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Lepenski Vir

Change and Resistance in the Balkans

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Danube separating Carpathian and Balkan mountains in the Lower Gorge. View from the Serbian side

Danube separating Carpathian and Balkan mountains in the Lower Gorge. View from the Serbian side

Dimitrij Mlekuz

Lepenski Vir is a series of Mesolithic villages located on a high sandy terrace of the Danube River, on the Serbian bank of the Iron Gates Gorge. This site was the location of at least six village occupations, beginning about 6400 BC, and ending about 4900 BC. Three phases are seen at Lepenski Vir; the first two are what's left of a complex foraging society; and Phase III represents a farming community.

Life in Lepenski Vir

Houses in Lepenski Vir, throughout the 800-year-long Phase I and II occupations, are laid out in a strict parallelepiped plan, and each village, each collection of houses is arranged in a fan shape across the face of the sandy terrace. The wooden houses were floored with sandstone, often covered with a hardened limestone plaster and sometimes burnished with red and white pigments. A hearth, often found with evidence of a fish-roasting spit, was placed centrally within each structure. Several of the houses held altars and sculptures, sculpted out of the sandstone rock. Evidence seems to indicate that the last function of the houses at Lepenski Vir was as a burial site for a single individual. It's clear that the Danube flooded the site regularly, perhaps as much as twice a year, making permanent residence impossible; but that residence resumed after the floods is certain.

Many of the stone sculptures are monumental in size; some, found in front of houses at Lepenski Vir, are quite distinctive, combining human and fish characteristics. Other artifacts found in and around the site include a vast array of decorated and undecorated artifacts, such as miniature stone axes and figurines, with lesser amounts of bone and shell.

Lepenski Vir and Farming Communities

At the same time as foragers and fishers lived at Lepenski Vir, early farming communities sprang up around it, known as the Starcevo-Cris culture, who exchanged pottery and food with the inhabitants of Lepenski Vir. Researchers believe that over time Lepenski Vir evolved from a small foraging settlement to the ritual center for the farming communities in the area--into a place where the past was revered and the old ways followed.

The geography of Lepenski Vir may have played an enormous part in the ritual significance of the village. Across the Danube from the site is the trapezoidal mountain Treskavek, whose shape is repeated in the floor plans of the houses; and in the Danube in front of the site is a large whirlpool, the image of which is repeatedly carved into many of the stone sculptures.

Like Catal Hoyuk in Turkey, which is dated to roughly the same period, the site of Lepenski Vir provides us with a glimpse into Mesolithic culture and society, into ritual patterns and gender relationships, into the transformation of foraging societies into agricultural societies, and into resistance to that change.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Guide to the European Mesolithic, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Chapman, John. 2000. Lepenski Vir, in Fragmentation in Archaeology, pp. 194-203. Routledge, London.

Handsman, Russell G. 1991 Whose art was found at Lepenski Vir? in Engendering Archaeology: Women in Prehistory. Joan Gero and Margaret Conkey, eds. pp. 329-365

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