The Tisza culture (Tisza - Herpály - Csőszhalom)

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The late Neolithic Tisza culture was named after the east Hungarian river Tisza which rises in Ukraine from the two headstreams Black Tisza and White Tisza and flows into the Danube south of Novi Sad. Numerous locations of the culture can be found along the Tisza and its tributaries (especially the Körös and the Berettyó in the east and the Zagyva in the west).

The first classification of the Hungarian Neolithic goes back to F. von Tompa (Tompa 1929). Using the find material which was available to him, he recognized and defined a horizon containing “spiral-meander pottery”, i. e. material from the culture today known as eastern Linear Pottery Culture resp. Alföld Linear Pottery Culture, from which the Bükk culture originates. The Tisza culture supposedly evolved from the Bükk culture. After the excavations at Hódmezővásárhely by J. Banner in 1929, the Körös culture material was thought to form the third phase of the Tisza culture (Banner 1929); this, however, was corrected after the excavations at the Vinča tell and in the awareness of its stratigraphy. The Körös culture was placed before the Tisza and the Eastern Linear Pottery cultures. In the 1940ies J. Csalog phrased the assumption that the Tisza culture supposedly runs parallel to the Bükk culture (Csalog 1941). Among other reasons, this was due to the fact that for a long time find material from the Szakálhát culture could not exactly be separated from that of the Tisza culture (cf. Kalicz/Raczky 1990, 12). The exact classification of the eastern LPC took place only in the 1960ies, when a chronological sequence Köröseastern LPC – Szakálhát/Bükk – Tisza was fixed. A summarizing book was written by J. Korek in 1972 and published in 1989. The research and description of the Herpály and Czőszhalom cultural groups goes back to I. Bognár-Kutzián, N. Kalicz, J. Korek and P. Patay (Bognár-Kutzián 1966; Korek/Patay 1956; Kalicz 1959). An important and still up-to-date compendium is the detailed catalogue of an exhibition, “Alltag und Religion. Jungsteinzeit in Ost-Ungarn” (Meier-Arendt 1990).


In its early phase the Tisza culture takes up a large area, reaching to the Vojvodina of Northern Serbia in the south and Slovakia and Ukraine in the north. In the east, settlements mass along the river Körös and its headstreams. Further settlements can be found in Romania, especially along the river Mureş. In the west, the river Tisza is hardly ever crossed.

In a more developed phase of the Tisza culture, regional groups evolve. While classical Tisza material can still be found in the central and southern areas of the river Tisza, the Herpály culture emerges in the Great Hungarian Plain up to the river Berettyó and with some settlements even far into Romania. It was named after the eponymous location Berettyóújfalu-Herpály. This group is characterized, among other things, by the existence of painted pottery.

Distribution of the Tisza culture.

At the headwater of the Tisza, in north Hungary and east Slovakia, remains of the Czőszhalom (also Czőszhalom-Oborín) group can be found.

Treatment of the dead

In the Tisza culture and in the Czőszhalom group, the dead were buried inside settlements in small groups, whereas in the Herpály culture they were laid to rest without the tell settlements (cf. for this and the following in summary Kalicz/Raczky 1990, 26-27). The deceased were placed lying on their right or left sides in a crouched position, which need not be gender-specific.

In the north and in the Czőszhalom group we may also find the dead buried in a straight position, lying on their backs. Besides regular inhumations there are also burials in refuse pits. The orientation of the dead is not regular. More common orientations are W-E or E-W with slight variations to the north or south. Grave goods comprise pottery, elements of dress or jewellery and rarely objects of prestige; furthermore, we may often find lumps of ochre or scattering of ochre in the graves. Generally grave goods are rather rare and scanty.

In the Tisza culture, evidence exists for the use of coffin-like wooden boxes. In the Tisza and also the Herpály cultures, the deceased were sometimes wrapped into mats of reed. Exceptionally the deceased were burnt, their remains placed loosely in the ground, or the dead were laid to rest on their belly. Babies and infants were sometimes interred in post-holes and under floors.


According to N. Kalicz and P. Raczky (Kalicz/Raczky 1990) there are three different settlement types in the Tisza culture: for one, there are tell settlements whose layers can reach a thickness of up to four metres. For another, there are tell-like settlements with smaller layers and a lower building density; finally, there are also one-layered flat settlements.

Tells and tell-like settlements are, as a rule, located in the southern part of the distribution area, south of the river Körös (Makkay 1991, 319). The construction of tell settlements cannot be derived from the preceding eastern LPC. Rather we will have to think of influences from the Vinča cultural complex or from Bulgaria, whereas the flat settlements further to the north are in accordance with the common way of settling in these times, for example in the Lengyel culture. It could be verified that sometimes small flat settlements existed in the periphery of the tell settlements which might have had some sort of economic function. Tells and flat settlements lie close to rivers and lakes on elevations protected from floods (Link 2006, 60).

As a rule, buildings are rectangular or trapezoidal. The floors were made from rammed earth, sometimes wood or stone substructions can be found. The walls were raised using posts. Some buildings might have had two storeys (Link 2006, 53-55). Inside the buildings, remains from walls were found. Besides, there is evidence for hearths, clay pedestals and pithoi (Kalicz/Raczky 1990, z. B. 38 mit Abb. 19 u. 39 mit Abb. 22).

The size of the tell settlements varies considerably, and we would like to point out the smaller size of the Herpály culture tell settlements. The houses were built parallel to each other, the density and the orientation may vary (Link 2006, 56-57). Often, the tell settlements were surrounded by ditches.

Preserved cereal remains of emmer, einkorn, barley, millet and peas give a clue to the economic situation of the Tisza culture people. The relation of wild and domestic animals may fluctuate. The most important domestic animals were cattle and pigs followed by sheep and goat. Among the wild animals we find remains from aurochs, red deer, roe deer and wild pig. Besides, people collected shells and fruit.

Find material

Most important find in the Tisza culture is pottery. It is used for constructing a chronological sequence and for defining regional groups. The pottery is now grogged with sand, in contrast to former periods, where it was grogged using chaff.

Using the pottery, P. Raczky divided the Tisza culture into three phases I-III in 1992 (cf. therefore for this and the following Raczky 1992). The phase Tisza I with its pottery is still closely related to the preceding Szakálhát group. The spectrum of pottery shapes comprises hemispheric vessels with a flat bottom or pedestalled vessels, furthermore biconical vessels with a funnel-shaped neck and beakers. Besides incised decoration which is very similar to that of the Szakálhát group, we can distinguish as a new element pottery coated with bitumen in which pieces of straw were placed to form different motives. This decoration, however, disappears with the end of the phase Tisza I and is replaced by painted black bands.

Characteristic of the developped Tisza culture (phase Tisza II) are vessels decorated all over with incised decoration. This decoration often covers the whole vessel body and is therefore sometimes called “carpet-like”. The motives consist of meanders and angles divided into fields. Painted decoration is still in use, in combination with incised decoration. Vessel shapes comprise now increasingly more pedestalled vessels, furthermore cylindrical or conical vessels and, in special cases, lids with anthropomorphic handles. The last phase of the Tisza culture (phase Tisza III) is characterized by the disappearance of decoration. Instead, only protruding elements such as knobs, bosses, warts or lugs occur. We may already sense the Copper Age Tiszapolgár culture in vessel shapes and the absence of decoration.

In contrast, the pottery of the Herpály culture is painted. This painting was applied after firing directly on the vessel or on a light ground coat. In a first phase of development (Herpály I and II), fine black stripes appear. Later these are followed by combinations of broad red bands and thin white stripes (Herpály III) until finally decoration consists only of white painting. Motives consist of geometrical ornaments such as fishbone, grid and interlaced patterns. As in the late phase of the Tisza culture, at the end of the Herpály development protruding decoration (knobs, bosses) tends to come up. Vessel shapes comprise bowls, cups, pots, flasks and amphorae but also vessels on hollow pedestals and so-called saucers.

Czőszhalom pottery is related to that of the Herpály culture, due to it being painted pastose red and white; however, also Tisza culture pottery occurs.

Besides, we could separate, maybe, the “bossed” pottery of the so-called Gorsza group located at the mouth of the river Maros which is characterised by painted decoration and plastic applications (Horvath 1990, 36-37).

Finally, we would like to mention ceramics which can be attributed to cult and religion: anthropomorphic vessels, handles (e. g. lid handles) and applications. There are also zoomorphic representations and “altars”, some with a face on them. Especially remarkable are anthropomorphic vessels from Kökénydomb, between 20 to 35 cm high and richly decorated, and some male and female figurines sitting on pedestals and wearing certain types of array (we can recognize, e. g., bracelets and tools, maybe sickles and axes). These figurines were sometimes found within houses and give indications about cult practice. Face vessels display connections to the preceding Szakálhát phase of the eastern LPC. We would like to mention one exceptionally large face vessel which measured about 72 cm and might have been used as a storage jar (Raczky 2000). Up to now there is no parallel to it. A curiosity or maybe a fake is an anthropomorphic vessel from the “Biblioteca Malatestiana” in Cesena, Italy (Bagolini 1992). It is a pear-shaped vessel with large breasts. The arms are held towards the breasts. The legs are thin and bent in the knees so it seems as if the vessel was sitting. Its surface is covered with motifs reminding of the Tisza culture pottery. Its origin is uncertain.

Stone tools, unfinished and semi-finished pieces of, e. g., adzes and axes are known from the Tisza culture, as well as different flint tools. Furthermore we know of grindstones and rubbing stones. Bone and antler artefacts range from awls and needles to tools used for burnishing and polishing, chisels, hammer axes, adzes, borers, hammers, points, harpoons and fishing hooks.

Pieces of dress ornaments can usually be found in graves. Pearls made from clay, bone, tooth, stone (e. g. marble), shell, spondylus and copper are quite frequent. They were worn as bracelets or necklaces around the head, the neck, the arms, the hips or below the knees, or in numbers of many thousands and sometimes dyed red and blue, used as borders for clothing. Perforated canines of red deer were also found. Bracelets were made, as in former times, from spondylus, but at the end of the Tisza culture and at the beginning of the Tiszapolgár culture, from copper. Small copper pearls are rare. Furthermore, there are bone rings and bone combs, bone and shell pendants and bone needles.

Chronological relations

The Tisza culture succeeds the youngest groups of the Eastern or Alföld Linear Pottery Culture in east Hungary. Especially the Szakálhát group plays a major part, for its material, especially the pottery, displays great similarities to the Tisza culture, so that they cannot possibly be distinguished sometimes (Makkay 1991, 321). Vertical stratigrafies prove the sequence Tisza – Tiszapolgár. Generally, a transitional phase, Proto-Tiszapolgár, is inserted between the Tisza and the Tiszapolgár cultures; however, the exact separation between the phases is still unclear. Starting with the Tiszapolgár culture, the early Copper Age begins in east Hungary. Basically parallel to the development of the Tisza culture, the phases Lengyel I and II develop in Transdanubia, and likewise late Vinča B2, Vinča C and maybe also Vinča D1 in the Balkans. In Romania, we encounter the later developments of the Bukovaţ group and finally the Petreşti and Foeni groups.

In terms of absolute chronology, the Tisza culture can be dated to around 4900 – 4500/4400 cal. BC (cf. for this the new 14C dates from Polgár-Csőszhalom: Bánffy/Bognár-Kutzian 2007, 212).

Volhynian flint and chocolate-coloured flint point to long-distance relations with Poland and Ukraine (Kaczanowska 1985). The appearance of marble suggests that there were also contacts to the south. A bracelet made from Bohemian limestone is unique (Kalicz/Raczky 1990, 22-23). Obsidian might point to connections to Slovakia where it occurs around the Zemplén/Zemplín mountains (cf. Spondylus suggests contacts to the Aegean, whereas early copper in the Tisza culture is generally attributed to mines in Transsylvania resp. the Balkans. Besides, lots of evidence for “foreign” pottery can be found in Tisza culture settlements, pottery which originates not only from the regional groups Herpály and Czőszhalom. The best example for close relations to the Vinča culture is the settlement of Čoka (Hungarian: Csóka), where the Tisza and Vinča cultures seem to mix (Banner 1960).

There is also evidence for contacts to the neighbouring Lengyel culture. These contacts manifest themselves in similar vessel shapes and also in cultic finds in the Tisza regions (Rackzy 2002) as well as in Transdanubia (Kalicz/Raczky 1990, 23; Zalai-Gaál 2002). Here, in Aszód or Mórágy-Tűzkődomb, vessels from the Herpály culture were found.

The end of the Tisza culture and the beginning of the early Copper Age in east Hungary are much discussed. Especially the abandonment of the Neolithic tell settlements led to speculations concerning social, economic, religious or climatic changes (in summary Link 2006, 65-81). In contrast to burials within settlements in the Tisza culture, there are actual cemetaries in the Tiszapolgár culture. Social differences which were at least to some extent visible in the Tisza culture now become more obvious: the dead are equipped with many, rare and/or unusual grave-goods and are buried in special places in the cemetaries. We also have to mention the complete disappearance of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic representations which had been quite common in the Tisza culture.

The reason for these changes is still unclear, internal and external influences are discussed. In conclusion, the above mentioned change in the way of settling, the treatment of the dead and large fields of cult and religion have to be borne in mind.


B. Bagolini, Vaso antropomorfo presso la Biblioteca Malatestiana di Cesena. In: L’Arte in Italia dal Paleolitico all’Età del Bronzo. In memoria di Paolo Graziosi. Atti della XXVIII Rinunione Scientifica, Istituto Italiano di Preistoria e Protostoria, Firenze, 20-22 novembre 1989 (Firenze 1992) 425-431.

E. Bánffy/I. Bognár-Kutzián, The Late Neolithic Tell Settlement at Polgár-Csőszhalom, Hungary. The 1957 excavation. BAR International Series 1730 (Oxford 2007).

J. Banner, Adatok a körömmel díszített edények kronológiájához. Arch. Ért. 43, 1929, 23-34 u. 322.

J. Banner, The Neolithic settlement on the Kremenyák Hill at Csóka (Čoka). Acta Arch. Hungaricae 12, 1960, 1-56.

I. Bognár-Kutzián, Das Neolithikum in Ungarn. Arch. Austriaca 40, 1966, 249-280.

J. Csalog, A magyarországi újabbkőkori agyaművesség bükki és tiszai csoportja. Folia Arch. 3-4, 1941, 1-27.

F. Horvath, Hódmezővásárhely-Gorzsa. Eine Siedlung der Theiß-Kultur. In: W. Meier-Arendt (Hrsg.), Alltag und Religion. Jungsteinzeit in Ostungarn. Ausstellungskat. Frankfurt/Main (Frankfurt am Main 1990) 35-52.

M. Kaczanowska, Rohstoffe, Technik und Typologie der neolitischen Feuersteinindustrien im Nordteil des Flussgebietes der Mitteldonau (Warszawa 1985).

N. Kalicz, Zsáká-Markó, Zsáka-Várdomb. Archäologische Forschungen. Régeszeti Füzetek 9, 1959, 14-15.

N. Kalicz/P. Raczky, Das Spätneolithikum im Theißgebiet. Eine Übersicht zum heutigen Forschungsstand aufgrund der neuesten Ausgrabungen. In: W. Meier-Arendt (Hrsg.), Alltag und Religion. Jungsteinzeit in Ostungarn. Ausstellungskat. Frankfurt/Main (Frankfurt am Main 1990) 11-34.

J. Korek/P. Patay, A Herpályi-halom kőkorvégi és rézkori települése. Folia Arch. 8, 1956, 23-42.

J. Korek, Die Theiß-Kultur in der mittleren und nördlichen Theißgegend (Budapest 1989).

Th. Link, Das Ende der neolithischen Tellsiedlungen. Ein kulturgeschichtliches Phänomen des 5. Jahrtausends v. Chr. im Karpatenbecken. Universitätsforsch. Prähist. Arch. 134 (Bonn 2006).

J. Makkay, Entstehung, Blüte und Ende der Theiß-Kultur. In: J. Lichardus (Hrsg.), Die Kupferzeit als historische Epoche. Symposium Otzenhausen. Saarbrücker Beitr. Altkde. 55 (Bonn 1991) 319-328.

W. Meier-Arendt (Hrsg.), Alltag und Religion. Jungsteinzeit in Ostungarn. Ausstellungskat. Frankfurt/Main (Frankfurt am Main 1990). P. Raczky, The Tisza Culture of the Great Hungarian Plain. Stud. Praehist. 11/12, 1992, 162-176.

P. Raczky, A unique face pot from the Öcsöd-Kováshalom settlement of the Tisza culture. Acta Arch. Acad. Scien. Hungaricae 51,1-4, 1999/2000 (2000) 9-22.

P. Raczky, Evidence of contacts between the Lengyel and Tisza-Herpály cultures at the late Neolithic site of Polgár-Csőszhalom (Relationships between Central European and Balkan ritual practice and sacral thought in the Upper Tisza Region). Budapest Régiségei 36, 2002, 79-92.

F. von Tompa, Die Bandkeramik in Ungarn. Arch. Hungarica 5-6 (Budapest 1929).

I. Zalai-Gaál, Theiß-Importe aus Mórágy-Tűzkődomb. Antaeus 25, 2002, 243-253.

Further references

J. Banner, A Kökénydombi neolithkori telep. Die neolithische Ansiedelung von Kökénydomb (Szeged 1931).

J. Banner, Das Tisza-, Maros-, Körösgebiet bis zur Entwicklung der Bronzezeit (Szeged 1942).

F. Horváth, Neolithic boat model from Hódmezővásárhely-Gorzsa. 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) 263-276. N. Kalicz, Über die Probleme der Beziehungen der Theiss- und der Lengyel-Kultur. Acta Arch. Acad. Scien. Hungaricae 22, 1970, 13-23.

N. Kalicz, Siedlungsstruktur der neolithischen Herpály-Kultur in Ostungarn. In: A. Aspes (Hrsg.), Settlement Patterns between the Alps and the Black Sea 5th to 2nd Millennium B.C. Symposium Verona - Lazise 1992 (Verona 1995) 67-75.

N. Kalicz/P. Raczky, Preliminary Report on the 1977-1982 Excavations at the Neolithic and Bronze Age Tell Settlement of Berettyóújfalu-Herpály. Part I: Neolithic. Acta Arch. Acad. Scien. Hungaricae 36,1-4, 1984, 85-136.

N. Kalicz/J. G. Szénászky, Spondylus-Schmuck im Neolithikum des Komitats Békés, Südostungarn. Prähist. Zeitschr. 76,1, 2001, 24-54. J. Lichardus/M. Lichardus-Itten, Spätneolithische Funde von Čičarovce (Ostslowakei) und das obere Theißgebiet an der Schwelle zur frühen Kupferzeit. Saarbrücker Stud. u. Mat. Altkde. 4/5, 1995/96, 143-249.

W. Meier-Arendt, Zu Tells und tellartigen Strukturen im Spätneolithikum Ost-Ungarns, Siebenbürgens und des Banats. Überlegungen zu Funktion und Entstehung. Banatica 11, 1991, 75-83. P. Raczky, Neolithic settlement patterns in the Tisza region of Hungary. In: A. Aspes (Hrsg.), Settlement Patterns between the Alps and the Black Sea 5th to 2nd Millenium B.C.. Symposium Verona - Lazise 1992 (Verona 1995) 77-86.

P. Raczky/A. Anders, Social dimensions of the Late Neolithic settlement of Polgár-Csőszhalom (Eastern Hungary). Acta Arch. Acad. Scien. Hungaricae 57,1-3, 2006, 17-33.

J. Vizdal, Potiská kultúra na východnom Slovensku (Košice 1980).

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