In the 6th millennium bc, in Serbia we find Vinča culture. I believe that everyone reading this post have heard of the Vinča culture, the culture that invented metallurgy, alphabet. Slightly earlier, at the end of the 7th millennium bc we find on the same territory of Central Serbia, the Blagotin culture. I can bet that most people reading this post have never heard of the Blagotin culture.
Let me tell you a story about Blagotin culture.
Archaeological locality Blagotin got its name after the hill called “Mali Blagotin” under which it is located. Mali Blagotin is located in the heart of Serbia, in an area known as Šumadija. The region is characterized by a southern variant of the Central European temperate climatic regime. The site is located on the northern outskirts of the village of Poljna, 12 km north of the slightly larger village of Velika Drenova, and about 50 km northeast of the town of Trstenik (in the county or opština of Trstenik). It is on a gently sloping terrace, above an incised stream valley at the base of a mountain. The surface of the site was entirely cultivated during the period of field research. Blagotin is a multi-period and strati-graphically complex site. It was initially inhabited during the Early Neolithic (Starčevo culture, ca. 6100–5100 B.C.). Recent radiocarbon dates place it among the earliest sites in the Starčevo culture – ca. 6100 B.C.
The Starčevo culture, sometimes included within a larger grouping known as the Starčevo–Kőrös–Criş culture, is an archaeological culture of Southeastern Europe.The Starčevo culture covered sizable area that included most of present-day Serbia and Montenegro, as well as parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, and the Republic of Macedonia.
Blagogin site was then reoccupied during the Eneolithic (Baden-Kostolac culture, ca. 3300–2500 B.C.), and then occupied again during the Early Iron Age (Halstatt culture, ca. 1000–700 B.C.). It was not occupied again until modern times. Here is where the Blagotin site is on the map of the Balkans.
The reason why people kept coming back to Blagotin and settling there for thousands of years is that Blagotin area as well as central Serbia as a whole is an ideal place for subsistence farming combined with hunting and gathering. Central Serbia consists of a series of small to medium alluvial river valley planes formed by river Morava and its tributaries, surrounded by rolling hills and medium size mountains. These alluvial valley plains were created by the deposition of sediment over a long period of time by one or more rivers and streams coming from highland regions, from which alluvial soil forms. These rivers still flow through these valleys and form floodplains. The floodplains are the smaller area over which the rivers flood at a particular period of time, like in the spring during the snow melt, whereas the alluvial plain is the larger area representing the region over which the floodplains have shifted over geological time. Alluvial plains and flood plains are very very fertile and very easy to work with primitive agricultural tools such as hand plows and adzes made out of antler like this one:
Or wood and stone ones like these ones:
It is in the alluvial and flood plains that grain agriculture developed and flourished in the early Neolithic times. This is the list of main alluvial and flood plains in Asia and North Africa.
You can see that these alluvial flood plains are the exact places where the early farmers settled and formed the first agricultural civilizations. The soil is sandy and therefore easy to work, it is rich and gives high yields, and it is regularly enriched with new flood deposits preventing soil depletion, which was the main problem for early farmers.
In Central Europe we find the Lower Danube-Sava-Morava-Tisa Central European alluvial flood plains. And this is exactly the place where we find the most advanced Early European Neolithic agricultural civilizations.
This is the map showing Blagotin hill, an Island in the middle of an area of rolling hills and small river valleys.
16 kilometers to the south from the Blagotin hill is Zapadna Morava river valley. This is what this river valley looked like during last year’s floods.
The valley was flooded after a sudden snow melt combined with heavy rain and saturated ground from previous rains. These types of floods are today very rare because the river now has flood defenses built along its banks. In the distant past this kind of flooding of the river valley was much more frequent and kept the valley floor extremely fertile.
This is what this river valley looks like on a nice dry sunny day.
If you look at the above picture of the river valley, you can see that the bottom of the valley is completely flat, a sign of an alluvial deposits, the prime agricultural land. From the Zapadna Morava river, the therein towards Blagotin hill is a slightly raised plateau consisting of rolling hills and small flat old alluvial river valleys. It is called Poljna plain. Poljna literally means a plain.
This is what I am talking about. This is Poljna plain which lies between Blagotin hill and Zapadna Morava river.
This is the exact location of Blagotin site just beneath the Blagotin hill at the edge of Poljna plain:
The hills surrounding these river valleys used to be covered with mixed oak forests. The name of the region “Šumadija” means the land of forests. These forests were full of oaks, hazels, beaches and therefore full of edible nuts, acorns and beach nuts as well as mushrooms and berries and other wild fruit like wild apples, pears and cherries. All these wild foods were found in deposits belonging to the early neolithic cultures in the Balkans. The river itself is full of fish even today and it must have been teaming with fish in Neolithic times. The whole area is also full of wild birds and animals even today, and in the Neolithic times it must have been an ideal hunting ground.
At the end of the 7th millennium, the Neolithic farmers arriving from the Levant crossed the mountains dividing the Mediterranean climatic zone and the Semi Continental Balkan climatic zone and found themselves in these river valleys. There they had to learn how to adapt their agricultural techniques to this new climate. I would say that that was a quite a big challenge which took a good while. The neolithic farmers which arrived from Levant stayed in Serbia for almost 1000 years before moving further north. But once they started this move north it was very quick and only 500 years later we find them on the shores of Holland. During the time when agriculture was still developing and adapting to the European climate, and when people still heavily depended on hunting and gathering, the area around Blagotin, with its abundance of wild food would have been and ideal place to settle.
How good Blagotin is for living is actually reflected in its name. The Serbian word “blag” means gentle, sweet, but also domesticated, cattle and treasure. The ending “tin, ten, tan, din, den, dan” are quite common endings found in village and town names in Serbia and correspond to the Irish “dun” meaning enclosure, village, town, place….The name Blagotin literally means gentle, cultivated, rich place good for living…
So the Neolithic farmers arrived to Blagotin and built a settlement. But not just any settlement. The settlement covers the area between one and two hectares which would classify it as a medium size settlement. But it is the structure of the settlement, its layout, which sets it apart from all the other settlements of its time. Blagotin settlement type was completely different from both Levantine and Southern Balkan and Central and Northern European settlement types.
In the work on spatial organization of the site entitled: “The spatial organization of Early Neolithic settlements in temperate southeastern Europe: a view from Blagotin, Serbia.” published by Haskel J. Greenfeld and Tina Jongsma, from the University of Manitoba point to a very important difference between the spatial organisation of Blagotin settlement compared to all the other contemporary early neolithic settlements:
In Levant and the southern or Mediterranean half of the Balkan Peninsula (Greece, Macedonia, and southern Bulgaria), most early neolithic settlements are represented by tell-like deposits, with rectilinear above-ground and free-standing architecture.
Very different kinds of archaeological deposits are found in the major Early Neolithic archaeological cultures of central Europe. Most sites are very shallow, with little if any vertical superposition of deposits. They are largely characterized by laterally displaced deposits. The architectural forms in LBK sites tend to be very rectangular surface structures. Characteristically, they are extremely long and easily identifiable by the distribution of post molds in the soil. In LBK sites where settlement has been short term and the distribution of features is visible, long houses are placed parallel to each other, although it is difficult to perceive the presence of any clear rows.
In the northern or temperate half of the Balkan peninsula and extending across the rest of southeastern Europe, early neolithic tell-like settlements and long house settlements are almost non-existent. Instead, most sites appear to be composed of laterally displaced horizontal deposits associated with pit house deposits. The early neolithic Starčevo culture site of Blagotin is one such pit house site. Two types of pit houses are distinguishable.
A smaller and shallower set of pit houses, 3 m wide and 6 m long, is distributed in a circle around a large open space. These smaller houses are arranged along radial streets which all lead to the central square. According to the professor Stanković there were 100 of these houses which means that the estimated population of Blagotin was around 500 people.
The second larger and deeper pit, approximately 10 m wide and 8 m long, is found at the center of the large open space, central square. The central house is clearly very different from those surrounding it and based on its design and the deposits found in it, it is undoubtedly a sacred place, a temple. This make Blagotin temple the oldest purposely built temple in Europe and the Second (or third) oldest temple in the world, after Gobelki Tepe (and possibly some Çatalhöyük dwellings if they can be classified as temples).
The oldest known temple in the world is that at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey which is 11,500 years old and is decorated with reliefs and pictograms of various plants and animals thought to represent the gods of that place. The temple is an extraordinary building of the Neolithic era with T-shaped pillars and engravings which have yet to be completely understood. The design of the temple, however, with a large room toward the front (possibly for public functions) is recognized in later temples from other cultures.
Çatalhöyük, the largest and best-preserved Neolithic site found to date, was composed entirely of domestic buildings, with no obvious public buildings. However some of the larger ones have rather ornate murals, the purpose of some rooms remain unclear. Vivid murals and figurines are found throughout the settlement, on interior and exterior walls. Distinctive clay figurines of women, notably the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük have been found in the upper levels of the site. Although no identifiable temples have been found, the graves, murals, and figurines suggest that the people of Çatalhöyük had a religion rich in symbols. Rooms with concentrations of these items may have been shrines or public meeting areas.
The pits are all shaped in the form of an ellipse or rough trapezoid. The settlement structure looks something like this:
There is little detailed information on the spatial distribution of features within Starčevo-Körös-Criş sites. Only a few sites have been spatially excavated. These enable us to better understand the internal structure of these sites and to interpret areas of activities. At each of these sites, almost all of the structures excavated were semi subterranean. And it seems that they all follow the same radial spatial organization of the settlement found in Blagotin. In the Foeni-Salaş site five small structures were found distributed in semicircle around a larger structure. The distance between each of the small structures was more or less the same (about 20 m), and the distance between the central and peripheral structures was about 10 m. Such a distribution of Early Neolithic features was found long before this, albeit it was not recognized as such. Vasić in his early excavations in the basal levels at Vinča found a similar distribution of Starčevo pit features – a large central pit house surrounded by an open space of about 10 m and a ring of peripheral smaller pit houses. This shows that at Blagotin we see emergence of a new culture previously not seen in Evroasia, the Starčevo culture which should really be called Blagotin culture, and the Culture which will later become the seed from which the famous metallurgical Vinča culture will develop.
Interestingly this type of settlements continue to be built in Central Europe until the medieval times by Slavic people.
Early Slavic settlements were no larger than 0.5 to 2 hectares. Settlements were often temporary, perhaps a reflection of the itinerant form agriculture they practiced. Settlements were often located on river terraces. The largest proportion of settlement features were the sunken buildings, called Grubenhäuser in German, or poluzemlianki in Russian, zemunice in Serbian. They were erected over a rectangular pit and varied from four to twenty square meters of floor area, which could accommodate a typical nuclear family. Each house contained a stone or clay oven in one of the corners, a defining feature of the dwellings throughout Eastern Europe. On average, each settlement consisted of fifty to seventy individuals. Settlements were structured in specific manner; there was a central, open area which served as a “communal front” where communal activities and ceremonies were conducted. The settlement was polarized, divided into a production zone and settlement zone.
In Blagotin we find several overlapping phases of the settlement development. The earliest feature of the site is a 2,5 meter deep sacrificial pit, around which the temple was later built. At the bottom of the pit archaeologists have found a ritually broken deer scull with separated mandibles positioned at a certain angle. This seems to connect the Starčevo culture to the much older Paleolithic deer cultures of Europe from the time before the last Ice Age. Deer is also a very important symbol found in in many agrarian cultures which come after Starčevo cultures. This makes Starčevo culture a link between the Paleolithic Mesolithic Hunter gatherer cultures and Neolithic agrarian cultures. This could also be an indicator of the mixing between the local European hunter gatherers and the incoming Levantine farmers. It is possible that the Blagotin culture is a product of theis mix.
Why deer? The Deer is a symbol of the sun, summer, repeating seasons, growth an waning and eternal life. In the Balkans it is still believed that the deer is an animal which guides the dead to the underworld, that it is an animal which can cross the boundary between the worlds. Like the sun which spends the day in our world and the night in the underworld.
A thick ash deposits were found in the pit showing that the offerings were burned, that the cult was in a way related to fire. This is another indicator that the cult practiced in Blagotin was a sky cult, and that the deity worshiped was the sun, in his fiery form. In the ash, the remains of a human infant were interred. The remains from the pit also included extremely large numbers of the bones of young female animals. This points to the cult being not just solar cult but also a fertility cult, which is what you would expect an agricultural cult to be.
The sacrificial pit was surrounded with a zigzag line. There is no exact drawing of the pit but it probably looked like this:
Looks familiar? Looks like the sun? This shows that the zigzag line later found in Vinča deposits is closely connected with the cult and has a religious significance. And we know exactly what this zigzag line means. The zigzag line is a symbol of the solar ecliptic. The solar ecliptic is the apparent path of the Sun on the celestial sphere. The solar ecliptic is the line that defines the seasons, that defines the climate, that governs agriculture.
For people who arrive from the Levant, European winters must have been quite a shock. The dying of the sun’s fire must have been a major cause for concern and all necessary steps had to be taken to ensure that it gets rekindled every spring. Including sacrifices….Were the sacrifices which were made in the Blagotin temple made to ensure that the Sun’s fire gets rekindled again? Were they performed at maybe a winter solstice?
If you are a farmer, the further north you go from the equator the more important it becomes to understand the behavior of the sun. Which eventually lead to the development of the solar astronomy and solar agricultural cults. Is it possible that in Blagotin we see the emergence of the solar astronomy and the emergence of the Solar cults? Is Blagotin temple not just the first temple but also the first solar temple? I believe so and I believe that the the proof for this lies in the temple itself, or more precisely its orientation.
The temple went through 7 phases of development. Through all of these phases the temple retained the same sacred altar space which was built around the sacrificial pit. The profane part of the temple undertook several structural changes BUT THE TEMPLE AS A WHOLE WAS ALWAYS ORIENTED EXACTLY NORTH – SOUTH.
There are three ways to orient a building exactly north south. One way is to use a compass to determine the exact north. In the 7th millennium bc, this was highly unlikely to have happened. The other two ways are:
1. Find the north star and orient your building to it. For this you need to know what the north star is and that it is a static star pointing north, which means that you need to be versed in star astronomy.
2. Determine the exact points where the sun rises on the days of the winter and summer solstice. Bisect the arch between these two points into half. This will determine the point where the sun will rise on the equinoxes, the true east. Draw a line pointing east – west
Draw an orthogonal line which will point north – south Align your temple with this line…To be able the align their temple north – south, you need to know a lot about the sun’s apparent movement in the sky which means that you need to be versed in solar astronomy.
In order to be able to orient their temple north – south, he people from Blagotin needed to be be able to do one of the above, which would mean that the people from Blagotin were not just farmers but accomplished astronomers and mathematicians. Probably the first people in the world to create a temple aligned with solar cardinal points.
Originally it was shaped as a mushroom (penis) where the semicircular part had a bench build along its its edge where people worshiping in the temple, could sit. Later on the bench disappears and instead of it we find two high thrones. People sitting on these thrones would have looked directly towards the altar and the south. Then the mushroom (penis) shaped area was remodeled in such a way that the whole temple including both the sacred and the profane area together resembles a Greek letter theta. Eventually the whole temple was completely changed. The profane part was covered with a thick layer of daub and a new a long narrow building oriented north – south was constructed in place of the old temple. The altar was in the center of the new building and flanking the south entrance were two unusual large (30 cm high) figurines which looked like this.
They had over emphasized gluts stylized short legs and according to the early interpretation offered by the archaeologists, stylized deer head. This means that the sculpture consisted of the female principle (lower part of female body) extending into the male principle (deer head the top part of the body). The “goddesses” were found “lying on their faces” and I believe that this gives us an important clue for deciphering their meaning. Recently archaeologists made copies of these goddess figurines using the same clay from which the original figurines were made. Then they fired the figurines using the reconstructed early neolithic oven.
On the last picture, the goddesses were “laid on their faces”. And here the meaning of these goddesses becomes clear. They are half women in the “kneeling, on all four” position, ready to be mounted, penetrated and fertilized, like any other female animal, from behind. So the bottom part is not just a woman but a female of any domestic kind which we want to fertilize in order to produce offspring. In this position the upper part of the body, the male part, penetrates the earth, like a plow. If anyone wanted to make a symbol that links fertility and farming (grain growing and cattle razing), they couldn’t have made a better one. These figurines are probably the first fertility idols directly linked to agriculture. They create symbolic equalization between a plow and a penis and between plowing and copulating, between sex and working the land.
These figurines are not the only important objects found on Blagotin site.
All of the excavated pit houses contained extraordinarily large amount of ceramic fragments and whole ceramic vessels and figurines. The biggest number of ceramic fragments was found in the temple which shows that the ceramic artifacts were brought to the temple as offerings and were possibly ceremonially broken inside the temple. On only 30 square meters which have been excavated so far, archaeologists have found 16,000 ceramic fragments. Ceramic vessels found in the pit houses range from ordinary domestic utensils to exquisitely ornate ceremonial vessels.
One of the ceramic vessels found on the site is an unusual cross shaped bowl shown here with a ceramic altar and ceramic votive grains of wheat also found on the site.
There are two articles published about the pottery from Blagotin. A use analysis for the pottery from one of the houses from the site can be found in the article entitled: “Beginnings – New Research in the Appearanceof the Neolithic between Northwest Anatoliaand the Carpathian Basin“. A possibility of early beer production was explored in the article entitled “Non-abrasive Pottery Surface Attrition: Blagotin Evidence“. Both were published by Jasna Vuković from Belgrade university.
Apart from the ceramic vessels archaeologist have found many ceramic altars like the one on the above picture or this one:
A very important find is a very large number of clay models of grains of wheat, which you can see on the above picture with the cross shaped vessel and the altar. These clay seeds were left in the temple as votive offerings. This confirms that the people who lived in Blagotin were grain farmers and that their cult was grain fertility cult. These clay grain sees are found on other Starčevo culture sites but never in this number.
One of the clay seed models has engraved the plan of the village with the temple as the central object. The plan closely corresponds to the actual layout of the part of the Blagotin village.
This is the earliest known town map in Europe and possibly the oldest map in the world. Until very recently this was undobtedly true. The two next oldest maps were the “Ga-Sur at Nuzi” map and “Nippur” map.
The Ga-Sur at Nuzi map is a Babylonian clay tablet that was unearthed in 1930 at the excavated ruined city of Ga-Sur at Nuzi [Yorghan Tepe], near the towns of Harran and Kirkuk, 200 miles north of the site of Babylon [present-day Iraq]. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand (7.6 x 6.8 cm), most authorities place the the date of this map-tablet from the dynasty of Sargon of Akkad (2,300-2,500 B.C.); although, again, there is the conflicting date offered by the distinguished Leo Bagrow of the Agade Period (3,800 B.C.). The surface of the tablet is inscribed with a map of a district bounded by two ranges of hills and bisected by a water-course. This particular tablet is drawn with cuneiform characters and stylized symbols impressed, or scratched, on the clay. Inscriptions identify some features and places. In the center the area of a plot of land is specified as 354 iku [about 12 hectares], and its owner is named Azala. None of the names of other places can be understood except the one in the bottom left comer. This is Mashkan-dur-ibla, a place mentioned in the texts from Nuzi as Durubla. By the name, the map is identified as of a region near present-day Yorghan Tepe (Ga-Sur at the time, the name Nuzia 1,000 years later), although the exact location is still unknown.
The Nippur map is a fragment of a clay tablet which contains a city map, which was dated to 1500 BC. The clay tablet depicts the temple of Enlil, a city park, the city wall including its gates, along with a canal and the river Euphrates. The individual objects on this map were already labelled, in a Sumerian cuneiform.
Both of these maps are much younger than the Blagotin grain map. However we now have a close competition for the oldest map in the world between the Blagotin grain map and the Çatalhöyük wall map. During the excavation of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia a wall painting was uncovered that is approximately nine feet long and has an in situ radiocarbon date of 6,200 + 97 B.C. It is believed that the map depicts a town plan, matching Çatalhöyük itself, showing the congested “beehive” design of the settlement and displaying a total of some 80 buildings. In the foreground is a town arising in graded terraces closely packed with rectangular houses. Behind the town an erupting volcano is illustrated, its sides covered with incandescent volcanic bombs rolling down the slopes of the mountain. Others are thrown from the erupting cone above which hovers a cloud of smoke and ashes.
Another important type of artifacts found in Blagotin are amulets.
In her work “The Blagotin amulets and their place in the early Neolithic of the central Balkans” Jasna Vukovic says:
On this graph you can see the distribution of these amulets. Divostin the site with the second highest number of amulets is the site closest to Blagotin. The further away you go from Blagotin, the fewer amulets you find.
Do these amulets remind anyone of the Gobelki Tepe columns? Did part of the Gobelki Tepe people and religion find its way to Blagotin?
Another large group of objects found in Blagotin are votive models of domestic animals, which were deposited in the temple as offerings. This means that the people living in Blagotin were both grain farmers and herders.
What is very interesting is that we find the same types of domesticated animals figurines in Catalhoyuk at the roughtly the same time. Nearly 2,000 figures have been unearthed at Catalhoyuk. They were dated to about 7000 BC. The majority are representations of cattle or sheep and goats.Like these ones:
Does this suggest that the people who settled in Blagotin came from Catalhoyuk? Or that they were culturally connected with the people from Catalhoyuk?
In Blagotin, archaeologists also found grinding stones. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of these grinding stones but they probably looked like this one.
Flotation technique also yielded a lot of grain seeds which were extremely big for that period and were in size comparable to the modern sorts of wheat. Antler plows and other neolithic agricultural tools were also found on the site. After taking into the account all the evidence from the site archaeologists working on the site concluded that the people living in Blagotin probably grew enough good quality grains to make wheat bread.
Archaeologists have also found other bone and stone tools and blades:
Archaeologists also found a lot of jewelry on the site like these necklaces and bracelets:
Some jewelry found in the temple resembles ones found in the Transilvania. Some other material came from Kosovo and Black Sea coast. This suggests that Blagotin was an important regional (Balkan) and maybe even Central European religious center where people came at certain part of the year to celebrate and pray. Maybe at winter solstice. Or at harvest time.
And so this is Blagotin, probably the most important archaeological site you have never heard of. The site where European Neolithic agricultural society was born. The site where we find the oldest temple in Europe and the second (or the third depending how you count) oldest temple in the world. The site where we find the oldest evidence of the complex astronomical and mathematical knowledge required to determine solstices and equinoxes and align the temple to cardinal points. The site where we find first definite evidence of the development of the solar agricultural fertility cult. The site where we find the oldest town map in Europe and the oldest (or the second depending how you count) town map in the world.
The Blagotin site was discovered by Dr Svetozar „Nani“ Stanković just before the start of the Yugoslav civil war in 1991. This is the man himself.
The excavations were then continued until 1995 as a joint venture between the University of Belgrade (Serbia) and the University of Manitoba (Canada). Dr Svetozar „Nani“ Stanković (1948 – 1996) who lead the excavation, died in 1996 and the whole archaeological site was closed and forgotten??? Only 2.5% of the locality has been excavated so far. The site is not protected by Serbian government or by UNESCO. The goddess figurines are locked in the depot of the Belgrade University…
The only two papers written about the site which are written in Serbian and are which are available on the internet are “1992b Arheološka istraživanja višeslojnog praistorijskog lokaliteta Blagotin u selu Poljna istraživanja 1991 godine“. “Systematic surface collection from Blagotin“.
Believe or not the best information about the Blagotin site is contained in this three part documentary made in 1993, which features interview with the late Dr Svetozar „Nani“ Stanković.
I extracted all the relevant information in this article. There is no point looking on the net for more info. This is it. This is all there is…Sad.
There are talks about reopening of the excavation on the site this year, 20 years after the site was forgotten.