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The History of Romania in One Object / Cucuteni Painted Vessel

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Today’s story takes us back to the prehistoric times, more precisely to the Copper Age when on what is today Romania (southeastern Transylvania and Moldavia), the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine (up to the Dnieper River), evolved the Cucuteni-Trypillia civilization, one of the most brilliant civilizations of prehistoric Europe. The name comes from the discoveries made in 1884 and 1893 in the localities of Cucuteni (near Iași, Romania) and Trypillia (near Kiev, Ukraine). In one millennium and a half (approximately between 5,000-3,500 BC), the Cucuteni-Trypillia communities created a civilization whose original features makes it comparable to the famous civilizations of the Near East or Central and South America.

Photo 1: Stemmed vessel with lid, Scânteia – Dealul Bodești archaeological site (Iași county)

Photo 2: Geographic spread of the Cucuteni-Trypillia Civilization

It is a world set apart by the painted pottery produced by the people who lived here about 6,000 years ago and who, judged by the great number of fragments discovered in several archaeological sites, were quite obsessed with decorating ceramics. The Cucuteni-Trypillia vessels show that the processing of ceramics had become a very sophisticated craft. The production required significant experience, involving specialized craftsmen who knew in detail the secrets of clay processing and its transformation. It also required a lot of imagination to produce harmonious combinations of shapes and decors. Before firing, most vessels were painted in shades of white, red and black, colors which were obtained from mineral substances. The firing process took place in pits, either in simple one-chamber kilns or in more advanced kind with two superimposed chambers, at temperatures up to 1,800 F to obtain a high-quality ceramic. The diversity and special balance of the vessel shapes impress with their elegance and proportion and offer them a unique artistic value.

Photo 3: High-necked vessel, Scânteia – Dealul Bodești archaeological site (Iași county)

Photo 4: Support vessel, Scânteia – Dealul Bodești archaeological site (Iași county)

Photo 5: Vessel with stem, Trușești – Țuguieta archaeological site (Botoșani county)

Let us reveal the story behind one of these beautiful objects from the collection of the History Museum of Moldavia in Iași. The piece was discovered in the Scânteia - Dealul Bodești (Iași County, northeastern Romania) archaeological site, one of the most representative sites belonging to the first phase of evolution of the Cucuteni-Trypillia civilization. The settlement of Scânteia spreads over almost 34.5 acres and was discovered in 1970. Systematic archaeological research began here in 1985 under the coordination of archaeologist Cornelia-Magda Lazarovici and is still in progress. Among the spectacular discoveries made here is a stemmed globular vessel with lid. Unearthed in 1993 in the filling of a pit, the vessel was restored from 148 ceramic fragments, and the lid from 23 ceramic fragments. The reconstruction of the lid has a special, albeit apocryphal, story. Initially, the lid’s button was not identified as such from the recovered pieces. It took several years, the processing of a large volume of archaeological material and the keen, trained eye of the restorer to find it among these shattered pieces and only then the restoration of vessel could be finally completed. This story speaks volumes of the assiduous work of the restoration specialists and archaeologist who have managed to return these artifacts to their former brilliance and glory.

Photo 6: Stemmed vessel with lid, Scânteia – Dealul Bodești archaeological site (Iași county) - detail

This piece has some impressive dimensions, with a total height of 37 inches. Shaped from a good quality paste, the container itself has a spherical body and a straight lip. It is placed on a stem that is hollow inside, cylindrical and flared at the base, with three circular perforations positioned at the top. The lid is bell-shaped, with a slightly flared lip and a circular button at the top. Both the vessel and the lid are decorated with poly-chrome painting, in which white and red predominate, while black is used to emphasize decorative motifs, which are made up of spiral elements (wrapped spirals and spiral hooks). In fact, during the first phase of the evolution of the Cucuteni civilization one could note a real obsession to decorate the whole vessel on the outside, sometimes even on the inside (what contemporary specialists called horror vacui, that is, fear of emptiness). Due to the complex shape and the elaborate decoration, which might have born certain encrypted symbols now unfortunately lost, the piece can be considered, without doubt, a masterpiece of prehistoric art.

Photo 7: Pear-shaped vessel, Scânteia – Dealul Bodești archaeological site (Iași county)

Photo 8: Fruit-plate shaped vessel, Pocreaca – Cetățuia archaeological site (Iași county)

Photo 9: Bowl, Scânteia – Dealul Bodești archaeological site (Iași county)

Photo 10: Chalice, Scânteia – Dealul Bodești archaeological site (Iași county)

Although researchers today possess some of the tools needed to decipher the secret of this fascinating civilization, like clues about the economic life of these people who lived 6,000 years ago, the truth is that more than a century after the first discoveries the veil of mystery which surrounds this world is not fully lifted.

Photo 11: Reconstruction of a dwelling in a project of experimental archaeology (Cucuteni 2004)

Photo 12: Experimental burning of a dwelling (Cucuteni 2004)

The historians and archaeologists are still very much intrigued by at least two aspects related to the Cucuteni-Trypillia civilization. The first puzzle is that most of the dwellings discovered during archaeological excavations show strong traces of burning. The explanation can be accidental fires or arson. This latter hypothesis is supported by experiments conducted especially in recent years, but the reason of the arson remains unknown. The second dilemma concerns the absence of necropolises ("cities of the dead"). Only isolated tombs have so far been discovered, and they are thought to be ritual deposits rather than proper graves. Hopefully, the future research will bring us the answers.

Photo 13 & 14: Reconstruction of a Cucutenian dwelling (Moldavia’s History Museum, Iași)

Text and video presentation by curator and archaeologist LOREDANA SOLCAN of the Moldavia's History Museum in Iași.

The second season of THE HISTORY OF ROMANIA IN ONE OBJECT, our online program that evokes decisive epochs in Romania's past starting from objects with powerful symbolic and representative value, is developed in partnership with two of the most important history museums in the country, Moldavia's History Museum in Iași and The National Museum of Transylvanian History in Cluj-Napoca.



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