One of the oldest civilizations in Europe is the Neolithic Cucuteni-Trypillia culture. The name Cucuteni comes from a village in the northern county of Iasi, in Romania, where the first related discoveries were made in 1884
The remnants of this civilization spread over 350,000 square km, on territories of today’s Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. Its calling card is its clay pottery, of a special quality.
Constantin Preoteasa, a researcher with the Cucuteni Cultural Museum of Piatra-Neamt, in north-eastern Romania, told us about the multiple strata of discoveries related to this prehistoric culture: “The Cucuteni people were attracted here by salt deposits and by multiple other resources. This diversity explains the variety and number of strata in archaeological sites. In the east, the situation is different. There, we have Trypillian giant settlements, as the Ukrainians call them. These are single site settlements, but very large ones. The settlement in Talianki, in the Uman region, has a surface of around 500 ha, which is huge for that period in time. Around 2,000 buildings have been identified by geo-magnetic exploration, not by digging. The buildings are arranged based on a precise plan, in 12 concentric circles. The population is estimated at around 20,000. Cucuteni settlements consisted of several types of buildings, in addition to habitation buildings. There were many workshops making tools, for instance. The culture had expert craftsmen, such as the potters who created the pottery that made the culture famous. We also have devotional buildings, sanctuaries, which were probably the most important buildings.”
There are two major components in Cucuteni art, decorative art (as that on painted ceramics) and figurative art, consisting of anthropomorphic and animal representations.
Constantin Preoteasa:: “When we speak of Cucuteni art, we can clearly distinguish two periods. The first is between 5000 and 4000 BC, the second is between 4000 and 3500 BC. The first period is characterized by smaller vessels, elongated vessels with a stem, decorated with excisions, incisions, and grooves, painted in two or three colours. The three colours, referred to by experts as the 'Cucuteni tricolour', is in shades of white, red and black. The two colours are combinations of white and black or white and red, never red and black. The early painting was the so-called raw painting, with the dies applied on the vessels after baking, which is why it is mostly faded. Later on, due to better techniques, the dies were applied before baking, becoming much more durable. The quality of the artefacts is exceptional.”
Constantin Preotasa has more about the methods of making Cucuteni ceramics: “With all our modern methods, traditional craftsmen are trying to reproduce Cucuteni ceramics, but with inferior results. No human community has reached the level of refinement that the Cucuteni craftsmen have. All the major pieces are made of a very fine and dense paste, and even the smaller vessels are heavy, due to density and the uniformity of baking. The baking was done in so-called reverberation kilns, the vessels had no direct contact with the fire, they were baked by the hot air channelled from the burning chamber underneath the baking chamber, in the basement, as it were. In the baking chamber they had a very heavy, perforated clay plaque where the vessels went. The hot air circulating in the kiln reached 900 degrees Celsius. At first they were made in reduction kilns, in gray and black shades, and were less sturdy. Generally, however, the pottery was baked with plenty of oxygen, and that is why they have beautiful hues, from pale yellow to brown.”
The spiritual representations of the Cucuteni people revolved around numbers. Constantin Preoteasa: “The numbers 12, 3, 7, 9, and 21 have symbolic meaning, which have been lost to us. Also the numbers 4 and 6. In the famous Cucuteni Frumusica Dance, we have 6 stylized female figurines, engaged in a ritual dance, facing each other. In other such representations, such as that from Beresti, Galati County, there are only 4. However, in the view of some traditional cultures, there was the idea that there are two sunsets and two sunrises. At that point, cardinal points become 6, instead of 4. Also, some crown vessels had three ridges, others have four. In Poduri we found a vessel with 3 angular ridges, another vessel, which is our institution's emblem, has 4 ridges. When we have 4 such objects, or statuettes in worship venues, they are generally placed to indicate the cardinal points.”
The Cucuteni Culture is the very peak of Neolithic culture across the world. At the same time, the practices, beliefs and social relations for the people of that culture remain a mystery.