Art beat // From clay to gold

Artifacts of Ukraine’s ancient cultures

WINDOM — As far as ancient cultures go, the Trypillians surely get short shrift.

Maybe it’s because they didn’t produce any lasting monuments, like the Egyptians, who only got around to building their first pyramid after Trypillian culture faded out some 4,700 years ago. What they did leave behind were beautiful and sometimes mysterious ceramics, so numerous that they are still pulled from the soil by farmers’ plows.

Those objects form the core of “Antiquities from Ukraine” at The Museum of Russian Art, a stunning crash course in the ancient history of that region told through several millennia’s worth of artifacts. It begins with the Trypillians, whose 3,000-year existence, from about 5,400–2,700 B.C., spanned the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age.

The culture takes its name from the tiny village of Trypillia, Ukraine, where artifacts were dug up in the late 1800s. Subsequent archaeological findings describe a people who occupied crescent-shaped territory between the Danube and Dnieper rivers northwest of the Black Sea, covering what are today parts of Ukraine, Moldova and Romania.

During a warm, wet spell after the last ice age, the region was home to an agrarian, matriarchal society that persisted until the climate turned arid once again — better suited to the nomads who rode in from the Russian steppe bearing technologically advanced bronze weapons.

We’re more familiar with those later cultures, like the Cimmerians and Scythians — who many people will have at least heard of, thanks in part to the Greek historian Herodotus, who included them in his “Histories.” The Trypillians were long gone even then, and left behind no written records of their own.

They did leave mysteries, though. Why did they apparently burn their mostly small, clan-based villages every 60–100 years? Were they really as peaceful as archaeologists suggest, based on the complete lack of “temples, palaces or depositories of weapons,” and few signs of a stratified society, as the exhibit tells us? And what were the Trypillian “binoculars” used for?

Among the first artifacts encountered in the exhibit, they appear to be two cups joined at the lip, stem and base, but whether they were used for drinking, music making or something else is not known. Where they ceremonial or religious objects, like the Trypillian’s small, voluptuously curved goddess figurines?

Like the other ceramics on display, the fired-clay binoculars have aged to mottled ochre and burnt-toast colors. Many also retain surprisingly vivid black, white and red painted designs.

These designs, also incised into the pottery, are often in an interlocking S-shaped pattern or yin-yang swirl. Later, harder-edged geometric patterns, including zigzags and chains of arrows, appear, along with human and animal figures.

Cattle obviously played an important role in the life of the Trypillians, judging from how often they appear in their crafts.

A large, cow-shaped vessel supported on four legs may have been used to store milk or yogurt, the curators speculate. Nearly 6,000 years old, a little ox with wheels instead of legs at may be one of the earliest known children’s toys ever discovered.

By the middle Trypillian period, bronze axes begin to appear, a sign of the technological revolution that ended the Neolithic period and ushered in the Bronze Age.

The horse-riding Cimmerians, who pounded bronze into swords and body armor, migrated into the area around 1,100 B.C., probably from south of the Black Sea. When the Scythians arrived 400 years later — around the time Rome’s supposed founding in
753 B.C. — they brought with them another, more precious metal: gold.

The galleries positively glitter with gold objects from these later, post-Trypillian cultures. Persian, Greek and Minoan motifs pop up with increasing frequency, evidence of increasing trade and communication in the ancient world.

The warlike Sarmatians — whose equestrian and archery skills were admired by the Romans ­— wore golden jewelry studded with precious stones, including topaz, garnet, jade and turquoise. A thick neckband and delicate tiara, both in gold, include curious, egocentric details: tiny carved busts of their owners.

The exhibition carries us right up through the early Christian period to Kyivan Rus, a medieval Slavic state sacked in 1240 by Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis. Valuables were hidden from the Mongols underground, in buried hoards, many of which went undiscovered for centuries. A delicate oak-leaf garland, executed in gold with tiny acorns and paper-thin leaves, is a standout example from this period.

But for all their glitter, these later objects lack something found in the Trypillian’s weathered ceramics: an aura of enigma put off by a long-buried and nearly forgotten culture.

Go see it

“Antiquities from Ukraine: Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations” runs through Feb.19 at The Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Ave. S.