion that the Trypillya settlement discovered in the vicinity of Zhvanets was a sort of a major producer of pottery and ceramics. They came to this conclusion because of a great number of pottery shards and other ceramic items unearthed — all in all over 10,000 items, which include various jars, evidently used for grain storage. Also, two kilns were found, both of a rather sophisticated kind. Incidentally, kilns of that type were still used fairly recently. A potter’s wheel was another important discovery. It confirmed a high level of development of the Trypillya culture.
Trypillya pottery and ceramic items were painted and decorated with natural pigments of dark-brown, black and red colours.
It is not known for how long this Trypillya “factory” was in existence but it is known that items made there were discovered hundreds of kilometres away in western and southern parts of Ukraine. Some items were discovered in prehistoric settlements as far as those situated on the Rein, Germany. Incidentally, the Ukrainian word Zhvanets is evidently linked to a dialectical word which means “jar.” Is there a connection here that spans thousands of years?
The direct connection between the Trypillya culture, that existed for a couple of millennia and traces of which disappear in the mid-third millennium BC, and present-day Ukrainians has not been established. The Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths Huns and other nomads left traces of their presence, which have been discovered in the Ukrainian soil in recent times. But there is some evidence to suggest that the autochthonous population stayed more or less put, and that means the Ukrainians of today can claim the Trypillya people among their ancestors. It has not been proven yet — but it has not been disproved either.
When I look at Trypillya pottery, decorative patterns, and models of the houses I can’t help asking myself a question: Why is it that they remind me so much of the Ukrainian traditional pottery, embroidery, and peasant houses?
P.S. Ukrainian romantics link the present-day Ukrainians with the Trypillya people. Ukrainian sceptics say, “No, the time span of several thousand years is too great to establish any links.” But the recent DNA research has revealed that the present-day Ukrainians have the same sequence of nucleotides in their DNA as the Trypillya people did.
Photos by Yuriy Tymochko;
from the Kolo-Ra Society’s archive
and from the Platar Collection
Painted clay pot 3,200–3,100 BC.
Trypillya clothes are reconstructed
These Trypillya artefacts could
A symbol of procreation.
Monument to Vikentiy Khvoyka,