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HomeSpecial EventsSecond Shanghai Archaeology Forum 2015
Early Urbanism in Europe? The Case of the Trypillia Mega-sites, Ukraine
From:Chinese Archaeology  Writer:John Chapman  Date:2015-12-21
The Cucuteni-Tripyllia group: the last civilization of ‘Old Europe’

The time-place distribution of the Trypillia – Cucuteni groups – two millennia (4800 – 2800 cal BC) and between 200,000 and 250,000km2 - makes them one of the largest and most long-lasting groups in what Marija Gimbutas termed ‘Old Europe’. Three key points stand out from the long history of Trypillia and Cucuteni studies since their respective discoveries in the AD 19th century: he apparent utter predominance of the domestic domain over the mortuary sector in both groups, the closely related near-absence of the materialization of hierarchies in either group and the differential development of massive sites (the so-called ‘mega-sites’) in certain zones of the Trypillia group but not in others and not at all in the Cucuteni sites.

There were three long-term elements which together formed the Trypillia ‘Big Other’ – their statement of overall cultural and ideological importance: the house, the figurine and painted pottery. The house symbolised a widespread aesthetic principle – the creation of monumental geometric order through the construction of essentially rectangular spaces. The cultural importance of geometric order can be seen in painted pottery as well as in many prestige objects but the monumental scale of houses projected its visual cultural symbolism onto the rolling loess landscapes.

Kite-photo of the largest Assembly House known in the Trypillia world – the so-called ‘mega-structure’ - during excavation in 2012.
The second key component of Trypillia lifeways was the fired clay anthropomorphic figurine. Dan Monah’s study of the contexts in which the figurines were deposited shows that sets of complete figurines were rare but found in structures thereby interpreted as shrines, while fragmentary figurines – often deliberately broken in mid-life and re-used ‘after the break’ could be deposited in houses, pits or the occupation level. There is strong evidence for the use of both complete and fragmentary figurines in ceremonies, especially in various stages of the ‘death-of-the-house’ rituals.

The third frequent component of Trypillia lifeways was the decorated pottery. The shapes and decorative motifs of painted wares have been used to classify and date Trypillia phases, subphases and regional groups in a complex, interlocking typological scheme. Pottery dominated the ‘grave goods’ deposited in mortuary house-burning ceremonies. The finely painted wares could easily be imagined as a prestige good in their own right.

In his 1995 book The limits of settlement growth , Roland Fletcher identified the Tripillia mega-sites as the sole exception to his global model of constraints on agricultural settlement expansion. It is clear that the mega-sites are a phenomenon of global significance and that a targeted investigation of one megasite and its hinterland would greatly aid our understanding of settlement complexity. The great size (up to 320 ha) and the early date of the mega-sites indicates that they were the largest sites in Europe in the 4th millennium BC. This implies not only social complexity but also the possibility of independent urbanism, sensu Gordon Childe, in Eastern Europe at the same date as in China and the Fertile Crescent.

The first methodological revolution: Discoveries and previous interpretations

Ukrainian and Russian researchers led the first stage of research into the mega-sites, with methodological innovations in geophysics and aerial photography. Since 1967, mega-sites have been studied using three methods. Remote sensing (aerial photographs and magnetometry) has given an impression of settlement plans, although without much detail. Archaeological excavations have provided information about the structure and architecture of the buildings and settlements. The early remote sensing programmes, in tandem with trial excavation, achieved four aims: (1) the confirmation that these sites were indeed far larger than any coeval site in the rest of Europe; (2) the demonstration that the megasites were indeed a genuine phenomenon and not simply the result of unusual atmospheric or ground conditions; (3) the dating of the houses in the mega-sites, and hence the mega-sites themselves, to the Trypillia period; and (4) the confirmation that several mega-sites shared common elements of planning, as constituted by the five principal elements of spatial layout. The relatively coarse-grained remote sensing data underlying these principles restricted the unit of analysis to the settlement plan, with detailed consideration of individual houses from excavation.

House B17, showing the mass of burnt daub (in Russian, ‘ploshchadka’) that formed when the house was deliberately burned down.
The second methodological revolution: the new geophysics

Our Project exploited the adventitious juxtaposition of the extreme size of the mega-sites with the high potential of new geophysical methods. This enabled the Project to establish a new research agenda for Trypillia mega-site archaeology, based on the new geophysical plans, which were so detailed that they defined two new units of analysis for mega-site studies: from now on, not only was it possible to study the entire settlement plan but there was the opportunity to consider both individual structures and groupings of structures. The new geophysical plans permitted the identification of new kinds of individual feature – the unburnt, or weakly burnt, house, the pit, the Assembly House, the ditch, the industrial features (sometimes kilns) and trackways. The grouping of structures enabled the analysis of the settlement plan at the local level for the first time. This means that we can study the creation of small dwelling units and understand their contribution to the greater settlement plan.

Moreover, the geophysical plans also enabled the field location of burnt structures for the placing of test-pits to collect organic samples for AMS dating. After the successful dating of over 80 samples, the Project is currently analysing the AMS dates through Bayesian modelling to provide the first well-supported internal chronology of a mega-site in the history of the investigations.

The geophysical plan of Nebelivka:

The plan showed that an area of 236 ha was enclosed within a perimeter ditch. This contained a total of over 1,500 structures, grouped in 60 Neighbourhoods which in turn were clustered in 14 Quarters, each focused upon one or two larger-thanusual buildings, which we have termed ‘Assembly Houses’. The fundamental planning principles comprised a shallow perimeter ditch, more symbolic than defensive, two concentric house circuits and the inner radial streets. Three internal unbuilt spaces were thus created – a space for gardens between the ditch and the outer circuit, a second space for gardens and field between the two circuits and a large (65-ha) empty space whose use is still debated: for the animals within the inner circuit and the radial streets or for seasonal gatherings, or both. While these design principles appear to have produced an orderly, planned settlement, in fact there was a huge amount of variability between the Neighbourhoods and between each of the Quarters; there is much evidence for a bottom-up approach to creating a mega-site plan while not violating the overall design principles.

The ‘mega-structure’: a massive Assembly House

Geophysical research in 2009 identified a massive structure – then and now the largest structure in the Trypillia world. The Project excavated this building – dubbed the ‘mega-structure’ - in 2012, focusing mostly on the burnt building (37 x 20m) rather than the open courtyard (27 x 18m) in front of the Assembly House. There were rooved areas covering small rooms at both ends of the megastructure, while the central part was an unroofed inner courtyard for meetings. It was a great surprise to us that there were very few special finds deposited in the mega-structure – no copper, only one gold hair-ornament and very little stone material – instead, masses of decorated pottery, some figurines and some animal bones. There were also no obvious storage facilities or storage-jars. The mega-structure crystallized what for us is the central issue of mega-site archaeology – a huge structure but hardly any prestige goods – no materialization of social difference. How could such a large settlement, with a population numbering thousands, have functioned without some kind of orderly, that is to say, hierarchical structure?

The Nebelivka IB pollen and charcoal core

One approach to the nature of the Nebelivka mega-site was Bruce Albert’s analysis of pollen and charcoal from a core located by Dr. Albert only 0.5km from the edge of the mega-site. The surprise was the relatively low level of human impact on the megasite environment – hardly more than in the periods before and after the mega-site dwelling period. There was little evidence for intensive agriculture and pastoralism, while the expectation of massive burning horizons marking the deliberate burning of hundreds of houses at the end of the site occupation was not met at all. Dr. Albert identified seven different fire events, only three of which fell inside the mega-site period. These results on low human impact challenge the way we approach the population sizes of Trypillia mega-sites.

The Trypillia settlement pattern

Intensive, systematic fieldwalking within a 5km radius of Nebelivka was combined with extensive, targeted fieldwalking along stream valleys within 20km of Nebelivka to produce the local settlement pattern. The surprising results were that no Trypillia sites at all were found within a 5km radius (indeed, only one decorated sherd was collected!) and the nearest contemporary settlement was 10km away. It is hard to think of a mega-site ‘hinterland’ – rather a single, large central place for discard and a large surrounding area with little or no discard. There was no sign of a hierarchical settlement pattern with smaller sites providing logistical support for the mega-site.


The results of four analyses - the settlement plan, the finds and features of the ‘mega-structure’, the pollen and charcoal sequence and the settlement pattern – all point in the same direction: megasite inhabitation was far less intensive and hierarchical than we had previously thought. This means that the site population was rather smaller than we had believed or that the dwelling was structured in a different way – perhaps seasonally or with a special, pilgrimage function. We are confident about, and close to, rejecting the model of massive, permanent, long-term dwelling with populations in tens of thousands. Instead, we envisage a small permanent group of people maintaining the sanctity or significance of the megasite in preparation for the large-scale, seasonal congregations for religious and social purposes. The people coming to Nebelivka for these seasonal gatherings must have come from long distances – more than 20km – and these ‘visitors’ helped to create, build and provision the mega-site without inflicting huge damage on the local landscape.

Conclusions: on urbanism

Thus at the same time as seeking to explain the Trypillia megasites, their origins, growth and collapse, the Project seeks to make significant contributions to the general debate on urbanism worldwide. The notion of low-density urbanism is particularly apposite for the mega-sites, as it is for early Chinese sites in the Longshan and Early Shang periods. The understanding of Nebelivka forces us to think ‘outside the box’ of traditional approaches to urban origins. Our current characterisation of mega-sites is as “low-density, egalitarian urban sites with a permanent population core augmented by large-scale seasonal gatherings”. If we are correct, this is a new kind of urban form which is very different from traditional cities, such as Uruk. The final challenge of the Project is to work through the implications of this new form of low-density urbanism.

To conclude, the Project has made five achievements in our mega-site research: (1) the provision of the first complete mega-site plan produced with modern geophysics; (2) the understanding of the formation of the plan of this highly agglomerated settlement; (3) the recognition of major public buildings (‘Assembly Houses’) and the excavation of the largest example known in the entire Trypillia culture; (4) the provision of the first internal AMS-based mega-site chronology; and (5) the provision of the first-ever well-dated pollen sequence showing the human impacts of a mega-site population. The sixth achievement remains - to reach a better understanding of a new form of Eurasian urbanism. Discussion of this question at the 2nd SAF will be an important step forward in our Project research.

John Chapman

John Chapman is a Professor of European Prehistory at Durham University (UK) from 2012, where he has been teaching since 1996. He took his first degree and PhD from the Institute of Archaeology, University of London, where he worked with Dr. John Nandris on the Vinča group in South East Europe. After research and fieldwork on the prehistoric exploitation of salt in Romania, Chapman developed research contacts in Ukraine which led to the Trypillia mega-sites Project featured here. Chapman has been researching Balkan prehistory for the whole of his academic career and can be regarded as the senior British specialist on Balkan prehistory and one of the leading European specialists. He has conducted fieldwork in Serbia, excavation and fieldwork in Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine and has made extensive museum studies in all of the countries in the study region. He has written extensively on this material, with five single-author books and seven jointly-authored books, as well as editing 10 books in this research field. His excellent knowledge of the theoretical terrain and an unrivalled knowledge of Balkan materials makes his principal research contribution the social interpretation of later Balkan prehistory. John Chapman was the first Editor of the European Journal of Archaeology (1995 – 2001), becoming a Life Member of the EAA in 2003. He was Vice-President of the Prehistoric Society (2007 - 11). He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London (1995), a Member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences (London Branch) (1995) and an Honorary Member of the National Institute of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (2011). He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Alba Iulia (Romania) in 2014.
Bisserka Gaydraska

Bisserka Gaydraska is a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant at the Department of Archaeology in Durham University. After graduating from Sofia University, she received her PhD in Durham University, which has been fostering her research activities ever since. Apart from in her homeland Bulgaria, Bisserka has been involved in various field projects and museum studies in Romania, Greece, Turkey and recently Ukraine. Her research interests are in archaeological methods and theory, GIS applications in archaeology, AMS dating, landscape archaeology and interdisciplinary studies. Bisserka’s publications include the Landscape, Material Culture and Society in South East Bulgaria (Archaeopress, 2007) and the Parts and wholes: fragmentation in prehistoric context (with J. Chapman: Oxbow Books, 2006)

  ( John Chapman   Bisserka Gaydarska     Durham University )

(Source: Research Center for World Archaeology, Shanghai Academy)
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