Those Trypilians could show Egypt and Sumer a thing or two

Trypilian Pot 2I must say, I’m not used to thinking of the ancient Egyptians or Sumerians as latecomers in the “civilization” department.

But after visiting the Royal Ontario Museum last weekend and seeing the exhibit, “Mysteries of Ancient Ukraine: The Remarkable Trypilian Culture,” I’m forced to reconsider everything I thought I knew about the beginnings of history.

To say this was a sophisticated society is an understatement. Where I expected perhaps some bits of primitive pottery and rough arrowheads (the culture went back to 5000 BCE, after all), there were large, elaborately painted pots, small models of houses, detailed figurines, bowls and cups, and other sculptures. The Trypilians were already living together in surprisingly large numbers, with a surprisingly complex society of art and culture, when the Egyptians and Sumerians were only starting to stir.

trypilian-figureThis culture was the first to build what can only be called cities, the biggest settlements with populations as large as 15,000 people. They were both hunters and farmers, living in large dwellings, some of them two storeys high. According to the posted information, there’s nothing yet that reveals their political structure, and strangely, no one has ever found cemeteries or discovered their funerary arrangements. But every three or four generations, they would burn down their settlements and move elsewhere.

The Trypilian culture is still not well known in the wider world, even though it was discovered in 1896, near the village of Trypillia, by archaeologist Vikenty Khvoika. Perhaps political matters in that area overshadowed archaeology for a few decades, meaning that the world didn’t get a chance to become familiar with this society.

trypilian-potWhatever the case, we’ve had a good look at it now, thanks largely to the request of Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko. During his election to office in 2004, he met with the chair of the ROM’s board of directors, James Temerty, then in the country as a Canadian observer. Yushchenko, who has himself collected some pieces of Trypilian pottery, asked Temerty if the ROM would put this exhibition together, so the world would finally become aware of Ukraine’s deep cultural roots.

And so it transpired, four years later, with the ROM having the distinction of organizing the entire exhibit, and being the first museum in the world to bring this culture out of Ukraine on such a scale.

trypilian-binocularsThe atmosphere in the exhibit is warm and intimate. Curving corridors walled with lattices of dark wood imitate the complex sworls that decorate the huge pots, each short hallway curving into another section of the exhibit. The largest pots, several loaned by Yushchenko himself, stand on pedestals so observers can circle them and take in the detail of their painted designs. Smaller objects are placed in well lit cases, the figurines gazing distantly back through the glass, and the odd “binoculars” (like two tankards connected together, but with open bottoms) providing an unsolved mystery, since no one knows what they were used for.

My friend and I are always sceptical when some ancient artifact is automatically deemed to be of a religious nature. And I mused, wandering from case to case, whether having a look at Ukrainian cultures that succeeded this one might give a clue to the real beliefs of the Trypilians. Some ideas do survive through folk tales, songs, and so on.

trypilian-playhouseThis fact struck us as we looked at the miniature houses, thinking of them as doll houses rather than ritual objects. We were mystified about why these miniatures were all on stilts or legs, when real Trypilian dwellings stood firmly on the ground.

Then my friend remembered the Slavic story of the Hut on Fowl’s Legs. Could we have been observing the truly ancient root of that old folk tale? It’s an intriguing idea.

The exhibit’s last day is this coming Sunday (March 22, 2009). Rumour has it that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City now wishes to show this Trypilian collection, and has engaged in negotiations. If true, Victor Yushchenko’s wish is coming true. The world is finally discovering that its earliest great civilization may have originated in Ukraine, and not farther south. This could force historians the world over to rethink their assumptions about humanity’s early history.

Egypt and Sumeria, move over!

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(For an account of the exhibit’s opening, and more information about it, see this article originally published in the National Post.)

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4 thoughts on “Those Trypilians could show Egypt and Sumer a thing or two

  1. jas faulkner says:

    Those pieces are lovely!

    It’s interesting that the house is described on “fowl’s legs”. Did they ever mention Baba Yaga by name? (They look more like hooves to me, but why quibble?)

    Also , I am wondering if the Trypilians might have intended for the double goblet to be used once for a special event and then rendered useless as anything except a keepsake.

  2. kashicat says:

    Well, they exhibit itself never described the houses that way. (In fact, they wondered if they might be altars! Which was what started us on our mutual disgust with people always ascribing some religious, ritual person to an object they can’t find other explanations for.)

    It was MEC who thought of the old tale. So if there is any connection, the legs/stilts would possibly have mutated over time into fowl’s legs. And yet it’s interesting that there hasn’t seemed to have been instances of houses on stilts in that region, that I’ve ever heard of. So when you get an old tale like that, and you do actually find something portraying a house as being off the ground like that, you wonder if there could be some link.

    As to the goblet/binoculars — the information we read never seemed to suggest that they originally had bottoms that were then broken. It was because they seemed designed this way that there was such mystification about what they were used for. There were quite a number of them too.

  3. jas faulkner says:

    I hear ya wrt assumptions that an object might have been used for some ritual/religious purpose.

    A side note here: I would love to see a clearer separation of religion and ritual when it comes to describing cultural events. Tambiah and others have managed to create clearer definitions of magical thinking that separates religious behaviors from those that have their origins in secular intent. (Yikes! Nearly used the words “sacred” and “profane”. That’s a whole ‘nother set of concepts that need linguistic retooling.)It would be nice to see the concept of ritual rethought so that the assumption is not always one of religious intent.

    Of course, I could be reinventing the wheel here and am. Boas argued that art for its own sake was not something attributable only to “advanced” cultures. Time to reread Victor Turner and see what he has to say.

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