The Nyírség (Sanislău) culture

Last changed: August 2007

The early Bronze Age Nyírség culture (Romanian: Nir) was named after the eponymous region in northern east Hungary. It was defined only in the 1960ies. At this time, it was thought to be (together with Vučedol and Makó) a part of the Zók culture (Kalicz 1968). With the help of new finds which proved the chronological sequence of Nyírség and Makó, the sequence of cultures in the early Bronze Age in north and east Hungary was later newly assessed which lead also to the elimination of the term Zók (Kalicz 1981 und 1984). The Romanian finds of the Nyírség (Nir) culture were classified into two phases (Berea and Sanislău) by T. Bader (Bader 1978). The younger phase was later called Sanislău group by P. Roman and I. Németi (in summary Németi/Roman 1995 and Bader 1998). It is very closely related to the intricate and yet unanswered question about the origin of the tell cultures, especially Otomani-Füzesabony. Therefore, up to now there is neither a clear separation of find materials nor a fixed nomenclature. Especially in Hungary, the finds attributed to the Sanislău (Hungarian: Szaniszló) group are thought to be a part of the Ottomány culture and not of the Nyírség culture (Kalicz 1984; Dani 2001; Mathé 2001). In east Slovakia, the Nyírség finds are called Zatín or Nyírség-Zatin after an important location (Bátora 1983; Furmánek/Veliačik/Vladár 1999, 24f.).

We have to mention that we use the term “Nyírség” in the following always according to Kalicz’s definition. For the succeeding horizon, we use the neutral term „Sanislău group“ (cf. for this in detail Chronological relations). Also, we cannot avoid that in this chapter many aspects have to be dealt with that do not concern the actual Nyírség culture, according to many researchers, and overlap inevitably with the article about Otomani-Füzesabony.


Almost all locations of the Nyírség culture lie in the north-east Hungarian lowlands and the neighbouring regions in north-west Romania and east Slovakia. Beside small exceptions, they avoid the hillier regions. Many are even located in the sandy areas unfavourable for agriculture of the Bodrogköz and the Nyírség (Kalicz 1984, 109f.). The character of the locations is at the same time one of the main reasons for the still spongy classification in terms of chronology and culture. Despite the quite high number of locations, there are neither cemeteries nor permanent settlements (no houses), therefore, the people of the culture are usually thought to be migrating stockbreeders. Since this situation is similar in the Makó culture and the Sanislău group, and since there is not a single stratigraphic sequence of the three cultures, many single structures and finds cannot be safely attributed to one of them, and even more so if no decorated vessels are found, for they are the lead types in the find material. Especially the Sanislău group is defined almost exclusively by a typical decoration made up of mostly geometrically placed small wedge-shaped impressions.

The areas where Nyírség and Sanislău are distributed differ a lot. Remarkably, in north-west Romania where the Sanislău group was defined and where the only known “closed finds” and almost all wholly preserved vessels were found, typical Nyírség jugs are missing completely. The material which Bader used in 1978 to define his first phase of the Nir culture is very meagre and, moreover, differs from the classical Hungarian Nyírség finds. The typical Nyírség vessels can be found only in the Tisza regions but may occur as far as Slovakia (Eisner 1933, pl. 48,6). Therefore, we can ascertain the presence of the Nyírség culture in the east Slovakian lowlands which is stressed even further by the bowl found in Oborín and some vessel fragments (Bátora 1983, pl. 3). Vessel fragments of the Sanislău group also exist (Bátora 1998, 20 fig. 1). However, many of the Nyírség finds in Slovakia cannot be safely attributed, especially the finds from Ižkovce (Vizdal 1988 and 1991). In the Košice Basin, there are no indications for the Nyírség culture up to now. However, some vessels of the Košťany culture are decorated with the characteristic impression ornamentation of the Sanislău group (ibid., 24 fig. 3). The corresponding graves, however, belong without doubt to the Košťany culture. And also the rare Nyírség finds from the Spiš (Bátora 1983, tab. 3,1-2) are not typical enough to extend the distribution that far to the north.

Therefore, a presence of the Sanislău group (and not only just Sanislău influences) can only be ascertained in north-west Romania and east Hungary (especially in the Berettyó valley and the Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg Megye) and also in the east Slovakian lowlands, at least with some certainty. In the west, i. e. along the river Tisza and to the west of it, every once in a while typical vessel fragments decorated with impressions occur (e. g. in Tószeg: Schalk 1981, 117 pl. 29,165). However, otherwise we can only speak of an influence of the group on the Hatvan culture which is distributed already at this point of time (Dani 2001, 158 map 4), and in analogy we may notice influences on the Košťany culture in the Košice Basin.

Treatment of the dead

The treatment of the dead in the Nyírség culture and also the Sanislău group can be quickly defined. Thanks to J. Dani, researchers can gain an up to date overview of all graves (Dani 1997; all graves can also be found in the Catalogue of Graves). Here, we noted also border cases where we cannot decide whether they belong still to the Makó or already to the Nyírség culture. Nyírség and Sanislău are both characterised by cremation burials in urns which almost always occur singly or in small groups. Indications for burials where the ashes was scattered are as uncertain as the cultural attribution of two inhumation burials (due to the lack of decorated vessels. Kalicz 1984, 111; Dani 1997, 56f.).

The only cemetery was excavated in Ciumeşti (Ordentlich/Kacsó 1970). Beside Pişcolt, it is also the biggest and most important location of the Sanislău group. It plays a major role in the chronological classification in terms of the transition to the Otomani culture. The finds from Berea supposedly also belong to a cemetery (Németi 1969 and 1996). Among them was a spindle-whorl, two obsidian arrow-heads and a hair ring, which would be the only grave goods that are not vessels. The vessels are the main grave good since they comprise the urn. However, other vessels occur rather rarely, e. g. in Somotor (Eisner 1933, pl. 48,6). In terms of burial rites, we may remark that the burial pits were not very deep, so many vessels were already destroyed at the time of the excavation (or because of it. Kalicz 1984, 111f.). Only the urn from Kántorjánosi was found inside a hill, however, it was uncertain whether it was an actual tumulus (Kalicz 1968, 68).

Since the Sanislău group is strongly involved in the genesis of the Otomani-Füzesabony culture (cf. below) and coincides with the spread of inhumation burials, we must not forget to mention that there are some very early inhumation burials that can by all means be attributed to the Sanislău group, if we want to view it as a local group of the Otomani-Füzesabony culture (Thomas in prep.). Here, we can attribute grave 52 from Sanislău as well as a collective burial from Andrid (Németi 1996).


The Nyírség culture is characterized by quite many, but only very small settlements which comprise in general but a few pits (Kalicz 1984, 109ff.). The only ground plan of a house was found on the tell of Tiszalúc (Kalicz 1968) which is, however, a special place not only because of this house (cf. below). Therefore we can assume a way of settling on small and certainly only temporarily used locations. This is further stressed by the exemplarily published structures from Polgár (Dani 1999). Here, no ground planes could be found despite the many pits. Some bigger “settlements” in the same line are known but cannot be interpreted with certainty (Kalicz 1984, 110). The economy is based on hunting (especially red deer and wild boar), fishing and stockbreeding (especially cattle and horse) which corresponds to the way the settlements were laid. However, some traces of cerealia were found (ibid.). The small number of animal bones per location shows the supposed short time the settlement was inhabited, just like the small number of finds in general (Dani 1999, 75).

However, sometimes Nyírség finds occur not only in Tiszalúc in find collections from tells. As Mathé notes, they are a part of all tell find collections in the Berettyó valley (Mathé 1988, 40). As Kalicz remarks, they need not be part of actual settlement layers. Here, also, we often find only pits (Kalicz 1984, 110f.).

This phenomenon is more often found in settlements of the Sanislău group. Here, we also know of mere pit complexes, e. g. in Pişcolt (Roman/Németi 1986). However, vessel fragments or wholly preserved vessels can also be found in the lowermost layers of the Romanian (Bader 1978) and east Hungarian (Mathé 1988 and 2001, here: „Ottomány A“) tells. This is also the reason why the group is closely related to the Otomani-Füzesabony culture in terms of terminology, since the sequence of layers at the eponymous place Otomani – „Cetăţuia“ is the foundation of the Romanian Otomani sequence. Thus, the lowermost layer was consequently called Otomani I (Ordentlich 1963). However, it can certainly placed partly before the actual Otomani-Füzesabony culture. In the course of the Sanislău group, first tell settlements emerge in connection with the Otomani genesis.

Find material

Major types in the Nyírség culture are jugs with a sharply defined profile at the belly, a straight or slighty inward-turned conical neck and lugs at the sides (e. g. Dani 1999, pl. 24,1). All other vessel types (beakers, “amphorae”, bowls) generally cannot be attributed clearly to the culture. Actually, an attribution is achieved rather by using typical decoration than shape. The decoration comprises, beside some unspecific “Besenstrich” (”broom swipe”), applied bands or small knobs (Dani 1999, pl. 22), mostly rectangular motifs which are often encrusted. Their richness in variants and elegant interplay on the vessels is seen as very specific and unmistakeable (Kalicz 1984, pl. 25). The Slovakian finds partly differ very much from this pattern; we should be careful when attributing some vessels to the Nyírség culture (Bátora 1983, pl. 3,1-2; Vizdal 1988) which is also and especially true for Bátora’s Hriadky-Rozhanovce phase (Bátora 1981).

Even more than the Nyírség culture, the Sanislău group is defined with decoration. There is not a single vessel type which can be attributed only to that group. We have to note already that in Hungary there are virtually no wholly preserved vessels and that almost all representatives were found on Romanian locations. However, typical for the Sanislău group is an onion-shaped vessel body (Bátora 1998, 23 fig. 2) which occurs due to a very small, mostly distinctly set-off floor (”onion vessel”). This feature can be found also in other cultures, however, it is nowhere as distinct as in Sanislău. It can be found until the beginning of the Otomani culture and is one of the main arguments for a foreshadowing regional classification (Thomas in prep.).

In general, objects are attributed to the Sanislău group because of the only characteristic type of ornament, no matter what shape they have. The typical ornament comprises of small impressions which are arranged to form horizontal, vertical or zig-zag motifs (Bátora 1998, 23 fig. 2). This decoration is thought to be so characteristic that it is supposed to be a Sanislău influence even in far away groups and cultures when such a decoration appears, e. g. in the Transylvanian Şoimuş group. Therefore, it is also the main argument in the synchronisation with the Košťany culture (ibid.).

Other find material is especially rare in the Nyírség culture. Bronze finds do not exist, and even stone tools are rare. However, this might be due to the fact that large find ensembles are hardly known and single finds of bronze and stone artefacts cannot be placed according to their decoration. Curved stone knives (Kalicz 1968) and arrow-heads with a concave base (Németi 1969, pl. 16,3-4) are important for a rough chronological classification and also for inter-regional relations. At least for Polgár, a local origin (Tokaj-Zemplén) for the raw material is proven (Dani 1999, 75).

Due to the typical decoration, quite a lot of exceptional clay finds are attributed to the Nyírség culture. Here, we mention, e. g., the bird-shaped vessel from Hosszúpályi (Kalicz 1984, pl. 24,8), the lid from Berea (Németi 1996, 52 fig. 9,2) and the wheel model from Sanislău (Bader 1978, pl. 7,15). The most common shape, however, is a longish clay object with a triangular profile. Such objects occur, e.g., in Tuzsér (Kalicz 1984, pl. 26,4), Berea (Bader 1978, pl. 7,3) or in the lowest layer in Gáborján-Csapszékpart (Mathé 1988, pl. 44,1). However, we may doubt whether some really exceptional pieces actually do belong to the Nyírség culture. This is true especially for the pyraunos from Ižkovce (Vizdal 1991) which should not date among the oldest representatives according to the classification by Fischl/Kiss/Kulcsár 2001; even these oldest pieces do not occur in the distribution before the actual tell cultures, e. g. in Hatvan and the Otomani-Füzesabony culture. It rather reminds of late Bronze Age pieces according to local chronology, e. g. of the Suciu de Sus culture (cf. Romsauer 2003, pl. 21-31). Also doubtful in terms of placement to the Nir culture is a figurine found in Satulung - Finteuşul Mic (Kacsó 1972). Its decoration reminds of the Sanislău motifs, however, it is a unique find, and besides, Satulung (jud. Maramureş) would be the easternmost location by far.

Most clay objects are single finds which were attributed to the Nyírség culture earlier. Due to the decoration with impressions, they are attributed mostly to the Sanislău group today. They are one of the main arguments for the thesis that Sanislău material is closer to the tell cultures which are known for clay objects such as wheel models or bird-shaped vessels than to the actual Nyírség culture (Mathé 2001). Objects which can be safely attributed to the Nyírség culture are therefore only some wheel models and a spindle-whorl (e. g. Dani 1999, 94 pl. 7,11).

Chronological relations

According to Hungarian chronology, the Nyírség culture dates to the early Bronze Age II and succeeds, in contrary to former assumptions (cf. above) and despite lacking direct evidence, the Makó culture. Its oldest finds are therefore those which cannot be safely attributed to one of the two cultures (Dani 1997). The Nagyrév culture is the – if not direct – western neighbour of the Nyírség culture and also succeeds Makó. It is an unsolved question why different cultures succeed the foundation of the Makó culture. The “kurgan graves” occuring only in the east of the Carpathian Basin and therefore also in Nyírség culture regions might play a role in this. They are classified to a group of east Slovakian tumuli in east Slovakia (in summary: Bertemes 1998, 201; Furmánek/Veliačik/Vladár 1999). In Hungary they are termed, according to their origin, as pit-grave kurgans (Écsedy 1979). However, since grave goods are rare, they can neither be dated exactly nor related to other cultures. However, the grave from Kántorjánosi speaks for a relation to the Nyírség culture (cf. above).

Trans-Carpathian influences are assumed not only because of the tumuli. In the regions of the Nyírség culture accumulate also vessel fragments decorated with cord impressions. Since, however, they cannot be directly related to Nyírség finds, their significance is unclear (Kalicz 1984, 117f.; Bertemes 1998, 199f.). And also the south-east Hungarian (Mureş, Gyula-Roşia), Banat and Transylvanian early Bronze Age groups can be considered only theoretically or not at all as a contact partner for the Nyírség culture up to now.

The question of the intern classification of the culture and the genesis of the Otomani-Füzesabony culture with it is discussed much more amply than the question of the relation between Makó and Nyírség. The exact definition of all terms and the chronological placement of the associated finds is very inconsistent which also has an effect on the naming of the Otomani culture. The reason for this is the division of the Romanian Nyírség (Nir) material into two phases by T. Bader (Bader 1978). He divided the culture into an older („Berea“) and a younger phase („Sanislău“). Although the Romanian find material was (and still is) very meagre and Bader’s compilation was “recht subjektiv” (Mathé 2001, 42), this separation lead to the challenge of the traditional Romanian Otomani chronology. The phase Otomani I, defined by I. Ordentlich during his excavations at the eponymous location (Ordentlich 1963 and 1970) and retained also by Bader (Bader 1978), was ergo separated from the “actual” Otomani culture (i. e., the phases II and III) by P. Roman and I. Németi and was parallelized with the Sanislău phase of the Nyírség culture (esp. Roman/Németi 1986 and 1989; Németi/Roman 1995). They even divided the culture into four phases (Ia and Ib, IIa and IIb) because of its main decoration styles and parallelized only Ia with the Nyírség culture as it was defined by Kalicz (Roman/Németi 1989). However, this had an impact on the chronology of the Hungarian Ottomány culture, i. e. the culture which succeeds, according to east Hungarian research, the Nyírség culture and which is parallel to Otomani I. N. Kalicz noted that the locations Ciumeşti (Hungarian: Csomaköz) and Sanislău (Hungarian: Szaniszló) belong rather to the beginning of the Ottomány culture than to the Nyírség culture since its typical decoration is entirely missing there (Kalicz 1984, 115). M. Mathé, therefore, parallelized the phase Ottomány A she created with the Sanislău group and separated it cleary from the Nyírség culture, since Ottomány A displayed great similarities to the “tell cultures” (Ottomány B / Otomani II) and the different way of settling. In her opinion, it is a genetic predecessor of the tell cultures (Mathé 1988 and 2001). With this she refutes the point of view argued by Bader, Bóna, Roman and Nemeti that the Sanislău group is the younger phase of the Nyírség culture. Instead, she reconstitutes the old Romanian Otomani chronology with the connection to Ottomány. I. Bóna divided the Nyírség culture into two phases and also noted the significance of the second phase for the development of the tells, however, he still calls the whole culture Nyírség (Bóna 1992, 21). J. Dani, leading researcher of the early Bronze Age in north-east Hungary, himself divides the Nyírség find material into two phases and in principle supports Kalicz’s and Mathe’s view that Nyírség II should be placed closer to the tell settlements than the “früheren, nur kurzzeitig bewohnten gehöftartigen Siedlungen”; and is „ohne Zweifel eine der organischen Komponenten der Ottomány(Otomani)-Kultur“, no matter „ob man sie nun Nyírség II, Nir II, Szaniszló-Phase oder Ottomány A bezeichnet“ (Dani 1997, 57). By the way, later he uses only the term Sanislău and clearly separates the Nyírség culture. He places the latter into the early Bronze Age II and the Sanislău group into the early Bronze Age IIIa, followed by the Ottomány/Otomani culture in IIIb (Dani 2001).

Ergo, it is badly necessary to check what the different researchers mean with the various terms. Nobody really doubts the existence of the chronological horizon of the Sanislău group. However, we do note a certain terminological anxiety which might have lead to the use of such hybrid terms such as Ottomani. E. g., J. Bátora calls the finds from Ciumeşti, Pişcolt and Sanislău and actually the old main finds from the Sanislău group with them „Keramik der Nyírség-Zatín Gruppe und der Frühphase der Otomani-Kultur aus dem Gebiet Nordwest Rumänien“ (Bátora 1998, 23 fig. 2). Fl. Gogâltan even introduces Nyírség and Sanislău in a common horizon before Otomani I, however, does not further explain his classification of the tell horizons in this respect (Gogâltan 2005, 162 fig. 2).

Basically, it is impossible to create a clear regional and chronological classification based on the finds and structures excavated and published today. Closed finds and stratigraphies are missing. We could only use some vertical stratigraphies from the Berettyó valley for separating Nyírség and Sanislău in terms of chronology, however, the significance is also little due to the lack of wholly preserved vessels (Mathé 1988). Especially in Gáborján we note an interesting sequence containing a layer with Nyírség vessel fragments (4) and a layer with Sanislău vessel fragments (3) which occur in the superimposing layer (2), combined with fragments bearing spiraloid decoration (ibid., pl. 42-45). The appearance of spiraloid ornaments undoubtly marks the begin of the succeeding Otomani-Füzesabony culture. The change in decoration in the Sanislău group whose geometric motifs made up of impressions are suddenly replenished by at first sort of clumsy attempts to integrate arcs and spiral motifs can be clearly noted on some vessels from Ciumeşti. They can even be dated in terms of a horizontal stratigraphy since the “onion vessels” are also significant in terms of chronology. Since they occur until the Romanian phase Otomani II, however, only in the north of the Romanian Otomani distribution, everything points to the persistence of the heritage of the Sanislău group even after the begin of the Otomani-Füzesabony culture. It forms a regional group of the Otomani-Füzesabony culture. Only east of the Tisza, we already know at least three of these regional groups. The Sanislău group, therefore, originates in the Nyírség culture and can be divided into an older phase without Otomani elements and a younger phase with such elements. This roughly corresponds to the chronological classification in Otomani I and II resp. Ottomány A and B. The new style in decoration can most likely be related to a southern neighbour, the Gyulavarsánd group of the Otomani-Füzesabony culture (Thomas in prep.).

The constant contacts of the Sanislău group to the Košťany culture in the north which were pointed out by Bátora (Bátora 1998) and whose features can be separated in terms of a horizontal stratigraphy on all four published Košťany cemeteries (Thomas in prep.) finally lead to the development of the classical Füzesabony culture which corresponds to the Slovakian (and only the Slovakian!) Otomani. With the Füzesabony culture, the treatment of the dead which is common in the Košťany culture spreads to the south, so first inhumation burials occur in the regions of the Sanislău group (cf. above).

As far as the Hatvan culture is concerned, it can only be related to the Nyírség in terms of a vertical chronological sequence. The distribution of both cultures overlaps only minimally, in a small strip along the Tisza where indeed Nyírség layers are superimposed by Hatvan layers in the settlement of Tiszalúc (Kalicz 1968). The majority of Hatvan locations does not have anything to do with Nyírség in terms of space. After a short hiatus, it directly succeeds Makó, whereas this hiatus is also the reason for the lack of a direct western neighbour to the Nyírség culture. The genesis of the Hatvan culture is uncertain, however, it is probably impossible to derive it completely from the Nyírség culture (Bóna 1992, 21). This could be one of the reasons for the heterogenity of the material attributed to Hatvan. So, the Sanislău group is the easternmost neighbour of the Hatvan culture.

However, also the Slovakian Nyírség culture is related to the Hatvan culture whose influence steadily grew according to researchers in the last years (Thomas in prep.): J. Bátora took vessel decoration as a foundation for his classification of the Slovakian find material. He relates the typical encrusted Nyírség decoration to his older phase and creates a younger phase (Hriadky-Rozhanovce) which is marked only by textile impression and Besenstrich (”broom swipe”) decoration (Bátora 1981). Both of his phases date before the Sanislău group which he identified as the early Otomani culture in Romania (Bátora 1981, 1983 and 1998). A horizon corresponding to the Hriadky-Rozhanovce phase has not been worked out in Romania and Hungary. Principally we have to ask whether the Besenstrich and textile impressions are a reasonable base for chronological classifications if we take into account that they occur in a huge area and that the Hatvan culture to which it is related all the time is far from being a chronological checkpoint in the cultural sequence of the eastern Carpathian Basin.

Exactly this lack of chronological fixed points is the main problem when we deal with all finds related to the Makó-Nyírség-Sanislău-Ottomány/Otomani sequence. We are also in dire need of a clear nomenclature, with especially the term “Ottomány” needing a new definition. It becomes more and more evident that finds are attributed to the name of a culture which cannot be placed homogeneously in terms of time and space and and therefore should be classified anew.

Since there are no radiocarbon dates, the Nyírség culture can only be dated using extern dates and therefore be placed roughly in the second half of the third millenium BC. The Sanislău group survives accordingly longer and, being a part of the Otomani-Füzesabony culture, certainly reaches the second millenium BC.


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© 2007-2009 Matthias Thomas
translated by Valeska Becker
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