The data came as somewhat of a shock to me. I stumbled across it one day in The Civilization of the Goddess, a mammoth book by the late Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas about what Gimbutas dubbed “Old Europe” – a culture area in southeastern Neolithic Europe that she maintains was centered around female deity.
Until she had the temerity to suggest that people at some point in the past might have worshipped goddesses rather than gods, Gimbutas had a sterling reputation among academics, even being hired to teach at two of the most prestigious of all American archaeology departments, Harvard’s and UCLA’s. After presenting her goddess theory of Old Europe, however, Gimbutas came under attack by a few powerful male archaeologists, after which her reputation among academics began to plummet (see Spretnak 2011 for a good accounting of Gimbutas’ fall from grace).
Before I get to the data that so startled me, I need to tell you a bit about archaeologists. Like the members of many academic disciplines, they disagree with each other – sometimes vehemently (and perhaps even somewhat more vehemently than scholars in other disciplines). One thing however they all agree on is this: the higher the quality and quantity of grave goods buried with an individual, the higher that individual’s status in her or his society.
Okay, now the data: Gimbutas presents a long list of Old European burial sites, almost all of which show that in Old Europe, those who were buried with quantities of high-quality grave goods – believe it or not – were old women and young girls. And sometimes even infant girls. Women in the mid-range of the age-spectrum were rarely if ever so honored, nor were men — of any age. I’d never heard of any other evidence like this before, nor had I ever expected to.
By now you must be a little curious about “Old Europe.” From roughly 6000 to 3500 BC. this ancient culture area covered what is today Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Hungary and Slovakia as well as parts of Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Ukraine, Albania, Greece and the former Yugoslavia. When it peaked around 4500 BC, says archaeologist David W. Anthony, “Old Europe was among the most sophisticated and technologically advanced places in the world” and was developing “many of the political, technological and ideological signs of civilization” (Wilford, 2009). Gimbutas’ insistence that Old Europe was goddess-oriented, is based to a great extent on the amazing numbers of female figurines unearthed there, many of them otherworldly. What’s more, Old Europe has produced few figurines or other artwork of males, otherworldly or otherwise.
Here are a few of Gimbutas’ examples of high-status Old European women’s burials (with a comment here and there about how the male graves contained either nothing or “only a few tools”):
In western Poland: four older women aged 50 to 70, and a man 50-55 were buried near a house. While the man had nothing in his grave, the women’s graves were filled with jewelry, beaded belts, vases, and other prized possessions.
“In the cemetery of Cernica at Bucharest … the richest grave out of 362 graves was of a girl about sixteen years old….”
Also in western Poland: “huge long barrows were raised” to bury one, lone woman. An example: “At Sarnaowo in Kujavia … a triangular barrow thirty meters long covered a central grave pit in which the bones of a woman about 70 years old were found. She was buried in a wooden coffin.”
In Old European cemeteries in western Hungary, “in addition to the great numbers of vases in female graves, the most exceptional graves … were those of girls and female infants. Boys’ graves were poor and adult and mature male graves were equipped rarely with more than one or several tools.”
“In the cemetery of Aszod, the most outstanding grave was that of a teen-age girl which contained a large temple model of clay with a bird’s head on top, standing on a human foot.”
“The graves of girls and female infants were consistently equipped with exceptional ritual objects not found in other graves.”
“The same pattern repeats in a number of [Old European] culture groups where cemeteries are known. Most frequently teen-age girls were either richly equipped with jewelry or included in their graves [were] items of exceptional ritual value” (Gimbutas 1991: 334-38).
To me, one mystery surrounding this amazing data is why no one has focused on it before (of course it could be that someone has and I just haven’t read them yet). This cemetery data provides incontrovertible evidence that female-ness was highly regarded in Old Europe – evidence no archaeologist could argue with. It also adds support to Gimbutas’ insistence that Old Europe was not a patriarchy and was not ruled by men, and also to her notion that the religions of Old Europe did indeed revolve around female, not male deity.
Gimbutas suggests that Old European women honored with loads of grave goods were either priestesses, or in the case of infant and young girls, members of a hereditary line of priestesses. This explanation however fails to explain why no women from the middle of the age spectrum appear among Gimbutas’ high-status females (any hereditary line of priestesses would, of course, contain women in the middle-age category). For quite some time this mystery perplexed me. It was only after sitting down to write this paper that one possible solution occurred to me: what sets the honored group apart is this: they don’t menstruate.
Unlike menstruating women, the honored women were holding on to their blood – which was no doubt deemed sacred, holy, and extremely powerful. Granted, teenage girls were sometimes part of the exalted group, but they could have been pre-menstrual. Of course I’m sure other possible solutions to the mystery exist. I’ll let you, dear readers, ponder the issue; maybe you’ll hit upon an even better solution than mine.
Gimbutas, Marija. 1991. The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Spretnak, Charlene. 2011. “Anatomy of a Backlash: Concerning the Work of Marija Gimbutas.” The Institute of Archaeomythology, vol. 7, article 4. http://www.archaeomythology.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Spretnak-Journal-7.pdf. Accessed 3/17/14.
Wilford, John Noble. 2009. “A Lost European Culture, Pulled From Obscurity.” The New York Times, Nov. 30, 2009.
Jeri Studebaker is the author of Switching to Goddess and Breaking the Mother-Goose Code: How a Fairy-Tale Character Fooled the World for 300 Years (forthcoming February 27, 2015). She has degrees in archaeology, anthropology and education, and lives in southern Maine.