Varna Man and the Wealthiest Grave of the 5th Millennium BC
The burial is incredibly significant as it is the first known elite male burial in Europe. Prior to this, it was the women and children who received the most elaborate burials. Marija Gimbutas, a Lithuanian-American archaeologist, who was well-known for her claims that Neolithic sites across Europe provided evidence for matriarchal pre-Indo-European societies, suggested that it was the end of the 5 th millennium BC when the transition to male dominance began in Europe. Indeed, in the Varna culture, it was observed that around this time, men started to get the better posthumous treatment.
A burial at Varna, with some of the world's oldest gold jewellery. Source: Wikipedia
Complex Funerary Rites
The burials in the Varna necropolis have also offered a lot more than the precious artifacts found within them and discoveries relating to social hierarchies; the features of the graves have also provided key insights into the religious beliefs and complex funerary practices of this ancient civilization.
It became apparent to researchers that the males and females were laid out in different positions within the graves – males were laid out on their backs, while females were placed in a foetal position. But most surprising of all, was the discovery that some graves contained no skeleton at all, and these ‘symbolic graves’ were the richest of them all in terms of the amount of gold and other treasures found within them. Some of these symbolic graves, or cenotaphs, also contained human-sized masks made of unbaked clay placed in the position where the head would have been.
Human-sized clay head found at Varna necropolis. Photo source .
The graves contained the clay masks were also found to contain gold amulets in the shape of women placed in the position where the neck would have been. These amulets, associated with pregnancy and childbirth, indicate that the 'burials' were those of females. Further evidence of this is the fact that there were no battle-axes found in these cenotaphs, but each of them had a copper pin, a flint knife and a spindle whorl.
Replica of a symbolical burial of an antropomorphous face made from clay. The original was found at the Varna Chalkolithic Necropolis (grave 2) and dates to the fourth millennium BC. Photo source: Wikipedia
The Downfall and Legacy of the Varna Culture
By the end of the fifth millennium BC, the once strong and powerful Varna culture began to disintegrate. It has been hypothesized that the downfall of the Varna was the result of a combination of factors including climate change, which turned large areas of arable land into marshes and swamps, as well as the incursion of horse-riding warriors from the steppes.
Although the Varna civilization did not leave any direct descendants, the members of this ancient culture did leave behind many lasting legacies and set the stage for the emergence of subsequent civilizations throughout Europe. Their skills in metallurgy were unprecedented in Europe and indeed throughout the world, and their society demonstrated many features of a highly advanced and developed civilization. They also developed the societal structure of a centralized authority – a person or institution to monitor and ensure the proper functioning of the society. All the fundamental principles of modern society had been found – a model of civilization that we still follow to this day.
Featured image: Grave 43 – an elite male burial. Photo source .
Avramova, M. 2000. Myth, ritual and gold of a “civilization that did not take place”. – In: Varna Necropolis. Varna, Agató, 15-24.
Chapman, J., T. Higham, B. Gaydarska, V. Slavchev, N. Honch. 2006. The social context of the emergence, development and abandonment of the Varna Cemetery, Bulgaria. European Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 9, No. 2-3 , 159-183.
Dimitrov, D. & Georgiev, G. (2011). Black Sea coast as cradle of first civilizations. Current Archaeology Research in Bulgaria. Available from: http://berberian11.tripod.com/dimitrov_postprocession.htm
Linehan, C. (2012). The victorious Varna culture. The History of Europe Podcast . Available from: http://thehistoryofeuropepodcast.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/victorious-varna-culture.html
Norman A. (2003). The Oldest Gold in the World in a Varna Cemetery. ANISTORITON: ArtHistory Volume 7, September 2003 : Available from: http://www.anistor.gr/english/enback/o033.htm
Varna Museum of Archaeogy. Available from: http://www.amvarna.com/eindex.php?lang=2&lid=2&slid=&slid=1