The Diversity of Symbolic Communication in Southeastern European Social Prehistory

Mark Stefanovich

American University in Bulgaria (Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria)

Symbolism as culture is now an accepted methodological approach by many anthropologists who study social meaning. It is also agreed that categorization and classification are systematic and the perception of similarity is the operational principle.
      Today the symbolic repertoire of Southeastern European social prehistory rests conventionally on the work of M. Gimbutas and followers. She identified two primary symbolic systems: Pre-Indo-European also called by her Old Europe and Indo-European, which is identified with the spread of speakers of the Indo-European languages in the 5th-4th millennia. Gimbutas presented evidence from the two symbolic systems that were different in organization and metaphor. This theory rests on the identification of Indo-Europeans as different ethnic, linguistic and socially organized communities from those existing earlier in Old Europe.
      However, recent research in archaeogentics posits less differentiation in the palaeo-gene pool in Southeastern European prehistory from 10,000 BC to 1000 BC. This research brings into question the thesis that Indo-European speakers were intruders from outside the areal of Southeastern European prehistory as presented by Gimbutas. The further implications is that the symbolic system differences that exists between Old Europe and the later Indo-Europeanized Southeastern European areal cannot be attributed to the presence of the newly arrived Indo-European speakers. This paper will discuss what possible alternatives exist to account for the changes in the symbolic repertoire that takes place during the 5th and 4th millennia.

The Symbolism of the Prehistoric Culture and the Balkans

Lolita Nikolova

Prehistory Foundation (Sofia-Karlovo, Bulgaria) &
International Institute of Anthropology(Salt Lake City, Utah, USA)

The symbolism, as one of the most characteristic features of the prehistoric culture, is based on the stage of development of the human thought in which the language and the symbols were two equal systems for communication, and the writing was not or only initially developed. The social character and the cross-cultural generality of the symbolic significance (Christopher Robert Hallpike 1979) lay the foundation of the symbols as a strong device for communication.
      A considerable part of the prehistoric symbols is an element of the religious systems. At the same time, the religion as a "system of symbols by which man communicates with his universe" J. van Baal equals with models mediating between the individual's conflicting needs for self-expression and self-containment. Then, the interhuman communication is realized by the communication between the individuals and their common model of ritual action (J. van Baal 1971: 242).
      The symbols are expressed through the rituals. Or in terms of Victor Turner, the rituals are aggregations of symbols (1975: 59). Nevertheless, the symbolic meaning of the prehistoric actions concerns not only the formal rituals, but also many activities in the everyday-life, which are related to certain beliefs.
      In the focus of analysis and discussion in this study are:
          The most intensive household activities in the prehistory such as spinning and weaving;
          The development of the Balkan prehistoric ornamentation and the criteria for recognizing the symbols in the pottery ornamentation;
          The Vinca and Gradeshnitsa signs, as well as the newly discovered signs from Drama.
          The problem of the visibility and invisibility of the symbols and signs and the possible sacred meaning of the latter, based on instances from Balkan symbolic objects (e.g. the oven from Slatino), etc.
      In the context of the symbols as communication device in prehistory (Edmund Leach, J. van Baal, Jan Hodder, etc.) and the use of objects to materialize memory (Rosemary A. Joyce 2000: 189), the discussed instances in the study infer that the material culture gave an opportunity for different kinds of transmission of the information. In spite of the ambiguous nature of the material culture (Jan Hodder 1989: 72-73), this transmission could be direct and very realistic (or expressive), but it could be also included in a special symbolic system of communication, in which the sign or symbol was an integral part of the message.

Sacred Symbols on Neolithic Cult Objects from the Balkans

Gheorge Lazarovici

In our understanding symbol is defined as an object that represents a notion, an abstract idea, or a conventional sign. The sacred symbol has a divine, holly, and precious venerating sense. The object on which the sign is present had to be recognized as a sacred one, and in some cases the sign is the one that gives the sacred meaning to the object.
      In the oldest thought, not primitive at all, the sacred played an important role in the life of the population. The first sacred signs used as communication elements appeared at the end of the 10th millennium in Porto Badisco cave. We intent to refer here to some civilizations, for which we have more information as Starcevo - Cris, Vinca and Banat cultures (especially from Parta).
     This communication represents a brief overview on the research of the Balkan prehistoric signs including Tartaria problem, as well as the database foundation of my research on the problem. It has been stressed that Maria Gimbutas had made the first catalogue for the sacred signs, but without numeration. Our database contents information regarding cult objects and their significance.
      General fields. They contain data on the name of the object, discovery conditions (locality, country, province, complex etc.), culture/civilization, phase, dating, etc.
      Special fields. They contain data about the place of the sacred sign on objects (e.g. on idol head, forehead, face, nape, neck, chest, and abdomen) and allow us to interpret their place, position and their meaning (especially for uncommon complexes).
      Fields with signification. They refer to the general or special signification of the sign or symbol, related with the place where it was placed (the triangle represents the eye, or light; in other cases the triangle  represents the feminine sex, rendered as a virgin or fecundated), or with related or subsequent  civilizations (e.g. common signs for syllables in hieroglyphs, Linear A, and Linear B). 
      Quantitative/statistical excerpts. It reflects the statistical situation of the database (the type of the objects and the main ideas that they suggest in our opinion). It is possible to observe correlation between the symbols connected with the Great Mother Goddess (symbol M), with the Light (L), followed by snake symbols or snake and mother (Sp, Sp-M).
      Qualitative excerpts. From the database, we have selected the Romanian discoveries with sign series. There are no stratigraphic observations for the Turdas discoveries. Those from Tarpesti have a small number of attributes. Our classifications suggest an older period of time to which the Banat culture discoveries belonged. First are those that belong to the Vinca B phase, followed in time and as an ethno-cultural phenomenon by those from the Turdas group and Csapojevka.

University "Eftimie Murgu" in Resita &
National Historical Museum of Transylvania, Department of Prehistory, Cluj-Napoca, Romania

The Language of Symbols: Communicating with the Supernatural in Prehistoric Anatolia

Jak Yakar

The decipherment of the spiritual life of prehistoric communities in Anatolia is a highly speculative field strewn with numerous hurdles, needles to say some of them insurmountable. However, when dealing with topics such as magic and religion, and their possible manifestation in the cultural records of permanently settled prehistoric communities, the cautious use of ethnographic records of non-industrial communities from distant lands could be permitted in order to understand the possible nature of community rituals connected say with ancestor cult and fertility.  One can only presume that even in Neolithic times communities of sedentary hunter-gatherers and farmers that produced the art forms encountered at settlements such as Çatalhöyük, Kösk Höyük, Hallan Çemi, Novali Çori(Yakar 1991; 1994), or at the cult center of Göbekli Tepe(Schmidt 2000a-b) accepted the fact that the ‘world’ they were part of had to be regulated by a definite set of customs and institutions and long established ways of thinking.  Some of these naturalistic, geometric and linear art forms most likely served as mediums and symbols of communication with ‘the world of spirits’.  This issue brings up the question of whether shamanism existed among prehistoric communities in Anatolia.  Assuming in the imperative, we have to emphasize that the induction, control and exploitation of altered states of consciousness are at the heart of shamanism the world over.  Recent neuropsychological research on altered states of consciousness claims to provide the principal access that we have to the mental and religious life of the people who lived in western Europe during the Upper Paleolithic, for they too were Homo sapiens sapiens and, one may confidently assume, had the same nervous system as all people today (Clottes and Lewis-Williams 1996:12-13).  In some of the existing and so-called primitive cultures in various parts of our planet the dreams of ordinary people are usually taken to be glimpses of a world that can be visited with relative ease by religious specialists in deep trance
When dreaming, people have far less control over their mental experiences than they do while they are daydreaming, although in the condition known as lucid dreaming, a state between waking and sleeping, people can control, or rather they can learn to control their imagery.  The skills, in other words the spiritual techniques developed by shamans (Clottes and Lewis-Williams 1996:14), are perhaps the relics of shamanistic skills surviving from much earlier times.  It may be postulated that in most communities only a few selected individuals would have ventured out transcendental probings to reach and communicate with the ‘world of the supernatural forces’. Those individuals (shamans) claming success in their endeavors would have thus provided spiritual security necessary for maintaining group identity and unity.  In such a world spiritual beliefs would have developed in reference to particular economic activities and social customs.  Therefore, cultural diversity among ancient societies, particularly emphasized in their iconographic repertories, could have been due not only to a complex interweaving of local and non-local cultural traits, but also to differences in the concept of the manifestations of the supernatural.  It may be postulated that a cultural trait may be saturated with religious beliefs among one particular ancient community and function as an important aspect of their religion, while in another the same trait was less exposed to religious formatting. 
It is not always clear to what extent if at all ancient communities dichotomized the universe into two distinct and mutually exclusive spheres labeled ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’.  Along this line of argument it is not always clear the line dividing magic and religious rites. Any attempt to distinguish between magic and religion is bound to be arbitrary, for the difference between the notion of a magical power in things and the idea of a more or less personalized spirit in things is very much one of degree (Beattie 1964:219). The question dealing with symbols and symbolism is no less problematical to solve.  Symbolism can be regarded as a kind of language, a way of transmitting a social or religious message. Ethnographic studies in various parts of the world demonstrate that people who carry out institutionalized symbolic procedures or rites usually believe that by doing so they are either producing some desired state of affairs or preventing some undesired one. 
Another question not often asked when studying archaeological records pertaining to the spiritual domains in ancient communities is did all communal festivities such as marriage, puberty, birth etc., had religious significance?  Another question relates to the concept of the supernatural.  For instance, should we see in some of the wall paintings at Çatalhöyük scenes from real life, spirits’ world or mythological scenes?  It is known that mythology can consist of uncoordinated accounts based on figures taken from different heroic mythic cycles.  It is difficult to ascertain which natural and supernatural forces ancient communities supplicated during communal ceremonies held in the wake of death, birth, puberty and initiation. Assuming that they did have these ceremonies then it could be postulated that these rituals were organized and conducted by religious practitioners (shamans) probably using a codified language of symbols to reach the world of spirits with supernatural power believed living beyond the reach of mortals and communicate with them.


Beattie, J.1964. Other Cultures: Aims, Methods and Achievements in Social Anthropology.  London.
Clottes, J. and Lewis-Williams, D. 1996. The Shamans of Prehistory. New York
Hammond, P.B.1964.  Cultural and Social Anthropology. New York.
Schmidt, K.  2000a. Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey.  A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations. Paléorient 26,1:45-54.
Schmidt, K. 2000b. Göbekli Tepe and the Rock Art of the Near East. TÜBA-AR 3:1-14.
Yakar, J.  1991.Prehistoric Anatolia: The Neolithic Transformation and the Early Chalcolithic Period.  Monograph Series of the Institute of Archaeology, No. 9, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv.
Yakar, J. 1994.Prehistoric Anatolia: The Neolithic Transformation and the Early Chalcolithic Period.  Supplement No.1. Monograph Series of the Institute of Archaeology, No. 9A, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv.

Social Complexity in Southeastern Europe and in the Near East
(A comparative Look in View of Early Symbolic Systems)

Mehmet Ozdogan

Since early prehistory, every culture has developed symbols or symbolic values to express itself which may, or may not be reflected in archaeological record. These vary from belief systems to exchange mechanism to simple issues related to daily life. However, the development of complex and standardized symbolic values that are meaningful in a globular system is restricted only to cultures that are in the process of state formation. Symbolic values related to such systems are, what we name as writing that ended up in archive building.    
Even a simple comparison of the Near Eastern socio-economic system based on temple- or state controlled economy with that of the Balkans, presents an interesting case. Even though both areas had, at the initial stages of the Neolithic common routes, the Near Eastern model developed on a temple-state monopolizing system. The initial indicators of this system can be traced down to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Period, as reflected by the presence of monumental cult-buildings. However, in the Balkans, as in Central and Western Anatolia, there are no indications of a centralized systems that monopolized economic assets. This does not imply that the early rural communities of the Balkans-and Anatolian plateau did not develop in later prehistory; but the development that took place in these regions was on another line. Accordingly, in looking at symbolic values, it is not possible to use similar parameters.
The paper will be an overview of the evidence from both areas in view of social complexity as reflected in artifacts that may be indicative of symbolic values.

University of Istanbul, Istanbul (Turkey)

Pre-Writing Signs on Neo-Eneolithic Altars

Cornelia-Magda Lazarovici

The beginning of Neolithic in the area of the “Old Europe” has brought important changes in the spiritual life and to the magic religious practices. Older or newer archaeological discoveries from this particular area show the existence of special cult places in the open air or in special dwellings such as home sanctuaries or communitary sanctuaries. It seems that such cult places had special furniture and inventory, as altars, small altarpieces and table altars. The small altarpieces imitate the shape of monumental altars and were used for burning substances or liquids (maybe some had aromatic qualities) or as lamps for maintaining the fire, the light or the heat, all of them symbols of life and of the alive world.
Altarpieces are present from the first early Neolithic cultures. We have sketch their typology (considering the form of their recipient, their number of legs but also taking into account their specific features; the altarpieces with zoomorphic or anthropomorphic characters). 
      Altarpieces decoration differs from one type to another and especially from one civilisation to another. Many altarpieces do not have decoration, other have both decoration and signs and others have only sacred symbols. Despite the fact that they are decorated or just showing sacred signs, most altarpieces respect some “cult rules” whose meaning is more difficult to explain.
     Our analyse, based on the database we have created (over 300pieces) is referring to the area represented by Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and ex-Yugoslavia.
     We have identified the most frequent signs and try to interpret their meaning: “M”, “W” (sign-symbol of the Moon Goddess; expression of some astronomical realities as Cassiopea constellation); ”V” , “?” (eyes of statuette; associated with cross band, a sign and a sacred decoration), the “eye” (power of the Divinity, or expression of the good forces belonging to the animals from the neighbourhood of men, or on the contrary, the evil, terrifying, the destructive forces of wild animals); the spiral (Sun or Moon, suggesting the lapse of time); the triangle with the pick up or down (sign of sexual identity, connected with fertility and fecundity); circle and concentric circles (sun rays, the idea of light, heat, the cognition; breasts , sign of fertility and fec
The seriation  work  we have done for the  mentioned database shows that sometimes these signs-symbols are associated, 4 to 7 signs on one altarpiece. This kind of an arrangement can be considered a mythogram, an allegory or some kind of sacred ritual designed to point out the significance of the altarpiece. This association might be also a “sacred saga” in the manner in which M. Gimbutas believed that all signs represents “sacred hierogliphes”.

Signs on the Neo- and Chalcolithic figurines
(An Attempt of Their Classification)

Krassimir Leshtakov

The signs discussed in this report, are well known and have their own place in many communications. We can recognize them on different artifacts: figurines, tripods (‘altars’), stamp-pintaderas, tables, etc. The subject is geographically limited in ‘Old Europe’ in the context of Maria Gimbutas’ researches and chronologically – in the 6th-5th mill. BC. The investigation of figurines is well developed and it is possible to divide the signs on the surface of artifacts into several groups: simple ornamental units, motifs, compositions and additional elements of decoration. It is also evident that some signs or their groupings are out of ornamental schemes.  They consist of so simple elements that could get the name elemental or nuclear ‘things’ – the minimum bits of information, which are so similar to the later Linear A and B signs that provoked controversial debates several decades ago. They are the subject of this communication. However, it is necessary first to list those information bits, which are avoided in this study – all those, which obviously assemble the ornamentation system on the figurines with a possible interpretation of clothes, tattoo or adornments.
The ornamental compositions without ‘ritual or cosmogony semantics’ are constructed mostly by cross, circle, swastika, rhomb, meander, spiral, bucranium and helix, in many modifications and combinations. These signs are spread in great regions of the Old and New World, and they are ‘out of time’, so it is possible to call them universalia. However, there are examples illustrating the preposition, that some universalia are excluded from ornamental compositions. Several terms have been introduced in the literature for the universalia and other signs in a similar position: Linear signs; religious symbols or simply symbols; ideograms, Linear Old European script, Signs-inscriptions; inscriptions; characters; script (M. Gimbutas 1974); Sign-system or Neolithic sign-complex (H. Todorova & I. Vaysov, 1993); Signs, Pictograms or pictogram signs, etc. At the same time they are ‘ornamentation with semantic content’ or this is ‘ornamentation with sharp defining information of cult-magician matter or ‘the earliest ‘script’ (H. Todorova 1986). According to others,  these signs are graphemes and ideograms (A. Gollan 1991). Accordingly, opinions mentioned above reflect the great terminological puzzle that confuses division and determination of the information units.
Keeping on this direction of examination, perhaps the most important point in a further analysis is the identification of the simple sings done on three levels. First we should sharply outline which signs are out of the ornamentation scheme. There are several complications here – the preservation of artifacts; preservation of the signs and problems of the position and the direction (-s) of ‘reading’ and ordering. The second stage consists of separation of the elemental signs and non- universalia on the artifacts as vessels, pintaderas, furniture, etc. The third stage concerns the correlation of the already defined elemental ‘things’ and their recognition on the figurines. This comparison of the signs on artifacts of different kind guarantees their identification as elemental signs. Beyond any doubt, the point, line, angle, zig-zag, F-, ?-, ?- M-, (W-) shaped signs in different positions are the most common simple ‘things’ used not only on pottery, pintaderas, ‘altars’-tripods etc, but also on the figurines. The combination of them constructs the so-called composite signs, which are also out of ornamental scheme. Similar to them are anthropo- and zoo-morphemes clearly divided as signs of particular semantic and information values. According to this mode of classification, the signs similar to the later Linear A and B scripts receive their own place in Neo- and Chalcolithic information system and any comparison with Cretan and Aegean information system could be just a tentative speculation.
If it is provable to divide the information into several levels: decoration, elements of the clothes and body-design, universalia, composite signs and elemental signs, one can find the place of the subject under consideration in the early information system, acceptable at any site and for every member of ancient society. Nevertheless, questions concerning meaning and usage of the information stand as an important problem of any study. This is not a goal of this report and the phases of further analysis are not mentioned here.
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