The soil of Serbia hides numerous secrets. It is an inexhaustible treasure trove for curious minds looking for answers to eternal questions about the history of humankind. The wealth of the Serbian heritage testifies to the rise of the oldest civilizations, the emergence of art, the origins of literacy, and the ways that ancient peoples mastered nature and interpreted the world around them. Throughout the centuries, different cultures have intertwined and interacted, each leaving a lasting impact. Their legacy offers us an insight into ourselves, whilst leaving a priceless endowment to future generations.
Remains of one of the most important and original early prehistoric cultures on European soil are located on the right bank of the Danube River in the Đerdap Gorge. The site called Lepenski Vir was explored from 1965 to 1970 under the management of the famous archaeologist Dragoslav Srejović. The oldest traces of people at this site date from the early Mesolithic period; that is, the middle of 10th millennium BC, which can be traced in continuity up to the mid-8th millennium BC. In the second half of the 7th millennium BC, the Neolithic settlement of the Starčevo culture was founded. The Lepenski Vir archaeological site is recognized for its original architecture and monumental sculptures from the early period of its settlement. The planned construction of settlements, strict adherence to the internal organization of houses-shrines, a necropolis where the rituals of transition to “another world” were performed, sculptures, and other objects made of stone or animal bone indicate that not only was a hunting-fishing village located at this site, but also the centre of sacred life. Neolithic inhabitants of Lepenski Vir constructed different residences, and in addition to hunting and fishing, they engaged in cattle breeding, agriculture, produced polished stone tools and pottery, and developed new artistic expressions distinct from the art of their predecessors. The pottery is decorated in a completely new way, and the objects to which a cult purpose is attributed, such as miniature anthropomorphic and zoomorphic sculptures, stone and ceramic amulets (kind of appendage, which is believed to possess magical effects) in the form of a stylized head of a bull, are also a new phenomenon, and typical of most older Neolithic cultures in south-eastern Europe.
The Spiritual Culture of Lepenski Vir
The art and beliefs of the Mesolithic population of Lepenski Vir are reflected in its architecture, monumental sculpture, and other objects of everyday use and special purpose. They were usually decorated by engravings of geometrical ornamental motifs. As for the houses of Lepenski Vir, it is claimed that they were simultaneously some type of shrines, with the central place occupied by a stone fireplace and a sculpture or altar at the back. The Lepenski Vir sculptures can be divided into two groups: figural sculptures that depict the human figure and slightly modelled forms decorated with abstract motifs. The most prominent cobblestone shape found represents a human head with a clearly emphasized fish-like expression, which is clearly associated with fishing as the main aspect of the economy and the role of fish in the life of the inhabitants of Lepenski Vir. During the existence of the Mesolithic settlement, extremely complex funeral rituals were practiced; bodies were buried in an extended seated position or partially so. The burying of children was conducted exclusively at the front end of trapezoidal structures under the floor.
Vinča - Belo Brdo
Vinča is a village on the right bank of the Danube River, approximately 11 km downstream from Belgrade. Professor Miloje Vasić explored here in the period between 1908 and 1934, discovering one of the most famous and important prehistoric sites in Europe, after which one of the most advanced cultures of the Late Neolithic and Early Eneolithic period was named. The results of these and subsequent explorations showed that Vinča was a layered archaeological site with a cultural layer of thickness of approximately 11 meters, the largest part of which represents the remains of a Neolithic settlement of the Vinča culture. In chronological terms, the settlement of the Vinča culture existed in the period from around 5400 to 4500 BC. This culture was spread over the territory of present-day Serbia and Romanian Banat, as well as in parts of western Bulgaria, northern Macedonia, and northeastern Bosnia. Due to its importance, it was and remains the subject of numerous scientific debates, primarily due to its specific cultural expression. It left behind in many respects an original ornamental system on various ceramic dishes. As part of this culture, technological innovations are evident in the pottery production process. Anthropomorphic figurines, where the main theme is the female figure, represent an exceptional artistic achievement of the Vinča culture. The most famous of them are the Lady of Vinča, Hajd Vase, Vidovdanka, and others, all of which are kept in the Archaeological Collection of the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade and National Museum in Belgrade.
Highly Developed Culture
The Vinča culture is known for its early exploitation and processing of copper ore. The oldest traces of metallurgy in the central Balkans were discovered at this site. The people of the Vinča civilization maintained intensive contacts with the neighbouring, but also more distant, Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic cultures of Eastern and Central Europe. In Serbia, there were approximately 500 settlements of the Vinča culture, which represent the best evidence of the high level of development of its inhabitants. Some of these settlements occupied an area of tens of hectares; and, by its internal organization, they had all the prerequisites to grow into real towns. However, with the disappearance of the Vinča culture in the middle of the 5th millennium BC, life in these settlements disappeared as well.
The archaeological site of Drenovac is located 9 km south of Paraćin. It was discovered in the early 1960s, and since 2004, systematic explorations have been ongoing. The established size of the site, over 40 hectares, puts Drenovac into one of the largest Neolithic sites in the central Balkans. The explorations have discovered the remains of settlements dating back from the early Neolithic period (Protostarčevo phase, around 6,200 BC) and the Late Neolithic (Vinča culture, 5,200 to 4,500 BC). Traces of the different activities of this prehistoric population have been found at depths of up to 6.5 meters. It is expected that the explorations will provide new insight into life during the Neolithic period, and everything indicates that this site will soon develop into a unique tourist attraction.
Neolithic Storey Buildings
By applying geomagnetic recordings, the plan of the Late Neolithic settlement was discovered, with numerous houses built very close to each other in regular rows, which testifies to the size and organization of the advanced settlement. Surface houses were rectangular in plan, built of wood and mud, and it is interesting to note that there are indications that some of these houses had storey construction. Most of the excavated houses were destroyed in a fire, causes of which are not yet completely clear. So far, several houses with several rooms have been excavated, where the remains of stoves, a large number of ceramic dishes, grindstones, loom weights, and other objects were discovered, testifying to the various activities that took place in the everyday life of households.
Approximately 7,000 years ago, the natural conditions in the surroundings of Odžaci and in the entire Pannonian Plain were ideal for inhabitation. The proximity of the Danube River, fertile land, an area rich in forests and various fauna, attracted people who raised the first settlements in the area, living off hunting, fishing, and agriculture. The excavations carried out in this area during the second half of the 20th century presented the remains of one of the oldest agricultural cultures in Europe. The archaeological site of Donja Branjevina, approximately 8 km west of the village of Deronje, near Odžaci in Bačka, has provided a number of specific figurines which tell us about the early Neolithic culture in this region, but they are still hiding many secrets as well. Exploration of the site was carried out by Sergej Karmanski, who discovered three cultural layers with four stages of development. The older Neolithic layer is characterized by richly decorated pottery with ornaments drawn in the painting technique, as white on a red background.
Red Haired Goddess
A sensational discovery from this site represents an anthropomorphic figurine known as the Redhead goddess, named after the remains of red paint which covered a specially modelled hairstyle. It is a figure of height of 38 cm, which, by its size and way of modelling, represents a unique phenomenon within the Starčevo culture. The place in which the statuette was found was some type of shrine. The position of the statuette, and the fact that it was intentionally broken and buried, confirms the assumption that in the early Neolithic period, human sacrifice was performed during magical/religious rituals. When this was not possible, however, a clay statuette was “sacrificed” during the ritual instead. This was done by former inhabitants of Donja Branjevina, who buried the Redhead Goddess in exchange for a greater yield of wheat. The statuette is now in the vault of the Museum Unit in Odžaci and its bronze replica is exhibited in the centre of this western Vojvodina village.
On the eastern edge of Deliblato Sands, between Vršac and Bela Crkva, lays the multilayered prehistoric site of Židovar. At this site, numerous cultural layers and the remains of successively formed settlements accumulated for centuries, creating artificial elevation. Since the end of the Early Bronze Age up to the first century AD and the arrival of the Romans in the area around the Danube River, different cultures alternated here, the most famous and best explored being the remains of a fortified Celtic oppidum (settlement). The oldest excavations date back to the end of the 3rd millennium BC, or from the first centuries of the 2nd millennium BC, and show the existence of intensive contacts with the Aegean world. The most intense period of settlement took place during the Early and Middle Bronze Age.
During archaeological excavations in 2001, in a layer belonging to the Celtic culture, a large amount of jewellery made of silver and amber was discovered. This discovery is very important and unique because of its volume and value, both scientific and artistic. The treasury was probably collected by several generations of one family and the method of its creation indicates that the Celts made objects of silver according to Hellenistic models, with amber beads originating from the Baltic region. The discovered objects are full of symbolism. In particular, there is the myth that the Celts, after their defeat at Delphi during their penetration into the Balkans, cursed gold, and since then only used silver for making jewellery. A dozen of the discovered pendants in the form of masks and human heads facing down probably symbolize killed enemies (the severed head motif is well-known in Celtic art). There is also a hypothesis that after Burebista (died 44 BC; king of Getae and Dacians) attacked the town in one of his many campaigns, the local chief or prince buried all the valuables so that they would not fall into enemy hands. The Židovar treasury is now kept at the City Museum in Vršac.
Votive Carts from Dupljaja
Two carts made of baked clay, which are believed to be approximately 3,500 years old, were discovered at the beginning of the 20th century in the Banat town Dupljaja. They belong to the Dubovac-Žuto Brdo culture, which was represented in the southern Banat, the Danube region, and Eastern Serbia during the Middle and Late Bronze Age. Both carts are driven by deity in the form of stylized human figure with bird’s beak, and each part is richly decorated with various geometric motifs. Also, the ancient symbol of the sun, the swastika, appears in four places. These objects had a great religious significance in the prehistoric cult of that time. According to the story which the scientist Felix Mileker heard from the locals, the carts were found by local villagers, but they were in pieces. However, it is possible that this story was created in order to conceal the true location of the discovery. Parts came into the hands of Leonard Bem, a passionate collector from Bela Crkva, who reconstructed them with the help of an unknown craftsman. In 1929, Leonard’s son sold the bigger cart to the National Museum in Belgrade and the smaller one to the museum in Vršac.
It is interesting that some experts believe that the Dupljaja carts represent the myth of Hyperborea and the god Apollo, the Greek solar deity. According to Greek mythology, Apollo would leave Hyperborea in early spring and return in carts pulled by swans back to the oracle of Delphi. The answer to the question of why the figurines on the carts are associated with Apollo lies, among other things, in the fact that the clothes of the figurine hide male genitalia.
Gomolava is an archaeological site on the left bank of the Sava River near the village of Hrtkovci. It is a multi-layered site, covering a range of about 6,000 years. The oldest discovered excavations represent the remains of houses from the Late Neolithic period, built of wood and clay, and research has shown that this settlement was burned down in a fire. Later, members of the Sopot-Lengyel, Baden, Kostolac, Vučedol, Vatin, and Belegiš cultures alternated in this place. The youngest layer on Gomolava contains the remains of a complex of buildings from the Roman era, and in the period from the 12th to the 15th century, the village church cemetery was located here. Most of the archaeological finds from Gomolava are kept in the Museum of Vojvodina in Novi Sad, and one part is exhibited at the Regional Museum in Ruma. A few years ago, the association "Roman Days" was founded, aimed at promoting the cultural wealth of Gomolava and the whole of the Srem. With the help of local volunteers, they managed to build an archaeological park for tourists and have even begun to build a replica of the Neolithic village.
Cake of Civilizations
This multi-layered site includes cultural layers of the Vinča period, through the Eneolithic and Bronze Age, to the early Iron Age and the period of Roman domination, which is why it is popularly called the Cake of Civilizations. Gomolava is a world famous and important site, and numerous invaluable material remains here have been preserved. A serious problem is that the site is now threatened by the Sava River, which takes away parts of the site during high water.