You may not have heard of the ancient Cucuteni-Trypillia culture before. Even though they are widely considered to be Europe’s oldest-known society, it is often overshadowed by their neighbors, the Sumerians. They thrived between 5500 and 2750 BCE in the region where Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova are now located.
The settlements of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture were remarkably well laid out with obvious preplanning. But it was the houses, which the residents intentionally burned, that are most noteworthy. Why would people purposely set fire to their own homes? Let’s find out.
Who Were the Cucuteni-Trypillia People?
The Cucuteni-Trypillia culture was a Neolithic and Copper Age civilization that existed in eastern Europe during the late 5th to 3rd millennium BCE. The name was taken from two archaeological sites – Cucuteni in Romania and Trypillia in Ukraine.
Archaeologists have discovered that the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture rose in three waves. Cucuteni A took place between 4500 and 4000 BCE. From 4000 to 3500 BCE, the Cucuteni B wave took place. Lastly, the Cuceteni C phase existed between 3500 and 3000 BCE.
More Clues about the Cucuteni-Trypillia Culture
Researchers learned that the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture was quite advanced for its time. Their innovations in agriculture, pottery making, and trade may have influenced subsequent human civilization in Europe and nearby Mesopotamia.
The culture’s territory stretched between the Carpathian Mountains and the Dnieper and Dniester rivers. Many of the settlements included defensive fortifications. Although the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture engaged in vigorous trade with other groups, it seems that they weren’t on good terms with all their neighbors.
Cucuteni-Trypillia Culture Was Ahead of its Time
In the agricultural fields of the Cucuteni-Trypillia settlements, people cultivated peas, legumes, wheat, and barley. They also domesticated livestock animals. Archaeologists have found evidence to show that they raised goats, sheep, and cattle.
The Cucuteni-Trypillia people developed techniques for crafting high quality pottery. They designed pottery and ceramic items with intricate details and patterns and baked the pottery in large kilns. They also knew how to mine and work copper. They made copper jewelry and religious items, as well as copper axes for felling trees.
The Cucuteni-Trypillia Construction Techniques
For archaeologists and researchers studying the ancient Cucuteni-Trypillia culture, the most amazing aspect of their settlements was the buildings they erected. The houses that the Cucuteni-Trypillia people built are remarkably well preserved for their age.
The Cucuteni-Trypillia people used a wattle and daub technique. This ancient building technique involved weaving a lattice of wooden strips, “called wattles”, and coating it with a mud or clay mixture, called “daubs.” Often, the mud is mixed with straw, twigs, grass, or even animal dung, to reinforce it.
A Sturdy and Solid Construction
The daub mixture is liberally smeared onto the woven framework. The entire surface is evenly coated with a layer of daub that is typically several inches thick. After it is applied to the frame, the clay or mud is smoothed, either by hand or by using tools.
As the clay or mud mixture dries, it hardens into a wall that is almost as solid as a concrete one. Depending on the weather, rain, and humidity level, it could take some time for the daub to completely dry. Once it does, the home is well insulated and protects the dwellers from the elements.
Masters of the Wattle and Daub Technique
The Cucuteni-Trypillia people were so skilled at the wattle and daub building technique that they were able to erect structures that would have been some of the world’s biggest and most impressive buildings during the time period in which they lived.
Several of the structures built by the Cucuteni-Trypillia people had multiple stories. The wattle and daub techniques they used were strong enough to support several stories. In addition, the Cucuteni-Trypillia builders created buildings that were almost the size of two basketball courts … covering more than 7,500 square feet.
Did the Cucuteni-Trypillia Culture Apply Pottery Techniques to Home Building?
Remember how the Cucuteni-Trypillia people developed excellent pottery making skills? In doing so, they learned that clay pottery items can be made stronger by the intense heat of fire. Their use of pottery kilns shows that they understood this.
Does this also explain the most puzzling thing about the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture? During excavations of Cucuteni-Trypillia settlements, archaeologists noted that the Cucuteni-Trypillia homes had experienced a structure fire. All of them.
Burning Down the House
The more researchers studied the archaeological evidence, the more they realized that the clues pointed to one conclusion. The Cucuteni-Trypillia people intentionally set fire to their homes every 60 to 80 years.
The evidence, timing, and widespread evidence show that the fires were not random accidents. They weren’t caused by lightning strikes or cooking fires, nor were they arson attacks by enemies of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture. The homes were burned on purpose. The question is … why?
Prehistoric Fire Investigators
Determining the causes of house fires that occurred in prehistoric times might seem like an impossible task, but there are ways to analyze these ancient sites. A group of archaeologists, scientists, and conservationists from Hungary did an extensive analysis of an excavation site at Szazholmbatta-Foldvar.
Initial analysis of this site showed at least three previous fires. By testing the soil surrounding the area and analyzing the plant life at the excavation site, the Hungarian team was able to learn about the fire history of the building, including how hot the fires burned.
The “Burned House Horizon” Phenomenon
Before we tackle the various theories that attempt to explain why the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture engaged in arson, it is important to note that they were not alone. During the Neolithic period, several cultures in Eastern and Central Europe intentionally torched their houses.
Ruth Tringham, a British American archaeologist, even coined a name for this. She categorized the groups that engaged in this practice during prehistoric times as the “burned house horizon.” It includes groups of Neolithic people – the Vinca, Dudesti, Cris, and Starcevo – who lived in what is now Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Serbia.
Were These Ritual Burns?
Serian archaeologist Mirjana Stevanovic’s position is that the Cucuteni-Trypillia people burned their homes for ritualistic or symbolic purposes. It could be that a house was burned down upon the death of one of its occupants.
She explains that burning the deceased person’s home and belongings was part of the funerary practices of the Cucuteni-Trypillian people, turning the homes into a type of funeral pyre. Fire has long been used as a cleansing device so this is a plausible explanation.
Were the Fires Set to Kill Pests and Vermin?
Another theory being floated to explain why the Cucuteni-Trypillia people set fire to their own home is that it was done to kill vermin and pests. Although the homes were reasonably well-built, mice, rats, and other pests always find a way to get inside.
Attracted by stored grain and other food items, rodents are not only destructive, but they spread disease, although Neolithic people probably didn’t understand this causation. Fire would certainly help with the rodent issue, however the evidence shows that there were decades between burnings, so this theory has holes in it.
Did the Fires Take the Place of a Wrecking Ball?
For many archaeologists and researchers, the simplest explanation is the most likely. They contend that the Cucuteni-Trypillia people set buildings on fire to raze them.
Although the Cucuteni-Trypillia settlements were large, they were also meticulously planned. Could it be that the ancient urban planners sought to destroy older existing homes to make room for new constructions?
Were the Fires Set to Reinforce the Homes?
Russian archaeologist Evgeniy Yuryevick Krichevski suggests that the Cucuteni-Trypillia people were not using fire to destroy their homes. They were using fire to strengthen and reinforce them. He points to their pottery making abilities to show that the Neolithic people understood the effect of fire on clay.
The high temperatures from the fires, he posits, would make the clay daub walls harder, giving the walls a ceramic-like surface. For many researchers, this was an intriguing theory. To test its plausibility, several scientific groups conducted some experiments.
Arson … In the Name of Science
To test the theory that the Cucuteni-Trypillia people used fire to strengthen their homes, archaeologists Arthur Bankoff and Frederik Winter decided to set fire to a building … in the name of science.
They purchased a run-down home from a Serbia family that had been built using the same materials and construction methods as the Cucuteni-Trypillia homes. They set fire to the home and allowed it to burn.
An Unexpected Finding
When Bankoff and Winter torched the old home, they observed that the wooden roof quickly turned to ashes. This did not surprise them. Nor were they surprised that the clay daub walls remained sturdy.
What did surprise them was the tremendous amount of fuel required to burn down the home. For Bankoff and Winter, this was yet another piece of evidence to show that the prehistoric fires were deliberately set. Accidental fires would have burned themselves out before the building was destroyed.
Replicating the Arson Experiment
To be valid, the findings from scientific experiments must be replicable. A few years ago, an archaeological team made up of researchers from Great Britain and Ukraine did their own fire experiment.
This team was unable to purchase an older, pre existing building. Instead, they build their own buildings using the same building materials and methods as the Cucuteni-Trypillia homes. Their results mirrored the findings of Bankoff and Winter.
A Safe and Controllable Prescribed Burn
The British/Ukraine team noted that the walls of their buildings were still intact after the fires. In fact, they were harder and stronger after the flames died down. The researchers noticed that the fire remained contained within the house and did not spread beyond the walls.
Their conclusion was that the prescribed burns were safe and easy to control … another indicator that they were intentionally set. The Cucuteni-Trypillia people lacked fire fighting equipment, but these experiments showed that the risk of the fires spreading was minimal.
Again, the Fires Needed a Lot of Fuel
As with the previous experiment, the British/Ukraine team was surprised at how much organic fuel was needed for the fires to achieve the temperatures of the prehistoric fires, as indicated by soil sediments.
After some quick calculations, they determined that each one-story house’s fire would require 130 trees to keep the blaze stoked. A two-story house would need 250 trees. If there were 100 homes in a Cucuteni-Trypillia settlement, a 3.8-square mile forest would have to be cut down to supply the necessary fuel.
What Does This Tell Us?
The incredible number of trees needed to fuel these fires can be interpreted in two different ways. On one hand, why would ancient people go to the trouble to clear 3.8 square miles of trees just to intentionally burn down their houses? It seems like a lot of work.
On the other hand, the work and effort involved is proof that the Cucuteni-Trypillia people believed in the importance of prescribed burns. It was a lot of work, but for the Neolithic Cucuteni-Trypillia people, it was well worth it.