Lepenski Vir: a Mesolithic Paradise

The birth of town planning, the birth of sculpture

In the winter of 1940, the worst in the memory of those then living, the Danube froze solid in the gorge of the Iron Gates between Yugoslavia and Romania. The pressure of the ice weakened the cliff-like banks in many places, and when the spring thaws came, huge chunks fell into the stream. One of these left a broad fresh gash on the Yugoslav side of the stream, overlooking the great whirlpool known as Lepenski Vir. Some local peasants, making their way over a goat path along the cliffs, noticed something odd about the gash: several yards below their feet there was a ledge with what looked like layers of cement floors sticking out. They reported this strange sight to the authorities.

But wily peasants are always reporting strange sights of this sort since they have heard that there is money to be made in finding prehistoric objects. Besides, a world war was underway just over Yugoslavia's borders, and the authorities had more important things to think about. The peasants' report was filed away in a drawer in a Ministry in Belgrade. Shortly thereafter Belgrade was bombed by the Germans, and the Ministry disappeared along with the rest of the Yugoslavian government. Grass and brush quickly reclaimed the gash in the river-bank, and one of the great archaeological discoveries of our time was delayed by a quarter of a century.

In 1965 Dragoslav Srejovi, who had been six years old in 1940, was a bright young assistant professor of archeology at the University of Belgrade. The Yugoslavian and Romanian governments, each looking for independence in matters of energy, had just signed an agreement to build a giant hydroelectric dam which would back water up for more than 30 miles and turn the Iron Gates area into a quiet lake. Lepenski Vir, about half way up the gorge, was one of the sites he visited to determined whether there were any ancient remains that would justify a digging expedition before the waters rose.

There seemed nothing unusual about the ledge when he first came to it Through the thick underbrush, he could detect remains of a Roman road and watch-tower, and fragments of pottery made by a Neolithic people who had spread over the Danubian basin in the fifth millennium B. C. Such finds are common in this part of the world. The site was very cramped, measuring barely 550 by 160 feet: it was unlikely that anyone would have chosen to build anything interesting or important there.

Still, he found something odd and challenging about the spot. When the fog settled down on the multicolored water of the Danube as it churned up ore-bearing muds from its bottom, Srejovi had the impression of being on another planet, at least on another continent. Botanical specialists would soon point out to him that the vegetation at Lepenski Vir is indeed quite different from that growing on ledges and in gorges only a few miles away. Located on a north-south loop of an east-west gorge, this is a site that is sheltered from all destructive winds: the cold ones from the Russian steppes as well as the searing sirocco from Africa. Snow rarely falls here. As a result it is what botanists call a refuge area, where plants could survive when they were being killed off by global cooling elsewhere in northern Europe thousands of years ago and can now be found only on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Srejovi decided to dig. That summer, on a shoe-string budget, with a workforce of two students and ten pick-and-shovel laborers, he began scooping up and examining the earth.

Just beneath the surface, he found what he had expected: traces of Roman military occupation, and below that objects that could be identified as belonging to the Starevo culture, a primitive people believed to have been the first in the Danube valley to have scratched the ground to plant a little wheat and barley, and to have begun the domestication of wild cattle and goats.

The Starevo period stands at the dawn of the Neolithic or New Stone Age in this part of the world (roughly, the first half of the fifth millennium BC). Anything beneath it therefore belongs to the Mesolithic of Middle Stone Age, generally regarded as the dark ages of prehistory. It was a period which in Europe extended for about three millennia between 8000 and 5000 B.C. Global cooling had produced a harsh climate, game was elusive, and mankind was reduced to a few bands of nomadic hunters living a precarious life, stumbling through snow and ice and rock for a chance to get a few mouthfuls of food, passing their nights in caves or in holes in the ground. The marvelous skills of the their ancestors, the Paleolithic hunters who had not only plenty to eat but also the leisure time to make the marvelous cave paintings of caves like Lascaux and Altamira, were forgotten. Srejovi himself had excavated Mesolithic sites in southern Yugoslavia, and they all bore witness to a low brutish form of existence. The people's health was bad, their bones showed every symptom of malnutrition and exposure: rickets, rheumatism, rotten teeth. They were stunted in build, and they rarely lived beyond the age of 30.

Imagine the astonishment of Srejovi and his crew when they found they had dug down to a flat surface which looked very much like cement, and which even turned out to be like cement, the very floors that had caught the eyes of the peasants 25 years before. They were made of an amalgam of local limestone with sand and water, a level of technological achievement that would have been thought surprising in people living hundreds or even thousands of years later. And the slabs of this cement were not laid down haphazardly; they were measured out carefully to form the foundations of houses, with upright slabs around them, some of them arranged so that they could support slanting poles. Presumably these poles were covered with animal hides, and the whole structure was a flat-topped tent which could shelter a family of about five people.

There were several dozen such foundations, some built one over the other, houses that had been built and rebuilt as circumstances demanded. But at every layer there was a striking uniformity. There was always a house, or two houses, bigger than the others and in a central position, presumably indicating some position of importance within the community. All the houses faced in the same direction, their wider ends toward the river, all were built in the same shape: a trapezoid with one rounded end (more exactly, a section of a circle with an outward angle of 60 degrees) with fixed proportions of 3:1 or 4:1 between its length and each of its sides.

In each house the same trapezoidal shape is repeated in the hearths surrounded by vertical slabs, always in the eastern or sunny end of the house, in the exact center of an equilateral triangle which Srejovi believes was the module on which all construction at Lepenski Vir was based. .

There had been nothing anything like this is previous human history, or at. least in any human history that has been unearthed to this date.

The same sense of precision and order found in the construction of the houses is found also in their arrangement on the site. Prehistoric settlements are characteristically haphazard, the dwellings huddled together or scattered at random about the available space. Rational town planning, in the form of straight streets dividing city blocks, does not appear before the Greeks, a scant 2,500 years ago, But here, 5,000 and more years before the Greeks, in this wilderness village, all the houses are neatly arranged in a fan-shaped pattern opening out from the river-bank. There was always an empty space, labeled "marketplace" by Srejovi, in front of the bigger houses. And between all the houses narrow alleys ran in straight lines either to the marketplace or to the river's edge.

There were 20 archaeologists working on the project by now, and 70 laborers, provided by the government with a barracks that had been used by border guards. Behind every hearth in the houses they found a flat stone with a cuplike depression in it -- presumably some kind of altar. Behind the altar were generally two or ore upright stones, at first assumed to be natural boulders picked up off the riverbank. Investigation then revealed that they were all of a reddish sandstone which appeared to have come from a ravine a couple of miles away. Some of these stones were indeed natural boulders, but others were found to have decorations, wavy lines or chevrons, chipped into them in low relief. Were these lines stylized representations of hair, snakes, fish scales, or were they mystical abstractions, or mere doodling?

While the argument raged during the third summer of excavation, a new and more startling discovery was made. An upright stone, of the familiar red sandstone, turned up in the largest house yet uncovered. It was almost two feet tall. A burly workman carried it down to the river to wash off some of the incrustations of the ages, and then Srejovi began to scrape away the mud still clinging to the surface. All at once his chief assistant, Letica Zega, let out a screech. "It's a face!"

No one believed her at first. Every one knew that monumental sculpture entered human history in the Near East two or more millennia after the settlement at Lepenski Vir had ceased to exist. Old Stone Age men had made little figurines of clay or stone and scratched designs on bones and rocks, but no one had ever dreamed of their making life-size statues. Nevertheless, as Srejovi scraped away, more and more features stood out, and every one had to admit that he was holding in his hand a sculptured head.

A human head, but a strange one. Srejovi at first thought it was a fish, and it did have oddly fishlike features. Like the 20 or os very similar works which would later be found on the site, it was goggle-eyed, gape-mouthed, very fishy. But it had a nose, the eyes were in the front of the head and not on the sides, and there was a suggestion of shoulders and arms, a bust, below the head. It was undoubtedly human.

Perhaps these statues represented gods, perhaps ancestral figures guarding the hearth. Whatever they were, they were, so far as any one can tell today, the first pieces of monumental sculpture ever made on earth. Their only rivals would be some heads found far off at Jericho in Palestine, of roughly the same epoch. But these were not carved out of stone, they were human skulls filled with clay and coated with white plaster. It was apparently here at Lepenski Vir, on this lost ledge, that some unknown genius first got the idea of hacking or chipping life-size, or more-than-life-size, effigies out of solid rock

Carbon-dating of charcoal found in the hearths covers a span of several hundred years in the sixth millennium and perhaps the beginning of the fifth. But there are no charcoal samples from the earliest layers, so there is no certain way of knowing how far back the origins of the settlement may go. All that can be said for certain is that the community must have held together for an immensely long time to be able to develop and the cultural resources that would make such statues possible.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the dean of British archaeologists, says of these achievements that they make Lepenski Vir one of the few sites in the world to which the epithet "unique" can be legitimately applied. Its sculpture, he says, "enters world history substantially in his own right and without convincing parentage.".It is, in short, an original invention, by people of whom we can never learn the name.

Analysis of fossilized pollen on the site shows that the climate at Lepenski Vir was colder then that it is today. Birches grew where oak and elm now cover the mountainsides. But in general the landscape must have looked much the same as it did to Srejovi on his first visit. Only it would not have seemed so tight, enclosed, foreboding to those early inhabitants as it did to him. It must have looked more like a Shangri-La, an Eden before the Fall, a place of peace and plenty and joy and rest. Instead of passing their whole lives, like their ancestors, scurrying after enough food to keep them barely alive, they could now let the food come to them as they lolled about in comfort.. There were edible berries and tubers growing along the bank, and the game animals which swarmed on the mountains could be casually knocked on the head when they came down to eat the berries. The seeds of blackberry and wild plum and wild cherry, the bones of martens, beavers, deer, wild boars and aurochs which have been found in the hearths of their houses, showed that all these source of supply were plentiful, And there was a still more plentiful inexhaustible supply waiting only a hundred yards or so out in the river. There they could see, perpetually churning, the greatest whirlpool in all the turbulent course of the Danube through the Iron Gates. The Danube was unpolluted then, and it swarmed with every shape and size of fish. Little fish had to give the whirlpool a wide berth or they would be swept to their death on the rocks, but big fish like sturgeon and salmon had only to position themselves firmly at the edge of the whirl and open their mouths and the river would sweep up a constant supply of nutrients from its bed to thrust down their throats, and they could lazily grow to monstrous size. As for the inhabitants of the village, all they had to do was to paddle out on a treetrunk or a rude raft, brain a couple of fish with a club and come back with enough ingredients for a long round of feasts.

Fish were thus the guarantee of prosperity for Lepenski Vir; and it is no wonder the statues of their gods (assuming that they were gods) had fishlike features. Even when the climate turned milder, and they were able to replace fish with game as their staple food, they went on putting fish-faced statues by their hearths.

Once the inhabitants had settled in, time seems to have stood still in Lepenski Vir. Study of the bones found there shows that there was no admixture of foreign population; the same people remained on the spot, intermarrying generation after generation, perhaps 120 generations in all - well over 2,500 years. During all that time they remained healthy. (Did they, like the ancient Greeks, toss aside the infants that did not live up to their sturdy standards?) There are no deformed or diseased bones here, and the women were so robust that it is hard to tell their skeletons from those of the men. They lived long, often into their eighties.

There were never many of them. The narrow ledge could never have had room for more than 20 or 25 houses at a time, each of which could hardly have held more than five adults. This would hardly be called a village in most countries today, but in Megalithic terms it was enormous, it represented a whole new dimension of human life. And though the community was so self-sufficient that it never had to import any merchandise, it apparently exported some of its conceptions. For at about a dozen locations on both banks of the river within a radius of some 20 miles, archaeologists have found remains of Mesolithic villages which look like crude copies of Lepenski Vir. They were smaller, the buildings were less solid, they had no carved stones or statues. But their houses and their hearths are trapezoidal in shape. Srejovi considers that Lepenski Vir must have been a kind of cultural metropolis, a mini-Rome to which outlying groups owed at least spiritual obedience.

Then one day the inhabitants went away from Lepenski Vir forever. There is no sign of a violent end, no fire or rockslide; the settlement was simply abandoned. While we can do more than guess, it is tempting to guess that the end came about as it did in the Garden of Eden, because of progress, an increase in knowledge. Some time in the fifth millennium BC, the "Neolithic Revolution" came to the Danube basin. Humans learned to grow crops and domesticate cattle, opening immense horizons for humanity but dooming Lepenski Vir, which simply lacked the room for either agriculture or pasture on a successful scale.

And so after a time span that only Egypt and China can compare with in the more recent world, this tight little culture faded away.

And the physical remains might have disappeared too, with water rising behind the giant dam and lapping over the ledge, if Srejovi had not persuaded the government to provide the funds to hoist all the surviving floors and stones 60 feet up to another ledge, oriented like the original one to the rising sun, And there they sit to this day, waiting for the government to build a road for the army of tourists who should be tramping to see these relics of a lost Eden.

©1975 Robert Wernick

[The text above appeared in Smithsonian in 1975. The tourists predicted in the last sentence have yet to materialize in any substantial numbers because of the tragedy of the Yugoslav civil war.

It was a peaceful enough country when Srejovi guided me, along with my wife and Yuichi Okamoto, who had been Lyndon Johnson's personal photographer in the White House ["What did you think of LBJ, Okie?" "I loved the bastard."], on an automobile trip from Belgrade to Lepenski Vir.

On the way we stopped to see another of Srejovi's discoveries, the remains of a Roman palace at a place called Gamzigrad, not far from Nish. The remains consist of some fragments of wall and broken columns and acres and acres of floors. This was the largest building ever built by the Romans, and so thoroughly was it and the country around it devastated by the Ostrogoths, or the Visigoths, that no one knows for sure who was the Augustus or the Caesar who built it. Only one corner of the edifice had been cleared at that time. (Srejovi estimated that, "given the nature of our government," it would take a century to finish the job, and I imagine he would put the figure a little higher today.) But it was a wonderful corner, with a splendid mosaic of gods and nymphs and heroes on which we could dance with some young archaeologists and some of the local people as well. There was a general air of jollity in that Serbian valley: Comrade Tito had provided every peasant family with something it had never known before, a bathtub, and every family had used it to distill its one-hundred-and-eighty-proof slivovitz, which they were happy to share in the traditional Serbian way with any strangers passing through their valley provided that they were not Croats or Turks..

Amid the jollity, one of the young archaeologists took me aside. He thought it was well that we foreigners could see the Yugoslav capacity for joy, but he wanted to make sure that we understood the human suffering that underlay that surface joy. I thought for an unworthy moment that he was going to complain about the treatment of homosexuals in socialist countries. But he had something much bigger and ghastlier on his mind. "You cannot imagine, you in the West," he said, "what we have been through in the war [World War II, of course]." And he told me the story of his own village, how one day when he was thirteen years old, the Ustashis - the Croat fascists in the pay of the Germans -- had come and lined up every male fourteen years old and older, and gone down the line slugging and kicking them and finally pulled out half of them and said, You fucking communists, and shot them all. And how some time later, the Partisans of Comrade Tito had come in and lined up the survivors and said, If the fascists didn't shoot you, you must be fascists too, and shot them all. "We are a small people," he said, "barely eighteen million today. And do you know how many we lost in the war? Two million. Two million. Is there another country in the world that has suffered as we have?" I thought we were on sufficiently friendly terms so that I could say, "Of course we know how great a price you had to pay. It was a terrible war, and there were many countries which suffered terrible losses." "NAME ONE!" he shouted, and not knowing what to say, I said, at random, "Well, Poland, for instance." "Yes," he said impatiently, "but they were all Jews."

Next day Marion and Okie and I and some of Srejovic's henchmen piled into a motorboat to chug up the river to the ledge at Lepenski Vir. It was a beautiful cloudless day, the towering banks on both the Yugoslav and Romanian sides looked beautiful too. I was chatting with one of the boatmen, or more likely one of the passengers since he spoke a little English, and I asked him what were those big flashes in the sky. "Flares," he said. "What do you mean, flares," I said, "this is a sunny morning, you can see forever." "Romanians," he said, which explained everything. Then there were distant booms, as of cannon being fired, and I asked again, "What is that?" "Guns, " he said, and he explained that every time the Romanian border guards observed unscheduled ship movements on the opposing side of the river, they would assume it was the advance guard of a hostile force preparing to invade their land and undo all the work of Comrade Ceacescu, and after consulting with headquarters in Bucharest they would take action. "You mean they are firing at us?" I said. "No", he said, "they are practicing, they are aiming at targets. They are Romanians." By which I understood him to say that we would have been safer if they had been aiming at us .

However we got safely ashore, and there was a work party to greet us with traditional Serbian hospitality, they produced a pig and slit its throat and built a fire to roast it. Then there was a great cry of distress: in the haste of embarkation our companions had left behind the slivovitz. So everyone but Marion and Okie and me piled back into th boat and headed downstream at full speed.

Everything was pleasant there on the ledge, there were trees offering us a gentle shade, there were lovely views, there were songs. But the hours seemed to get longer as the afternoon crept along, and Okie for one began to mutter nervously to himself. He had fought with distinction in the American Army in World War II, but this was a new situation for him, and in some ways scarier than the Battle of the Bulge. The workmen had never seen, perhaps had never even heard of a Japanese before, and they looked at him with a frank curiosity which alarmed him. "Do you suppose that boat is ever coming back?" he asked. "Sure, we're going to have a great pig dinner tonight and sing a lot of songs with thee guys, but when the pig is gone, and the boat doesn't come back, what are they going to eat next?"

However, the boat did come back, with what I judged was a week's supply of slivovitz, and we could all go about our respective jobs in the peace that would last another sixteen years in Yugoslavia.. .