Exhibition Review: Neolithic Art in the Region of the Republic of Macedonia

Matthew Omolesky reviews the exhibition “Neolitska umetnost na območju Republike Makedonije (Neolithic art in the region of the Republic of Macedonia),” Narodni Muzej Slovenija, Ljubljana (28 May to 21 September 2008):

Balkan archaeology has had an unfortunate tendency to be subjected to exogenous political pressure, most infamously when Croatian strongman and historian-manqué Franjo Tudjman, having happened upon a checkerboard pattern (a common motif in Dalmatia) on an Anatolian pot, eagerly dispatched teams of researchers to determine whether the Croat people had been “masters or slaves” in the ancient near east. Thus, it is especially welcome that the latest exhibition at the Slovene National Museum in Ljubljana, “Neolithic art in the region of the Republic of Macedonia,” studiously avoids the quisquiliens and vexations surrounding the issue of modern Macedonia. Instead, thanks to the work of the National Museum and the sponsorship of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Macedonia, the visitor is treated to a remarkable collection of artifacts from a seminal period of Balkan and indeed human civilization.

It was during the Neolithic period that human societies underwent profound technological, demographic, and cultural changes, during which they made the crucial transition from hunting and gathering to a production-based economy (thus transforming nature rather than merely exploiting it), and during which earthenware and figurative art proliferated. This new way of life spread from the Fertile Crescent through Anatolia and into the Balkans and the Mediterranean basin. Yet, while Neolithic culture was disseminated throughout the Balkans between the end of the seventh and the beginning of the fifth millennia BC, a deeply-rooted cultural barrier arose that for some 1500 years prevented the “Neolithic package” from being introduced into central Slovenia and the Alpine region beyond. Thus, the southern Balkan and Macedonian region, as the ne plus ultra of Neolithic culture in the area for a millennium and a half, takes on added significance.

“Neolithic art in the region of the Republic of Macedonia” assembles the fruit of decades’ worth of excavations in Macedonia, with an emphasis on the artifact-laden Skopje valley. The quality of the earthenware vessels on display is quite high (clearly they are the products of long technical traditions), most notably the Skopje valley globular vessels, with their fine decorative latticework near the mouth and pleasingly curvilinear overall form and motifs. The figurative art is more remarkable still, from a delicately carved marble female figurine to various anthropomorphic terra cotta representations. Of note is a display of terra cotta “Great Mother” altars, featuring five female representations (some of them gravida) perched on rectangular boxes. With no evidence of usum mortuorum, it can be assumed that these were involved in a cult of fertility. The gallery’s animal art is likewise of interest, especially a magnificent Bucranion or depiction of a ram’s head, the verisimilitude and liveliness of which is genuinely astounding, as well as a fine water bird from the Lekavica Valley and a two-headed turtle unearthed in Porodin. (Viewers not entirely convinced of the artistic merit of the artifacts on display should bear in mind that, in the words of Marija Gimbutas, “the primary function of [Neolithic] sculpture was not representational, but presentational: its aim was a plastic manifestation of an item in the symbolic and shared lexicon.”)

This modest offering, elegantly but sparsely arranged in the central atrium of Ljubljana’s National Museum, is not really designed to provide any sense of the Neolithic Lebenswelt of the region, nor any indication of regional variation, local reaction to foreign contacts, social exchange systems, or other trends that would perhaps be of interest to specialists in the field. Notably absent are any pendants, beads, bracelets, or other prestige items that have been excavated in the Central Balkans and provide considerable insight into the Neolithic culture of the region. The exhibit nonetheless presents a revealing overview of the period in which, according to the National Museum’s Peter Kos, the Macedonian Neolithic was the “highest cultural, social and economic phenomenon during the late Stone Age in the Central Balkans,” and displays Neolithic art of the utmost stylistic merit. “Neolithic art in the region of the Republic of Macedonia,” which thankfully provides no fodder for those interested in viewing the modern Balkans in the (très) longue durée, is an exhibition entirely worthy of attention.

Matthew Omolesky
Researcher-in-residence, Inštitut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Gimbutas, Marija. “Anza, ca. 6500-5000 B. C.: A Cultural Yardstick for the Study of Neolithic Southeast Europe,” Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 1, No. 1/2 (1974), pp. 27-66.

Kos, Peter. Neolitska umetnost na območju Republike Makedonije. Ljubljana: Narodni Muzej Slovenija (2008).

Sommer, Ulrike. “‘Hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother’ – Change and persistence in the European early Neolithic,” Journal of Social Archaeology, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2001), pp. 244-270.

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