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!


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


The Phoenicians live again

Tanit bulla from Kedesh

Tanit bulla from Kedesh

The lecture, given to the Toronto branch of the Archaeological Institute of America, was entitled, “In Search of the Last of the Phoenicians,” which conveys some idea of Dr. Sharon Herbert’s wry sense of humour and her cheerful attitude toward her work. Because of course the “last” Phoenicians are still alive today, in Lebanon, and the lecture title was only a play on a famous book title.

But the Phoenicians as we think of them — the descendants of the biblical Canaanites; seafarers and traders whose alphabet became the basis of almost all modern western alphabets and probably some north African — did seem to drop out of both the literary and archaeological record after the conquests of Alexander the Great. There’s a rather large gap, to put it mildly, between the 4th century BCE and the present day, between the Phoenicians of old and their modern descendants.

But that’s where University of Michigan archaeologist Sharon Herbert’s cheerful attitude comes in, because her digs in northern Israel have been astoundingly successful, rewriting a little history, and finding more traces of the Phoenicians on top of that.

It was when she and others were excavating at Tel Anafa, discovering a Hellenic complex beneath the ruins of Roman sheds, that Herbert realized there were elements to the building and its decoration that didn’t quite ring true to a Hellenic style. For one thing, they found pottery bearing the stamp of a Phoenician craftsman. And they unearthed a large public bath with stuccoed walls and a mosaic floor, and realized it was in a Punic style. That’s Punic, as in — Phoenician. And the closest parallel to such a place that had previously been found was in a suburb of ancient Carthage — the Phoenician colony.

What Herbert surmised was that this had been the home of a Phoenician family living in the Greek milieu of the day, yet also maintaining their historical ethnic identity and heritage. But she and her team could get a clearer picture by moving across the valley to Tel Kedesh (one of several ancient places that bore that name), a site they knew for sure had once been under the influence of the Phoenicians. If they found similar buildings or artifacts there, they would know they’d found at least some people retaining their ancient identity even as late as the 2nd century BCE.

And so it transpired. Further digs at this larger site found not only the Phoenicians, but Persians as well. Later history had been aware of one Persian administrative centre when the empire had controlled this part of the world, but that had been farther south. Now Herbert’s team found what is currently known as the PHAB — Persian Hellenic Administrative Building — the site of the northern Persian administrative centre, its walls providing the foundations for those of the later Hellenic edifice. The archaeologists discovered a room where documents had formerly been stored, leaving behind more than 2000 bullae, that is, impressions taken from official seals.

Even more significantly, many of those seals were carved with an “Aphrodite” that more closely resembled the Phoenician goddess Ashtarte-Tanit than any Greek goddess. And these seals bore an inscription meaning, “He who is over the land.” Which meant that the Governor at this administrative centre identified himself in some way with the power of the Phoenicians. They still had that much of an identity.

It only stands to reason, says Herbert. As she puts it, “The Greeks didn’t do genocide,” so the Phoenicians simply remained in their ancient land, gradually becoming assimilated into the overlying culture, yet retaining some memory of who they had always been.

We in the audience followed raptly as Herbert described her own history of archaeological discovery, in both words and slides. And for just a little while, the immaterial shades of the ancient Phoenicians took on more substance as their lives once again intersected the flow of living time.