The Bodrogkeresztúr culture

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Last changed: May 2007

The middle Copper Age Bodrogkeresztúr culture (all specifications according to the Hungarian chronological classification) was named by J. Hillebrand in 1927. The name derives from the cemetery of Bodrogkeresztúr, Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén Megye, which was investigated by L. Bella from 1920 to 1922. Further research and the publication of additional graves was conducted by J. Hillebrand. Much credit for his research has to be given to Pál Patay who also wrote the first summarizing book about this culture (Patay 1974). The most important book today is, however, a monograph by S. A. Luca (Luca 1999).


Despite of many new finds, the distribution as outlined by Patay 1974 (Patay 1974, Addendum 1) has not changed much. We find settlements all over the Alföld, with most settlements located at the river Tisza and the eastern border of the lowlands. The area between the rivers Danube and Tisza is hardly settled. The north-eastern border is made up of the rivers Tisza and Someş. Single finds occur far away from the centre zone, in south Poland as well as in Transylvania, here especially at the river Mureş (for Romania cf. especially Luca 1999). The southern border is disputed; however, we find cultural remnants as far as the Serbian Banat. The finds from the Belgrade region, however, seem to be imports (Horváth 2004, 68).

The Budapest region is a special case. It was attributed to the distributional area of the culture by Patay, but some researchers – particularly N. Kalicz, J. Pavúk, J. Bátora and Zs. M. Virág – argue conclusively against this. The finds from the middle Copper Age from this region greatly resemble those from the Bodrogkeresztúr culture, but seem to belong with certainty to the Ludanice group which is distributed up to the Bükk mountains (Virág 1995, 89), resp. to all higher regions of northern Hungary which were not reached by the cultures distributed in the Tisza regions (Pávuk/Bátora 1995, 132).

Treatment of the dead

The cemeteries of the Bodrogkeresztúr culture are by far the most important sources for research. Here again, we have to mention Pál Patay who is responsible for the excavation and publication of most locations and who made the Bodrogkeresztúr culture one of the best researched of all Copper Age cultures in the Danube regions. Up to today, nothing significant has changed in his summary of the treatment of the dead (Patay 1974, 36-41), so that his book, supplemented with later research (esp. Nevizánsky 1984 and Luca 1999) is the basis for the following. The most important – published – cemeteries are Polgár – “Basatanya” (Bognár-Kutzián 1963) and Tiszavalk – “Kenderföld” (Patay 1978). All locations in Patay’s catalogue from 1974 and some new finds can be found, along with references, in the Catalogue of Graves.

Today, we know of about 800 graves (Horváth 2004, 71) which are arranged in rows or groups on cemeteries on slight banks or soft slopes. The deceased are subject to unusually strict rites. Besides three cremation burials (Jászladány, gr. 29, Fényeslitke, gr. 4, and Novajidrány) and two symbolic graves (Kunszentmárton-Istvánháza, gr. 6, and Szihalom – “Sóhajtó”), there are only inhumations. The deceased were laid down, according to their sex, in a strongly contracted position on their left (women) or right (men) side, which was noted both archaeologically and anthropologically. Small divergences occur. Nearly always, their head is oriented to the east. Only in the northern regions of the cultural distribution, we find burials oriented west-east which were often laid down in a separate area on a cemetery (e.g. Jászberény – “Borsóhalma”; Polgár – “Basatanya”; Tiszavalk – “Kenderföld”). Two or more deceased laid down in one grave are rare. With these, too many different combinations of sex and age occur for proving special burial patterns. The same is true for inhumations of body parts which are likewise very rare. Here, the skull seems to own some special meaning (”skull pit” from Szihalom – “Sóhajtó”). Finally, the lack of great cemeteries in the Budapest region can be used as one argument for a separation of the finds occurring there (Virág 1995, 67).

There tends to be a connection between the size of the mostly rectangular grave pits and the position of the deceased in society. Obvious differences show up in the customs connected to the grave goods, especially between women and men, even though the spectrum of grave goods seems to loosen in comparison to the early Copper Age, with “rich” women’s graves coming up more often (Nevizánsky 1984, 291 f.). Only with men we find weapons (arrow heads, axes, hatchets), whereas women had more jewellery and pottery vessels, but less tools. Differences are also visible in the selection of items, e. g. boar tusks can be found only in men’s graves while some vessel types occur only in women’s graves. Other typical grave goods are pebbles (from abroad) and pigs’ mandibulae. Independently of the pigs’ mandibulae which seem to point to the field of religious beliefs, the deceased were equipped with meat, as can be proven by many animal bones and also by the vessels which were put into the graves. The vessels were standing in the graves in an upright position, with exception to very big examples, and most of the time, there was only one representative per vessel type in a grave. These vessels were placed in specific spots inside the grave, as it is also true for most other grave goods. Since the deceased were found with their tools at their hips and with various pieces of jewellery, we may assume that they were laid clothed into their graves. In the filling of the graves, often pottery fragments are found.

The separation according to sex is clearly visible in the treatment of the dead. A separation according to age, however, seems not to be given. In the children’s graves, we find the same items as in those of the adults, with exception of the vessels: they are generally smaller. This seems to indicate certain hierarchies within the society. Truly outstanding graves seem to be exclusively those of men who own some sort of insignia, weapons, and rarely, a big grave pit on a special area within a cemetery. The best example for such a “central grave” can be found in Tiszavalk – “Kenderföld”. The arrangement of the graves on this cemetery seems to reflect the structure in society, as it is true for the Tiszapolgár culture (Nevizánsky 1984, 306 f.). It has to be discussed whether we can speak of a true stratification within society.

Anthropological analyses conducted for the Bodrogkeresztúr people prove, on one hand, continuity from local populations going back as far as the Neolithic; on the other hand, a new Mediterranean element is visible, which can be quite clearly discerned from the people of the Tiszapolgár culture (Zoffmann 2001, 53).

The treatment of the dead in the Bodrogkeresztúr culture can be deducted quite clearly from the former Tiszapolgár culture, despite minor changes, e. g. the rigidity of crouched burials. This is true since we find not only major features but also specific details in both cultures. From the following Lažňany-Hunyadihalom culture, we know only very few graves from six places in all; only one of them is located in the centre region (Tiszalúc – “Sarkad” (Patay/Szathmári 2001)). This alone proves something about continuity in the treatment of the dead. In Serbia, we can assign the graves of Vajska whose chronological placement, however, is doubtful, according to new research (Horváth 2004). In Slovakia and the Carpatho-Ukraine, four cemeteries are known which display a significant increase of cremation burials (Šiška 1972).


Settling in the Bodrogkeresztúr culture (Patay 1974, 31; Luca 1999, 76 f.) has been researched only moderately compared to analyses of burial rites. The reason for this is a continuation of settling from the Tiszapolgár culture on, comprised of an abandonment of Neolithic tell settlements and the change to simple settlements. From these, the only archaeological remains are pits. They are located close to rivers and lakes. Due to missing ground plans, the Bodrogkeresztúr people are thought to be mobile stockbreeder societies (Virág/Bondár 2003, 128). Latest excavations yielded traces of settlements, e. g., in Mezőzombor (R. Patay 2002).

Since there are very few settlements, we know only verly little about economy. Animal bones, however, do show an increase of stockbreeding, mostly cattle. The amount of game is about 30%. Proof for metallurgy has not yet been found but is assumed due to the many metal objects, major mineral deposits close by and the already existing local metallurgy in the former Tiszapolgár culture. N. Kalicz who assigns the Bodrogkeresztúr culture to his Copper Horizon 3, even thinks of a shift of the centre of production into the Carpathian Basin (Kalicz 1992, 13).

In some regions, a decline of places in comparison to the Tiszapolgár culture could be noted (Pávuk/Bátora 1995, 128 f.). This, however, cannot be explained with receding populations if we take into account the higher number of burials. Significantly, the end of the culture is marked by the disappearance of all Bodrogkeresztúr settlements in the Alföld and the emergence of new settlements of the Hunyadihalom culture (Horváth 2004, 73).

Find material

The most important finds are pottery vessels and fragments. The vessels were divided into 14 different types by Luca (Luca 1999, pl. 2). They seem to be very standardized despite minor local differences. The most common type, the so-called “milk jug”, is typical for the Bodrogkeresztúr culture. This is a new vessel type which cannot be found in the early Copper Age. The same is true for four-sided cups (Patay 2002) and for vessels with two handles now emerging in all regions of the Carpathian Basin. Most other vessel types, especially vessels with pedestals, are traditionally derived from the Tiszapolgár culture. Especially the vessels dating to the beginning of the Bodrogkeresztúr culture display great typological similarities (R. Patay 2002). The quality of the vessels, however, is declining, although we have to separate finer and coarser wares; these cannot be attributed to burial pottery or settlement pottery in any case. In this respect, there seem to be no significant differences (ibid.; in contrast: Luca 1999, 77). The number of decorated vessels decreases in comparison to the early Copper Age (5-10%), the variety and quality of the ornaments, however, increases (Patay 1989, 34). Typical decorations are net and meander motifs, reminding of the Tisza culture, and spiral motifs covering the whole surface of the vessel, evocative of Cucuteni influences, and finally knobs typical for the Tiszapolgár culture (ibid.; Patay 1974, 19-29).

The lack of well-researched settlements results in a small knowledge of tools (Patay 1974, 6-14; Luca 1999, 79). Types of tools are usually known only when they occur regularly in burials which is a rare condition for all big stone tools but also for smaller items such as spindle whorls. Tools were made from bone, antler, stone or copper. We may name awls, hooks, needles and various flint tools (knives, scrapers et cetera). Typical tools are long flint blades which become even longer than those of the Tiszapolgár culture. They were made from Wolhynian flint, while the low-quality material was used only for making smaller items. The high significance of imported flint is visible in hoards (e. g. the hoard from Kálló (Patay 1960)) as well as in the use of nuclei as grave goods (Csongrádiné Balogh 2000, 65).

Weapons of the Bodrogkeresztúr culture are very well-researched (Patay 1974, 6-14). Axes and hatchets were structured repeatedly, and some hatchet types (Szakálhát) and axe types (with cross-cutting blades: Jászladány; with one cutting edge: Székely-Nádudvar and Mezőkeresztes) are viewed as typical for the Bodrogkeresztúr culture. Just as important are arrow-heads. For the first time, triangular examples appear; those were unknown in the Tiszapolgár culture (Csongrádiné Balogh 2000, 65). They seem to signify an influence from the Tripolje culture and disappear before the Lažňany-Hunyadihalom culture emerges. Usually they are made from obsidian which is used more frequently compared to the early Copper Age (Kaczanowska 1980, 55).

The most common jewellery items are stone pearls (Patay 1974, 15-19). They often come up in several hundreds, mostly in women’s graves. Boars’ tusks can be found only in men’s graves, they seem to be a heritage from the Neolithic and the early Copper Age. The most important metal jewellery items are disc-shaped or ring-shaped pendants. They can be traced back as far as the early Copper Age and are very similar to those from the Balkans or the Aegean. Mostly they are made from gold which is used more often than copper as a raw material for making jewellery. Beside pendants, people wore golden pearls, buttons, rods, rings and bracelets. In addition, we find spondylus pearls which demonstrate contacts to the Adria (Szabó 1997, 53).

If we let aside single finds, some more objects have to be mentioned that occur regularly, such as lumps of paint, ochre, pebbles and pigs’ mandibulae. These last can be traced back to the Tiszapolgár culture and to the Neolithic (Nevizánsky 1984, 270 ff.).

Objects of art are generally very rare in the early and middle Copper Age of the Carpathian Basin. Beside the gold pendants which are sometimes interpreted as anthropomorphic representations, other objects are only vessel applications in the shapes of animals (bears, canines, artiodactyls). They occur only in women’s graves (Patay 1989, 41) and disappear in the following Lažňany-Hunyadihalom culture, where they are replaced with anthropomorphic representations (ibid., 42). Therefore, the dating of a unique vessel from Vadas (Rezi Kató 1998) to the Hunyadihalom period is more likely than to the Bodrogkeresztúr culture. To the latter we can assign a probably anthropomorphic vessel from Szihalom (Szábo 1997, 55 fig. 45).

Metal objects from the Bodrogkeresztúr culture are typologically clearly related to traditions of the Tiszapolgár culture where heavy copper hatchets as well as gold pendants are already known (Patay/Szathmári 2001, 7). The Hencida hoard can be placed at the transition between both cultures (ibid.). Since metal artefacts are very similar typologically to those of the Balkans, both cultures can be viewed as north-eastern representatives of the south-east European “metal sphere” (Virág 2003, 131). It is remarkable that after the Bodrogkeresztúr culture which is very rich in metal objects these same objects become increasingly rare although typologically they do not change (ibid., 9); the gold objects vanish almost altogether. In the later Lažňany-Hunyadihalom culture, only the golden pendants from Vajska (type Traian-Vajska) can be found, and in the Baden culture we know of not a single gold find (Horváth 2004, 64).

Chronological relations

In the history of research, the general placement of the Bodrogkeresztúr culture in the Hungarian middle (high) Copper Age (in Serbia and Slovakia, the culture belongs to the early Copper Age, in Romania to the late Neolithic resp. to a “transitional” period), in between the early Copper Age Tiszapolgár culture and the late Copper Age Baden culture was recognized early on, thanks to some stratigraphic finds. The most important place with a horizontal stratigraphy to separate the Tiszapolgár and the Bodrogkeresztúr culture is the cemetery of Polgár – “Basatanya” (Bognár-Kutzián 1963). Furthermore, some vertical stratigraphies are known where a Bodrogkeresztúr layer was located above a Tiszapolgár layer and/or below a Baden layer:

Location: Székely – “Zöldtelek” (Kalicz 1958, 3):

Tiszapolgár > Bodrogkeresztúr > Viss group (late Baden)

Location: Crna Bara (Tasić 1995, 22):

Herpály > Tiszapolgár > Bodrogkeresztúr

Location: Tiszalúc – “Sarkad” (Patay 1995, 98):

Bodrogkeresztúr > Hunyadihalom > Boleráz

The stratigraphy from Tiszalúc is a key feature in the chronological relations to the Lažňany-Hunyadihalom culture which has not yet been clarified altogether. Although Slovakian researchers confirmed the chronological sequence from Bodrogkeresztúr to Hunyadihalom (in Slovakia: Lažňany) already in the 1960ies and combined Herpály, Tiszapolgár, Bodrogkeresztúr and Lažňany-Hunyadihalom to a so-called Polgár culture with four subperiods (Šiška 1972), Hungarian archaeologists (especially Bognár-Kutzián and Patay) preferred for a long time a partial contemporaneousness of the last two cultures mentioned. This could only be refuted by the newly excavated stratified settlements of Tiszavalk – “Tetes”, Tiszafüred – “Majoros” and Tiszalúc – “Sarkad”.

In the centre zone of its distribution, the Bodrogkeresztúr culture follows after the Tiszapolgár culture and is succeeded by the Lažňany-Hunyadihalom culture. It was Pál Patay who noted a break in the continuous development from Tiszapolgár to Bodrogkeresztúr, as it was postulated by Bognár-Kutzián and Šiška. He defined this break mainly with some vessel features (especially the appearance of “milk jugs”), anthropological differences (cf. above) and changes in the treatment of the dead (stricter rites of crouched burials, clearly separated areas within cemeteries; ibid. 57-60). In terms of a continuous development from Tiszapolgár to Bodrogkeresztúr as well as in the chronological placement of the Lažňany-Hunyadihalom culture, a mutual consent was still not reached. E. g., N. Tasić is of the “old” opinion in both respects (Tasić 1995, 20 f.).

Even before the whole chronological separation of Bodrogkeresztúr and Lažňany-Hunyadihalom was completed, Hunyadihalom elements played a major role with the inner chronological classification of the Bodrogkeresztúr culture into a phase A and B. These two phases were recognized on the cemetery of Polgár – “Basatanya” and verified in terms of horizontal stratigraphy (Bognár-Kutzián 1963). The younger phase is characterised by features of Hunyadihalom pottery (especially disk handles (Scheibenhenkel)) and Furchenstich pottery as well as other features concerning pottery shapes. This classification is valid up to today, even if the chronological value of some features, and the whole classification with them, can be doubted (Horváth 1994, 99 ff.). Partly, chronological systems with three phases are used; their first phase is a transitional phase from Tiszapolgár to Bodrogkeresztúr. In Romania, Bodrogkeresztúr, Sălcuţa and the finds from Cheile Turzii, Herculane II-III and Pecica - “Şanţul Mare” are recently combined to a BSCHP complex with three phases (Luca/Roman/Diaconescu 2004).

Closely connected to the placement of the Lažňany-Hunyadihalom culture are the relations to the Sălcuţa culture in the south. All three cultures, partly with differing names, are combined to a so-called “scheibenhenkel horizon” which is made up of four phases due to the inclusion of proto-Boleráz (Kalicz 2001, 405 f.; with critical remarks: Horváth 2004, 67). The name derives from the typically and regularly occurring handles in disc-shape. With the aid of this feature, not only regional cultures could be connected with each other in terms of space and time, but also contacts with the cultures of the Aegean were postulated and it was tried to synchronize the cultural development of the Carpathian Basin, the lower Danube regions and the Aegean (representative: Raczky 1991).

In determining an inner chronology of the “scheibenhenkel horizon” and the Bodrogkeresztúr culture with it, some stratigraphies in settlements in Romania – especially Băile Herculane – “Peştera Hoţilor” (Roman 1971) and Ostrovul Corbului (Roman/Dodd-Opitrescu 1989) – are important. With these, the placement of Sălcuţa IV and Bodrogkeresztúr as being younger than Sălcuţa III could be achieved. Also, the inner development of the Sălcuţa IV culture could be clarified: the oldest phase is synchronized with Bodrogkeresztúr, the younger phase with Hunyadihalom (Roman 1995, 19 f.). Roman derives the Bodrogkeresztúr culture as a whole (especially the milk jugs and the vessels with two handles) from the Sălcuţa culture (Roman 1995, 18) and stresses the high significance of the Cernavodă I culture, which was already presumed by N. Kalicz (Kalicz 1985, 32 f.). The connection between these (cf. e. g. the milk jug from the Cernavodă Ib horizon from Hârşova (Haşotti/Popovici 1992, 36) and the Bodrogkeresztúr / Hunyadihalom and Sălcuţa IV cultures creates a foundation for the Cernavodă III-Boleráz horizon (Roman 1995, 19 f.). Horváth also expects a continuous development from Hunyadihalom up to the late Copper Age. Like Roman, he divides the Sălcuţa IV culture into two phases and synchronizes them with Bodrogkeresztúr and Hunyadihalom; the latter he parallels with Sălcuţa IV and proposes a spread of the Sălcuţa-IV-Hunyadihalom cultures to the north, which caused the end of the Bodrogkeresztúr culture (Horváth 2004, 73 f.) – in analogy to the end of the Balaton-Lasinja I culture, which was brought about by the central European Furchenstich horizon (ibid. rem. 124; Horváth 1994, 101). The Furchenstich horizon is even synchronized by some authors with the younger Bodrogkeresztúr culture (Šiška 1972, 154). Šiška mentions far-reaching parallel finds for Bodrogkeresztúr and Lažňany, especially from the neighbouring regions in the north (Poland) and the south (Ukraine). He terms Bodrogkeresztúr as a cultural and economic climax of the Polgár complex, whose end was brought about by expansive attempts to the west and to Transylvania. This lead to a weakening which made it possible for foreigners to come into the Tisza region; one group of these foreigners would have been the Lažňany group (Šiška 1972, 159).

Without doubt, the Bodrogkeresztúr culture had great influence on its western neighbour, the Ludanice group (Lichardus/Vladár 2003, 198). Horváth even notes a dependence of some eastern, metal-lacking neighbours (Cucuteni, Sălcuţa) from the Bodrogkeresztúr culture which was extremely rich in metal (Horváth 2004, 75). In the west, even the Jordanow and Gatersleben cultures might have received impulses from the east Carpathian Basin (Patay 1974, 50 ff.). Most of the time these relations were noted due to – partly alleged – finds of milk jugs or typical metal objects without the distributional regions of the Bodrogkeresztúr culture. A Bodrogkeresztúr influence on the Balaton-Lasinja culture is, however, not as strong as was supposed for a long time (Kalicz 1991, 368 ff.), and the few commonnesses in pottery finds can be explained by mutual contacts to the cultures in the Balkans.

P. Raczky dealt with the relations to the Aegean in several articles, basically relying on the disc-handles and on vessels with a red slip. He synchronizes the “scheibenhenkel horizon” (Bodrogkeresztúr B, Hunyadihalom, Sălcuţa IV according to him) with the Kephala-Attika-Aigina and Rachmani cultures which dates these younger than the horizon with the Karanovo VI, Gumelniţa, Tiszapolgár and older Sălcuţa cultures (Raczky 1991). The long-presumed relations to Troy II were refuted by N. Kalicz among others (Kalicz 1985, 32).

Like the Tiszapolgár culture, the Bodrogkeresztúr culture also is influenced to a certain extent by Pontic stockbreeders whose presence in the Carpathian Basin is visible in the form of kurgan graves with a scattering of ochre within them (e. g. Decea Mureşului). The appearance of long flint blades seems to be connected with them (Tasić 1995, 23 f.), all the more since the raw material used for the blades is Wolhynian. Since the graves in these mounds are hardly equipped with grave goods, an exact dating and the analysis of relations to other cultures is hardly possible (Horváth 1994, 101).

In terms of absolute chronology, we can date the culture in between 4000 and 3600/3500 BC (Kalicz 2002, 386).

Both for the beginning and the end of the Bodrogkeresztúr culture, theories for a continuous and a discontinuous development exist, which are controversely discussed even today. However, we can assume that the Bodrogkeresztúr culture emerged on a basis of the local Tiszapolgár culture. The differences in the crouched position of the deceased and in the find material are too marginal in comparison to the continuity in all other domains, so a break in the development of these cultures is not likely, and in my opinion, the roots are strong enough to even speak of two phases of one culture.

However, we cannot claim that Bodrogkeresztúr does not differ from Tiszapolgár (e. g. milk jugs, vessels with two handles, arrow heads, anthropological features). The origin of these influences might be found, according to Kalicz and Roman, certainly in the regions beyond the southern borders, within the older Sălcuţa IV culture and, in the broadest sense, within the Cernavodă I culture.

The end of the culture is marked by a distinctive discontinuity. On no account, we can speak of a continuous development from Bodrogkeresztúr to the Lažňany-Hunyadihalom cultures and with them to a “Polgár culture”. This can be proved by the break in the treatment of the dead, the abandonment of settlements, the appearance of totally new pottery features (black painting), the simultaneous disappearance of old decorations and the massive reduction of metal objects, though some pieces display certain typological continuities (cf. Patay 2002 and 2004).

Why and how this change occurred, we do not know. If we were to follow Šiška’s argument of a destabilisation of a society at its peak, and if we acknowledge the concurrent appearance of Furchenstich pottery and a break in the cultural development of the Carpathian Basin with it, we may assume that we are witness to a process that can be compared to the cultural changes at the end of the Baden-Coţofeni cultural complex. At that time, the Danubian and Carpathian regions were weakened due to the lack of a strongly present culture, and so finally foreigners from all sides (Bell Beaker, Corded Ware, Yamnaya/Katakombnaya, Vučedol cultures) succeeded in entering the Carpathian Basin.

In its height, the Bodrogkeresztúr culture was not only outstanding due to its rich metallurgy but also because of its far-reaching relations to all directions. Therefore it was an important connector between the western Carpathian Basin (and central Europe with it) and the regions south and east of the Carpathian mountains. Attempts for synchronizations with far-away cultures such as Rachmani and Tripolje are tempting because of the similarities of some types in the find material; however, we have to await a clarification of the local sequence of cultures in terms of space, chronology and terminology.


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© 2007-2009 Matthias Thomas
translated by Valeska Becker
How to copy texts: Impressum.

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