Marija Gimbutas Links:
With her extensive knowledge of European languages, Marija Gimbutas was employed by Harvard University in 1950. She was assigned the task of conducting research and writing texts regarding European prehistory. Gimbutas was able to read and translate the archaeological reports from Eastern Europe, which opened the American to new ideas on archeology. She remained at Harvard for thirteen years where she also became a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. In 1955 Marija Gimbutas was made a Fellow of Harvard’s Peabody Museum.
1956 brought an International conference at Philadelphia, and it was here that Marija Gimbutas introduced her “Kurgan Hypothesis,” which combined archaeological study of the distinctive “Kurgan” burial mounds with linguistics to unravel some problems in the study of the Proto-Indo-Europeans; namely, to account for their origin and to trace their migrations into Europe. The word “Kurgan” is a Russian word from Turkic describing the kind of graves and grave-barrows built by the people of this culture.
“Indo-European” is a linguistic term that refers to a family of languages found from India to the western edge of Europe. And Proto-Indo-European language refers to the now extinct mother tongue from which all Indo-European languages developed. Gimbutas’ hypothesis locates the homeland of Proto-Indo-European speakers in the area of south Russia and documents their movements into Europe from the end of the fifth millennium BC. Gimbutas describes the influx of nomadic pastoralists over a 2000 year period as a “collision of cultures” in which androcratic cultural and ideological patterns were introduced into Europe. This led to a hybridization between the Old European and Indo-European systems.
With this theory, she was the first scholar to bring together linguistic and archaeological knowledge. Her hypothesis, and the act of bridging the disciplines, has had a significant impact on Indo-European research.
It was at this time that Gimbutas narrowed her focus of her research to the Neolithic cultures of Southeast Europe and the Bronze Age societies that replaced them. She stressed the importance of investigating the enormous changes in beliefs, rituals and social structure that took place between c. 4500–2500 B.C., in order to more fully understand subsequent European cultural development.
In her view, this was “one of the most complex and least understood [periods] in prehistory.” Gimbutas wrote: “It is a period which urgently demands a concerted effort by scholars from various disciplines. The exchange of information between the archaeologists, linguists, mythologists, physical anthropologists, and ancient historians has much to contribute to the field of Indo-European studies.”
In 1963, Marija Gimbutas was invited to teach at the University of California in Los Angeles. She taught Baltic and Slavic studies. Gimbutas was appointed Chair of European Archaeology. She established the Institute of Archaeology and stimulated the development of Indo-European studies. She was the Curator of Old World Archaeology at the Cultural History Museum. She edited scholarly archeology related publications, and as well as her own published works while traveling and lecturing extensively throughout the world.
Gimbutas was co-founder of The Journal of Indo-European Studies. She contributed to Lithuanian journals and encyclopedias. Gimbutas was always an important figure in Baltic studies. Gimbutas earned a reputation as a world-class specialist on the Indo-European Bronze Age as well as on Lithuanian folk art, and the prehistory of the Balts and Slavs, partly summed up in the definitive Bronze Age Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe (1965).
Marija Gimbutas was a project director of five major excavations of Neolithic sites in southeast Europe between 1967 and 1980. She unearthed an overwhelming number of Goddess artifacts and daily life objects by digging to layers of earth representing a period of time before contemporary estimates for Neolithic habitation in Europe. Gimbutas researched and documented an enormous amount of archaeological Goddess findings through her career.
The excavations in the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Greece and Italy made it possible for professor Gimbutas to focus on an investigation of the Neolithic period (which she termed “Old Europe”) in order to understand cultural development before the Indo-European influence.
Gimbutas’ interpretation of the symbol system of Old Europe constructed a bridge between archaeology and mythology. It became obvious to her that every aspect of Old European life expressed a sophisticated religious symbolism. She came to the conclusion that the art of Old Europe reflected a mythopoetic perception of the sacredness and mystery of the natural world expressed through “a cohesive and persistent ideological system.”
She devoted herself to an exhaustive study of Neolithic images and symbols to discover their social and mythological significance. She widen the scope of descriptive archaeology. In order to investigate the non-material aspects of culture, Gimbutas developed an interdisciplinary approach called archaeomythology which combines archaeology, mythology, linguistics, historical ethnology, folklore and comparative religions.
Gimbutas’ archaeomythology scientifically analyzes the material database for Old Europe, it draws possible and probable inferences from these analyses to reconstruct the symbolic, religious ideology of Old Europe. Her work resulted in the publication ofThe Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, written while she wasin residence in Holland as a Fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (1973-74) .
After years of solitary research, the main themes of Old European art and religion were presented in The Language of the Goddess (1989).
Her final book The Civilization of the Goddess (1991), presented an overview of her theories about Neolithic cultures across Europe: housing patterns, social structure, art, religion and the nature of literacy. The book advanced what she saw as the differences between the Old European system, which she considered goddess-centered and matriarchal, and the Bronze Age Indo-European patriarchal cultural elements. According to her speculation, both systems fused to form the classical European societies.
Throughout the area of Neolithic Europe that she studied, Gimbutas found images of females that she understood to be Goddesses; especially goddesses sharing form with birds and snakes. In these images she saw a Goddess of birth, death and regeneration, which was honored by Neolithic European people. Thus, supporting a peaceful and woman-centered society.
To Gimbutas, these indigenous Europeans were peaceful, artistic, egalitarian and Goddess-worshiping. Based on thousands of female images from those cultures, she concluded that women were worshiped and that the primary deities were goddesses. She maintained that life was peaceful until the worship of warlike gods was imported by Indo-Europeans.
She traced survivals of goddesses, birds, snakes, and many other images and symbols from Old Europe through historical times to the present. She began to see these images and symbols as a shorthand, a “language” of our early ancestors, that we might decipher with time and care. Through her “reading” of this language, she proposed to modern scholarship an articulate and radical view of Neolithic religion.
Marija Gimbutas saw that the female form, rendered in thousands of images, reflected the centrality of women in religious and cultural life. Images of the Goddess, and male Gods, both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic, expressed a sacred participation in the great natural cycles of fertility, birth, death and regeneration.
The overwhelming response to The Language of the Goddess not only from her colleagues in scientific circles, but also from artists, mythologists, and many others was, for professor Gimbutas, a complete surprise. When The Civilization of the Goddess appeared in 1991, over nine hundred people crowded into a Santa Monica church to celebrate its publication. The German exhibition, Sprache Der Göttin (based on The Language of the Goddess), sponsored by the Frauen Museum in Wiesbaden (1993–94) drew thousands of visitors from all over Europe.
Professor Gimbutas’ theories have been extended and embraced by a number of authors in the so-called Neo-pagan movement, as well as among feminists, although unlike some of her enthusiastic followers, Gimbutas did not identify the diverse and complex Paleolithic and Neolithic female representations she recognized as depicting a single universal Mother Goddess, but as a range of female deities: snake goddess, bee goddess, bird goddess, mountain goddess, Mistress of the Animals, etc., which were not necessarily ubiquitous throughout Europe.
In The Civilization of the Goddess, Marija Gimbutas was the first scholar to describe an overview of Neolithic cultures on a pan-European scale (including habitation patterns, social structure, art, religion and literacy) and to articulate the differences between the Old European and the Indo-European Bronze Age systems. Her book provided an essential key for deciphering the contrasting cultural elements that became entangled and fused in subsequent European societies.
In her work, Marija Gimbutas reinterpreted European prehistory in light of her backgrounds in linguistics, ethnology, and the history of religions and challenged many traditional assumptions about the beginnings of European civilization. She enthusiastically encouraged linguists, archaeologists and other scholars to investigate the transition between the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Europe.
With this intention, she organized several international conferences to stimulate interdisciplinary research. Original papers from these conferences were published in the Journal of Indo-European Studies. Before Marija Gimbutas presented her ideas on the hybridization of Old European and Indo-European elements in cultural development, few scholars were thinking in these terms.
Marija Gimbutas’ influence has been wide reaching.
During the last few years of his life, noted writer and historian Joseph Campbell often spoke of Gimbutas, profoundly regretting that her research on the Neolithic cultures of Europe was not available when he was writing his famous book The Masks of God. Otherwise, he would have “revised everything.” Campbell compared the importance of Gimbutas’ work to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was not alone in this appreciation.
As Indo-Europeanist Edgar Polomé wrote about professor Gimbutas in 1987, “There are no words to describe the profoundness of the feelings that link this great scholar to her disciples and this great woman to her numerous friends and admirers.”
The famous British archaeologist Colin Renfrew (Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn) wrote that Marija Gimbutas “was a figure of extraordinary energy and talent. The study and the wider understanding of European prehistory is much richer for her life’s work.”
Professor Gimbutas’ research, indeed, covered a vast territory of scholarship that crosses many traditional boundaries. Her bibliography contains 33 texts (published in nine languages) and over 300 scholarly articles on European prehistory. When she was often criticized for her interpretations, her response was philosophical:
There is a belief that religion cannot be reconstructed, that it’s a waste of time even to speak of religion because archaeologists cannot do it. Maybe this is because they are not really trained. They are not interested in mythology at all, and are just seeing the material culture. They don’t want to see anything else; they think they are safe in reconstructing the ways of agriculture or how pottery was made, and that satisfies them. In our days there are no people with vision. They cannot go across the border of their discipline. Archaeology now is interested mostly in excavation techniques and they want to be very precise; the computer is used, and all that. Of course, you can reach some conclusions using statistics, but if you do not have a vision as a person — if you are not a poet, or an artist — you cannot see much. You will be just a technician, and this is in most cases what happens. [Joan Marler, “A Tribute to Marija Gimbutas,” Sojourn Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 3, Summer 1998]
Her theories have generated an enormous range of responses within the academic world and beyond. Dr. Gimbutas’ theories regarding European prehistory and especially Goddess worship, her work on the Balts, placed the Lithuanian prehistory within a broad European context. Her significant role in the preservation and understanding of folkloric material has stimulated a new appreciation of Indo-European heritage in the world.