Ancient Ukraine: The Middle and Late Bronze Age

In my last blog on Ukraine, I discussed the Bronze age as defined by archaeologists and focused on the Early Bronze Age as it pertained to the Ukraine. Today I focus on the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. You can read my previous blog here.

The Middle Bronze Age: the Catacomb culture (2800 – 2500 BC)
The origins of the Catacomb cultures go back to 2800 – 2700 BC. The earliest Catacomb culture graves are located in the steppes north of the northern Caucasus and in the Don valley. Over a period of two to three centuries, the Catacomb culture spread west throughout the entire Pontic region, as far as the mouth of the Danube River.

The Catacomb culture is known for its sophisticated bronze weapons, tools and ornaments. There are great similarities in material culture between the area in the northern Caucasus and the steppes. These include bronze pins and medallions

 
Examples of bronze weapons, Catacomb culture (2800 – 2500 BC)

Wagon burials continued in the Catacomb region for exceptional people. In the Ingul valley, west of the Dnieper, as well as in the steppes north of the Caucasus, some Catacomb graves contained skeletons with clay death masks applied to the skull.

The Catacomb economy emphasized pastoralism.  One grave near Tsa-Tsa, south of the Volga, contained no less than forty horse skulls, placed in two rows (Anthony 2007:325).  This presence underscores the importance of the horse at that time. We might also be looking at a funeral feast, where the forty horses may have yielded about 8,000 kg of meat, enough to provide 4,000 individuals with 2kg of horsemeat each. Such a culinary peculiarity is much frowned upon on these shores today, but not so much in other parts of the world, where horsemeat is still considered a delicacy. 

The Late Bronze Age in Ukraine: the Srubnaya culture (1800 – 1200 BC)
The Srubnaya culture or timber-grave culture was present in an areaextending from the Ural Mountains in the east to the Dnieper River in the West. There is good evidence that the Srubnaya people were participants in a trade network extending beyond their own territory. The Late Bronze Age saw a tremendous increase in trade throughout the Eurasian steppes. As one of the archaeologists working in the area put it:

“The Late Bronze Age (LBA) was a period of unprecedented intercultural expansion and trade in the Eurasian steppes. Rich copper deposits in the steppe zone were mined more intensively than before. Ornate bronze weapons and ornaments created by steppe metal smiths were adopted from China to Eastern Europe. Chariots diffused through the steppes to China, the Near East and Europe.

Settlements became much more substantial and archaeologically visible, particularly in the northern steppes. For the first time, a chain of related cultures with similar economies and ritual practices extended from the Carpathians to the Tien Shan.” 

 
 Bronze sword (10th – 8th century BC), engraved with pictograms (seen in detail on the right).

There are objects in the exhibit that point to ideas, perhaps even objects reaching Ukrainian territory all the way from the Far East. Visitors can see a bronze sword, dating to the 10th to 8th century BC, engraved with pictograms. These are similar to pictogramscreated in Zhou Period China during the eighth to third centuries BC. 

What we might have on display is material evidence of the Silk Road that connected east and west, a series of trade routes that would have taken people through the Tien Shan mountain passes. The knowledge of using pictograms may have taken this route from east to west. One wonders if perhaps the sword itself traveled that route.

The Bronze Age in Ukraine was a period of major changes, both in terms of environment, as well as technological breakthroughs. People became more and more connected to a wider world, one that brought new ideas as well as greater dangers. This trend will continue into the Iron Age, a topic for the next blog.

Interested in learning more? Make sure to check out our new exhibition Ancient Ukraine, now open.

References

Anthony, D.
2007 The Horse, the Wheel and Language. How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Shislina, N.
2001 Eurasian Steppe Nomad. In Encyclopedia of Prehistory: Europe, Vol. 4. Edited by P.N. Peregrine and M. Ember, pp. 1240138. Human Relations Area File, Inc.

New Exhibit Now Open! Six Thousand Years of Ukrainian History

Today’s blog post is brought to you by one of our amazing volunteers, Gail Larsen Peterkin, Ph.D. Her article is about our newest exhibition, Ancient Ukraine, now open! See artifacts from the last six thousand years.

Ancient Ukraine: Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations, which opens today, includes 166 objects from the Museum of National Cultural Heritage PlaTar. The PlaTar Collection began in the 1990s, when two wealthy Ukrainian businessmen, Sergei Platonov and Sergei Taruta, noticed the large number of Ukrainian antiquities offered for sale on the open market. They resolved to purchase as many of these artifacts as possible, to preserve them in Ukraine and on behalf of the Ukrainian people. After Platonov’s death, his son Nikolai continued his efforts. The trio amassed the largest private collection in Ukraine, now numbering over 15,000 artifacts. The collection was named the PlaTar Collection, after Platonov and Taruta.

The enigmatic Trypillian culture is especially well represented in the collection—apropos, because over 2,000 sites are known from Ukraine! The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture occupied parts of Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine, during the Neolithic, Eneolithic, and Chalcolithic (Copper Age) periods, approximately 5400–2750 BCE. The Trypillians were agricultural; they grew crops, raised livestock, especially cattle, and perhaps even kept bees! They lived in large settlements of single- and double-story buildings. One of their cities, Talyanki, had a population of 25,000—earlier and larger than Sumer! Oddly, the Trypilians burned their settlements and moved every sixty to eighty years. Copper was present in the later stages of Trypilian culture. The entire culture vanished at the dawn of the Bronze Age.

Zoomorphic Statuette with Wheels

Trypilian pottery is spectacular, with vividly painted ceramic vessels in all shapes and sizes. Some of the pottery has markings that a few scholars interpret as “proto-writing;” unfortunately, we will have to reserve judgment, as none of these pieces are included in the current exhibition. There are, however, dual-cupped, “binocular” vessels and anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures. Stylized female figures suggest the existence of a Goddess cult and an emphasis on female fertility, while a wheeled ceramic bull with prominent horns might represent just the opposite—the bull is a traditional symbol of virility. (Then again, maybe it was just a pull toy …) The Trypilians even made clay models of buildings. Although the ones with horns might be temples, they also reproduced the interior of a house, complete with an oven and storage jars!

Binocular-Form Vessel

Beginning in the Bronze Age, many of the artifacts on display were manufactured elsewhere and arrived in Ukraine as luxury imports. Delicate repoussé goldwork first appeared in the Iron Age; the exhibit features an iron sword, with a gold hilt festooned with feline heads. Around this time, Greek writers like Herodotus began to write about the nomadic tribes they encountered on the Eurasian steppes—the Cimmerians, the Scythians, and the Sarmatians. These tribes spoke Indo-Iranian languages and originated further to the east (hint: remember the Silk Road and Central Asia?). The Scythians eventually settled down and established the Scythian kingdom, reaching the height of their power and influence in the fourth century BCE.

Sword

Many of the material remains recovered from Scythian sites are understandably small, portable, and metallic (bronze, silver, and gold), reflecting their nomadic roots. Jewelry and objects of personal décor were elaborate and finely worked, and they often have Classical Greek, Roman, and Persian designs. This so-called “Scythian gold” was produced from the seventh through the third centuries BCE. Peter the Great was one of the great early collectors of Scythian and Siberian gold, and The Hermitage in St. Petersburg houses many of his most spectacular pieces—thus giving HMNS a potential double dose of Scythian gold this summer!

Eagle-Shaped Plaque

Roman influence persisted after the demise of the Scythian kingdom (around 100 BCE), until Rome itself fell to “barbarians” in 476 CE. Around this time, the Slavic people first moved into Ukraine, filling the Scythian void. Under Byzantine rule, brothers Cyril and Methodius brought Orthodox Christianity to Ukraine, along with the Cyrillic alphabet. The Kyivan Rus’, centered on the city of Kiev, was founded in 882, and Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Slavic empire in the tenth century. During its “golden age” under the leadership of Vladimir the Great (980-1013) and his son Yaroslav the Wise (1019-1054), the Kyivan Rus’ was the largest state in Europe. Its rulers regularly intermarried with European royalty.

Wine Jug (Oenochoe)

The shift from Roman paganism to Eastern Orthodox Christianity is immortalized in several of the objects on display. Although the exhibit includes many Roman-style artifacts, from lamps to jewelry, one glass vessel stands out. It is an exquisite blue, blown-glass wine jug, decorated with ethereal haloed figures. As the focus shifted from Rome to the eastern empire, formal Orthodox Christian iconography emerged and is evident in the later artifacts on display: a chalice; a reliquary; a pendant bearing the image of St. George; an icon of Christ emerging from the tomb; and, dating from the twelfth to thirteenth century CE, an elaborate gold cross depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist.

Chalice

The amazing PlaTar Collection, showcased in Ancient Ukraine, covers at least six thousand years of Ukrainian history! The organizers hope the exhibit will introduce the U.S. to the wonders of Ukraine, from the little-known Neolithic Trypilian culture through the medieval Kyivan Rus’—a remarkable historic foundation for the modern nation-state of Ukraine.

Want to learn more about Ukraine and their history? Check out Dirk’s blog and see the exhibition for yourself.

References

Aruz, Joan, Ann Farkas, Andrei Alekseev, and Elena Korolkova, eds. The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures from the Russian Steppes. The State Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, and the Archaeological Museum, Ufa. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2000.

Soltes, Ori Z. The Glory of Ukraine: Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations. Bethesda, The Museum of the National Cultural Heritage PlaTar and Foundation for International Arts and Education, 2010.