Community News

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Prehistoric bird goddess is watching you

Ancient Ukraine was home to vigorous culture that vanished
January 05, 2009
Regina Haggo
The Hamilton Spectator
(Jan 5, 2009)


What: Mysteries of Ancient Ukraine
Where: Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen's Park, Toronto
When: Until March 22
Phone: 416-586-8000

Their civilization gave rise to at least one city with about 20,000 inhabitants, and then disappeared.

Their story is familiar to eastern Europeans, but virtually unknown in the West.

The Royal Ontario Museum is changing that with Mysteries of Ancient Ukraine: the Remarkable Trypilian Culture.

This exhibition, a coup for the ROM, showcases more than 250 prehistoric ceramic vessels and statuettes, copper jewellery and tools, many never seen before in North America.

Made about 7,000 to 5,000 years ago, the objects were produced by a civilization known as Trypilian -- some scholars call it Cucuteni -- that flourished northwest of the Black Sea, in present-day Ukraine, Moldova and Romania.

Archeologically, the region is among the best documented in eastern Europe. Vikenty Khvoika began digging there in 1896, about the time other archeological pioneers were discovering the remains of Greek and Trojan civilizations farther south.

The Trypilian treasures are especially rich in large earthenware vessels with animated patterns. Like many of the vessels in this exhibition, a hand-built storage jar (4500-4100 BC) boasts the kind of narrow base that might have been stuck into the ground.

The pot's generous belly is filled with sinuous shapes that bump into and enclose one another. These long thin shapes terminate in rounded forms that resemble snake heads. Simplified snakes were common in the prehistoric art of eastern Europe.

Snakes were linked to the mother earth goddess. Because they regularly shed their skins, snakes are appropriate symbols of death and rebirth.

The human figure appears mostly as statuettes, 10 to 20 centimetres high. An earthenware statuette (circa 3000-2700 BC) depicts a female in an idealized and simplified style. She has a well-rounded head, long neck, wide shoulders, thin waist, big hips and big buttocks.

Small relief circles represent her kneecaps, her navel and her breasts. How interesting that big buttocks and high, small breasts remained a standard of feminine beauty well into the 19th century.

The pubic area is emphasized by a large triangle. Such an emphasis serves as a reminder of feminine fertility and was used by artists for millennia after this.

Her pinched and pointy face looks avian. She is probably a bird goddess, as so many of these early images are. Her triangular arms are probably meant to be wings. Bird goddesses were big on fertility.

You must walk around her. As you do, she seems to be watching you, like an owl. This is because of the way her face and head are modelled. The head is three-sided with one eyehole on each side. So when the viewer moves around her, at least one eye is always visible.

Images of women dominate prehistoric art, but the statuettes in this exhibition also include males, and others have been built into the shape of simplified animals such as boars, bears and bovines.

Regina Haggo is teaching Renaissance Treasures, an introductory course about Italian art in the 14th and 15th centuries, at the Dundas Valley School of Art. You can sign up for Monday or Friday afternoons. Classes start on Jan. 5 and Jan. 9. To register, phone 905-628-6357.

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