On digging for deities and intoxication

Economy and Society on Prehistoric Europe - The Living Goddesses

December 3, 1999

The theory that the worship of a mother goddess preceded male-deity religions in prehistoric times has recently received new support in the development of the "Mother Goddess movement", which has attracted a considerable following among feminist groups, particularly in the United States.

While people are free to hold such religious beliefs as they choose, many will nonetheless wish to question just how far the claimed antiquity of such beliefs - whether in Druidism or the mother goddess cult - finds support in the archaeological record.

Marija Gimbutas, a leading authority in the goddess movement, was until her death in 1994 professor of European archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her principal publications for the past 20 years have developed the concept of what she terms an "Old Europe" of matrilineal societies worshipping female deities, which flourished until largely supplanted by migrations of patrilineal Indo-European speakers arriving from the Russian steppes in three waves between 4400 and 2800 BC.

The Living Goddesses contains her thinking on the subject. Written mainly between 1991 and 1993, it was brought to completion by Miriam Robbins Dexter, who is lecturer in women's studies at UCLA. We are told in the preface that Gimbutas continued to edit the book until she was hospitalised, ten days before her death.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first of these, "Religion in prepatriarchal Europe", Gimbutas presents her archaeological argument for matrilineal Old Europe. The discussion ranges widely across figurines, tombs, temples, and ceremonial structures. Everywhere Gimbutas sees goddess cults, be it in Minoan Crete or the Boyne Valley of Ireland. The second section, "The living goddesses", takes a very different line and attempts to trace continuities in religious belief from Old Europe to more recent times in the myths and earliest recorded beliefs of societies as diverse as Basque, Baltic and Etruscan.

Gimbutas's view is seductive in its breadth of vision yet fails to convince most of those working on European prehistory today. In the first place, her model relies heavily on the concept of migrations from the Russian steppes into those areas where Indo-European languages were subsequently to become dominant. Few now believe in the evidence for such migrations and the Indo-European languages may well have reached Europe several thousand years before Gimbutas would have us believe.

The Indo-European question in fact receives hardly a mention in The Living Goddesses , which focuses more on the nature of these goddess-worshipping Old Europeans. But here again the argument is open to doubt. The contention that Old Europeans were largely peaceful and peace-loving, for example, is hardly consistent with evidence of violent death such as the 34 slaughtered men and women found tumbled in a pit at Talheim in Germany, most of them finished off with an axe blow to the skull.

As for the numerous figurines belonging to these early millennia of Old Europe, Gimbutas again goes against recent archaeological approaches, which emphasise that figurines are diverse in form and probably likewise in meaning. The identification of all of them as divinities - the goddesses of Gimbutas's title - fails to recognise that such figurines must have played a diversity of roles in different contexts. Some might indeed represent supernatural beings, but others may have been associated with living individuals or dead ancestors. The sweeping universality of Gimbutas's goddess cult fails to account for the diversity of the evidence itself.

In sum, this book adds little new to support the idea that Old Europe ever existed or that there ever was a unified complex of religious beliefs that lay behind the baked-clay figurines of southeast Europe and inspired the henges and chambered tombs of western Europe. To seek to explain Newgrange and Knossos within the same framework of religious belief, as Gimbutas does, is not convincing. Yet the scholarship is broad, the presentation lucid, and The Living Goddesses most certainly draws attention to changes that transformed the character of European societies during these millennia.

Change in prehistoric Europe is an equally important theme in the second volume under review here. In Economy and Society in Prehistoric Europe , Andrew Sherratt, keeper of antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, provides a collection of the essays and articles that he has written over the past two decades. As Sherratt himself remarks, the articles illustrate how his own perspective has shifted over this period - the early focus on economy, agriculture, technology and trade being increasingly supplanted by attention to the cognitive and social context of prehistoric developments.

A key focus of Sherratt's research has been patterns of change on the broad geographical scale, usually coupled with a core/periphery model in which he attributes many of the innovations that characterise European societies in the neolithic period to a prior origin in the Near East: "All of the crucial developments before 4000 BC (with the possible exception of horse domestication) seem to have taken place within the theatre of greater Mesopotamia ... It seems inherently probable that the unusual conditions of the Fertile Crescent have consistently given rise to innovations in a way that the more uniform landscapes of forested Europe have not." The articles reprinted here are assembled in six sections, starting and ending with Gordon Childe. The heart of the collection is to be found in section three, on aspects of the so-called "secondary products revolution", including his seminal 1981 article "Plough and pastoralism", which effectively launched the whole concept. In brief, Sherratt argues that animals were first domesticated for their primary product - meat - and that exploitation of secondary products (animals for traction, milk and wool) began later, in a revolution that originated in the Near East and spread through Europe from the mid-4th millennium BC onwards. It is a matter for remark that, from their very different perspectives, both Sherratt and Gimbutas argue that fundamental change in European society took place during the 4th millennium BC.

The breadth of Sherratt's interests is impressive. Alongside early research on the "secondary products revolution" and farming societies in southeast Europe, there are articles arising from his fieldwork on neolithic settlement patterns in Hungary and his more recent interest in the megalithic tombs of the Atlantic facade. These he sees as "instruments of conversion", devices to convert the mesolithic hunter-gatherer peoples of western Europe into good neolithic farmers. Maps with arrows encapsulate some of the arguments, emphasising the view that external influence and inter-regional interaction are crucial in any explanation.

Articles on alcohol and narcotics (these linking back to Sherratt's concept of a "secondary products revolution") are enlivened by sub-headings such as "narcotic archaeology", "the anthropology of intoxication" and the observation that alcohol and animal traction, drinking and driving have been associated with each other in Europe since at least the 4th millennium BC.

Sherratt's contention that the prehistory of Europe and the Near East is only to be understood at the level of broad-scale processes runs counter to the "particularist" approaches espoused by a number of postmodernist/post-processualist prehistorians. Not all European prehistorians will be persuaded by these explanations of change that depend so heavily on innovation in the Near East. Yet none will deny that this collection of articles will amply repay close attention and constant rereading.

Chris Scarre is deputy director, McDonald

Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, and editor, Cambridge Archaeological Journal .

Economy and Society on Prehistoric Europe

Author - Andrew Sherratt
ISBN - 0 748 60646 7
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 561

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