Last changed: May 2007
The name “Tiszapolgár culture” for the early Copper Age finds in the eastern Alföld (all terms according to the Hungarian chronological classification) was introduced by I. Bognár-Kutzian which wrote the two main monographs (Bognár-Kutzián 1963 and 1972). She leaned on Ferenc von Tompa who introduced the terms Tiszapolgár I and II in research, however, they are not identical to the Tiszapolgár culture today (von Tompa 1937, 44). The culture was named after locations in and around Polgár, Hajdú-Bihar Megye, with its most famous representative, the cemetery of Polgár – “Basatanya”.
Bognár-Kutzián subdivided the Tiszapolgár culture into four regional groups in her monograph in 1972. They are distributed in east Slovakia and the Carpatho-Ukraine (Lúčky group), in north-east Hungary and the Körös river regions, here especially the Berettyó valley (Basatanya group), and the whole course of the river Tisza which is occupied by the Tiszaug-(Kisrétpart) group (at the mouth of the river Maros) and the Deszk group (further to the south. Bognár-Kutzián 1972, addendum 1). It corresponds therefore to the distribution of the preceding Tisza- (Herpály-, Csőszhalom-) culture, plus a slight expansion to the south to the disadvantage of the Vinča culture (Makkay 1991, 326). The border in the south, therefore, is located in the Banat, with locations in Serbia as well as in Romania (Oprinescu 1981). In the east, the culture can be found as far as the westernmost parts of Transylvania (Luca 1999, 32; Iercoşan 2002). The regions between the rivers Danube and Tisza are unsettled. All hilly regions to the west of the Tisza are attributed rather to the Lengyel culture today (Pávuk/Bátora 1995, 132).
The locations concentrate along lakes and rivers, of course especially at the Tizsa and its tributary streams. Locations in hilly regions are rarer (Bognár-Kutzián 1972, 160). Generally spoken, we recognize a distinct increase in the number of locations if compared to the Neolithic. This is related to the population increase due to economic progress (Kalicz 1988, 14). In the succeeding Bodrogkeresztúr culture, the number of location decreases significantly again (Pávuk/Bátora 1995, 128 f.).
Burials are the most frequent source in the Tiszapolgár culture and therefore yield the majority of finds. Their complete number amounts to about 300 graves today. Mostly they lie on big inhumation cemeteries, such as Polgár – “Basatanya” (Bognár-Kutzián 1963), Deszk B (Bognár-Kutzián 1972), Tibava (Šiška 1964) or Veľke Raškovce (Vizdal 1977). G. Nevizánsky dealt especially detailed with the treatment of the dead (Nevizánsky 1984, 263 ff.). Basically we have to observe that the spectacular results gained from Slovakian research in cemeteries, especially from Tibava und Veľke Raškovce, cannot be transferred to all regions of the Tiszapolgár culture. Many aspects in the treatment of the dead which were analyzed there are local specialties which could only be found in the north of the distribution. All graves published by Bognár-Kutzián 1972 which can be safely attributed to the Tiszapolgár culture can be found in the Catalogue of Graves, together with some new finds.
The cemeteries of the culture are always located close to rivers or lakes, mostly on small elevations. Sometimes burials can be found in settlements, however, we can hardly speak of true settlement burials (Bognár-Kutzian 1972, 158 f.). Sometimes even a stratigraphic sequence is ascernible, like the one in Tibava, where the younger part of the cemetery even superimposes the older settlement (Nevizánsky 1984, 264), or in Mágor – “Várhegy”, where the cemetery follows directly above the Neolithic settlement layers, after a hiatus (Hegedüs/Makkay 1990, 101). Therefore, at most locations we can prove a clear separation between the settlement and the cemetery if they are close together.
Most burials are inhumations with very strict rules concerning the interment. Women were laid to rest on their left side, men on their right, in a slightly crouched position, with their head to the east; this was proven anthropologically as well as archaeologically (for this, cf. also Derevenski 1997). Alterations (west-east but also north-south/south-north) to this rule can occur and increase in the periphery of the distribution (e. g. in Deszk). The same is true for cremation burials. They can be found only in the Lúčky group (e. g. Tibava, Lúčky, Veľke Raškovce). Individuals laid down in a straight position, as they were found, e. g., in Polgár – “Nagy Kasziba”, are attributed to be representative for Neolithic tradtions (Raczky/u.a. 1997, 50). However, individuals lying on their left and right sides in a crouched position can also be tracked into the Neolithic (e. g. Polgár – “Csőszhalom”). Some kinds of burials are generally very rare, e. g. burials containing only body parts (especially skulls), symbolical graves (three times) and burials with two or more individuals (the only example with three individuals: Basatanya, gr. 35). They always seem to be burials of adults and children. Furthermore, we know of animal graves, especially sheep and dogs, like in the Neolithic. They were placed in burials of men; however, since all bones were found and since there are also true animal burials (Veľke Raškovce), we cannot interpret them as just meat. All dead were buried in oval or rectangular burials pits with rounded-off corners; in east Slovakia, this difference could be attributed both to many grave goods (Tibava) and to the age at death (Veľke Raškovce). Generally (about 30 times), layers of ashes were found on the bottom of the burial pits or in the filling. Scattering of ochre is also noticeable.
The burials in the Tiszapolgár culture usually contain a very high number of grave goods. Graves containing few or no grave goods are rare, although, again, this might be due to local differences. Furthermore, there seems to be a connection between few grave goods and the age: In the cemetery of Hódmezővásárhely-Kotacpart – “Vatatanya” where only few grave goods were found, above-average many juvenile individuals were buried.
The most important grave good are vessels. Here, too, vessels occur more frequently in adults’ graves than in children’s graves, therefore, again, we can prove a relation between the age at death and the number of grave goods. Most frequently vessels occur in cemeteries in east Slovakia. The maximum lies at 37 vessels in grave 4/55 from Tibava. The second most frequent grave good are weapons and tools. Here we can recognize differences between adults and juvenile individuals, for these categories of grave goods hardly ever occur in children’s graves or juvenile individuals’ graves. Above all they underline the differences between the sexes: axes (made from antler or – only in the Lúčky group – from copper), long flint blades and ground stone tools occur only in men’s graves. These last also yield evidence for the new function of some artefacts as true symbols for status. There are examples without any traces of wear as well as examples which cannot be used at all for they were made from relatively soft stone, such as the tuffite axes from Veľke Raškovce; however, these are partly interpreted as tools used in metallurgy (Lichardus-Itten 1980, 282). Even heavy copper tools are sometimes interpreted as sigs of power (Kalicz 1992, 13). Further typical grave goods in men’s graves are bone awls, whet-stones and scrapers. Very rarely, graves contain large stone tools (e. g. grinding stones) or clay tools (e. g. loom-weights). Tools and weapons are usually found lying close to the skull or the arms which speaks for a certain regularity. The positioning of jewellery according to where it was worn on the body is also very regular. Again, we can separate typical “male” items (gold pendants) from typical “female” items (pearls). Furthermore, we find objects with a certain ritual significance, e. g. pebbles and animal teeth in women’s graves and pigs’ mandibulae in men’s graves, all these being Neolithic traditions. The scattering of pearls in the burial pit is also a Neolithic tradition (Raczky et al. 1997, 50). Very common is also meat from domesticated animals and game, with pig, sheep and cattle occurring most frequently. A specialty of rich east Slovakian men’s graves is big lumps of imported flint. Its high social significance was pointed out in an article by Lichardus-Itten (Lichardus-Itten 1980). The interpretation as zoomorphic figurine as Vizdal proposes (Vizdal 1977, 142), however, seems exaggerated. Unworked antler pieces from Basatanya belong to the same category.
The treatment of the dead in the Tiszapolgár culture is evidence of a change in society which takes place at the beginning of the early Copper Age. Differences between individuals are clearly recognizable due to their location on a cemetery as well as their equipment with grave goods. Especially on Slovakian cemeteries, outstanding graves are distinguished by their central placement on a cemetery, overlarge amounts of vessels, heavy copper tools, imported flint as a raw material and “unusable” status symbols. This extraordinary richness which is significant for the Lúčky group is generally attributed to the closer vicinity to necessary raw materials if compared to the locations in the Alföld, but also to the passes over the Carpathian mountains which supposedly played a big role as a connection between the cultures in the Carpathian Basin and the Ukrainian steppe regions from which many new features in the Tiszapolgár culture are derived (Lichardus-Itten 1980).
In terms of anthropology, at the beginning of the Tiszapolgár culture we can detect a break in the development. The Neolithic population, with a leptodolichomorphic type, can still be found, but the existence of skeletons displaying an east-cro-magnoid type leads to a high heterogenity in the bone spectrum (Zoffmann 2001, 53). This insight is especially important since the existence of a true eastern component in the population was thought to be unlikely even by supporters of the theory that influences from the steppe also reached the Tiszapolgár culture (Kalicz 1988, 14; Lichardus/Lichardus-Itten 1996). The type Decea Mureşului kurgan graves found in the Carpathian Basin are due to eastern influences according to all researchers, however, they cannot be placed clearly in terms of chronology or culture although they are mostly seen as dating to the early Copper Age (Horváth 1994, 101).
The treatment of the dead has clear roots in the late Neolithic Tisza culture. Many elements can be found already in the Neolithic (location of the cemeteries, crouched burials and single individuals lying in a straight position, differences according to sex, pebbles, pigs’ mandibulae as grave goods, animal graves…). The only true innovation is the beginning social structure. The succeeding Bodrogkeresztúr culture continues the Tiszapolgár treatment of the dead with some small alterations; often, people even bury their dead at the same places (Tasić 1995, 20).
In comparison to burials, the settlements are badly researched. Like all locations, they usually lie very close to rivers, often on small hills directly in the flood plains. True hill settlements are rare (e. g. Hrčeľ, Šiška 1968, 161). They are probably connected to the distribution of raw materials (stone, salt, metal) which are missing in the lowlands (Bognár-Kutzián 1972, 161).
All settlements of the Tiszapolgár culture are unfortified flat (i. e. not tell) settlements. As early as the proto-Tiszapolgár culture between the late Neolithic and the Copper Age (cf. Chronological relations), settling on most great Neolithic tells comes to an end even though there are still finds of that time on most tells (Makkay 1991, 325). However, during some excavations a fossile humus horizon could be found between the Neolithic and the younger layers (e. g. Mágor – “Várhegy” (Hegedüs/Makkay 1990, 101)). The reasons for the abandonment of the tells might have been economical or ecological, for most settlements gave no evidence of layers containing traces of destruction which could point to violence at the end of the settlements (Makkay 1991, 325). However, we also have to exclude a complete avoidance of the tell settlements in the early and middle Copper Age. There are settlement hills which were used in a way in the Tiszapolgár and Bodrogkeresztúr cultures, e. g. Uivar – “Gomilă” or Mágor – “Várhegy”. Besides, we know locations which were constantly settled from the late Neolithic to the Copper Age (e. g. Oborín (Šiška 1968, 157)). Economy is directly related to the geographical location of the settlements. In the lowlands, finds pointing to metallurgy are very rare; they appear rather in the hilly regions of the Lúčky group and especially only in the actual Tiszapolgár culture (Bognár-Kutzián 1972, 164). Newer finds, however, do prove the existence of objects related to metallurgy already in the proto-Tiszapolgár phase and also without the Lúčky group (melting pots in Herpály: Kalicz 1992, 13) which is not surprising since copper finds exist since the latest Neolithic.
The large amount of animal bones proves an increasing significance of stockbreeding. Domesticated animals comprise cattle, pig, sheep/goat, dog and horse. The domestication of horses is an important factor in the genesis of the Copper Age. Horse bones furthermore deliver valuable hints for long-distance relations since they belong to a race of small steppe horses (Bökönyi 1974, 230 ff.). The animals are now used not only as food but also for work. Next to the domestic animals we find bones from game in the settlements, especially aurochs, red deer, roe deer, more rarely birds, tortoises, shells, snails and – as is common in all cultures in the Alföld – fish. The variety of animal bones found in the settlements hardly differs from those in burials (Bognár-Kutzián 1972, 162 ff.). Botanical analyses were conducted selectively (e. g. in Uivar), however, we cannot generalize the results.
Beside the burials and skeletal parts in settlements, signs of ritual practices are missing in settlements (ibid.). Houses were made from simple rectangular post constructions. Corresponding ground plans are known from, e. g., Kenderes – “Kulis” and Kenderes – “Telekhalom” (Bognár-Kutzián 1972, 164 ff.), or from Tibava (Šiška 1968, 137 fig. 33). They occur already in the proto-Tiszapolgár phase (Lúčky – “Viničky” (Šiška 1968, 136 fig. 32)) and also in the succeeding Bodrogkeresztúr culture.
Pottery is the most important group in the find material of the Tiszapolgár culture. It was classified typologically into 16 subtypes by Bognár-Kutzian (Bognár-Kutzian 1972, 118). The most important and distinctive representatives are vessels with a hollowed pedestal which can have a bell-shaped, conical or polygonic profile and which is often pierced. Generally, most vessels show traditions of the Neolithic, i. e. of the preceding Tisza (Csőszhalom, Herpály) culture (Vizdal 1977, 138 ff.). The pottery, however, differs from the Neolithic pottery by a drastic decrease of decoration. Only in the Tiszaug group there are still incised decorations which are encrusted in white, which was characteristic in the Tisza culture but also for the succeeding Bodrogkeresztúr culture. Here, however, they are also very rare. Painting does not disappear altogether as was thought in former times but is employed at least in the proto-Tiszapolgár phase (Vizdal 1977, 142). Most motifs consist now of simple knobs which only rarely occur in larger groups. Incised symbols are even rarer; their interpretation as anthropomorphic representations is doubtful (ibid.). The pottery is grogged with sand and gravel and fired moderately or only weakly. Most vessels seem to be fired irregularly. The pottery occuring in settlements is fired a little better which is also the reason for its lighter colour in comparison to the pottery occuring in graves (Bognár-Kutzian 1972, 134 f.). The pottery of the Tiszapolgár culture continues seamlessly to the pottery of the Bodrogkeresztúr culture. In this culture, two new important vessel types appear (”milk jugs” and vessels with two handles), however, just the older Bodrogkeresztúr vessels still strongly resemble their Tiszapolgár predecessors (R. Patay 2002, 360).
The change in the set of beliefs that we can observe at the decrease of vessel decoration manifests itself even stronger with the complete lack of figurines which were very typical for the Tisza culture. Every once in a while they last as long as the proto-Tiszapolgár phase (Šiška 1968, 156) but afterwards disappear completely. We should notice that figurines are usually found in settlements and that just these settlements are researched badly in the Tiszapolgár culture. However, this cannot be the only reason why not a single Tiszapolgár figurine was found up to today (Patay 1989, 34).
Weapons and tools were made from stone, bone, antler or copper (Bognár-Kutzián 1972, 135 ff.). Copper tools comprise of chisels and knives, but mostly of axes which are found only in the northern regions of the distribution, but represent one of the main types in the early Copper Age. Other axes were made from antler. Stone tools can be divided into ground and chipped forms. To the ground tools belong flat hatchets, hammers, maces, wedges and whet-stones; they were not always used according to their function (cf. above). The chipped stone objects were made from local obsidian, however, high-quality products were fashioned from imported flint. The origin of this flint lies in the east; mostly it was thought to be Volhynian (Lichardus-Itten 1980; Csongrádiné Balogh 2000, 65). In terms of typology we can differentiate between knives (the blades being significantly longer than in the Neolithic) and scrapers. Remarkably, arrow heads are missing. We know of hardly any heavy stone tools, e.g. grinding stones, since only very few finds of the Tiszapolgár culture belong to settlements. Finally we know of simple bone tools such as awls, and clay weights. By the way, flint and antler as a raw material were also frequently found in graves.
A decisive feature in the jewellery of the Tiszapolgár culture are new golden ring- or disc-shaped pendants from the south-east. Often they are interpreted as anthropomorphic representations (Virág 2003, 130). Further items of jewellery are pearls made from limestone and, more rarely, from spondylus, copper or clay. Animal teeth, pebbles and pigs’ mandibulae can rather be classified as amulets.
The number of metal finds significantly increases at the beginning of the Copper Age. Since the late Neolithic, copper occurs as hammered jewellery (copper horizon 1 according to Kalicz 1992, 13). However, already in the proto-Tiszapolgár horizon cast objects occur whose number increases quickly in the early Copper Age. New shapes are heavy copper tools and artefacts made from gold which mark the Tiszapolgár culture as a part of the south-east European metal horizon. The raw copper was gained from local sources (Virág 2003, 130). This is also true for the gold whose origin most likely lies in Transylvania. Gold finds occur only since the younger phase of the culture (Makkay 1996, 38).
Especially heavy copper artefacts and also gold, stone tools and raw material can be found regularly in hoards, e. g. in Hencida, Szeged-Szillér, Nyírlugos, Kálló or Kladovo (cf. the overview in Lichardus-Itten 1991). Their classification in terms of chronology and their relation to the Tiszapolgár culture is, however, sometimes still discussed.
In terms of chronology, the Tiszapolgár culture belongs to the early Copper Age. In most parts of its distribution it succeeds the Tisza-Herpály-Csőszhalom culture. It enlarges the distribution of the culture last mentioned to the south and the east. These expansions succeed the Vinča resp. the Petreşti culture. In the succeeding middle Copper Age, the development seamlessly continues, also in terms of space, to the Bodrogkeresztúr culture. Since the Tiszapolgár culture was defined only quite late, this general classification is undoubted. The chronological sequence is proved by many vertical stratigraphies such as the ones in Magór – “Várhegy” (Hegedüs/Makkay 1990), Székely – “Zöldtelek” (Kalicz 1958, 3), Crna Bara (Tasić 1995, 22), Uivar – “Gomilă” (Schier 2005) or in the Cauce Cave (Luca/Roman/Diaconescu 2004) and also by horizontal stratigraphies, e. g. in Polgár – “Basatanya” (Bognár-Kutzian 1963). Due to its strong similarities, Slovakian research combined the cultures Herpály, Tiszapolgár, Bodrogkeresztúr and Lažňany to one continuously developping “Polgár culture” (Šiška 1968, 162; Nevizánsky 1984). This very same continuing development is stressed by N. Tasić (Tasić 1995, 21). This combination might be a little generous given the breaks in development between Tisza and Tiszapolgár as well as between Bodrogkeresztúr and Lažňany. However, at least for Tiszapolgár we can certainly assume a continuous development to Bodrogkeresztúr without decisive breaks. This is ascertained by continuity in settlements, the treatment of the dead and the find material.
I. Bognár-Kutzian divided the Tiszapolgár culture into two phases (A and B) in her monograph from 1972. However, she herself indicated that phase B should be the actual Tiszapolgár culture. According to her, phase A is a short period in between the end of the tell settlements and phase B. In this last phase, Neolithic traditions disappear, the distribution increases, gold and heavy copper artefacts appear (Bognár-Kutzián 1972, 189 ff.).
Nobody doubts a transitional phase between the Tisza-Herpály-Csőszhalom culture and the Tiszapolgár culture, i. e. between the Neolithic and the Copper Age (Kalicz 1991, 349). This period is called proto-Tiszapolgár, following Šiška. It is identical to Bognár-Kutzián’s phase A (Kalicz/Raczky 1990, 139). In Tibava it could be separated from the actual Tiszapolgár culture with a horizontal stratigraphy (Lichardus/Lichardus-Itten 1996, 172). A clear boundary in terms of find material of the latest Tisza, Proto-Tiszapolgár and Tiszapolgár cultures is still missing. Therefore, it is not surprising that different authors contradict each other regulary when it comes to define different aspects chronologically, such as the disappearance of painting or the end of the tell settlements. Since the actual Tiszapolgár culture is often classified into an older and a younger phase (e. g. in “a” and “b”, cf. Šiška 1968, 162), terminology is still very vague.
The proto-Tiszapolgár phase corresponds to the transitional phase Topoľčany-Szob in between Lengyel III and IV in terms of chronology (Lichardus/Vladár 2003, 196), and likewise Tiszapolgár can be correlated to Lengyel IV (after Lichardus/Vladár), i. e. Brodžany-Nitra (Pávuk/Bátora 1995, 128). A. Točik stressed the strong influence of Tiszapolgár on the Lengyel culture which supposedly adopted metallurgy and knapping technology from the east. The development of the Lengyel culture continues also slower (Točik 1991, 314). Typological similarities in the pottery between Tiszapolgár and Lengyel were also stressed by Šiška, and likewise with Cucuteni-Tripolje. He thinks the culture is an important agent between the east European cultures and the Lengyel complex (Šiška 1968, 162 f.). In the south, Tiszpolgár is synchronized mainly with Sălcuţa (Krivodol, Bubanj Hum), although the exact correlation to the various Sălcuţa phases differs according to different authors (Lazarovici 1981; Roman 1995, 18). Furthermore, the Tiszapolgár culture is partly contemporaneous with Vinča D. Here, the hoard from Pločnik marks the beginning of metallurgy of heavy copper artefacts. However, this hoard might be dated before the Tiszapolgár culture (Kalicz 1991, 349 f.). Due to some typical objects like the gold pendants or the long flint blades it is often compared to the quasi contemporaneous Kodžadermen-Gumelniţa-Karanovo-VI-Varna complex where the origin of metallurgy supposedly lies (Šiška 1968, 162). Kalicz classifies the culture into his metal horizon 2 which is marked by the beginning of heavy metal tools and a metallurgic “boom” (Kalicz 1992, 13; ders. 2002, 388).
In terms of absolute chronology, the Tiszapolgár culture dates in between 4500/4400 - 4000 BC (ibid.).
The Copper Age is rooted in the eastern parts of the Carpathian Basin, on one hand without doubt on a local Neolithic foundation which can be recognized with the continuity in the treatment of the dead and the typological development of most vessel shapes (Tasić 1995, 19 f.). Demographic changes are refuted by almost all authors. The Tiszapolgár culture supposedly was a direct ethnic successor of the Tisza culture (Makkay 1991, 324). On the other hand, we can distinguish a significant break in development at the end of the Neolithic. The most important feature is the end of the tell settlements. However, a change in settlements need not be an indicator of a cultural change but might be due to climatic or economic reasons. Much more important is the disappearance of decoration and figurines, for these point to a change in (religious) beliefs. Here, it is of no matter whether we interpret decoration as pure ornament or as a more complex concept of symbolism.
Despite all continuity, there must have been a distinct impact from the outside to cause these changes. Due to the clear typological similarity of newly appearing artefacts (gold pendants, heavy copper tools, long flint blades) with pieces from the Balkans and the Pontic regions and due to the existence of typically Pontic tumuli with individuals laid to rest in a straight position, like in Decea Mureşului or Csongrád, the origin of this impact might be located in these regions (Roman 1995, 18; Tasić 1995, 23 f.). Furthermore, there is enough non-archaeological research to prove eastern influences: the imported flint, the race of steppe horses and, above all, the distinct existence of an eastern component in anthropological material. There is no mutual consent in the question of the exact dating of these big changes, and the relations to the tumuli of the Decea-Mureşului type are not quite clear due to the fact that they cannot be embedded in local finds and due to the lack of grave goods that can be dated exactly. However, we must act on the assumption that all these processes started already at the end of the Neolithic (for this, cf. especially Lichardus/Lichardus-Itten 1996), so the Tiszapolgár culture is already the product of this change.
Despite all regional differences, the Tiszapolgár culture marks a decisive leap in evolution to a society with different structures. This is due to the economic improvement and the construction of inter-regional contacts. However, this process is started but not ended. The few grave goods we find in children’s graves is, like the undifferentiated way of settling (no fortifications, no “central settlements”), evidence for still strong Neolithic traditions where social status could not be inherited but only achieved.
Furthermore, the Tiszapolgár culture is a significant link between the Copper Age cultures of the Pontic regions and the Balkans and central Europe since it is a neighbour to these regions and can adopt their accomplishments easily due to the geographic benefits of the Carpathian Basin.
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