The Starčevo culture

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Last changed: May 2007

The Starčevo culture was named after the eponymous place Starčevo-”Grad” close to Pančevo, eight kilometres south-east of Belgrade. It was excavated in 1931/1932 by the University Museum, Philadelphia, the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, Massachusetts, the Fogg Art Museum, also Harvard University, and die American School of Prehistoric Research under the direction of V. Fewkes, R. Ehrich and M. Grbić. Due to clay mining since 1912, parts of the settlement were surely destroyed. The settlement is only published in a preliminary report (Fewkes/Goldman/Ehrich 1933).


The Starčevo culture is distributed across vast geographical regions. Settlements can be found in different altitudes. The westernmost places are located in Transdanubia, especially south of Lake Balaton. Other settlements lie in the southern Alföld. Furthermore, people settled in the land between the rivers Sava and Drau and in the Vojvodina. With these, remains of the Starčevo culture are distributed in south-west Hungary, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and northern Croatia.

Treatment of the dead

It is a distinctive feature in the whole south-east European early Neolithic that graves can hardly be detected. Therefore, also for the Starčevo culture, only very few graves have been made known (Kalicz 1990, 45-47). They are inhumations and lie within settlements. Mostly, single graves were found, rarely small groups of graves. The dead, strikingly many children, were placed in the graves in a crouched position, lying on the right or the left side. Rarely, other positions occur, such as individuals lying straight on their backs or fronts. Furthermore, single bones emerged from various settlements.

Grave goods are rare. Sometimes, vessels or fragments of vessels were put into the graves, every once in a while we can find grinding stones, flint tools or jewellery ( e. g. a spondylus pendant from Vinkovci: Minichreiter 1992, 71).

Graves were found, e. g., in Obre I (Benac 1973, 347-359), Vinkovci-Nama (Minichreiter 1992, 71), Vinkovci-Tržnica (Minichreiter 1992, 71), Lánycsók (Kalicz 1990), Donja Branjevina (Karmanski 2005, 69-71) and Divostin (McPherron/Srejović 1988, 447-455).


Only very few settlements of the Starčevo culture can be assessed. We may mention the settlements of Divostin, Donja Branjevina, Obre I and Vinkovci. Many other settlements are known only from small-scale excavations and/or preliminary reports.

The construction of houses in the Starčevo culture can be described best using the settlement of Divostin, Opš. Kragujevac, Serbia (McPherron/Srejović 1988, 36-44). Here, two different types of houses could be excavated. One type consisted of a roundish-elliptic object dug into the soil (termed “hut”) whose edge was surrounded by thin posts. Inside these dug-in features, hearths were found. The size of these “huts” amounts to 3-5 metres in length and 2-4 metres in width. The other type consists of real post houses with a rectangular ground plan. Sometimes, trenches along the walls can be found. The walls were made from wattle-and-daub. Sometimes, floors were conserved; they consisted of stamped clay.

Remains of such buildings were found also in Nosa, Opš. Subotica, and in Kremestice, Opš. Ivangrad (Lichter 1993, 122 und 126).

From Donja Branjevina we know mostly pits, sometimes hearths and ovens were found (Karmanski 2005).

It is hard to elicit how large the settlements were originally, for undisturbed and/or well excavated places are hardly existent. If anything, we might have to deal with small villages. Agriculture and stock-breeding played a major role, but bones of game were also found. It is interesting to note that sheep and goat prevail among domestic animals to the disadvantage of cattle.

Find material

Most finds, quantitatively, are pottery fragments. They can be separated into painted and unpainted wares. Especially the painted pottery is of special importance for the Starčevo culture since it can be dated very exactly according to the painting. Basically, we can reconstruct a progression in painting from monochrome ware to white-painted to dark-painted pottery. The decoration consists of net patterns, spirals, garlands and floral motives (cf. “Chronological relations”). Shapes are comprised of globular and semi-globular vessels, sometimes on a pedestal, bowls, cups, small dishes and vessels used for storaging food. Especially these last are often decorated with flutes, ridges, fingernail and finger imprints and applied bands.

Flint artefacts can be structured into the types commonly found in the early Neolithic: Drills, blades, cutters and scrapers (McPherron/Srejović 1988, 200-225) resp. points, saw-shaped tools (Minichreiter 1992, 73) and knives (Benac 1973, 364) as well as segments and trapezes (Karmanski 2005, 57-64). The raw material was analyzed only sporadically. From Divostin such analyses are known: the tools were made from chert, silex, quarz, rock crystal, porcellanite and obsidian (McPherron/Srejović 1988, 204-206).

Stone tools comprise of various axes and hatchets, furthermore grinding stones and runners (Divostin: McPherron/Srejović 1988, 255; Obre: Benac 1973, 363-365; Donja Branjevina: Karmanski 2005, 56-57; cf. also Minichreiter 1992, 73). In Divostin, the raw material was analyzed more closely: porcellanite, quartz, jadeite, serpentinite and diorite were used (McPherron/Srejović 1988, 255). In Donja Branjevina, various different rocks were used, such as sandstone, limestone, granite, quartz, andesite and others (Karmanski 2005, 51-54).

Awls, chisels and interlinings for axes and hatchets were made from bone and antler (McPherron/Srejović 1988, 305-319), furthermore fishing hooks (Srejović 1969, Taf. VIII) and spatulae (bone spoons) as well as tools used for polishing pottery (Benac 1973, 366-367).

Other typical finds of the Starčevo culture are pieces of jewellery and personal adornments such as bracelets, pearls and pendants made from clay, bone, stone and shell (McPherron/Srejović 1988, 325-338) as well as pendants made from the teeth of various animals (Benac 1973, 366-367) and loom weights and spindle whorls.

Finally, the Starčevo culture yields finds that can be connected to religious beliefs. We are talking about anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines (also termed “statuettes” or “idols”). The anthropomorphic figurines can be subdivided into two different groups which display different sets of features (Höckmann 1968, 44-45; Becker 2007). One group is made up of female representations, as far as a sexual characteristic is shown. They have a long, column-like head and neck, a small upper body, wide and broad hips and buttocks and very short, stumpy legs. The other group comprises figurines with a columnar body whose sex also seems to be female. Remarkably, figurines of both types are always broken when they are found. This circumstance is interpreted by various researchers as the result of a deliberate fragmentation and of a part of religious beliefs. Zoomorphic figurines resemble cattle, maybe also pigs. Like the anthropomorphic figurines, they are often broken. Other cultic finds in the Starčevo culture are rare: We might mention anthropomorphic vessels, applications and so-called “altars”, clay tables with four or three legs, whose function is unclear.

Chronological relations

The Starčevo culture is part of the south-east European early Neolithic. It belongs to the sphere of cultures using painted pottery, in contrast to the Impresso-Cardial cultures (employing pottery decorated with impressions) or the Bug-Dnestr culture (with pottery on a pointed base, decorated likewise with impressions). Beside the Starčevo culture, painted pottery is also used by the Körös and the Criş culture, the west Bulgarian early Neolithic, the Karanovo I culture, the early Neolithic of east Albania, the early Neolithic in Macedonia with its regional groups Anzabegovo-Vršnik and Veluška Tumba-Porodin, and finally the Greek proto-Sesklo and Sesklo cultures. All these cultures are connected by their use of painted pottery, though it amounts to only a very small percentage among all pottery finds.

When we ask about the origin of the Starčevo culture as the oldest Neolithic culture in the west Balkans and the Carpathian Basin, we encounter the general problem of how Neolithization developped. This topic is still heatedly discussed. The Neolithic way of life, including agriculture, stock breeding, a special treatmend of the dead and certain characteristic elements of the material culture (among them pottery, ground stone tools et cetera), spread around the 8th/7th millenium BC to the north-west. The question is how this “Neolithic package” moved: whether by migration (i. e. immigration of population groups from the Fertile Crescent), by diffusion (i. e. the adoption of the Neolithic way of life by autochthonous Mesolithic people) or by an autochthonic development (i. e. by an independent development of the Neolithic and its accomplishments by the late Mesolithic population). The very same problems are discussed when we talk about the genesis of the Linear Pottery Culture (cf. there).

Due to the current state of research, we cannot answer where the Starčevo culture originated. Basically, both the “migration model” and the “diffusion model” are possible, while the model dealing with an autochtonic development cannot be true since analyses of animal bones prove that the domestic animals cattle, sheep and goat from Starčevo settlements were not domesticated from the native fauna but were imported as already domesticated from the Near East. Even then, however, we will have to deal with the so-called Lepenski-Vir-Kultur, where elements of the late Mesolithic and the early Neolithic seem to mix. Some researchers tend to a composition of migration and diffusion.

For an inner chronology of the Starčevo culture, the painted pottery is most important, although it amounts to only 2-5% among all pottery. This is due to the fact that it is very sensible to chronological changes. Since the beginnings of research into the Starčevo culture, painted pottery was used as a basis for all chronological classifications. Pathbreaking up to today is a study by V. Milojčić in 1949, in which he divided the Starčevo culture into four phases. He thought the oldest phase to be without painted pottery and wrote that there would be just rough and unpainted wares. In phase II, painting in white or dark brown resp. black on a red slip was used. In the beginning of this phase, painting in white was common, later dark painting occured more often. The painted motifs would be geometric at first. In phase III, pottery painted in black or black and white on a red slip comes up, motifs are now curvolinear. With phase IV, painting becomes more and more rare, a “degeneration” seems to start, applied decoration increases (Milojčić 1949, 70-71).

This development in pottery decoration noted by V. Milojčić – at first painting in white in geometric and latter spiral patterns, later dark painting – was not doubted by any other of the following authors. E. g., D. Arandjelović-Garašanin’s chronological classification of the pottery is very similar: after a period where people used monochrome pottery, painting developped from white and dark spiral motifs to exclusively dark painting (Arandjelović-Garašanin 1954). S. Dimitrijević’s chronological system seems to be a little more detailed: He sets off with a development of two monochrome phases followed by geometric white and dark painted ware and ending after two “garlandoid” phases A and B with dark painting and spiral motifs, sometimes also polychrome decoration (Dimitrijević 1974). The latest chronological classification of the Starčevo culture was worked out by H. Schubert (Schubert 1999). After a monochrome horizon, he defined six phases. The first four of these (proto-Starčevo I-III, classical Starčevo I) are characterized by a sequence of floral motifs, followed by spiral to floral-spiraloid patters in frames. In the last two phases classical Starčevo II and III, dark painted pottery with spiral or linear patterns and finally only linear motifs occur. Problematic with all these classifications is especially the oldest phase, the monochrome horizon, because it could hardly ever be verified, and also the fact that all analyses were based on material from settlements, not from graves due to their lack. Since settlement pits are not “closed finds”, i. e. their material need not necessarily be contemporaneous, all classifications are afflicted with uncertainties.

In terms of absolute chronology, the Starčevo culture can be dated from 6200 BC to about 5500 BC (Schubert 1999).

Finally, the Starčevo culture merges into various succeeding phenomena. Painted pottery is, however, hardly used anymore. In the regions of former Yugoslavia, the early Vinča culture appears. The name derives from the settlement hill (tell) of Vinča close to Belgrade. In Romania, likewise, we find material of the Vinča culture, after a short cultural development called Dudeşti phase. In Transdanubia, the oldest Linear Pottery Culture (LPC) emerges on the basis of the late Starčevo culture. Of special importance are some settlements dating to the formative phase of the Linear Pottery culture. Here, we find pottery which can be attributed typologically in between youngest Starčevo and oldest LPC (cf. the settlements of Szentgyörgyvölgy-Pityerdomb, Andráshida-Gébárti-tó, Vörs-Máriaaszonysziget, Gellénháza-Városrét et cetera. Cf. Bánffy 2004).


D. Arandjelović-Garašanin, Starčevačka kultura (Ljubljana 1954).

E. Bánffy, The 6th millenium BC boundary in Western Transdanubia and its role in the Central European Neolithic transition (the Szentgyörgyvölgy-Pityerdomb settlement). Varia Arch. Hungarica XV (Budapest 2004).

A. Benac, Obre I – A neolithic settlement of the Starčevo-Impresso and Kakanj cultures at Raskršće. Wissenschaft. Mitt. Bosnisch-Herzegowinisches Landesmuseum 3, Heft A, 1973, 327-430.

B. Brukner, Neolit u Vojvodini (Beograd - Novi Sad 1968).

St. Dimitrijević, Problem stupnjevanja Starčevačke kulture s posebnim obzirom na doprinos južnopanonskih nalazišta rješavanju ovog problema. In: N. Tasić (red.), Počeci ranih zemljoradničkih kultureu Vojvodini i Srpskom podunavlju. Materiali X, Subotica 1972 (Beograd 1974) 59-122.

V. J. Fewkes, Neolithic sites in the Moravo-Danubian area (eastern Yugoslavia). Bull. Am. School Prehist. Research 12, 1936, 5-81.

V. Fewkes/H. Goldman/R. Ehrich, Excavations at Starčevo, Yugoslavia, seasons 1931 and 1932. A preliminary report. Bull. Am. School Prehist. Research 9, 1933, 33-54.

R. Galović, Neolitsko naselje u Tečiću kod Rekovca. Sbornik Radova Narodnog Museja 3, 1958/59 (1959) 31-48.

R. Galović, Neue Funde der Starčevo-Kultur in Mittelserbien und Makedonien. Ber. RGK 43/44, 1962/63 (1964) 1-29.

M. Garašanin, Neolithikum und Bronzezeit in Serbien. Ber. RGK 39, 1958 (1959) 1-130.

M. Garašanin, Centralnobalkanska zona. In: Praistorija jugoslavenskih zemalja II: Neolitsko doba (Sarajevo 1979) 79-212.

J. Glišić/B. Jovanović, Praistorisko naselje na Gladnicama kod Gračanice. Glasnik Muz. Kosovo i Metohija 2, 1957, 223-239.

O. Höckmann, Die menschengestaltige Figuralplastik der südosteuropäischen Jungsteinzeit und Steinkupferzeit. Münstersche Beiträge zur Vorgeschichtsforschung 3-4 (Hildesheim 1968).

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S. Karmanski, Donja Branjevina 1989. Vorläufiger Grabungsbericht (Odžaci 1989).

S. Karmanski, Donja Branjevina: A Neolithic settlement near Deronje in the Vojvodina (Serbia). Società per la preistoria e protostoria della regione Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Quaderno 10 (Trieste 2005).

C. Lichter, Untersuchungen zu den Bauten des südosteuropäischen Neolithikums und Chalkolithikums. Internat. Arch. 18 (Buch am Erlbach 1993).

A. McPherron/D. Srejović, Divostin and the Neolithic of Central Serbia (Kragujevac – Pittsburgh 1988).

K. Minichreiter, Starčevačka kultura u sjevernoj Hrvatskoj (Zagreb 1992).

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Further references

K. T. Biró, Advances in the study of Early Neolithic lithic materials in Hungary. Antaeus 25, 2002, 119-168.

K. T. Biró/K. H. Simon, Lithic material of the Starčevo culture at Gellénháza-Városrét. In: E. Jerem/P. Raczky, Morgenrot der Kulturen. Frühe Etappen der Menschheitsgeschichte in Mittel- und Südosteuropa. Festschrift für N. Kalicz zum 75. Geburtstag. Archaeolingua 14 (Budapest 2003) 115-126.

R. Kertész/P. Sümegi, Teóriák, kritika és egy modell: Miért állt meg a Körös—Starčevo kultúra terjedése a Kárpát-medence centrumában? Tisicum 11, 1999, 9-24.

J. Makkay, Zur Geschichte der Erforschung der Körös-Starčevo-Kultur und einiger ihrer wichtigsten Probleme. Acta Arch. Acad. Scien. Hungaricae 21, 1969, 13-31.

J. Makkay, “Das Frühe Neolithikum auf der Otzaki Magula” und die Körös-Starčevo-Kultur. Acta Arch. Acad. Scien. Hungaricae 26,1-4, 1974, 131-154.

J. Makkay, Kontakte zwischen der Körös - Starčevo-Kultur und der Linienbandkeramik. Commun. Arch. Hungariae 1987, 15-24.

J. Regenye, A vizsgálandó közép-dunántúli újkőkori kerámia és környezete. Arch. Műhely 2005,2, 16-23.

Gy. Szakmány/K. Gherdán/E. Starnini, Kora neolitikus kerámia készítés Magyarországon: a Körös és a Starčevo kultúra kerámiáinak összehasonlító archeometriai vizsgálata. Arch. Műhely 2004,1, 28-31.

A. Whittle/L. Bartosiewicz/D. Borić/P. Pettitt/M. Richards, In the beginning: new radiocarbon dates for the Early Neolithic in northern Serbia and south-east Hungary. Antaeus 25, 2002, 63-117.

A. Whittle/L. Bartosiewicz/D. Borić/P. Pettitt/M. Richards, New Radiocarbon Dates for the Early Neolithic in Northern Serbia and South-East Hungary: Some Omissions and Corrections. Antaeus 28, 2005, 347-355.

© 2006 Valeska Becker
translated 2008 by Valeska Becker
Remarks for copying texts Impressum.

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