Friday, 19 April 2019

Urban Spacemen?

After the depressingly dark heritage of the swastika last week we need something more uplifting to read. So, how about an openly gay archaeologist who uncovered Europe’s oldest urban settlement, a site so old and relatively more advanced than anything else in that period that some people think it was built by aliens! Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Hardly.

The archaeological site of Lepenski Vir was discovered in August 1960 in what is now Serbia, which was part of Yugoslavia. Very little excavation was undertaken, probably because the Communist government of Yugoslavia had very little interest in financing it. It was only when they decided to build a hydroelectric power station and dam that would flood the area that archaeologists began to push for funding for a proper excavation before it was lost forever.

After a survey of the site and initial investigations were carried out it was discovered that it seemed to be a sizeable settlement which could date back about 5,500 years. The subsequent report that was submitted to the Belgrade Institute for Archaeology in 1961 intrigued one of the academics there. His name was Dr. Dragolav Srejović (1931-1996).

Dragoslav was born in the city of Kragujevac though he had little love for the place. He sought escape from his miserable childhood by immersing himself in art, theatre, a love of Church ceremonial and Greek mythology.

After leaving school he developed tuberculosis and spent over a year in hospital. During this period he recognised his homosexual feelings. He fell in love with one of his friends, the only friend who visited him in hospital. Dragoslav’s illness prevented him from having any sort of physical relationship and it ended when his boyfriend decide to enter the homophobic League of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia.

After his recovery from tuberculosis Dragoslav went to study archaeology in Belgrade. He became an assistant in the Department of Archaeology at the Faculty of Philosophy. In 1964 he earned his doctorate with a thesis on Stone Age anthropomorphic sculptures in Yugoslavia. By the time the report on Lepenski Vir arrived at the Institute of Archaeology Dragoslav was an assistant professor.

Funding for a proper excavation of Lepinski Vir was obtained and Dragoslav and his team began work there on 6th August 1965. It was believed that the site dated back to the Starčevo Culture which flourished in Serbia along the River Danube from about 5,500 BC for a thousand years at the end of the Mesolithic Age.

After two years Dragoslav came down to a layer which proved to be truly ancient and threw back the age of the site another thousand years. Sculptures were found which could be dated even earlier than the Starčevo Culture. These were the oldest sculptures known in Europe.

What was even more astonishing was the number of dwellings that were discovered. In total 136 buildings were identified during the whole five years of the excavation. Even assuming that only half of them were inhabited, each by a family of two parents and one child, the settlement at Lepenski Vir would have had a larger population than any other known settlement from the same period in Europe.

What makes Lepenski Vir even more historically significant is that most of the dwellings were arranged so that their entrances all faced a central open area. This meant they were planned. It was not the sporadic spread of dwellings that is found in the early settlements of the Mesolithic Age but were deliberately arranged. This makes Lepenski Vir the first known incident of “urban planning” in Europe.

Also on the site was a necropolis where the community placed their dead. The bones of the dead provided enough DNA to be analysed in more recent years. It was found that these first “town-dwellers” had mixed European and Asia Minor ancestry. This has led to the theory that migrants from the first agricultural communities in Asia Minor travelled along the Danube and interbred with the local Europeans. This could be the reason why Lepenski Vir became the first “town”. The Europeans had previously been hunter-gatherers with no real settled location. The migrants from Asia Minor introduced permanent settlements.

There’s a marvellous article giving a more detailed explanation of the significance of this site on the “Discover” magazine website here.

Once the excavations were completed in 1970 the whole site was flooded by the construction of the hydroelectric power station and dam. Dragoslav Srejovič had discovered enough at Lepenski Vir for the whole site to be considered of global importance and, just like Abu Simbel in Egypt, the whole site was moved to higher ground as a means of preservation.

That’s where Lepenski Vir is situated today and you can visit it for yourself. Even though it’s not on its original location it still remains an impressive site with remains of buildings and remarkable little statues.

Dragoslav Srejovič received several honours and awards for his work at Lepenski Vir. He followed this up with further archaeological projects, the most important of which was the excavation of a half-forgotten imperial Roman palace and spa at Gamzigrad not far south of Lepenski Vir. The site had been excavated before but was virtually ignored after the 1950s once the Communists took over the country. Dragolsav brought Gamzigrad back into the archaeological world with new excavations and research. He is credited with being the person responsible for Gamzigrad gaining UNESCO World Heritage status in 2007. Lepenski Vir has yet to receive this status, partly due to it not being on its original site.
Dr. Dragoslav Srejovič at Lepenski Vir sitting beside one of the many sculptures found on the site.
Dragoslav was often annoyed at the way some people interpreted his discoveries at Lepenski Vir. Which is where the aliens come in.

Because the technology, sculptural style and social organisation of Lepenski Vir was so far advanced compared to the rest of Europe some people began to claim that it could only have been made possible by the arrival of aliens to the site (despite there being equally advanced settlements in Asia).

These people found it hard to accept that humans could be so advanced that far back in time without alien intervention. They even named their fake alien race the Lepensians. Several prominent ufologists and alien visitation specialists such as Eric von Daniken supported the various claims. As recently as 2007 ufologists were reporting a triangular formation of “lights in the sky” moving towards Lepenski Vir.

Even though the alien visitation idea is, to me, a load of crap, I have to admit that its adds an extra layer of fascination to the whole site. However, as a historian I hope that Lepenski Vir will never turn into a place of pilgrimage for ufologists and alien hunters. I’m sure Dragolav Srejovič would have thought so as well.

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