In 1972, a day laborer stumbled upon a magnificent burial ground in what is now Bulgaria. Carbon testing dated the cemetery at 4500 BC, before the introduction of writing into what is now Eastern Europe. The deceased were buried with their heads all pointing north, although some of the graves held just cenotaphs of bones and other plots were empty of any remains at all.
Sixty-one (out of over 300 total plots) of these demonstration graves contained gold jewelry, necklaces and amulets of astonishing refinement and beauty. You can gaze upon some of the contents of what is now called the Varna Cemetery as part of the exhibition "The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC" in two first-floor galleries of the New York University Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, a new institution funded by the controversial Shelby White and Leon Levy, on East 84 Street.
After the collapse of communism, Western archaeologists were finally able to turn their attention to a mysterious and little-studied civilization 7,000 years ago in lands that have since become Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova. This was a settled, agricultural culture, defying the previous perception of it as an area dominated by the warrior nomads of the steppes. A fierce debate has subsequently raged over whether this lost world was female-centric (the patriarchal themes of the Varna trove would seem to belie it) and why most of this culture suddenly collapsed around 4000 B.C.
Most of the thatch dwellings appeared to have been set on fire, in what some scholars suspect might have been a religious ritual. Whatever the case, the objects on view from this tell culture, one that left us with no written history, are all we have and thus "The Lost World of Old Europe" is an invitation to let our fantasies fly.
The first thing that will amaze you is the sophistication of the jewelry, most of which would look contemporary in a boutique around the corner from the institute on Madison Avenue. Necklaces made from animal teeth, perfectly arranged, and copper spiral bracelets impress in their perfect symmetry. Particularly fascinating are a series of daggers formed in the female figure that have an Art Deco style patina.
Other headless pregnant female figures could either symbolize placid fertility or random patriarchal violence. It is impossible to tell. A bear statuette, from Romania and dated 4500-3900 BC, looks as if a child had formed it from three separate pieces of clay, exhaling charming roughness. The one famous piece in this collection consists of a man called (and resembling) The Thinker, coupled with his seated spouse, two grave ornaments with a distinctly Cubist feel.
"Old Europe" also includes many pieces of exquisite pottery, red clay adorned in delicate gray abstraction that evokes the American Southwest thousands of years in the future. There are a number of things about this show that give philosophical pause. These objects can be arranged in time at a minimum of several hundred years, in ontological defiance of the Twitter generation. All cultures must be eventually lost at some point in the future, turning into vanity the need to record and preserve every moment and thought for posterity.
"Old Europe" also shows us that the urge to beauty is universal and that the artisanal gift to capture beauty in the inert materials around is constant, transcending writing and speech as the fundament of human purpose. It is a fragile gift, indeed, and we are very fortunate that these treasures, loaned by 20 different institutions, have alighted uptown.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).