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Vinča culture: Civilization from modern day Balkans which invented copper metallurgy

Discovered by a Serbian archaeologist Miloje Vasić in 1908., a mysterious tell settlement near Belgrade turned out to be the type site of an ancient, prehistoric society today known as Vinča culture

Photo: Arbenllapashtica / wikimedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

Discovered by a Serbian archaeologist Miloje Vasić in 1908., a mysterious tell settlement near Belgrade turned out to be the type site of an ancient, prehistoric society today known as Vinča culture. Characterized by peculiar sculptures and artifacts, it was technologically the most advanced culture in the prehistoric world and European pioneer in copper metallurgy. Today, it has been confirmed that the territory of Vinča culture mostly matches the territory of modern day Serbia, but also certain parts of Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republic of Macedonia and Greece. During its existence, from approximately 5th millennium BC to 4th millennium BC, it has created and left behind a perplexing legacy of undecipherable scripts, ritualistic sculptures and ahead of its time technological prowess that continues to amaze and confuse archaeologists and historians to this day.

Discovery and Origins

Significantly larger than any other group of settlements of the time in Europe, Vinča settlements were noted for an enormous growth in population and density. One of the largest settlements was Vinča-Belo Brdo, located 11 kilometers from present day Belgrade. Vinča-Belo Brdo counted more than 2000 residents, and made for a life changing discovery to a group of Serbian archaeologists led by a University Professor Miloje Vasić more than 20 centuries later. It was a culmination of an archaeological research and excavation that started 7 years prior to the great discovery in Serbia, and 23 years prior in Romania. The name of Vinča culture has its origins in the major settlement Vinča that was located on the left bank of Danube, an area with many lakes and swamps, chosen as a place for a settlement due to its agricultural and fishing potential.

Miloje Vasić and Vinča territory on a map, Source: www.wikipedia.org

Despite being the most well known, Vinča was not the largest settlement, as remains of bigger settlements such as Divostin with 8000 residents and Stubline with 4000 residents were found as well. During the 1930s, Vinča culture was among the most popular archaeological discoveries on a global scale, with historians and archaeologists from all over the world taking a massive interest in it. The unprecedented popularity of the discovery was crowned with an elaborate monograph by Prof. Miloje Vasić, called  „Prehistoric Vinča“ published in 1936. Further excavations and research continued to take place after WW2 under the guidance of various Serbian academics and archaeologists, such as Nikola Tasić, Vaso Čubrilović, Dragoslav Srejović and Milutin Garašanin.

Economy and Industry

Practitioners of mixed subsistence economy, people of Vinča society were farmers, fishermen, hunters, and unexpectedly, skilled metallurgists. Using a cattle-driven plough, they grew cereals such as wheat, barley and flax, while other sources of food included large sweetwater fish from nearby lakes and swamps, shells, wild berries and mushrooms, as well as boars and aurochs. Vinča herds owned numerous animals such as goats, pigs, sheep, deer, rabbits, foxes and dogs. While some of these animals were used only for food, many of them were also hunted for materials that were used to make clothes or hunting weapons, such as deer for their horns. Vinča was one of the first societies that used livestock as draft animals who provided help in farming.

Vinča house reconstruction and Vinča period copper hunting weapons, Source: www.thehistoryofeuropepodcast.blogspot

Earliest proof of copper metallurgy in Europe was found in type site Belovode in northeastern Serbia, with numerous copper artifacts made in 6th millennium BC. Its copper metallurgy findings made Vinča culture one of the most important archeological discoveries of the 20th century, and led many archeologists to proclaim it the most advanced prehistorical civilization in the world. Thus far, only Vinča culture and certain Middle Eastern herds have been confirmed to have known and practiced copper metallurgy at the time, with Europe falling a few millenniums behind. Considered to be a Stone Age culture for decades, Vinča culture was officially confirmed as a Copper Age culture at World Archeology Congress in 2008. in Vancouver, by publication of research results made by an international team of archeologists from Serbia, United Kingdom and Germany.

Culture and Art

Besides metallurgy, Vinča culture is perhaps best known for its peculiar zoomorphic and anthropomorphic sculptures and figurines, as well as prosopomorphic lids. Made for ritualistic purposes, these art pieces were engraved with writings in Vinča script, which remains undecipherable despite many attempts at decoding it. Some of the most famous figurines of Vinča art include Lady of Vinča, Hajd Vase and Vidovdanka. Both anthropomorphic figurines made of clay, Lady of Vinča  and Vidovdanka represent female face and body and can be found today in the Archaeological Collection of Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade.

Lady of Vinča and Vidovdanka, Source: www.politikin-zabavnik.co.rs

A society of many skilled craftsmen, Vinča period left many ceramics bowls and artifacts decorated with ritualistic ornaments. Many of these bowls were used as food storage and dishes, while small ones were supposedly used for jewelry storage and perhaps ritualistic practices. Ceramics artifacts can be seen at National Museum of Serbia and Belgrade City Museum.

Prosomorphic lids, Source: www.wikipedia.com

Special category of artistic achievements in Vinča culture is the mastery of prosopomorphic lids. Ceramic lids featuring a human or animal face were decorated with geometric patterns and most likely represented a cult of some sort. They had no practical use, which further supports the theory that they were used as a part of ritual or as a religious artifact. Sized 8 to 15 centimeters, heads were heavily decorated on the faces, while the back of the heads had no ornaments whatsoever. Yet, along with the mystery of Vinča script and unexplainable metallurgy prowess, meaning of these, most likely cult and religion related figurines, remains unknown. Vinča culture, along with its many secrets, disappeared in 4th millennium BC most likely in a large scale fire.