ZEPTERTRÄGER – HERRSCHER DER STEPPEN. DIE FRÜHEN OCKERGRÄBER DES ÄLTEREN ÄNEOLITHIKUMS IM KARPATEN-BALKANISCHEN GEBIET UND IM STEPPENRAUM SÜDOST- UND OSTEUROPAS, by BLAGOJE GOVEDARICA
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, it was widely accepted that steppe nomads from the North Pontic zone invaded the Balkans, putting an end to the Climax Copper Age society that produced the apogee of tell living, autonomous copper metallurgy and, as the grandest climax, the Varna cemetery with its stunning early goldwork. Now the boot is very much on the other foot and it is the Varna complex and its associated communities that are held responsible for stimulating the onset of prestige goods-dominated steppe mortuary practice following the expansion of farming.
In fact, it is not so simple as that, as Blagoje Govedarica’s latest monograph reveals in a new twist to the continuing saga of relations between settled Climax Copper Age communities and mobile steppe pastoralists. The author charts a series of evolving 5th millennium cal BC interactions in a vast social network linking the steppe and the sown in an area stretching from the Hungarian Plain in the West to the Caspian shores of Kalmykia in the East. He does this in a thoroughly systematic manner, where every claim is fully documented by text and pictures - a trifle reminiscent of Bognár-Kutzian’s (1963) Tiszapolgár-Basatanya monograph. It was Govedarica’s recognition that the three principal models for their interaction - Gimbutas’ invasion model, Lichardus & Lichardus-Itten’s peaceful interaction/acculturation through movement of people and Renfrew’s autonomy of the South East European Copper Age - had led to a cul-de-sac by the 1990s that led him to a re-evaluation of one of the most complex problems of Balkan – steppe prehistory: the origins and social significance of the Early Ochre Grave complex – seemingly the first mortuary manifestation of farmer – steppe interactions in the Balkan Copper Age.
There are not many sites classifiable as part of the Early Ochre Grave complex – currently 38 mortuary sites and seven stray finds of polished stone sceptres, maybe totalling 100 graves with the inclusion of all ambiguous sites – and this is not many in a time-span of 650 years (4650-4000 cal BC) and an area of 10,000 km2 (or one burial act per 65,000 km2/years!). Moreover, the local socio-cultural milieu where such burial acts took place were extremely varied, ranging from fully sedentary agro-pastoral tell-dwellers in South East Bulgaria to semi-mobile hunter-gatherers in the steppe East of the Don. This point has led to an important debate over the spatial scale at which these burials should be viewed: while Gimbutas placed all the Ochre Graves in her 1st Kurgan Wave, Mallory interpreted them as a mobile group trading lithics and copper; others, such as Alekseeva, grouped these graves into local units, while, by contrast, Necitajlo conceived of a meta-cultural entity of the North Pontic – North Caspian zone, with smaller sub-units relating to different regional cultures. This problematic has led Govedarica to formulate research questions in which typology and chronology are more prominent than social structure and economy. The aims of book are to define the cultural content and context of Early Ochre Graves, using a detailed comparison of the Ochre-Graves with local mortuary traditions. In this, the author is notably successful, with one proviso. The majority of the graves lack AMS 14-C dates and there are many graves with red ochre that are thought to be later than these graves: how can Govedarica be sure that those graves usually dated to the Transition Period or even the Early Bronze Age do not form part of this complex?
The Ochre Graves are divided into five groups, defined on the basis of visual location:- a Carpathian group consisting of six sites (five sites in Western Transylvania and one in the GHP), with one cemetery, three isolated graves and two single finds; a NW and W Pontic group, consisting of 11 sites between the Dniestr and the Marica, with three grave groups, six isolated graves and two single finds; a North Pontic – Azov group, consisting of 11 sites between the Dniepr and the Don, with six grave groups and five isolated graves; a Volga – Caspian group, consisting of six sites between the Lower Volga and Kalmykia, with one grave group and five isolated graves; and, finally, a North Caucasian group, consisting of 11 sites from Caucasian lowlands and mountains, with one grave group, seven isolated graves and three single finds. For each group, site descriptions are provided by way of geographical location, history of investigations and grave-by-grave descriptions, though, unfortunately, no summary is presented at the end of each group description. This is a valuable part of the book, since the materials are widely scattered and published unevenly. The most important part of this chapter is the first detailed publication, for the first time, of the key mortuary site of Giurgiulesti, previously presented in outline by Haheu & Kurciatov in 1993. The discovery of rich Early Copper Age finds under Tumulus 2, in the context of two ‘cult places’ and five rich graves (3 catacomb graves and 2 shaft graves), has shifted perceptions of Ochre Graves in favour of the Eastward spread of prestige grave goods from Varna.
Unfortunately, no AMS dates are published for Giurgiulesti but the author publishes two new dates for other important sites: an AMS date for Grave 12, Decea Muresului, with a stone sceptre, flint blade, copper needle, Unio necklace & one vessel (5380±40 BP: 4335-4085 cal BC at 2 sigmas: KIA 368); and an AMS date for the grave at Cainari (5580±50 BP: 4511-4339 cal BC at 2 sigmas: KIA 369). Both dates confirm the position of the Ochre Grave complex in the early- to middle- 5th millennium cal BC.
In Chapter III, the author turns to the investigation of Early Ochre Grave mortuary practices. The 38 well-defined sites contain 82 graves with 92 bodies, making a mean number of burials per site a low 2.2. The commonest type of mortuary site was the isolated grave, with 24 examples, then the grave groups (containing 2 – 5 graves) and lastly the three cemeteries of Decea Muresului, Petro-Svistunovo and Jama. Three grave types were utilised: tumulus burial, flat grave with a catacomb and flat grave with a pit. Grave pits can be 5m deep but mostly shallow (0.20 – 0.70m deep). Shallow rectangular pits were found mostly under tumuli. Exceptionally, a stone stele was found at Capli, while a monumental stone slab was excavated at Novodanilovka.
Over 90% of bodies were buried as extended inhumations on the back; in only one grave were burnt bones found (Mariupol Grave 21a); this was the only grave lacking red ochre strewn over the body. Unfortunately, few modern physical anthropological investigations have been carried out: of the 92 bodies, 10 adult males, two adult females, 18 children and one newborn were identified. Using diagnostic artifactual criteria, this count rises to 39 males (34 adults) and 17 females (15 adult). In view of the male chauvinist title, reminiscent of Fol and Lichardus’ ‘Macht, Herrschaft und Gold’, it is important to underline that all major age/sex categories - adult females, adult males and children – were buried in the Early Ochre Grave complex, often sharing the same grave goods.
Setting aside the seven inhumations without grave goods, a relatively high number of grave goods occurred in most graves:- between five and ten objects (mean 7.3), with the highest number 38 objects at Reka Devnja. Three categories of grave goods were distinguished: usable tools and weapons, ornaments and ‘power and cult symbols’ (p. 179). The weapons were buried only with males and children but tools were found with all age/sex categories. Ornaments form ¼ of all grave goods, being deposited equally with both sexes and with children (about 1/3 of graves in each category). Symbols of power and cult included the 13 polished stone sceptres and 7 mace-heads, as well as pieces of ochre, animal skulls, shells (all found in children’s graves) and burnt animal bones placed in offering pits.
One of the most disappointing parts of the monograph was the section on raw materials (pp. 197 – 202). No scientific characterisation research was quoted for lithics, copper, gold, shell or stone, despite the act that this has been a growth area in Balkan Copper Age research for the past 15 years.
The conclusions on Early Ochre Grave mortuary practices was used, in Chapter IV, to make typological comparisons of all grave goods with datable finds from the Balkan Eneolithic. Four finds categories (16 finds classes) were found to date to Pre-Cucuteni III – Cucuteni A, while two finds categories (5 finds classes) dated much later - to Cucuteni AB – B – Tripolye C. This is in harmony with the AMS 14-C evidence, suggesting that the Early Ochre Graves lasted approximately 500-600 years from c. 4650-4000 cal BC. A more detailed internal chronology (Chapter V) enabled a division of the complex into 3 periods: Period I (pre-sceptre period, subdivided into A (Giurgiulesti) and B (Capli - Cainari)) – an important period found only in the West, North and Northwest Pontic; Period II (mace-head period) – a short, transitional period found only in the Carpathian, North Pontic and North Caucasus areas; and Period III (sceptre and flint axe period) – an important period found in all five regions. This internal chronology shows that the stone sceptres were in use for only about two centuries, although presumably their biography could have been extended as heirlooms for several centuries more.
The main approach to situating Early Ochre-Grave mortuary practices in the wider social context is the systematic comparison of their mortuary practices with those of coeval groups in neighbouring areas. The source material for this comparison is the summaries of major Balkan Copper Age and steppe cemeteries, including the principal characteristics of their mortuary practices, together with a comparison of intra-mural burials in the Cucuteni-Tripolye world. However, it is methodologically hazardous to isolate individual mortuary practices for comparative study, since each practice has an inner logic in its own cultural context. The approach of using socially significant data for purposes of origins research is outdated and is not particularly helpful.
Culture-historical questions, social implications and the cultural and overall meaning of Early Ochre Grave mortuary practices in the Eneolithic period as a whole are treated in the last two chapters (VIII and IX). The author makes a persuasive case for the importance of the East Balkan Eneolithic for the transmission of farming (Cucuteni) and high-status exotic mortuary deposition (Varna I) into the forest steppe and steppe zones. In Period IA, Giurgiulesti is a key burial at the contact zone between the Cucuteni and Bolgard-Aldeni networks near the Black Sea, while, by comparison, Krivoj Rog is the first sign of the expanding Balkan system in the steppe zone. Later, in Period IB, Early Ochre Grave practices influenced the Dniepr-Donets group in the form of Decea-type sceptres, copper bracelets and extended inhumations on the back. Later still, in Period II, local metal objects, such as shell-shaped pendants, at Capli were made in Balkan copper, in comparison with other examples of Balkan copper in the Chvalynsk cemetery. At the same time, there is the formation of a Decea Muresului enclave in Western Transylvania, with seemingly very few connections with the local Tiszapolgár group. It is in Period III that we can see the greatest regionalisation of the Ochre Grave complex. At this time, Ochre Graves emerge as burials of the social elites in their own local milieux. Stone sceptres became important status symbols in this Period, symbolising earlier horse hunting practices. Also in Period III, the first demonstrable steppe influences can be seen in the Balkans, such as the so-called ‘Cucuteni C’ shell-tempered wares.
The major weakness of this otherwise interesting and well-documented volume is the lack of a consistent approach to the social structure of the sown and the steppe. A brief discussion of the three possible interpretations of rich graves - as community war leaders, rich craftspeople or mobile traders – is not really sufficient. In this period, we are told, there are clear signs of social differentiation – hardly a revolutionary conclusion. To what extent were there categorical differences in the grave goods buried with different age/sex categories? How different were the uses to which different communities put the ‘same’ grave goods? The author notes the paucity of parallels for small grave groups (between 2 and 5 graves) outside the Early Oxchre Grave complex. But this small size may well have been the mortuary equivalent of the unsuccessful tell that did not grow beyond 1m in height: time, residential stability, a growing commitment to place and a successful lineage structure are all needed for grave groupings to grow into cemeteries – even small ones such as Decea Mureslui, the existence of which indicates that the conditions for long-term social reproduction were occasionally met. The small number of Early Ochre Graves may well have resulted from social instability or from a different kind of attachment to place in this period, mediated by ancestors linked by long-distance networks rather than by local enchainment.
It is the merit of Blagoje Govedarica’s volume that we can investigate those social questions that he does not himself raise because of his excellent documentation and presentation of the full corpus of Early Ochre Grave materials. This is a valuable addition to the Heidelberg series of research into South East and Eastern Europe and the author is to be congratulated for his timely and time-consuming research.
Review Submitted: January 2005
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