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November 24, 2009

The Lost World of Old Europe: See It in New York

by Michael Balter

NEW YORK CITY—The exhibition of Vermeer’s The Milkmaid at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here is scheduled to end on 29 November, but don’t worry if you can’t get to the Big Apple in time to see that famous Old World painting. Just around the corner, New York University’s (NYU's) Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) opened a stunning free exhibit* of more than 250 Old World artifacts on 11 November. These arts and crafts works from Europe’s Danube Valley are a bit older than Vermeer’s 17th century masterpiece, however: They date from 5000 to 3500 B.C.E., when farming was spreading into Europe from the Near East and the mobile, hunter-gatherer lifestyle was giving way to a sedentary, village-based existence.

OldEurope.18. Set of twenty one

The exhibit is a coup for ISAW, which was founded in 2006 amid considerable controversy. (The institute was made possible by a $200 million gift from donors Leon Levy and Shelby White, who were also collectors of ancient artifacts; some archaeologists believe that their collection has included looted objects.) The spectacular artifacts now on display, on loan from more than 20 museums in Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova, have never been exhibited before in the United States. They feature dozens of terra-cotta figurines that some archaeologists have interpreted as “mother goddesses,” including a so-called Council of Goddesses from the site of Poduri-Dealul Ghindaru in Romania (see photo above), consisting of 21 small figurines and the tiny chairs some of them apparently sat on. The detailed and helpful explanatory legend, typical of the others in this exhibit, points out that the goddess interpretation is debatable, and that other hypotheses—for example, that the objects were dolls or playthings—must be considered.

OldEurope.8. the_thinker_hi Also on display is a pair of fired-clay figurines, including one called The Thinker, from the necropolis of Cernavodă in Romania, found in 1956 and dated to between 5000 and 4600 B.C.E. (shown at left). And the exhibit includes some of the more than 3000 gold objects from the Varna cemetery in Bulgaria, the richest burial ground in ancient Europe, dated to about 4500 B.C.E. The cemetery, discovered in 1972, provided important evidence that early European farming societies were not egalitarian as many archaeologists had assumed: The gold scepters, diadems, bracelets, necklaces, and animal heads were found in only 62 of the 310 graves, and the richest finds were restricted to only four—strongly suggesting that these communities were hierarchical.

The exhibit continues until 25 April. But if you miss it—or if you live today in Old Europe—the show moves to the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens in October 2010.

*The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 B.C., Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 15 East 84th Street, New York, NY 10028.

PHOTO CREDITS:

Set of Twenty-one Figurines and Thirteen Chairs: Elena-Roxana Munteanu/Neamţ County Museum Complex, Piatra Neamt

The Thinker and Female Figurine from Cernavodă: Marius Amarie/National History Museum of Romania, Bucharest

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