IN THE FALL OF 1965, UCLA Extension offered a lecture course called “The Ancient World before the Greeks,” with an optional field trip to Greece, Turkey, and Israel. Marija Gimbutas, a new professor in the Department of Indo-European Studies, was very much involved. I took that class and it rearranged my life.
On our last night on Crete, after visiting dozens of sites, the field trip participants formed the Friends of Archaeology, at the suggestion of Marija and surely encouraged by the plentiful ouzo. With much enthu- siasm, the group elected Sandy, my late husband, as president of what is now UCLA’s oldest active support group, although he clearly announced that he could be only a figurehead.
During the trip, Marija had asked me, “Why are you in the School of Education when you are so interested in archaeology?” Only tangentially influenced by the women’s movement—remember it was 1965—I answered, “But how could I be an archaeolo- gist?” Marija, drawing herself up to her full height, challenged with, “And why not? I am an archaeolo- gist!” Why not indeed? So I transferred to Marija’s department. As I was married, with three children, it took some time to finish my graduate degree. Sandy and I became friends with Marija. We entertained one another other, traveled together, laughed, broke bread, and drank wine. She and I worked like the devil, agreed and disagreed. I think of her as a warm and encouraging mentor but also as a formidable oppo- nent when her interpretations were challenged. She was not easy to argue with or question, especially on the subject of her pantheon of prehistoric goddesses and gods of Old Europe.
In addition to Marija’s contributions to Old World archaeology (four excavation monographs and the fifth forthcoming in 2016, plus 20 volumes and hun- dreds of articles), there is her legacy at UCLA. Marija established the Old World Archaeology Laboratory in Haines Hall as part of the Museum and Laborato- ries of Ethnic Arts and Technology, now the Fowler Museum, where students had an unprecedented opportunity to handle and study artifacts from Europe, Egypt, and the Near East, most from the Well- come Collection and private gifts. Here Rose Lowen- stein trained a group of docents to present a program on archaeology for middle schools that was only recently discontinued. The Fowler continues to store the artifacts in the care of Wendy Teeter. Together with other faculty, Marija was instrumental in creating the Interdepartmental Graduate Program in Archaeol- ogy. When I transferred to Indo-European Studies in 1966, Marija explained that this program was not yet official but would be approved by the time I was ready to take exams. Subsequently, she worked with Giorgio Buccellati and others on the founding of the Institute of Archaeology, with Buccellati as its first director.
Years later, Lloyd Cotsen’s generous endowment was announced (Figure 1). Marija and Lloyd were long- time friends; he admired her energy and supported her commitment to the institute’s goals. In 1973 Marija and an international group of colleagues inaugurated the Journal of Indo-European Studies, which pub- lishes four issues yearly. Finally, with the support of Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy and with sponsorship from Lithuanian UCLA alumni, the talented Lithu- anian Vladas Vildžiu- nas was commissioned to create The Bird Goddess (1977) in bronze for the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden (Figure 2). As Murphy wished, it was inspired by Marija’s interpretation of birds as of great importance among the sacred animals in her pantheon of Old Europe.
FROM VILNIUS TO HARVARD
Marija Birute- Alseikaite- was born in 1921 in Vilnius, a few years after Lithuania was granted independence as part of the World War I armistice. Lithuanian independence had long been threatened by powerful neighbors and nationalism; hope for self-rule and democratic promise were all part of Marija’s heritage. At 17 she graduated from the gymnasium and entered Kaunas University. From there she participated in excavations of prehistoric burials, eventually trans- ferring to the University of Vilnius. Surrounded by World War II Marija pushed to graduate in 1941, married in 1942, and a daughter was born the next year. The family fled west, eventually settling in Tübingen, where the university reopened soon after the end of the war. Marija enrolled in the university, and in March 1946 she defended her thesis on the prehistory of Lithuania. In 1949 the family—with a new baby daughter—received approval to travel to the United States.
Marija’s first appointment was at Harvard as a Peabody Museum research fellow (1950–1963). She was later a lecturer in the Department of Anthro- pology (1962–1963) and a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford (1961–1962). Entering American academia in the Ivy League, she swiftly established a network of colleagues and friends. She was an active researcher in the archaeology of the Baltic countries, eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union. Her Lithuanian heritage left her with the conviction that the combined study of historic folk culture, mythology, and ethnology; comparative and historic linguistics; and iconography, symbolism, and archaeology would provide a key for the interpreta- tion of both material culture and prehistoric religion. She believed that while other languages in the Indo-European family had lost their archaic elements, they survived in Lithuanian because the country was far from the crossroads of migrations. These ideas coalesced in her well-received study The Balts. Sub- sequently, she applied this multifaceted approach to understanding the symbolism represented by figu- rines, pottery marks, and painted or incised designs on ceramics from Neolithic and Chalcolithic sites in the Balkans and Greece.
THE MOVE TO CALIFORNIA
Marija became known as the author of a dynamic model proscribing the homeland, social structure, and archaeology of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) speakers. (For a comprehensive bibliography, see Elster 2007.) Her first American article, in American Anthropolo- gist, introduced these ideas and the Kurgan culture. (The term kurgan is originally Russian and describes a burial under a mound.) The region where kurgans are numerous, north of the Black Sea and eastward, corre- sponded, Marija believed, to the homeland of the not yet fully identified language of PIE speakers. A long article in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society presented her analyses of the archaeology, with maps full of arrows illustrating the Kurgan people’s move- ments to the west (Figure 3). Proposals identifying the PIE homeland, including Marija’s, were and still are under constant reevaluation. One of her admirers, the distinguished Harvard linguist Roman Jakobson, considered Marija to be underappreciated at Harvard and encouraged one of his colleagues at UCLA, Dean Worth, to recruit her. Marija’s marriage dissolved in 1963, and in 1964 she moved to Los Angeles to con- tinue her career at UCLA.
Marija flourished in the relative informality of the UCLA academic community, which she spoke of as more accessible and lively compared to Harvard. As professor of European archaeology and Indo-Euro- pean studies and, starting in 1966, curator of Old World archaeology for the Museum and Laboratories of Ethnic Arts and Technology, she regularly offered lecture courses and graduate seminars in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe and in Baltic and Slavic folk- lore and mythology. A charismatic person—popular with students, full of charm, generous, and hospi- table—she settled in the Santa Monica Mountains community of Topanga with her daughters, Živile- and Julie. She hosted (often at home) visiting scholars and student seminars; served on countless commit- tees and editorial boards; taught; published hundreds of book reviews and articles and dozens of books; lectured widely; accepted fellowships, awards, and honors; participated in and organized conferences; and traveled annually to Europe and countries behind the Iron Curtain.
OBRE, SITAGROI, AND ANZA
Around the time of her arrival at UCLA, counterpart funds, administered by the Smithsonian Institution, became available. After organizing meetings with Alojz Benac during an earlier trip, Marija received counterpart funds for a joint project with Benac and the Zemaljski Museum in Sarajevo to start excavations at Obre, Bosnia, in the summer of 1967. Because the UCLA team wished to recover a quantitative sample and Benac was unused to the kind of strategy that this required (such as sieving and flotation), the codirec- tors decided to open two adjacent areas, separate but equal. It is interesting to compare the reports. Both are thorough and present a tremendous amount of data. Benac’s large team opened a wide area, reveal- ing impressive structural remains, which provided an important picture of village layout. The UCLA team focused on a smaller excavation and on maintaining a carefully controlled stratigraphy. Samples were taken for radiocarbon analysis as well as for the quantita- tive study of pottery, lithics, bone tools, ground and polished stone, and both zoological and botanical remains. The American approach literally fills in the economic picture: what the villagers ate, planted, herded, hunted, gathered, and traded and the crafts they practiced and how these changed over time. With Eugene Sterud in charge in the field and his quantitative recovery, Marija could focus on the kind of report- ing that she did so well: a descriptive, thorough, and confident synthesis.
Marija and Colin Renfrew planned excavations at Sitagroi, Greece, during his visiting professorship at UCLA in 1967, before Marija left for Obre to conduct the first field season. She had earlier visited Saliagos, in the Cycladic Islands, which Renfrew and John Evans were excavating. Marija and Colin were a good pair: there was mutual respect and they admired each other’s knowledge and energy. In July 1968, Colin opened the first of three seasons at Sitagroi, in which I was much involved (Figure 4), with a permit from the British School of Archaeology and funding from the NSF and British sources. Marija was still involved at Obre but traveled to Sitagroi for part of each sea- son (Figure 5). Both Marija and Renfrew had as one goal to obtain as many samples as possible from clear archaeological contexts for radiocarbon dating. The 29 dates were many more than heretofore had been obtained from any other site in Europe and resulted in a reevaluation of Greek and Balkan chronology vis-à-vis Troy and the ancient Near East, which caused a mini revolution of controversy and reassessment.
Marija’s long interest in the ubiquitous figurines from Neolithic and Chalcolithic sites in Greece and the Bal- kans was particularly excited by Sitagroi’s remarkable corpus. Renfrew and she organized a Sitagroi semi- nar, to which Jean Deshayes, director of the French excavation at Dikili Tash (a chronologically comparable nearby site; Treuil et al. 2004), was invited, along with his crew. Marija spoke about the figurines and her interpretation (Figure 6). Deshayes and his students were thoughtful, the Sitagroi team had many questions, and Renfrew was clearly skeptical. How- ever, Marija was certain of her interpretations and elated by the richness and variability in the assem- blage. Work at Sitagroi closed after the study season of 1970, leaving Marija with an impressive corpus of more than 200 figurines, which she published in the first Sitagroi monograph. They formed an important part of her thesis on an Old Europe pantheon of gods and goddesses.
The radiocarbon measurements indicated that Middle Neolithic occupation at Sitagroi and Obre partly overlapped, but the Early Neolithic was not well represented. Marija hoped to rectify this with another excavation, and by the time the second season at Sitagroi was under way, in 1969, Marija and Milutin and Draga Garašanin (in cooperation with the Stip Museum) were awaiting a permit to open an Early Neolithic site south of Skopje. Eugene and Anna Sterud, veterans of Obre, worked at Sitagroi for a few weeks, until a telegram with the permit arrived. All lodged in the hamlet of Anza; Sterud set up the field- work, as he had done at Obre, and directed the first season. The Yugoslav team, under the Garašanins, established a separate but equal dig. Eugene Sterud’s responsibility to the Obre publication was consider- able, and he chose not to continue as field director during the second season, in 1970, which exposed Early Neolithic levels. Its corpus of figurines and pot- tery was of particular interest to Marija. She found a subsistence pattern based on the domestication of plants and animals at all three sites, with specialist crafters, trade or exchange of raw materials, and only limited hunting and gathering. Many classes of pottery and figurines of humans and animals, both natural and schematic, were recovered at all three sites and were ubiquitous at two. These sites underlined the meaning of Old Europe, only to be strengthened once the earth was moved at Achilleion in Thessaly, which turned out to be Marija’s dream excavation.
ACHILLEION AND SCALORIA CAVE
Achilleion is a low mound in the eastern plain of Thessaly near the town of Farsala in Greece. It had been explored by Dimitrios Theochares, who reported evidence of aceramic levels. This intrigued Marija, because such a finding suggested that the lowest levels of the mound would contain a prepottery settlement. In none of the excavation squares was this expectation fulfilled, however. Marija wrote frankly in the excava- tion monograph that the earliest levels represented a “full-fledged Neolithic culture with proto-Sesklo pottery.” In synergasia with Theochares at Achilleion work began in the summer of 1973 and continued in 1974, although the Greek political situation truncated both seasons. Nevertheless, excavations revealed a rich sequence of Sesklo painted pottery from the Early to Middle Neolithic, plus an extensive database of floral and faunal remains, significant evidence of architecture, and the ubiquitous tools of bone and stone. The obsidian indicated trade exchange down the line with with those who controlled this resource on the Cycladic island of Melos. Also recovered were hundreds of figurines in context, which Marija pub- lished fully in the excavation monograph. Marija had long been persuaded that the nonrealistic shape and modeling of the so-called Vinca figurine heads repre- sented facemasks. Among the Achilleion finds were several that fit this category, including a tiny mask set on a stand (Figure 7). Because of these hundreds of figurines, the economic data, and considerable comparanda from her own and other chronologically analogous sites, she believed that her ideas on the existence of an Old Europe and its prehistoric cult had incontrovertible support.
After their serendipitous reacquaintance (both were at Harvard in the 1950s) at a conference in northern Italy in 1972, Santo Tiné of the University of Genoa invited Marija to visit sites on the Italian Tavoliere Plain. She noted that the shapes and incised or painted surface designs of the Neolithic pottery were reminiscent of Old Europe pottery. Tiné had explored the lower chamber of Scaloria Cave in 1965 and knew from an earlier reports of the archaeology of the upper chamber. In close cooperation, Marija and Tiné initiated the bilateral Tavoliere Expedition, which included two excavations: Lagnana da Piede (with James Mallory as field director; Mallory 1989)—one of the hundreds of villaggio trincerati (entrenched villages)—and Grotta Scaloria in 1978–1979 (Figure 8). In the latter, human remains representing some 300 years were recovered from the upper chamber, along with pottery, stone and bone tools, and evi- dence of fire. Tiné described the findings in the lower chamber as “representing a cult of water.” Based on the calibrated dates and the variability in pottery, the cave was thought to be in use between 6500 and 3500 B.C.E. In 1980, in Manfredonia, Marija, Sándor Bökönyi, and I, together with students and volunteers, studied, tabulated, drew, and photographed materials from the cave. A preliminary report of the first season was published by the field supervisors, but Grotta Scaloria was the only excavation that Marija did not publish fully before her death in 1994. When I visited her at UCLA Medical Center toward the end and we talked about her life, she smiled and said: “Good, but promise me that you will see Scaloria published.” I promised, and it is forthcoming in the spring of 2016 (Elster et al. forthcoming).
At conferences, in journals, and in Gods and God- desses of Old Europe 6000–3500 BC: Myths, Legends and Cult Images (1974), using voluminous data sets from dozens of prehistoric sites, Marija introduced the culture of Old Europe: Neolithic and Chalcolithic southeastern Europe, centered in Greece and the Bal- kans but extending east and west to the Adriatic and Black Seas. Ceramics included highly polished vessels, with lively bi- or polychrome painting, or with white infilling enhancing the incised or excised designs, easily taken as products of accomplished potters. Also in these assemblages were seals (pintaderas), human and animal figurines, and ornaments of shell and bone—artifacts representing technology and symbol- ism. Marija described Old Europe as a wide region of agricultural settlements with a social organization. She observed occupation over millennia with debris build- ing up over time, forming the mounds (magoulas, or tells) described in the literature. She further postu- lated the absence of strife because of the paucity of identifiable weapons and fortified settlements and the overwhelming presence of figurines that she identi- fied as female and indicative of a peaceful matrifocal social structure. Old Europe is one of Marija’s most original contributions, which, because of the contention surrounding her pantheon of gods and goddesses, was at first met with muted interest. But the geogra- phy and economy, if not the social organization, have been accepted. The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000–3500 BC is the title of a large illustrated volume and catalog to an exhibition in New York of artifacts loaned from Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova. In his well-received publication The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (2007), David Anthony uses the term Old Europe to describe what he calls a proto-civilization: Neolithic and Chalcolithic Europe and the Balkans before the Bronze Age—a description that would have satisfied Marija.
Marija named the small sculptures of humans and ani- mals and identified them as representing a prehistoric cult of goddesses and gods of Neolithic and Chal- colithic Europe and the Balkans. In one fell swoop, she brought the variability of Neolithic art front and center, a lasting contribution that has produced some fascinating work, unraveling decades of goddess schol- arship (Talalay 2000), enlarged now with a very new critique (Lesure forthcoming). A polyglot and prodi- gious scholar, Marija had remarkable command of the data. combined with a brilliant ability to synthesize and create an entire pantheon. Gods and Goddesses (1974), with the title reversed for the second edition in 1982, was followed in 1989 and 1991 by the large goddess volumes (Gimbutas 1989, 1991). Further, Marija tabulated, correlated, and “deciphered” the many incised or painted markings and designs on pottery, figurines, and pintaderas as an Old Europe proto-script linked to the pantheon. The nature of the pantheon, the proto-script, and its widespread influence diachronically and synchronically are all presented in a series of articles and in the richly illus- trated volumes. They are written in full confidence, without any of the ambiguity that often surrounds the discussion of cultic practice in prehistory.
Colleagues were at first mute when she offered her daring interpretations of the role of the ubiqui- tous clay figurines and the proto-script. Here was one of the leading scholars of prehistoric southeastern Europe, with enormous control of an international database, publishing her ideas on a prehistoric pantheon and its role in religion and symbolism, an agenda with which prehistorians at that time were most reluctant to engage. Her vision was furthermore expressed in a kind of storytelling, even though it focused on excavations and hard data; the prehis- toric world was presented in a powerful narrative, complete and unquestionable. Archaeologists had difficulty accepting Marija’s interpretation of Old Europe’s matrifocal social organization and the longue durée that she postulated for the pantheon.
Prior to her lectures and publications, the figurines had been reported on, but this was received solely by the archaeological community. The supreme irony, not lost on some of her critics, is that Marija forced her constituency to deal with this material—if first as a critique—at a critical moment in social history. Her writings coincided with the rise in feminist thought and famously intersected with popular culture, borne aloft by a group of feminists who found in
her writings what they had sought, proof that God was a once woman and that women were once in charge, or at least equal partners with men. Reviews by archaeologists of the first goddess volume were critical; with its reprinting, they remained critical but became increasingly analytical. Scholars of prehistoric religion embraced her work, as did some feminists.
See Lesure (2011; forthcoming) for a clear, current, and concise review of decades of goddess studies and an approach to interpreting these figurines—weighing context and comparisons—that holds much promise.
THE TRANSFORMATION OF CULTURE
Marija published on the Kurgan culture, the PIE speakers, and their homeland in a series of data-rich, intellectually provocative papers and articles in whichshe synthesized evidence from historical linguistics, archaeology, mythology, and folklore. Her thesis was that the PIE Kurgan culture was patriarchal, warlike, pastoral, and horse breeding and lacked a pantheon, whereas Old Europe was matriarchal, peaceful, and agricultural and had a pantheon. She viewed the meeting of these two groups as catastrophic and transforming Old Europe. Its florescent Chalcolithic culture was annihilated, and in its wake were the seeds of the Indo-European patriarchal society and the languages, social structure, and proclivity for war that we observe today. Indeed, the end of the Chal- colithic and the beginning of the Early Bronze Age in Greece and the Balkans present dramatic changes in the material record (sites burned, abandoned, and so on). Marija’s explanation for this transformation of culture was challenged, but recent work by David Anthony (2010) recognizes her research with respect and presents a more nuanced and detailed evaluation of the transformation.
What some archaeologists find especially galling is that Marija’s model of female control (Old Europe) being replaced by male control (Indo-European) had enormous influence. Marija Gimbutas is a name long known and respected beyond archaeological circles; the goddess volumes were both beautifully produced and accessible to a wide audience, thus hers has been the voice of authority. Still, the critique is fair, because in prehistory, just as in modern history, social control and negotiation of power were much more ambiguous than would be allowed by claiming that matriarchy was simply usurped by patriarchy. Further, recognition of this ambiguity is more likely to advance the study of a prehistory populated with individuals of all ages and sexes rather than just two in a gendered duality. Femi- nist archaeologists have particular problems with what may be perceived as the hijacking of feminist inter- ests in the past and their harnessing to a particular interpretation, which they find both poorly supported by the evidence and problematic in its implications for feminist theorizing.
There are also problems with the version of womanhood that the goddess interpretation offers. First, it is a unitary vision of women that conflicts with much of recent feminist theorizing, which instead emphasizes the differences among women as much as their collective differences from men. Second, it is a vision of women concentrating on biology (sexuality, reproduction, and motherhood), which historically the women’s movement has seen as limiting. Admittedly in the goddess version, biological aspects of woman- hood are glorified and considered a source of power, which has to be better than the androcentric version, which sees them as limiting and a source of weak- ness. Nonetheless, most feminists, including feminist archaeologists and scholars in other fields, would be reluctant to return to an understanding of women defined largely as wives and mothers, even if this allowed them to be goddesses.
I think these critiques are quite important, but what also comes through in some of the critical articles is a certain anger with Marija’s refusal to back down or to see the wrongheadedness of her goddess theories. Her critics were impatient because she did not realize that she was not advancing the cause of feminism. However, Marija was a product of her generation and education, and she hardly noticed the change in social thought, which took decades to be adopted and understood. Marija was paradoxical in a sense: when archaeologists disagreed with her con- cerning the homeland of the PIE speakers, the Kurgan culture, the proto-civilization, or the destruction and transformation of Old Europe, she responded in an academic fashion, pointing out the critics’ errors and introducing new evidence and arguments; she did not back down. But with the pantheon, she believed her critics to be not only wrong but also guilty of personal jealousy. Such an uneasy interpretation of criticism left her rather vulnerable, and I think it was difficult for her to refuse the outpouring of enthusiasm and sup- port, and indeed adoration, from the goddess groups.
In the last years of her life, Marija seemed to regard all her archaeological challengers and critics with great equanimity, for she had moved on to her final abiding interest, archaeo-mythology and the respect- ful audience of new age feminists, folklorists, and mythologists.
Marija’s death brought about a virtual industry of memorials in newspapers and scholarly journals; a joint memorial was held at the Fowler by the Institute of Archaeology and the Indo-European Studies and Slavic Studies Departments. In Lithuania, an extraor- dinary two-day state funeral was held in Vilnius and in Kaunas, where a main thoroughfare was renamed in her honor. In the autumn of 1997, a conference was held at the Pacifica Graduate Institute to honor her work with the goddess groups, and the University of California Press posthumously published an edited volume of her last writings (Gimbutas 1999). Initiated before her death, a video documentary of her life, produced and filmed by a Canadian documentarian, was premiered at a conference held at UCLA, cosponsored by UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women. There is no doubt that her ghost has indeed cast a long and deep shadow.
Anthony, D. W. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Old Europe. In The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley 5000- 3500 BC, edited by D. W. Anthony and J. Liu, pp. 29-57. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Elster, E. S. 2007. Marija Gimbutas: Setting the Agenda. In Archaeology and Women: Ancient and Modern Issues, edited by S. Hamilton, R. D. Whitehouse, and K. I. Wright, pp. 83–120. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Elster, E. S., J. Robb, E. Isetti, and A. Traverso (editors). Forth- coming. The Archaeology of Grotta Scaloria: Ritual in Neolithic Southeast Italy. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.
Gimbutas, M. 1989. The Language of the Goddess. London: Thames and Hudson.
———. 1991. The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Gimbutas, M. 1999. The Living Goddesses, compiled and edited by Miriam R. Dexter. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Lesure, R. G. 2011. Interpreting Ancient Figurines: Context, Comparison, and Prehistoric Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. Forthcoming. Comparative Perspectives in the Interpre- tation of Prehistoric Figurines. In The Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines, edited by T. Insoll. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mallory, J.P. 1989. Lagnano Da Piede I: An Early Village in the Tavoliere. Origini 13: 193-290.
Talalay, L. 2000. Review Article: Cultural Biographies of the Great Goddess. American Journal of Archaeology 104 (4): 789-792
Treuil, R. (ed.). 2004. Dikili Tash. Village préhistorique de Macédoine Orientale I. Fouilles de Jean Deshayes (1961- 1975). Publiées sous la direction de René Treuil. BCH supplément 37. Athens: École Française d’Athènes.
Ernestine S. Elster
University of California, Los Angeles