The Lepenski Vir culture

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Last changed: September 2007

The Lepenski Vir culture is named after the eponymous location Lepenski Vir in Serbia. Lepenski Vir is a cataract in the Danube in the Iron Gates region. The settlement was discovered when it was decided in the 1960ies to impound the Danube with a dam above the village of Kladovo and a second dam above the village Mihajlovac. In the following decades, Romanian and Yugoslavian archaeologists excavated the settlements at the Danube’s banks which were endangered by the rising water level. Numerous rescue excavations were conducted in this area (for the history of research in detail Radovanović 1996, 3-8).

Distribution

The settlements that belong to the Lepenski Vir culture are all located in the Iron Gates region. Here, the Danube cuts deeply into the limestone, forming a karst region with steep gorges (Golubac Gorge, Gospodin Vir (’Lady’s whirl’), Kazan Gorge (’Cauldron Gorge’), Sip Gorge) and small terraces. On these terraces on both sides of the Danube we find the settlements of the Lepenski Vir culture. On the Romanian side, the important sites are Ostrovul Mare, Ostrovul Corbului, Schela Cladovei, Ostrovul Banului, Răzvrata, Icoana, Veterani-terrace and Veterani Cave, Climente I and II, Băile Herculane, Cuina Turcului, Vodneac, Ilişova, Izlaz, Sviniţa, Vîrtop, Alibeg and Privod; on the Serbian side, we find the eponymous place Lepenski Vir and furthermore, Padina, Stubica, Vlasac, Hajdučka Vodenica, Velesnica and Kula.

Treatment of the dead

We know of graves, partly in large numbers, from many settlements of the Lepenski Vir culture (cf. for the following Radovanović 1996, 160-224 and Srejović/Letica 1978). E. g., in Vlasac 384 burials were found, in Lepenski Vir 146 and in Padina still 75. Icoana yielded three graves, Hajdučka Vodenica 30, Schela Cladovei 33, Ostrovul Corbului four. Especially Vlasac is very important since the graves are well-published. They were also thoroughly analysed in terms of archaeology and anthropology.

In the Iron Gates, inhumations as well as secondary burials and cremations were found. Secondary burials are characterized by the exposure of the deceased’s body to the air before it was buried. It is unclear whether further treatment was administered. Sometimes it seems as if the skull or postcranial body parts were removed in such burials.

We know of individuals lying straight on their backs and individuals lying in crouched position on their side. There are even burials in a sitting position. Interestingly, the dead are oriented either parallel to the river Danube or perpendicular to it. An orientation according to a special direction was uncommon. Usually, one person was laid down in a burial pit, however, there are also two or more individuals in one grave.

The graves were dug on the settlement terraces. Sometimes they are surrounded by stones, but every once in a while not even a pit was dug but people would use natural depressions in the soil. Sometimes the deceased were covered with a stone paving.

Mostly the dead are buried within the settlements. They can be found between the houses, often, however, inside the buildings, under the floors, partly with reference to the hearth or to an “altar”.

Flint and quartz artefacts, bone objects (awls, projectiles), antler objects, boar tusks, hammer stones, stone axes, necklaces made from snails’ shells and decorated objects made from various materials were used as grave goods. Besides, there is evidence for the scattering of ochre and graphite, and some of the dead are covered all over with teeth of Cyprinidae (maybe worn on the clothes), fish bones, animal bones (especially dogs’ mandibulae; horns and antlers), seeds, stones and human bones (mainly mandibulae).

Settlements

By far not all settlements of the Lepenski Vir culture are excavated entirely, let alone published. Few places such as Lepenski Vir itself, Vlasac, Padina and Ostrovul Corbului are published quite well and can be used for the further explanations.

As far as we can say today, the settlements of the Lepenski Vir culture are located partly in the gorges and partly outside. Some of them lie at the right, others on the left bank of the Danube, and Ostrovul Mare even lies on an island in the middle of the river.

The extension of the settlements is very incongruous. Lepenski Vir at first covers about 2000 m², later 2400 m²; Padina has been excavated in Sektor III for about 1100 m², Vlasac covers about 2000 m² of which 640 m² were excavated. Of Hajdučka Vodenica we know 630 m² (Radovanović 1996, 62-65). The settlements lie on small steep terraces above the Danube, borded on one side by the river, on the other by the slopes and the hinterland which was difficult to access. Obviously the richness of natural resources was a strong incentive to settle on such places. Since people were confined in terms of space, the population could increase only up to a certain amount; if it grew beyond that number, individuals might have been forced to leave the place.

The way of building houses in the Lepenski Vir culture is characteristic (cf. for the following Radovanović 1996, 117-138). Beside oval or round objects dug into the earth, sometimes with and sometimes without a hearth, there are trapeze-shaped structures. The back part of these buildings is dug in to create a horizontal floor at slope situations. A foundation trench was dug and laid out with big and small stones. Especially big stones can be found in the corners; they might have been used to fix posts. That way a hut-like or tent-like building was constructed. In the front third of the structure, in the middle, a hearth was built which was surrounded by flagstones. Sometimes flagstones can be found around the hearths which are arranged in ∀ sign, maybe as a substruction? Their function is unknown. In the houses, hollowed stones were found which were partly decorated. They are thought to be “altars”. Beside, stone sculptures were discovered (cf. “Find material”).

The sequence of layers and buildings in the settlements is highly complex. As an example we describe the development of the settlement of Lepenski Vir (for Padina cf. Radovanović 1996, 67-76). The proto-Lepenski-Vir layer could be excavated in an area which was 90 m long. Ground plans are not preserved, however, eight hearths and artefacts lying behind them in large numbers could be found. The phase Lepenski Vir I can be subdivided into three more subphases at least. The classification was achieved by ground plans which superimpose each other. At first, houses are built in two zones with a free space in between. In the course of time this free space is occupied by more houses, in a third phase, it is again empty of building activity. Afterwards, Lepenski Vir obviously was not settled for a while: a thin layer of brown, sandy loess covers the place. The settlement of Lepenski Vir II was made up of 44 houses. However, most of them were destroyed by the superimposing layers of Lepenski Vir IIIa. Ever since this phase, there are huts in which pottery, stone, bone and antler artefacts of the Starčevo culture were found (Lepenski Vir 1981, 56).

D. Borić (2002) reconstructs the Lepenski Vir buildings dug into the slope of the river terrace with the back end. At the front, facing the river, wooden posts supported the roof (cf. Borić 2002, 1035 fig. 10).

Find material

Most famous of all finds from Lepenski Vir are figural representations made from sandstone. They occur from the layer Lepenski Vir Ib onward, in the area behind the hearth inside of the houses. They were made from colourful boulders of quartzy sandstone (yellowish-white, almost white, reddish). By means of chopping and chiselling, abstract ornaments shaped like curving lines, angles, dots and interlaced bands but sometimes also faces with round eyes and “fish mouths” were worked into the stone. Aniconical decorated stones can also be found elsewhere, e. g. in Vlasac and Icoana. Sometimes they are decorated with red paint and may also occur in graves (Lepenski Vir 1981, 33-40). Their meaning is still unknown. There are attempts to relate the wavy lines and the “fish-faced” representations to the Danube and the way of life at the water’s edge.

Closely related to the sculptures are objects termed “altars”. They are made from stone and have at least one cavity at one side. They, too, are sometimes decorated. “Altars” and sculptures can be found in Lepenski Vir, Cuina Turcului, Hajdučka Vodenica, Vlasac and Padina (Radovanović 1996, 138-159). However, those from Lepenski Vir seem to be of the highest quality.

Flint tools comprise of end scrapers, side scrapers, retouched flakes, burins, retouched blades, drills, awls, back pieces, geometric microliths, retouched lamels and bifacial tools. They were made from quartz, quarzite, obsidian, various flints, chalcedony, silicious rocks, radiolarite, volcanic rocks, sandstone, opals et cetera. Most of the raw materials could be fetched locally. Volcanic rocks came from the western Banat, obsidian from the Tokai-Prešov regions (Radovanović 1996, 225-252).

Stones used for chipping and polishing as well as grinding, mortars, pestles, weights, boulder axes and stone hatchets as well as ammunition for slingshots and pendants were made from local sandstone (Radovanović 1996, 276-280).

From bone, antler and animal teeth (boars’ tusks) people made chisels, spatulae, knives, daggers, points, polishing tools, hatchets, axes, adzes, picks, scrapers, drills, awls, needles, arrow heads and other projectiles (harpoons) as well as pendants, pearls and even flutes (Radovanović 1996, 252-276).

The largest amount of the find material is comprised of animal bones. The bones were analyzed in Climente II (epi-Palaeolithic), Cuina Turcului I and II (epi-Palaeolithic), Icoana (Mesolithic) and Padina, Vlasac, Lepenski Vir and Hajdučka Vodenica. In the lowest layers of these settlements, only game was found, with the exception of dog bones. Only in Padina A and B, Hajdučka Vodenica and Lepenski Vir III (Starčevo culture), domestic animals were found. The spectrum of game is manifold. The following species were discovered: hedgehog, wolf, fox, bear, wild cat, lynx, pine marten, weasel, squirrel, badger, otter, boar, ibex, chamois, aurochs, elk, red deer, roe deer, wild ass, wild horse, beaver, hare, grey goose, mallard, teal, shelduck, red-breasted merganser, black-throated diver, red-throated diver, heron, cormorant, pelican, imperial eagle, fishing eagle, black kite, capercaillie, grouse, partridge, grey goose, raven, crow, mute swan, black vulture, bearded vulture, griffon vulture, eagle owl, brown owl, green woodpecker, jay, magpie, nutcracker, jackdaw, starling, finch, Danube sturgeon, sterlet, salmon, pike, chub, bream, carp, catfish, perch, zander, tortoise and different species of clams and snails (Radovanović 1996, 44-59). Beside the meat, people certainly used fur, feathers, antlers, bones, horns and teeth and also emtrails, sinews et cetera of these animals.

Among the domestic animals we find cattle, sheep/goat and pig (and dog). Unfortunately, the bones from the domestic animals from Padina cannot be attributed to a layer, therefore, they might be younger than the Mesolithic. The same is true for Hajdučka Vodenica where animal bones were analyzed all together and not according to the layers.

Finally we have to mention pottery. It was found in a few settlements (Alibeg, Padina, Stubica, Lepenski Vir, Vlasac, Cuina Turcului, Icoana, Hajdučka Vodenica, Schela Cladovei, Ostrovul Corbului, Kula and Ostrovul Mare). Unclear find situations and structures with mixed find material lead to the assumption that sometimes pottery was placed in a relation to definite Mesolithic industry and structures. Still, objects like Padina B - Sektor III and Lepenski Vir I, houses 35 and 56 mystify us. Here, pottery, allegedly in situ, was found in Mesolithic layers (cf. “Chronological relations”). The pottery is partly monochrome, partly painted and partly coarse ware which can be related to the Starčevo resp. the Criş culture.

Chronological relations

As for other regions of central and south-east Europe, the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic is a cause for speculation in the Iron Gates region and an incentive for heated discussion since the first traces of the Lepenski Vir culture were found. The point at issue is the question whether the Neolithic has local roots that go back into the Mesolithic or whether immigrants brought along the Neolithic way of life on their way from the south-east to the north-west, and also to the Iron Gates. Problems in answering this question are old excavations, unpublished finds, complex sequences of layers, houses and burials and last not least terminological disorientation (’epi-Palaeolithic’, ‘Mesolithic’, ‘proto-Neolithic’). Another problem is certainly also that archaeologists, anthropologists, palaeo-economists et cetera have different ways of dealing with the find material.

Indeed an at least partial sedentary way of life is typical for the settlements of the Lepenski Vir culture, which is a criteria for the Neolithic. However, it was doubted whether people really lived in the houses. Arguments against the use of the houses as quarters for living are the limited space (the construction was tent-like, the walls were slanted, hearths and “altars” took up a lot of space), the burying of the dead without digging pits deep enough, i. e. almost directly on the house floors, and animal skeletons or parts of them still intact and not scattered, i. e. untouched (Sailer 1997, 71-72; Lichardus-Itten/Lichardus 2003, 67-68).

Beside dogs, no domestic animals were found, so people gained their meat from a rich variety of different mammals, birds, fish and mollusks. Traces of agriculture were not found.

The pottery excavated in different settlements is, as far as we can place it, pottery of the Starčevo-(Criş) culture. Of special importance is the settlement of Padina B in this connection (cf. Jovanović 1987). House 18, which is typically trapeze-shaped in the Lepenski Vir culture, contained wholly preserved vessels in situ.

The chipped stone industry includes, besides forms that cannot be placed exactly, also tools which are commonly attributed to the Mesolithic (geometric microliths, trapezes).

A new interpretation of the results of the excavations especially at Lepenski Vir was recently published by D. Borić (Borić 2002) and supports a new sight on the cultural sequence at the Iron Gates. According to his study, Early Neolithic pottery already exists in the houses 4 and 54 which were formerly thought to be Mesolithic. AMS data also for other buildings at Lepenski Vir argue for a chronological placement of all trapezoidal buildings to the Early Neolithic. Some burials, however, and open fire-places under the buildings’ floors are Mesolithic. This means that the phase Proto-Lepenski Vir postulated by Srejović is Mesolithic whereas all other phases are Neolithic. In Vlasac, however, trapezoidal buildings occur already in the Mesolithic.

For some settlements of the Lepenski Vir culture, 14C dates and AMS dates were gained. Padina A can be dated between 9331 ± 58 – 8797 ± 83 BP resp. according to AMS around 8445 ± 60 BP while Padina B, according to AMS, can be dated in between 7755 ± 65 – 6790 ± 55 BP; Icoana ranges between 8070 ± 130 – 7660 ± 110 BP and 7445 ± 80 BP (for these and further dates cf. Borić 2001, 103).

Calibrated 2σ dates (lab: OxA, examples from graves) for Schela Cladovei range in between 7450-6645 BC and 7061-6439 BC; for Vlasac, dates range between 9949-8843 and 6647-6625; for Lepenski Vir 6404-5926 and 5772-5479 (Bonsall et al. 2000, 123). Note, however, the freshwater reservoir effect which affects all datings gained from human and even animal bones.

The 14C dates and AMS dates prove that the Lepenski Vir culture and the Starčevo overlap at least partially in terms of chronology. We can assume that contacts did exist. How they affected the Lepenski Vir culture remains unclear. Agriculture was certainly not manageable on the closely confined terraces, and we also have to ask whether this was necessary at all. According to the new analyses by D. Borić (2002), we have to reconsider the transition from the Mesolithic phase Proto-Lepenski Vir to the Neolithic phases Lepenski Vir I-III.

References

C. Bonsall/G. Cook/R. Lennon/D. Harkness/M. Scott/L. Bartosiewicz/K. McSweeney, Stable Isotopes, Radiocarbon and the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in the Iron Gates. Documenta Praehistorica 27, 2000, 119-132.

D. Borić, Mesolithic and Early Neolithic Hunterers and Fishers in the Danube Gorges: An Analysis of Archaeozoological Data. In: R. Kertész/J. Makkay (eds.), From the Mesolithic to the Neolithic. Proceedings of the International Archaeological Conference held in the Damjanich Museum of Szolnok, September 22-27, 1996. Archaeolingua Main Series 11 (Budapest 2001) 101-124.

D. Borić, The Lepenski Vir conundrum: reinterpretation of the Mesolithic and Neolithic sequences in the Danube Gorges. Antiquity 76,294, 2002, 1026-1039.

G. Grupe/J. Peters, Deciphering Ancient Bones. The Research Potential of Bioarchaeological Collections. Documenta Archaeobiologiae (Rahden/Westf. 2003).

B. Jovanović, Die Architektur und Keramik der Siedlung Padina B am Eisernen Tor, Jugoslawien. Germania 65/1, 1987, 1-16.

Lepenski Vir. Menschenbilder einer frühen europäischen Kultur. Ausstellungskat. Prähist. Staatssammlung (Mainz-Beograd 1981).

M. Lichardus-Itten/J. Lichardus, Strukturelle Grundlagen zum Verständnis der Neolithisierungsprozesse in Südost- und Mitteleuropa. In: E. Jerem/P. Raczky (Hrsg.), Morgenrot der Kulturen. Frühe Etappen der Menschheitsgeschichte in Mittel- und Südosteuropa. Festschrift für Nándor Kalicz zum 75. Geburtstag (Budapest 2003) 61-81.

B. Prinz, Mesolithic Adaptations on the Lower Danube. Vlasac and the Iron Gates Gorge. BAR International Series 330 (Oxford 1987).

I. Radovanović, The Iron Gates Mesolithic. International Monographs in Prehistory, Archaeological Series 11 (Ann Arbor 1996).

M. Roksandić, Between Foragers and Farmers in the Iron Gates Gorge: Physical Anthropology Perspective Djerdap Population in Transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic. Documenta Praehistorica 27, 2000, 1-100.

M. Sailer, Studien zur Lepenski Vir-Kultur. Darstellung und Interpretation der Kulturmerkmale und Befunde. Jahresschr. Mitteldeutsche Vorgesch. 79, 1997, 9-109.

D. Srejović, Lepenski Vir. Nova praistorijska kultura u Podunavlju (Beograd 1969).

D. Srejović/Z. Letica, Vlasac. Mesolitsko naselje u Đerdapu. Tom I: Archeologija; Tom II: Geologija – Biologija – Antropologia (Beograd 1978).

M. Sladić, Kula près de Mihailovac – une site préhistorique. Compte-rendu des fouilles de 1980. Cahiers des Portes de Fer 3, 1986, 432-442.

Further references

C. Bonsall/R. Lennon/K. McSweeney/C. Stewart/D. Harkness/V. Boroneanţ/L. Bartosiewicz/R. Payton/J. Chapman, Mesolithic and early Neolithic in the Iron Gates: a palaeodietary perspective. Journal European Arch. 5/1, 1997, 50-92.

D. Borić, Places that created time in the Danube Gorges and beyond, c. 9000-5500 BC. Documenta Praehistorica 26, 1999, 41-70.

M. Budja, The transition to farming in Mediterranean Europe - an indigenous response. Documenta Praehistorica 26, 1999, 119-141.

J. Chapman, Social power in the Iron Gates Mesolithic. In: J. Chapman/P. Dolukhanov (eds.), Cultural transformations and interactions in Eastern Europe (Avebury 1992) 71-121.

G. Cook/C. Bonsall/R. E. M. Hedges/K. McScweeney/V. Boroneanţ/L. Bartosiewicz/P. B. Pettitt, Problems of dating human bones from the Iron Gates. Antiquity 76, 2002, 77-85.

I. Radovanović, Mesolithic/Neolithic contacts: a case of the Iron Gates region. Poročilo o raziskovanju paleolitika, neolitika in eneolitika v Sloveniji 23, 1996, 39-48.

I. Radovanović, Houses and burials at Lepenski Vir. European Journal of Archaeology 3/3, 2000, 330-349.

I. Radovanović/B. Voytek, Hunters, fishers or farmers: sedentism, subsistence and social complexity in the Djerdap Mesolithic. Analecta Praehist. Leidensia 29, 1997, 19-31.

M. Roksandić, Between foragers and farmers in the Iron Gates Gorge: physical anthropology perspective. Djerdap population in transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic. Documenta Praehistorica 27, 2000, 1-100.

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