R E L I G I O N H I S T O R I A N
F i l . l i c. E R I K R O D E N B O R G
Translation-Summary by Maria Kvilhaug
The following article is a summary of an archaeological discourse written by the Swedish archaeologist Erik Rodenborg in 1991 about the criticism of Marija Gimbutas regarding her thesis about “Old Europe”. The discourse was written in Swedish, and is only available from certain Scandinavian university libraries, so I thought it deserved more international publicity, so I have made a summary with translations into English.
The Thesis of Old Europe:
By comparing the archaeological finds of Neolithic and Megalithic cultures in Europe and Anatolia, Gimbutas concluded that one may speak of an almost singular culture that dominated Europe, sharing a common system of symbols (systematized enough that one may assume that the symbol-system is a kind of early, sacred writing), a common, goddess-oriented religion and very similar artistic traditions and type of social organization, and that this culture was town-based and interacted through trading routes. Southeastern and Northwestern Old Europe were slightly different since the latter was Megalithic and employed a more abstract kind of art, but these two parts of Europe were still so close in their use of symbols that one may speak of one culture: “Old Europe”. This civilization lasted for several thousand years and was only destroyed through invasion during the late Neolithic, according to Gimbutas. Old Europe was recognized by the following characteristics: It was peaceful, egalitarian, matrifocal (woman-mother oriented) and worshipped a goddess or many goddesses.
“One of the more disputed archaeologists today is Marija Gimbutas…Her main interest since the 1970s has been the study of the European Neolithic cultures that she herself regard as pre-Indo-European. These cultures – which she since 1971 has referred to as “Old Europe” – she believes to be radically different from later cultures, which according to her were the results of widespread migrations and downright invasions, which totally changed the societal systems, religion and culture in Neolithic Europe.
Marija Gimbutas is among many archaeologists, including her harshest critics, much respected for the immense scope of her knowledge and for her overview and mastery over the archaeological material…To this overview contributes the fact that she masters a number of Eastern European languages and that she thus has access to the Eastern European material. As mentioned, Gimbutas is much disputed, but most of the discussion has not touched her theory about “Old Europe.”[Translator´s emphasis].
This has most often been ignored with silence, whereas her invasion theories and the thesis about the Indo-European origins has been fervently debated…Besides a short article by Brian Hauden, the only critical comments about Gimbutas´ studies of “Old Europe”…have been quite sour [ironic] remarks [without any reasons for criticism given]…
Gimbutas has often been accused of idealizing the societies that she is describing, and this accusation is probably basic to the rejecting attitude towards discussing her model…scientifically, it is meaningless whether she “idealizes” or “paints black” her object…The only significant question is whether her thesis offers a reasonable picture of these societies…However, she does not “idealize” any more than that she can assume the existence of human sacrifice..
…it is curious that many accuse her of “idealizing” Old Europe” based on her description of the culture as goddess-worshipping and matrifocal. One may ask oneself which of her critics really think that a female dominated theocracy…is an “ideal” or a “utopia”…
Discussing “Old Europe”
[In order to discuss the theories of Marija Gimbutas one needs to ask the following questions:]
Is it reasonable, based on the accessible material, to formulate the hypothesis that Europe during the particular time period [The Neolithic, 7000 B.C.-3500 B.C.] as a whole was:
Had a female dominated (“Matrifocal”) social organization?
Has a culture that was strongly influences by a goddess dominated religion?
Is “Old Europe a meaningful concept at all?
[Gimbutas applies the concept] “Old Europe” in order to define the particular Southeastern European Neolithic culture. According to her opinion, this could be defined as a “civilization” based on the existence of a…system of writing, a (small) town life and an advanced temple cult…
[Gimbutas, in “The Civilization of the Goddess” (1991) wrote: “It was, instead, a true civilization in the best meaning of the word. In the 5th and 4th millennia B.C., just before its demise in east-central Europe, Old Europeans had towns with a considerable concentration of population, temples several stories high, a sacred script, spacious houses of four or five rooms, professional ceramicists, weavers, copper and gold metallurgists, and other artisans producing a range of sophisticated goods. A flourishing network of trade routes existed that circulated items such as obsidian, shells, marble, copper, and salt over hundreds of kilometers…The rich display of religious symbolism which flowered in central Anatolia and in Old Europe is part of an unbroken continuity from Upper Paleolithic times.”]
Later she extends the meaning of the concept [“Old Europe”] to embrace the whole of Europe before the extensive changes during the later Neolithic period…She defines the concept as Neolithic Europe before the upheavals of the late Neolithic…This culture had its roots in the Paleolithic. Regarding the religious symbolism, there are even elements that she connects to the Middle Paleolithic, and, – in an unusually bold guess – to the Older Paleolithic…!
The Destruction of “Old Europe”
This culture was slowly destroyed, according to Gimbutas during a period that stretches from about 4200 B.V until the end of the third millennium B.C. Rests of the culture survives on in parts of the Mediterranean world, particularly in Minoan Crete. When the Minoan society was destroyed through the Mycenean invasion in about 1450 B.C., Old Europe has in principle completely disappeared.
That great and dramatic changes happened towards the end of the Neolithic is a fact that Gimutas was not the only one to establish…But while the general opinion during the last few years has been that these changes happened as a result of inner social, economical and demographic processes, Gimbutas believes that the major reason for the changes is the expansion…of patriarchal, socially stratified nomad tribes…
An Egalitarian Culture?
Gimbutas´ views on the society of “Old Europe” are obviously controversial. On each of her points there are differing views among many other archaeologists. While relatively many assume that the egalitarian characteristics of most of these culture is rather probable, there are other points that have been exposed to harsher criticism. Before anything else, this has to do with the religion and the “matrifocal” societal structure. One who rejects all of the points made by Gimbutas, is Brian Hayden….[who believes that Neolithic society was] “certainly rich, undoubtedly hierarchical, aggressive and competitive…there is no evidence that society was dominated by the mother…it is erroneous to assume that the cultures of Old Europe were social utopias for anyone but the elites…” (Hayden, 1986).
However, Hayden completely fails to deliver any evidence whatsoever for the actual existence of “elites” in these societies.
There are pitfalls that one should avoid falling into when one is treating signs of social stratification. One is to see any least sigh of difference – in for example the size of houses or burial finds as evidence of social hierarchy. To, for example, decide that “at Lepenski Vir a couple of houses are larger than the rest” is an argument in the discussion about early social stratification (Bender, 1978) is a strange argument, since it assumes that egalitarian societies must be equal to the millimeter, that all houses must to the square meter be exactly equal and that all graves must contain the exact number of grave goods…such a society would imply an incredible totalitarian control…
That some human beings have somewhat more grave goods than others and that a few houses are slightly bigger than others can mean anything. If, however, a grave monument has required the immense efforts of a large number of people while burying only a few individuals, this cannot point to anything but social stratification.
[The critique of Gimbutas employs] an erroneous starting point…it is sadly a quite common method to employ the scheme “band-tribe-chiefdom-state” and later try to decide which of these categories a culture belongs to! Thus one assumes a priori that all societies that have ever existed must have belonged to some of these existing categories.
The “classical” standpoint among many archaeologists has been to regard most of the cultures in “Old Europe” as egalitarian…in Europe during the entire time period, there is a complete lack of any signs of social hierarchy…
Differences in house sizes within each settlement seem to vary very little…there are a few exceptions…but these can usually be explained as buildings for communal activities, temples and suchlike.
Even megalith monuments may be explained without assuming political centralization; the big ones could be the result of cooperation between various settlement groups and tribes…this image is not unique to England…with greater and lesser variations influencing the entire continent….
Regarding graves, the dominating impression is that they do not mirror any noticeable social divisions…During long periods of time, collective graves dominate…as we have seen, Megalith graves…have been used as arguments for the existence of chiefdoms…these are pure, unproven speculation…as marked differences in grave goods between individuals [in Megalith graves] is in fact a very marginal phenomenon.
As a general summary, there are no strong or obvious signs of social stratification[in Old Europe, not even in the Megalith parts]…Further east, in Caucasia, we may find a few early examples (between 5000-2400 B.C.) that do not leave any doubt as to a stratified society…but in the time periods and regions that we are treating in this discourse such signs of social stratification are simply non-existent, whereas they become relatively common in Europe during the Bronze Age. In the cultures we are now treating, as said, there seems to be very hard to argue for the existence of big social differences or an authoritarian organization of society, based on the evidence.
In Southeastern Europe, there exists a variety of richly endowed temples from this period…From this one may, if one wants to, assume inequality…groups of priestesses and their close ones could assume a significant social surplus…. [but ] the cultic activities were surely connected to temple and cult and not to particular individuals. Otherwise we ought to have found the graves where the “queen-priestesses” were buried with a surplus of luxurious grave goods…such graves have not been found.
There is, though, a group of monuments that demanded enormous working efforts to build and that could be used to argue the existence of privileged groups in “Old Europe” – and that would naturally be the Megalith graves and monuments (in Malta, Megalith temples)…The question is whether these efforts regarding the graves served the purpose of building collective graveyards for the entire group or whether they were made to construe exclusive burials…
What stands out most clearly is that the overwhelming majority of all Megalith graves and without exception all the greatest grave monuments…are collective mass graves. As an exception, there are certain old Megalith graves in Scandinavia that seem to have been reserved for a single person (Hodder 1990). But this does not change the general picture. Besides, these early graves just mentioned were relatively small and not impossibly built by a small group of people.
Now of course, collective graves do not per se mean that everybody had access to these graves. It is of course possible to claim that, for example, “the leading clan” used the Megalith graves. But this remains as speculations as long as no actual material evidence for the existence of such “leading clans” can be presented, and there are in fact a number of other thinkable options…
Of an entirely different character are the Megalith temples of Malta. They were usually not employed as graves, but seem to be the centers of a cult worshipping one or more female deities…the only grave in connection to the temples was a mass grave for thousands of people…
Regarding most of the Megalith graves many scientists…can accept that they are possibly built by egalitarian societies. It is when monuments that demand enormous collective working efforts such as Newgrange, or the Megalith temples of Malta, that many assume that the society must have developed a strong stratification…”chiefdoms” (Renfrew, 1973). The problem is among other things that this model implies a patrilinear clan system (Sahlins, 1968) that has never been compatible with a goddess cult of the intensity that obviously existed on Malta. The architectonic differences between the Maltese buildings and those that usually signify male-dominated, hierarchical chiefdoms seem also to be great. (Lobell, 1986).
The reason for Renfrew´s and others quest for “chiefdoms” or other kinds of stratified societal models when trying to explain cultures that build monuments that demand huge working efforts seem to be a total inability to imagine that the planning of huge working efforts could happen in a “democratic” manner without a hierarchic structure of decision making in the hands of a privileged group. But that this should be impossible is in itself nothing but an unproven hypothesis.
If the Megalith monuments is the only thing that could be employed as an example of how the collective was forced into working efforts in service of an elite, the claim is in my opinion very dubitable…It could be true, but in the light of the other material evidence about these cultures, it is not very likely.
The total lack of clear signs of a stratified society in “Old Europe” drives the archaeologists who doubt the egalitarian character of these societies into talking about “masked differences”…an egalitarian impression is used to “hide” social differences and conflicts…That serious spokesmen for a hierarchic society during these time periods are forced to employ such a ridiculous argumentation is one of the strongest reasons to assume that the egalitarian model, despite all attempts to explain it otherwise, is the most likely model.
A Peaceful Society?
Social anthropologists and “ethno-archaeologists” usually assume that the Neolithic societies had a tribally based societal organization, similar to that which many agricultural tribal cultures have today. Based on this, they then project the contemporary tribal societies tendencies to solve conflicts with armed combat during the Neolithic.
Whether the Neolithic Europe knew a tribal organization that is reminiscent of those described in the ethnographic literature is simply not known…even if Neolithic Europe was peopled by tribal societies, mirroring later ones, it is impossible to mechanically draw parallels about their tendencies towards armed conflicts. Sahlins describe the tribal society´s efforts to develop friendly alliances in order to avoid strife. It is pretty obvious that these strategies have considerably much more potential for success under the circumstances that were present in Neolithic Europe than with the overwhelming majority of the ethnographically described tribes, whose very existence when they were being studies was mortally threatened by Western colonial expansion. If one takes this factor into consideration there is reason to be highly skeptical towards speculations about a permanent state of war during the Neolithic in Europe.
In his criticism of Gimbutas, Brian Hayden still attacks her opinions about the mentioned cultures being peaceful, [quoting Milisauskas about the Neolithic:]“sometimes surprisingly ambitious evidence of warfare begins to appear…” (Milisauskas, 1978).
“Significant and surprisingly ambitious evidence [for warfare]” actually glimmers with its absence in Milisauskas´ treatment of the signs of warfare during the middle Neolithic period. In the earlier Neolithic period he finds no sign of warfare at all, and the later Neolithic does not contradict Gimbutas´ view on “Old Europe” at all…He begins by mentioning the increasing number of polished axes…yet… all signs of warfare [that he can muster] actually date to the period in which Gimbutas talked about how “Old Europe” was being destroyed by a patriarchal, stratified and warlike culture.
Why [increased numbers of polished axes and axes made from other raw material than stone] should be a sign of a more militarized situation is unclear, and his only argument is that “copper axes were more suitable for cracking skulls than wood-working”…He soon modifies his claim by pointing out the fact that these axes still could have been used to work with wood and that they might have had ceremonial significance. The latter idea is strengthened also by the fact that [the axes] were used during rituals of gift-exchange… He also discusses whether palisades around certain town settlements may be interpreted as defense fortresses, but questions whether these could really have been very effective for defense purposes….
It is in reality very difficult to say anything definite about the existence or non-existence of armed conflicts in the discussed periods. To assume that axes were used to crack skulls…is not a very fertile starting point. That a place is built in a labyrinthine manner (Hayden´s claim about Nea Nikomedia) could naturally have a number of different reasons, especially as we know how the labyrinth played an important role in the religious symbolism in the region. Is, for example, the labyrinthine structure of the non-fortressed “palace” of Knossos a sign of military concerns? Many of the claimed “fortresses” seem militarily meaningless and would not serve the purpose of protecting a town for more than five minutes…
The decisive point of origin for every discussion must be that the Neolithic within the period that begins about 4000 B.C in Southeastern Europe and perhaps a thousand years later in Northwestern Europe display an astounding stability, with “culture groups” of different kinds who preserve their traditions, and often even particular settlements for millennia. Single settlements surviving in unbroken tradition for a thousand – even two thousand years – provide evidence for remarkable continuation and unbroken culture development. In the general condition of armed combat that is imagined by Hayden, such stability would have been impossible. And we are not even talking about walled fortress cities, but open towns.
This situation is in contrast with the late Neolithic, when the various local culture groups quite simply either cease to exist as a local culture, or are changed to the degree of non-recognition during what in this period comes very close to nurture a European unified culture. It is during these entirely new circumstances [that new artistic styles and inventions] spread across Europe with a speed that had been unthinkable a few thousand years earlier. What “strife” that may have happened between tribes and societies during the earlier period were obviously never of the character that they seriously disturbed the everyday life that is the premise for the continuation across centuries and millennia of a “culture” in the archaeological meaning of the word.
It is the fundamental difference between the time period that we are treating here and the late Neolithic development which caught Gimbutas´ attention – and if her thesis is to be scientifically refuted it must be met with more serious contra-arguments than what Hayden and Milisauskas have managed to put forth.
This does not exclude the possibility that armed combat may have happened during the early period. What it shows, however, is that these must have had an extremely limited influence….even if copper axes could have been used for cracking skulls than to work with wood does not imply that they necessarily had to be employed for such murderous purposes. The overflow of stone daggers across vast areas during the later Neolithic gives an entirely different impression, and here I do consider a military interpretation as the most reasonable.
What is the evidence for the claim that the religion of “Old Europe” was dominated by female deities…?
My impression is that there is clear evidence in both West Asia and Southeastern Europe during the Neolithic for an overwhelmingly feminine pantheon…
We have in these regions a rich artistic tradition of figurines, where the major part of the anthropomorphic images represent women. From the Balkan peninsula, Gimbutas assumes that only 2 or 3 percent of the figurines represent men. No one has in seriousness dared to question the female dominance in the material existing on the Balkan peninsula and in the Aegean area…and even today it is a generally acknowledged fact among archaeologists who have treated the question…
…the general opinion since the 19th century – that these figurines for the most part had a religious meaning and were parts of a cultic connection – was severely attacked by Peter J. Ucko in 1968…[who claimed that the figurines] could have had a series of different functions, of which the most important probably [according to Ucko] were as playthings for children!…[Ucko´s thesis] created many followers who in one area after the other wanted to show that all images that traditionally were thought to represent goddesses either did not have a religious or cultic function…or else were impossible to gender-determine…
Today the situation seems to have stabilized itself somewhat. The evidence that the Neolithic figurines had cultic functions have accumulated during the years…We may also see that in exactly these areas where female figurines play a part in the material culture, we also have unusually strong evidence for extremely influential goddess cults in the beginning of the historical era…the figurines were often placed in temples…
The female religious dominance in Southeastern Europe is crystal clear and in my opinion beyond doubt.
The same is true for Malta, where an abundance of female figurines are found within the Megalith temples…the Maltese culture is the only one that combines Megalith construction with a production of female figurines that clearly belong to a cultic connection. Malta is also placed in the geographical division point between Southeastern European “figurine culture” and Northwestern European Megalith culture.
In his criticism of Gimbutas, Hayden attacks her goddess thesis based on exactly the Southeastern European material that Gimbutas presents in her Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe. His critique is hardly serious since he avoids discussing the core question: The overwhelming dominance of female anthropomorphic imagery in a cultic connection! Instead, he attacks Gimbutas for seeing a serious of abstract symbols as symbols for the goddess, without once mentioning the fact that these symbols actually do have a material connection with the goddess figurines – that is, they are engraved into these figurines or on the temple walls where the figurines were kept – a fact of hard evidence that has caused Gimbutas to make these connections.
For example: That the serpent is connected to a goddess cult in the entire region is well-known by everybody who ever studied the subject, but this hard evidence is not acknowledged by Hayden who [completely disregarding all archaeological evidence resorts to modern psychoanalysis and] claims: “if we were to take a psychoanalytic approach, snakes would be clearly masculine forces…all common sense and psychiatric wisdom would associate it instead with the phallus or masculine forces.”
While the situation in Southeastern Europe and on Malta is pretty clear, the entire Western, Central and Northern Europe remains. Here the situation is far from clear. There are very few anthropomorphic images at all….I have not seen…any attempts to make a general statistic over the gender distribution of the images…My impression however is that even when it comes to Western and Central Europe there is an overweight of female images in those cases that may be gender determined at all…Gimbutas (attempts) to argue for a goddess religion that covered the entire European continent. In chapter after chapter she discusses various kinds of symbols and shows how the symbols found in Southeastern Europe…are connected to various goddess types that reappear in Central- and Western Europe (and often in a Megalithic connection).
This connection between goddess cult and Megalith graves is strengthened by the clear majority of those statue menhirs that have been found in connection to Megalith graves that clearly represent females…the few anthropomorphic images that are found in the Megalith graves are female…Other than that the…Megalithic art in general give considerable associations to “femaleness” rather than “maleness” – and to the degree the more abstract symbols may be interpreted as sexual symbolism the “feminine” alternative is far easier to accept than the “masculine” – of course this is a matter of subjective interpretation…
If the above mentioned hypotheses are valid, to be buried in a Megalith grave would mean a re-entering into the womb of the goddess…
Gimbutas treatment of the Western European material is of course speculative. The evidence is not that clear in the Megalithic area…She has still succeeded in making it credible that the great number of similar symbolic material throughout the entire European continent and which is in some cases traceable back into the Paleolithic era, may be connected to female, religious imagery…
There are regions (in Western Europe) that display a quite different image…the Neolithic hunting cultures of Northern Europe…here we find a slight tendency towards male dominance in the anthropomorphic figurines in the cases where they may be gender determined at all…It is possible that this difference mirrors a hunting and gatherer culture in the fringes of Neolithic Europe having developed an ideology of their own…
There are quite strong arguments speaking for Gimbutas´ attempt to compare great parts of Europe into a unifying religious community…outside of Southeastern Europe the image is unclear…her thesis is a bold, but still quite probable hypothesis.
A Matrifocal and Matrilinear Society?
[Gimbutas employs the concept] “matrifocality” as a term to describe the female dominance of these societies….this terminology is unclear…the attempt to present “old Europe” as an entirely gender balanced society…is not recognizable in Gimbutas actual description of a woman dominated religion and a woman dominated society.
This has been noticed by Brian Hayden…her terminology is not consistent with her description…[says Hayden:] “it could well be assumed that she endorses the traditional view of the matriarchal phase of cultural evolution”…a view that Hayden obviously dislikes.
Hayden believes that Gimbutas to a great degree builds her opinion about the Neolithic “matriarchy” in the view that there was a general ignorance about the male´s reproductive role during the period…In reality this question plays no central role in Gimbutas line of arguments…she expresses herself very carefully: “There is no evidence that in Neolithic times mankind understood biological conception”. This careful statement is by Hayden dricen to a violent polemic…”There are copulation scenes in Paleolithic art!”…To picture a copulation does not really imply any understanding of what it leads to…
What one knew or did not know during the European Neolithic is something we do not know. But there have actually existed people who far into the 20th century had no idea about the facts of reproduction…the number of ethnographic reports about ignorance regarding the male´s reproductive role are so many that the only logical explanation for those who deny the possibility of such ignorance must be a global conspiracy among the “primitive” people with the purpose of fooling ethnologists.
But the hypothesis about such an ignorance is in no way necessary for Gimbutas´ theory. Hayden believes it is, who after believing himself to have successfully argued against it, writes:…”If it takes both the masculine and the feminine principles to create life in this world, it is also logical to expect the same in the realm of the Sacred”….Really? Despite the fact that both Moslems and Christians for millennia have known that “it takes both masculine and feminine principles”…this has in no way prevented them from singularly worshipping a male god…
The idea of a matrifocal culture is by Hayden dismissed with the following argument: “matriarchal societies are unknown within the ethnographic present…it appears that men hold the critical reins of power in traditional societies…”
That female dominated societies are unknown in the ethnographic material is in itself a dubitable claim…more significant is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the ethnographic material describes cultures that for centuries have experienced (mildly speaking) tremendous upheavals as a result of the confrontation with Western colonization and in many cases also directly or indirectly for millennia been influenced by non-Western strong states…or patriarchal, shepherding nomad tribes. We live in an entirely different world than the one that existed during the European Neolithic and have been doing so for thousands of years…It is probable that the contemporary tribal societies…are mere shadows of what they once were…
That men have owned the weapons in all societies is perhaps possible…but it is in fact very seldom a connection between the wielding of weapons and the ruling of societies. Not even military dictatorships are ruled by the soldiers – but by the generals. In Australia, it is usually thought that the elder men have the greatest power – despite the fact that the younger are stronger and use the weapons. Among the Iroquis the men owned and wielded the weapons – but the women owned the houses and the land, controlled the long houses and decided who were to be (the in reality nearly powerless) “chiefs”, and the women had all the benefits in the case of marital conflicts. That the men then defended this female dominated society against external enemies seem to have had no effect whatsoever on the power of the women…
Regarding matrilineality…this is a system that is not directly mirroring the material world. It is reasonable to assume that such a strong position for the women of the region (which is obvious in Southeastern Europe and probable in Western Europe) is incompatible with a patrilineal clan system…[since Rodenborg wrote this discourse, a lot of genetic studies on Neolithic and Megalithic graves have shown that the norm of the Neolithic was that women in a settlement were related to each other while men came from outside – this is good evidence for matrilineality – men, not women, had to live with the in-laws.]
Matrifocality could..be discussed among other things with basis in the religion. That there is always a connection between the divine world and the social and political structures of society is generally well established from the ethnographic evidence…That the Neolithic should be entirely different is not very probably. There are still many scientists who accept the fact that the figurines mirror a female cult, yet who do not wish to make any conclusions about the social organization based on this fact.
These attempts to avoid the perspectives that are opened by the archaeological material sometimes lead to rather absurd reasoning…
In Southeastern Europe, the settlements and the houses were dominated entirely and without exception by an overwhelmingly female symbolism in the shape of vases, figurines, etc, connected to the houses and often specifically to the stove (Hodder, 1990)…The houses are the centers of the entire culture…had a complex architecture and were often decorated…the graveyards connected to the towns give no possible opening to any display of male prestige – often they are dominated by children´s graves and the grave goods are meager…Graveyards do not exist during the early period…much later…a few graveyards very far outside the settlements show up with a strong male dominance, with prestigious grave goods material and with a strong polarization into poorer and richer graves…Hodder views this as an example of how an alternative to the domus-ideology appears – an alternative filled with male symbolism – starts to develop. This still happens at the same time as the houses dominate the picture, that is, “domus” in Hodder´s terminology is the focus of society. [Says Hodder, with the extreme caution typical of archaeologists dealing with female-dominated evidence:] …”I certainly cannot say whether these societies were matrilineal, matrilocal or matriarchal…to put it over-simply, women may or may not have had any real power in the Neolithic of Southeastern Europe, but certain aspects of being a woman were conceptually central…”
If certain productive activities always are connected to a female symbolism in the archaeological material, it is still possible that it was in reality produced by men. This extreme carefulness would, if it was consistently applied to for example the Swedish Iron Age, totally revolutionize all archaeological studies about the relationship between the sexes [i.e. “even if the symbolism is masculine, kings and warriors could have been women, etc”]. To be exact, this line of argumentation would render impossible any conclusions about real social relations and the archaeologists would hereafter only study symbolic systems…
The Transition Phase of the Late Neolithic
[Gimbutas spoke of a transition phase from the matrifocal goddess civilization to a patriarchal, hierarchic society with an entirely new symbolic system during the late Neolithic. Says Rodenborg about what Hodder says:]
In the next phase the whole structure is destroyed…in Eastern Hungary…the figurines disappear, the ceramics is suddenly undecorated and simple, the houses are less well constructed and the town settlements disappear…suddenly there are fortress walled settlements where the graveyards dominate the archaeological material. In these the male graves are richer than the female graves and contain, for example, images of wheeled wagons…Hodder concludes that “the emphasis is on burial, men, cattle and individual display.”
Hodder continues then, analyzing the opposition between “domus” and “agros” in the rest of Europe. Just like with Gimbutas in a different context, the argumentation becomes less crystal clear in the rest of Europe, but at least in Central Europe Hodder succeeds to document a transition phase from a “domus” to an “agros” ideology in a quite satisfactory manner. The same way as in the Southeastern cities, long houses dominate the archaeological material in the early Neolithic…usually undecorated…figurines appear infrequently…yet we have a society where “domus” is central…
Both the graves and the ritual places represent the domus ideology, while an increase in the importance of the hunt and a certain increase in the number of battle axes indicate that something is about to happen…the final transition arrives…the settlements disappear, the graves are individual, grave goods have a strong overweigh to battle axes…in Hodders words: “the idiom of social debate is now warring, hunting and drinking.”
Hodder is clearly conscious about this being a transition so radical that an invasion hypotheses could seem to be the most reasonable alternative. Especially, there is the aspect or a widespread cultural similarity. His conclusion is different though…: The elites grew from the inside and apply a foreign status symbolism so that they will act as conquerors…if this model is more credible than the invasion theory is debatable. The character of change in ideology that Hodder places towards the end of the Neolithic repeats itself in Scandinavia, France and the British Isles.
There are parallels between Hodder and Gimbutas. Both describe a Neolithic Europe where a female symbolism and a strong ideological emphasis is places on the settlement, the “safe”, being replaces by a warlike, individualistic, “wild” and masculine symbolism. They are also generally in agreement about when this transition happened. Hodder´s “domus” thesis is consistent with few exceptions with Gimbutas´ “old Europe” and his “agrios”-phase with her “Kurgan culture”. The difference between them is in reality two things: Firstly, Hodder never really says anything about power relations, except when it comes to the symbolic (female dominated) system. Secondly, he does not have an invasion theory, but postulates a process where an agrios-ideology gradually undermines society…
Was Europe “matrifocal” and matrilineal? The later question depends, obviously, on the latter, since I do not believe that a matrifocal culture could be anything but matrilineal (on the other side, a matrilineal culture is not necessarily matrifocal!). It is impossible to answer those question unambiguously. I believe that one could, with a certain degree of certainty, assume that a “matrifocal” situation existed in Southeastern Europe and great parts of the Mediterranean areas. I personally think that there was probably a similar situation even in Central and Western Europe, but the argumentation is quite uncertain in these areas. The alternative would be that the Megalith areas had developed some sort of chiefdoms whereas Southeastern Europe and possible Central Europe were matrifocal tribal societies, partly reminiscent of the matrilineal and matrilocal indigenous cultures such as the Pueblo and the Iroquis. An argument against this hypothesis would be that there are great architectural differences between the Classical chiefdoms and many Megalith cultures.
However we look at the position of women in “Old Europe” there is a general agreement among archaeologists that the position of women towards the end of the Neolithic became weaker. The plow had its breakthrough in agriculture across great parts of Europe and there was an increasing significance of herds, and milk products became common…there is in fact nothing that excludes women from having played a central part in a plowing agriculture – or that they may have played a central part of society even if they did not perform certain productive kinds of work…
However, through Hodder´s observations and a series of other facts, such as the increasing signs of widow burials in the archaeological materian (Gimbutas, 1977), we do get the image of a very dramatic decrease in women´s status towards the end of the Neolithic.
Ginbutas regards the Minoan Crete to be the last outpost of “Old Europe”…a very complex society, a developed cosmopolitan lifestyle, a writing system, extensive trade…and a well developed administration. That Gimbutas still counts it as “Old Europe” is based on the fact that the religion, the symbolism and the strong position of women, the absence of militarism, all maintain a series of aspects that otherwise disappeared when the Old European culture disintegrated. Linear A…according to linguists not a Indo-European language…strong internal similarities with the “proto-language” that existed on the Balkan peninsula during the Neolithic…
Was Minoan Crete peaceful? We do not know, but there is a lot to argue for it having been considerably more peaceful than the surrounding cultures of the region…it completely lacks fortressed walls…knives have been found in graves…the palaces were often exposed to fire…there are speculations that it was exposed to invasion…if that was the case it is even more strange that no fortressed walls were build to prevent new invasions…
Brian Hayden takes up the Minoan “colonization” of the islands of the regions and claims that “it is difficult to imagine such an event as occurring without recourse to military means.” But it is in no way clear that, for example, Thera was a Minoan “colony”…it could just as well be a matter of cultural similarity caused by trade and intense cultural contact. Another significant observation one may make is the Minoan art, contrary to the Mycaenean, Assyrian, Egyptian and the Babylonian, never described military events. If the Minoans waged war, they certainly did not idealize their warfare. Everything speaks for the fact that the Minoan culture was remarkably peaceful for a high civilization during the second millennia B.C.
To call the Minoan culture egalitarian is on the other hand absurd..The “functional” privileges that one could only guess existing in a possible priesthood on the Balkan peninsula, are in Crete quite obvious. But these privileges did not seem to be based on private rights to property…it appears to have been a collectivist social organization. The actual inequality in Crete seem to have been in favor of those who were connected to the temple cult and the political administration, people who came to enjoy certain “functional” privileges…this did not imply that the rest of the population lived in extreme poverty…excavations rather display an unusually high general standard of living for prehistoric conditions.
An eventual “matrifocal” feature is strengthened by such facts that women not only are pictured more than men, but also in positions that indicate significant power to a much stronger degree than any male image. In this, the archaeological material is singular and unambiguous. (A bizarre addition: an elementary textbook, used among other things as course literature at the university of Stockholm, claims, contrary to all accessible material and contrary to the general opinion…that we cannot say anything about this religion at all except that it practiced human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism!…)
The overwhelming majority of images showing people participating in cultic activities, depict women. This cult seems overwhelmingly focused on female deities – no male figurines in cultic connections are found whatsoever. Willets (1977) suggests that Minoan Crete may have been a theocracy ruled from the temple of Knossos with priestesses as the highest authority. There are absolutely no images that indicate anything that would imply a male king. How the relations were between the sexes on an everyday basis, we do not know…
[But as Rodney Castleden (1999) reasons:] “Since Minoans of both sexes were accustomed to see such images, images of suppliant, subordinate males worshipping dominating females, it is reasonable to assume that the images reflect a more general social attitude. But whether women were dominant outside the religious sphere is impossible to say…religion was obviously of prime importance in the Minoan thought-workd and pre-eminence in the religious sphere might be argued to lead directly to pre-eminence in the temporal world.”
Is “Old Europe” a Meaningful Concept?
The question is whether it as a concept corresponds to a coherent phenomenon. If Gimbutas´ invasion theory is correct, there would be no doubt that it did. Because in that case we have a cultural continuity that is broken apart from outside and replaced by a new, basically foreign culture…no matter why the extreme changes that happened during the late Neolithic took place, it is clear that we are dealing with the end of something and the beginning of something else.
We observe what is obviously a drastic militarization of Europe, which is mirrored in an extensive production of weapons…the first depictions of weapons…the disappearance of the female figurines…coinciding with the signs of collective ritual activities in the archaeological material dwindles across vast areas…the end to the collective burial customs in Western Europe and its replacement by more individual graves…a new phenomenon in patriarchal chief-burials where women, children and cattle follow the man into the grave, together with other grave goods…a weaker emphasis on houses and settlements and a stronger emphasis on (male dominated) graveyards…a very swift spread of new cultural elements…and the creation of what during a period almost becomes a singular European culture. We see what may have made this possible – the domestication of the horse on the southern Russian steppes and its relatively quick spread across Europe.
Something had happened: It is possible to divide to distinct periods. Gimbutas name the older period “Old Europe” and what comes afterwards as a “Kurganized” culture. Hodder speaks of a “domus” ideology which is followed by an “agrios” ideology. Whatever one chooses to call it, I believe we have to do with two periods and that there is a “before” and an “after”. In that context I think that “Old Europe” is a meaningful concept which includes a social order which disappeared during the later Neolithic.
Summary: Answer to the Questions
The culture was to all appearances egalitarian, even if we cannot be too sure about the most advanced Megalithic societies.
There is nothing that argues for a militarized situation…combat and strife may have taken place, but contrary to later periods not to the extent that it directly threatened the independent development of various culture groups.
The culture in Southeastern Europe can probably be described as matri-focal. The situation is less clear in the Megalith cultures.
A goddess dominated religion is evident in Southeastern Europe and on Malta, and probable also in the Megalithic areas. In the rest of Europe the situation is unclear. Theocracies are possible in the Balkan, in Malta and in the Megalithic areas, but rather improbable in North- and Central Europe.
As a term, “Old Europe” is not particularly successful, however, I regard a distinct break between the two phases of the late Neolithic as evident and leads to the conclusion that there were two significantly different periods in European prehistory.
If one accepts the basic assumptions of Gimbutas, one gets a picture of prehistoric Europe, yes, of a prehistoric world…with entirely different qualities than the later “prehistoric” and “historic” cultures. It is partly this perspective that has made the discourse around Gimbutas so polarized. Some, like Brian Hayden, react violently against this perspective. Many writers outside of archaeology, on the other hand, are attracted to it even more…But if the discourse stops at a polarization based on emotional reactions it will in the long run be infertile. The material is accessible to everyone, as an actual, material reality. Gimbutas´ theory is a proposal that stimulates new science and new theories…if this discourse creates interest for the questions raised by the work of Marija Gimbutas, it has fulfilled its purpose.
 Rodenborg, Erik: Marija Gimbutas teori om “Gamla Europa”´s samhälle, kultur och religion (Uppsats i fördjupningskurs i arkeologi) Stockholms universitet, 1991
 Gimbutas, Marija: The Language of the Goddess, The Civilization of the Goddess, Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe.