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Mysteries of Ancient Ukraine: the Remarkable Trypilian Culture Announced for this Fall at ROM
Earthenware, 4500-4000 BC. Museum of Archaeology, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Photo: Royal Ontario Museum © 2008. All rights reserved.

ONTARIO.- This Fall, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) presents Mysteries of Ancient Ukraine: the Remarkable Trypilian Culture (5400 – 2700 BC), the world’s first large scale exhibition uncovering the secrets of this ancient society which existed in present day Ukraine 7,000 – 5,000 years ago. The mystery of this compelling and sophisticated culture, known for creating the largest settlements anywhere in the world at the time, only to inexplicably disappear, is illuminated through some 300 artifacts, many never before seen in North America. The exhibition is on display in the Museum’s 3rd floor Centre Block from Saturday, November 29, 2008 to Sunday, March 22, 2009.

With Ukraine’s First Lady, Mrs. Kateryna Yushchenko serving as honorary patron, Mysteries of Ancient Ukraine: the Remarkable Tryplian Culture (5400 – 2700 BC) is organized by the ROM in collaboration with the National Museum of the History of Ukraine (Kyiv, Ukraine), the Institute of Archaeology, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, the Archaeological Museum of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, the Odessa Archaeological Museum, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and the Vinnytsia Regional Museum (Ukraine). The exhibition is based on artifacts first discovered by Ukrainian archaeologist Vikenty Khvoika in 1896, including tools, items of adornment, ceramic figures, earthenware portraits, and pottery. Trypilian pottery, with its sophisticated decorative schemes, attractive forms and fine execution, is generally recognized as second to none in the Neolithic world.

“One of the most important international exhibitions ever mounted on the Trypilian culture, Ancient Ukraine will be of great interest to all visitors, especially those fascinated by ancient societies," said William Thorsell, Director and CEO of the ROM. "We are delighted to work closely with First Lady, Mrs. Yushchenko, these European institutions, as well as Canada’s Ukrainian-Canadian community, to present the achievements of this highly-sophisticated Neolithic culture."

In 1896, during the great age of archaeological discoveries that unearthed Troy, Mycenae, Knossos and the many civilizations of Mesopotamia, archaeologist Vikenty Khvoika, a pioneer of Ukrainian archaeology, unearthed the remains of a prehistoric people near the village of Trypilia, and which means “three fields” in Ukrainian. This society is thought to have flourished in the forest-steppe region of present-day Ukraine, an area approximately 50,000 square kilometres from the upper Dniester River on the west, to the mid-Dnipro River on the east. In addition to intriguing religious and cosmological beliefs, the Trypilians achieved a great degree of sophistication – not only were they were expert farmers, herders and craftsmen, they excelled in pottery making, evident in the technical and artistic excellence of each piece on display. Equally compelling, the Trypilian culture may best be known for building two-storey houses and its giant settlements, burned to the ground every 60 to 80 years by the Trypilians themselves, prior to moving to a new location. Approximately 2,000 Trypilian sites have been found.

“In the century since their discovery, archaeologists have learned that the Trypilians were even more extraordinary than Khvoika imagined," explains exhibition curator, Dr. Krzysztof Ciuk of the ROM’s World Cultures Department. "It is uncertain why this culture disappeared. Trypilians may have been replaced by Indo-European peoples who expanded both east and west at this period or, perhaps, as the climate became drier and the forest-steppe gave way to steppe, the culture’s ecological equilibrium was stressed and a way of life was adopted to mirror their more technologically advanced neighbours.”

Mysteries of Ancient Ukraine: the Remarkable Trypilian Culture (5400 – 2700 BC) comprises artifacts excavated in 1896 by Khvoika himself, those excavated from other numerous Trypilian sites, as well as objects from the ROM’s collections, excavated in southwest Asia and Balkan Europe. Visitors will gain greater insight into the world of the Trypilians through the exhibition’s six sections:

Who were the Trypilians? introduces visitors to Trypilians – who they were, when and where they lived, and how they were sustained. Original reports and drawings by Khvoika and objects that he unearthed, create intrigue and provide insight into the archaeological mind at work, as the archaeologist tried to make sense of an hitherto lost society. A sampling of artifacts, including one of Khvoika’s earthenware jars, dating to 3500 BC, its surface rich with incised curvilinear ornamentation, is on display.

To place the Trypilian culture in context, The Neolithic Revolution examines the development of human societies in Europe from the end of the last Ice Age to the arrival of Copper Age cultures, including Trypilian. Other Neolithic cultures, such as the Halaf, from what is now known as northern Syria and south-eastern Turkey, and the Vinca from what is now known as modern Serbia, are juxtaposed, their artistic legacies having much in common. Here, visitors can study the earthenware portrait of a pensive male face, created by the Vinca approximately 7,500 years ago, and which bears striking similarity to the ‘realistic’ portraits of Trypilia.

The section titled Extraordinary Settlements focuses on the Trypilian’s substantial communities, how the Trypilians cultivated grain and vegetables, herded domesticated animals, hunted, and gathered fruit from undomesticated plants and trees. This area explores how, under such ideal conditions, it is likely that the Trypilian population grew faster than that of other Neolithic peoples; it is perhaps no wonder that they built the largest settlements of the time. The question of why the Trypilians deliberately set fire to these buildings before abandonment is also highlighted. Aerial photographs, including archaeological digs, provide evidence from a variety of locations, including Talianky, the largest Trypilian town discovered thus far, covering 4.5 square kilometres. Artifacts here feature copper tools, model sledges, zoomorphic figurines including wheeled animal models and a miniature herd of cattle. In addition to an exploration of the technical aspects of Trypilian pottery making, drawings, illustrations and a 3D miniature schematic model of a Trypilian village are also on display.

Domestic Life presents other architectural structures, particularly houses, some of which were two storey. Included is a newly built custom model of a Trypilian house in a winter setting, showing a number of household activities. This section also highlights mysterious objects surmised to be of cultic or spiritual significance, believed to come from the ‘spiritual corner’ of a Trypilian home, as well as a collection of remarkable model buildings, eminently Trypilian in design, and usually on stilts. In reality, Trypilian houses were never built above ground, so the purpose they served, or what is depicted, whether house, shrine or something else, remains unknown. Visitors can view separate artifacts consisting of household tools, ceramic storage, cooking and serving containers, in addition to evidence of clothing and personal adornment.

Spirituality and Artistic Expression highlights various puzzling pieces of ceramic art made by the Trypilians - specifically anthropomorphic figurines (ranging from stylized to quasi-realistic) and containers decorated in various ways (incised, monochromatic, polychromatic). Found in many Neolithic cultures, the female figurines on display, with exaggerated feminine features, are believed by some scholars to represent a ‘great mother goddess’. Other ceramic objects, such as footed platforms, and enigmatic, hollow “binocular” pieces, attest to the spiritual and ritual life of the Trypilians.

The exhibition’s final stop, entitled Continuing Discoveries, emphasizes the ongoing interest and activity in Trypilian archaeology and features recently excavated objects. It also discusses how the Trypilians engaged in trade with neighbouring pastoral and semi-pastoral peoples - the steppe peoples to the east and the Usatove people to the south. While there is no indication that the Trypilians succumbed to conquest, this section discusses the hypotheses as to how this ancient culture mysteriously disappeared.

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