The Culture of Lepenski Vir in Prehistoric Siberia


Progenitrix (Serbian Cyrillic: Прародитељка) is a sculpture dating back from c. 6300 – c. 5900 BCE found at Lepenski Vir (Serbia). Today, it is the symbol of Lepenski Vir. (Lepenski Vir Museum) / Photo by Mickey Mystique, Wikimedia Commons

The site shows evidence of a culture which is more than 8000 years old.


By Andela Sormaz


Introduction

Lepenski Vir (Serbian Cyrillic: Лепенски Вир, “Lepena Whirlpool”) is an ancient settlement on the banks of the Danube in eastern Serbia; more precisely, in Boljetin village, near Donji Milanovac. The site shows evidence of a culture which is more than 8000 years old and which included social interactions, religious practices, architecture, and art, with features and layers of both the Mesolithic and Neolithic period. Archaeologists have unearthed intriguing pieces of stone sculpture at the site, some portraying human-like figures and others which point to an appreciation of astronomical events. 

Archaeological Investigation

Situated on the banks of the Danube, Lepenski Vir was discovered in the 1960s CE by a group of Serbian archaeologists led by Dragoslav Srejovic, who was an important contributor to the discovery and excavation of the site. The discovery of 136 residential and sacral buildings dating from c. 9500/7200 – c. 5500 BCE occurred unexpectedly due to the tide created during the construction of the hydroelectric power plant – Djerdap 1 – which is 78 km away from Lepenski Vir. The first excavations, which started in 1965 CE, were not promising. After a couple of months spent on the site, archaeologists finally dug up the first objects. It was the moment in which they understood that the excavation was of a great historical and cultural significance not only for Serbia but for the whole of Europe and beyond.

In 1967 CE, about a year after the first objects and artefacts were found at Lepenski Vir, the public was officially informed of the excavations, news which then spread around the world. Scientists were convinced that what they had found was a trace of a new – and, at the same time, an old – culture which could be a significant complement to the history of Europe. Researchers suggest c. 9500 – c. 7200 BCE as the beginning of the settlement and after that, the culture of Lepenski Vir. Srejovic proposed the explanation of the occupation sequence at Lepenski Vir:

  • Proto-Lepenski Vir
  • Lepenski Vir I
  • Lepenski Vir II (Mesolithic settlements)
  • Lepenski Vir IIIa and IIIb (Neolithic settlements).

Location and Significance

The Treskavac cliff on the left bank of the Danube (Romania) overlooking the prehistoric site of Lepenski Vir. / Photo by Dimitrij Mlekuz, Flickr, Creative Commons

Lepenski Vir is located in eastern Serbia, near Donji Milanovac. The site lies on the right bank of the Danube River, in the Iron Gates gorge – known as Djerdap in the Serbian language. Thanks to the stability of the terrain, the river in the vicinity, the richness and beauty of the surrounding nature, and the exceptional knowledge of the people, the site stayed inhabited for a very long period. The most common food was fish due to the protruding rocks which, by creating whirlpools, made it a suitable fish habitat.

The shapes and shadows of the surrounding hills and mountains, the convenience of the location to observe the “double sunrise” above the Treskavac – a cliff in Romania, on the opposite side of the settlement – and signs engraved on the remains of sculptures, made researchers think that perhaps the first instrument used to measure time was created right here – at Lepenski Vir – in c. 6300/6200 BCE.

Since the settlement was stagnant and its inhabitants knowledgeable, there is no doubt that they will have noticed regular processes of a “double sunrise”. As the researcher and architect Pavlovic states:

The starting point of the calendar was the double sunrise above the Treskavac cliff. From that day, the Lepenians observed how the dawn point shifts to the right and shortens the day, until the winter solstice on December 21 when the sun rises behind the summit of Kukujovo on the opposite side. The process then moves in the opposite direction: the dawn shifts to the left across the horizon until the summer solstice on March 21 when the sun rises above the summit of Glavica, the third important point of the calendar.

(Quoted in Subasic)

The phenomenon has been examined and its existence is confirmed – i.e. a “double sunrise” likely existed more than 8000 years ago just as it does nowadays.

Architecture and Planning at Lepenski Vir

A quartz sandstone sculpture dating back from c. 6300 – c. 5900 BCE found at Lepenski Vir (Serbia). (Lepenski Vir Museum) / Photo by Mickey Mystique, Wikimedia Commons

Multifunctional building structures at Lepenski Vir – characterized by trapezoidal shapes – were used for residential, sacral, ceremonial, artistical, aggregational purposes. For construction work, the Lepenians – inhabitants at Lepenski Vir – used sticks, ropes, and other similar tools; even the position of shadows. Apart from their artistic skills and instincts for the utilization of the space, research conducted to explore these issues show that the Lepenians possessed knowledge in the areas which people, nowadays, would not attribute to people from the ancient world. Architect Pavlovic explains that the Lepenians must have possessed a great knowledge of symmetry, geometry, right angles, even the Golden ratio, which is visible in the exterior and, even more, in the interior of the buildings.

The overall architecture at Lepenski Vir is of a specific shape with all the houses built according to a plan. The shape was trapezoidal with the flooring construction made of some kind of plaster – i.e. limestone clay mixed with animal dung and ash. Stone reinforcements carried the roofing while smaller stones were placed around the hearth close to the entrance. The home fire was an important element at the site. It did not serve for heating only but also as protection from animals. The embers were separated, covered with ash and carried until dawn when they were needed for another fire.

A baking stove – without any significant differences from the ones we use today – is found in the Neolithic period at Lepenski Vir. In fact, the architecture of the houses appears to be similar to the stove. The “house 49”, as archaeologists named it, is situated in the centre of the settlement and built the same way as the biggest stove found inside one of the houses. The stove and the “house 49” were the same square footage – around 1.5 square meters – which raises a doubt: how is it possible that the “house 49” is an actual house?

Flooring structure of a residential house with the hearth at Lepenski Vir – an ancient settlement on the right bank of the Danube in eastern Serbia; c. 9500/7200 – c. 5500 BCE / Photo by Nemezis, Wikimedia Commons

Pavlovic, who was also a recognised Serbian expert of the culture of Lepenski Vir (apart from being an architect by profession), explained that this was a scale model to communicate the ideas on how to construct other houses. As a matter of fact, all the houses at Lepenski Vir were the same. Researchers at the site, including Pavlovic, believe that the “house 49” was a perfectly constructed “energetic machine”. They explained it as a way in which air circulates through a shell-shaped house providing a comfortable environment for its inhabitants – also known as “thermal comfort” in architecture. Architect Pavlovic also maintains that Lepenski Vir is the first planned settlement in Europe due to the exceptional creativity and knowledge of the indigenous people of the site.

Religious Practices

A remarkable fact regarding the religious practices of the Lepenians and, in particular, their connection to death was found on the site. The Lepenians were very respectful when it comes to their ancestors and burring practices. In fact, ancestors were buried inside the houses, under the flooring structure. In the case of certain burials, there is clear evidence of grave-sized disturbances in plaster floors of the houses while for some other burials there are no traces of such disturbances which means that they are younger than the houses which they relate to. Small halls on the flooring surfaces are believed to serve as a way to communicate with the ancestors. Since they lived so close to death, there was, perhaps, no fear of dying.

Some of the mentioned practices can be recognized across different religions nowadays – e.g. the way of burring ancestors in the ground as well as the need to somehow connect with them. The Lepenians made the halls on the floor while some of today’s practices honour departed souls such as lighting candles and performing prayers.

Lepenski Vir Sculptures

A quartz sandstone sculpture dating back from c. 6300 – c. 5900 BCE found at Lepenski Vir (Serbia). (Lepenski Vir Museum) / Photo by Mickey Mystique, Wikimedia Commons

The sculptures found during the excavations date back to c. 6300 – c. 5900 BCE – i.e. from the settlement Lepenski Vir I and were found in all the following layers until the end of the Lepenski Vir culture. Two different configurations can be distinguished on the sculptures: simple geometric patterns and humanoid or fish-like figures. Many of the sculptures were kept in dwellings and even built into the flooring structures at the entrance, back of the houses, or close to the hearths. The latter might be representations of dead ancestors buried under the hearths. As for the rest of the sculptures, they are fish-like – expectedly – since the diet at the settlement was rich in fish.

The most famous of all is Progenitrix – Praroditeljka – which is the symbol of Lepenski Vir. It is the only figure with the complete representation of the human body: head in a human form, clear shapes of the neck, and well-rounded body without the lower extremities; breasts covered with the hands and a symbolic representation of female genitals. The dimensions of the sculpture are 51 x 39 cm.

Interpreted as a male figure, another sculpture, Danubius is a rounded mass with the facial representations of a human, without other parts of the body being presented.

The Family Founder – Rodonacelnik – is a monumental portrait in supernatural dimensions. It is made of quartz sandstone with traces of a red pigment coating on the neck and around the eyes. The sculpture’s dimensions are 52 x 33 cm.

With a detailed representation of the face, neck with the traces of dark-grey pigment, and without highlighting any other parts of the body, the Adam sculpture presents a figural sculpture of a man. Its facial expression suggests a young and powerful being. This sculpture’s dimensions are 23.2 x 16 cm.

The Family Founder (Serbian Cyrillic: Родоначелник) is a quartz sandstone sculpture dating back from c. 6300 – c. 5900 BCE found at Lepenski Vir (Serbia). (Lepenski Vir Museum) / Photo by Mickey Mystique, Wikimedia Commons

Other remarkable artefacts such as pottery, jewellery, amulets, needles, and spatulas were made of bones, shells, and stone. A small mysterious object which stood out – the spherical stone from Lepenski Vir – was observed by a number of scientists. The stone, dating back to c. 4000 BCE, is hollowed out on both sides: c. 6 mm on the upper side and 1.5 cm on the bottom side. Engraved lines on the stone look like the meridians on a globe. The sculpture dimensions are 4.5 x 3.8 cm.

Interpretations of American, German, Italian, Russian, and Serbian scientists about the spherical stone from Lepenski Vir vary. However, what they concluded was very similar: the object is of archaeoastronomical significance and might be related to the solar calendar.

Lepenski Vir Today

The Museum of Lepenski Vir, an ancient settlement on the banks of the Danube in eastern Serbia; c. 9500/7200 – c. 5500 BCE. / Photo by Philipp Weigell, Wikimedia Commons

Today, Lepenski Vir is visited by scientists who are still trying to find an explanation for the Lepenian globe and solar calendar “puzzle”. As one Serbian researcher in ancient religions and archeoastronomy noted, the effort put into the creation of the object is huge which indicates the importance of the message engraved on it, unfortunately, a message which has not been read yet.

There is ongoing research exploring birth principles that have been utilized at Lepenski Vir and it is believed that there are parts of the settlement that remain undiscovered. Artefacts which are evidence of the indigenous people’s creativity and knowledge are exhibited in the Museum of Lepenski Vir in Donji Milanovac (Serbia) and within the Lepenski Vir Collection in the Serbian National Museum in Belgrade (Serbia).

Bibliography


Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 05.05.2020, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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