Ancient Marks from Old Europe | Cari Ferraro

Cave painting from the Lascaux complex in Dordogne, France. Often called the ‘Chinese Horse’ for its resemblance to ancient Chinese paintings. The comb-like abstract mark appearing above the horse can be seen in cave paintings for centuries afterward; there also appears to be something like a quill in the horse’s belly.

Alphabetic writing is a relatively recent development, and even in European and Mediterranean societies of antiquity, writing began in a non-phonetic way, for example Egyptian hieroglyphics. Early writing systems evolved with the intention of fixing ideas or practical information for later transmission to others. What makes these particular ancient marks more than mere decoration? Typically objects are decorated with symbols which are arranged symmetrically. But these particular signs seem to be arranged primarily for the communication of ideas, with aesthetics being of secondary importance. Though some in the archeology community would like to dismiss these marks as mere “potter’s signatures”, their position inside vessels, under the brims, or only on one side of figures suggest a different, more idea-based intent. These marks, some of them in rows separated by lines, were incised into clay or stone, as shown in the Gradesnica vessel from the later Neolithic period.

Marija Gimbutas is the scholar most famously known for her work with these symbols. She was an archeologist at UCLA for twenty-six years, until her retirement in 1989, and before that worked for thirteen years at Harvard after emigrating to the United States from her native Lithuania in 1949. Between 1967 and 1980 she was the project director for five major archeological digs in eastern Europe (former Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Italy and Greece). In order to understand the meaning of her findings, she used her knowledge of linguistics, mythology, and comparative religions, calling this interdisciplinary approach archaeomythology. At the time this was controversial, but methods of attaining knowledge have changed dramatically over the last few decades, and the interdisciplinary nature of study has allowed new light to be cast upon old subjects previously restricted to their assigned “box.” Joseph Campbell, the noted mythologist, often spoke of the work of Marija Gimbutas in the later years of his life, stating that if her findings had been available earlier in his career, he would have “revised everything.” Her conclusion, that the importance of female forms in these Neolithic cultures expressed the reverence of our ancestors for the great natural cycles of fertility/birth, death and regeneration, has been revolutionary to say the least.

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