Wonders of Old Europe


Ruins like these of Corfe Castle in Britain seem ancient enough. But this fortress was first built but a millennium ago, some 4,500 years after the demise of Old Europe.

Ancient China, ancient Egypt, Sumer—those civilizations we know. But meet the newest ancient civilization on the block: Old Europe. A fascinating exhibit at Oxford, England’s Ashmolean Museum recently displayed the wonders of the “Lost World of Old Europe.” The earliest known civilization on the continent of Europe, Old Europe dates to 5000–3500 BC and was located primarily in the Danube Valley in southeastern Europe. In what is now Bulgaria and Romania and Ukraine, a mostly agricultural people were settled and flourishing as ancient Egyptians were just beginning to settle the Nile Delta.

Evidence of these Old Europeans was only recently unearthed. In 1972, a burial site, called the Varna necropolis, was discovered by archaeologists. It contained 264 graves complete with high-quality gold and bronze artifacts. The objects—beaded necklaces, gold bracelets and pendants, terracotta figurines, painted ceramics, and amulets made of seashells from the distant Aegean Sea—reveal an imaginative, advanced culture. The Ashmolean Museum’s display of the material culture of Old Europe was previously exhibited at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

Little is known about this ancient civilization that flourished for more than 1,500 years but then faded. Old Europe receives hardly a mention in world history textbooks, but the sophistication, technological skill, and creativity evident in its artifacts are a fresh field of study, particularly for scholars of the transitional period between the Neolithic and Bronze ages. This civilization is believed to have supported large villages with populations up to 8,000, the largest human communities anywhere in the world at the time.

Related Links

  • Artifacts from Old Europe
    This online photo gallery, assembled when the Old Europe exhibit was in New York, features more than two dozen of the most striking figurines, appliqués, jewelry, and pottery artifacts from the ancient culture of the Danube Valley.
    (Source: New York Times; accessed August 31, 2010)
  • At the Ashmolean
    This in-depth review is a look at the reopening of England’s Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and its striking new exhibit on Old Europe; reflects on trendiness in historical interpretation of ancient Europe.
    (Source: London Review of Books, August 5, 2010)
  • New Ashmolean Exhibition Reveals the Advanced Civilizations of Old Europe
    An introduction to the recent exhibit on Old Europe at Oxford, England’s Ashmolean Museum.
    (Source: The Independent, May 20, 2010)
  • The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000–3500 BC
    This pdf is the official exhibit brochure highlighting the Ashmolean’s exhibit on Old Europe; contains brief descriptions and images of sculptures and artifacts.
    (Source: The Ashmolean Museum; accessed August 31, 2010)


  1. Justin says:

    This was very helpful.

  2. shawneese says:

    i know right

  3. shabalabadingdong says:

    well of course it was helpful. if it wasnt, it wouldnt be up for everyone to see. (: