“Ancient Ukraine: Mysteries of  The Trypillian Culture” at the ROM

By Oksana Zakydalsky

In Toronto on November 29, 2008,  the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), in partnership with the National Museum of the History of Ukraine (Kyiv) and with the collaboration of the Institute of Archaeology in Ukraine, will mount a major exhibition - “Ancient Ukraine: Mysteries of the Trypillian Culture.”

During the great age of archaeological discoveries – Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries -  that unearthed Troy,  Mycenae, Knossos and the many civilizations of Mesopotamia, an unexpected discovery in 1896 was made in Ukraine in the Village of Trypillia, south of Kyiv. Ukrainian archaeologist Vikenty Khvoika found the remains of a prehistoric people who, between 5000 BC and 2750 BC, had prevailed on the forest-steppe region of Ukraine from the upper Dniester River in the west to the middle Dnipro River in the east. He called them the Trypillians after the village where the discovery was made. So far, about 2,000 Trypillian sites have been found in Ukraine. These include settlements, burial grounds and barren grounds with thousands of masterpieces of ancient art and artifacts which help to illuminate the ancient history of this culture.

The Trypillians were farmers and herders who excelled in the making of ceramics and who were builders of city-like agglomerations, the earliest in Europe. The ROM exhibit will attempt to recreate the mysterious and largely unknown culture of the Trypillians through artifacts, maps, two- and three-dimensional reconstructions and video presentations. There will be 210 artifacts from Ukraine and 25 from ROM’s own collection.

The exhibit will be comprised of six sections beginning with Discovery, which will include original reports and drawings made by Vikenty Khvoika and objects he unearthed, to present to the viewer the archaeologist’s mind at work, trying to make sense of a lost society.

The second section – titled A People of the Copper Age – will place the Trypillians in their historical context and will show that they shared much with other Copper-Age peoples but in some respects they were atypical – their pottery was especially fine, their civilization lasted for an unusually long time and they built extraordinary “giant settlements”.

The third section Economy will highlight  how the Trypillians lived peacefully and thrived on the fertile  soil and benign climate of southern Ukraine. Their land was a combination of forest and steppe, so their mixed economy consisted of farming, hunting and gathering. Probably, because of such ideal conditions, they built the largest settlements of any Neolithic peoples.

It is to these settlements that the fourth section will be devoted. The settlements were discovered only in the 1970s and, according to scholars, appear to be the earliest quasi-cities built in Europe. For example, the settlement at Talianky, built between 3700 BC and 3500 BC, covered 450 hectares and housed about 15,000 people. The ROM will build a 3-D miniature model of a large settlement to give visitors an idea of its size and the number of buildings that it held. The Trypillians were experts in the construction of houses – a 3-D model of a Trypillian house will be part of the exhibit. But why did the Trypillians, a certain time after building their settlements, destroy them by fire and abandon them? This is one of many intriguing mysteries of the Trypillians.

As the Trypillians burnt their towns, they left some of their possessions. These material remains, especially their outstanding ceramics which were better able to survive the flames, will form the fifth section of the exhibition – Art and Belief. Their intriguing anthropomorphic figurines, with a marked preponderance of female figurines, are also objects that give rise to speculation. Were they figurines of the female deity - the Great Mother Goddess?

Finally, the last section will highlight the mysteries that still linger about the Trypillian culture – their relations seem to have been peaceful, yet they mysteriously disappeared. What happened to them? Did they assimilate with their neighbours – those belonging to a Bronze-Age horse riding people with a pastoral culture? Was it due to the climate, which became dryer as forest-steppe gave way to steppe?

To support the exhibition, a formal gala dinner is planned for November 27, 2008. The Royal Ontario Museum is a world-renowned institution, with 45 galleries - the largest collection in Canada - and the fifth largest museum in North America. It has recently undergone extensive renovation, and features a dramatic addition known as the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, where the gala dinner is to be held.

“Ancient Ukraine – Mysteries of the Trypillian Culture” is planned as a touring exhibition and will remain at the ROM until March 22, 2009. The ROM is now seeking additional venues for the exhibition from Spring 2009 through 2011.