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Marija Gimbutas

From Academic Kids

Marija Gimbutas (Vilnius, Lithuania January 23, 1921 – Los Angeles February 2, 1994) researched the Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures of "Old Europe", a term she introduced, in works published between 1946 and 1971, that opened new views by combining traditional spadework, linguistics and mythology.

A professor of Archaeology at UCLA from 1963 to 1989, she researched and documented an enormous amount of archaeological findings and by happenstance dug deeper, below the known surface to unearth an overwhelming number of art and daily life objects of Neolithic cultures of Europe.

Gimbutas earned a reputation as a world-class specialist on the Indo-European Bronze Age as well as on Lithuanian folk art and the prehistory of the Balts and the Slavs, partly summed up in the definitive Bronze Age Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe (1965), but she gained unexpected fame with her last three books: The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1974), The Language of the Goddess (1989)— which inspired an exhibition in Wiesbaden, 1993/94— and her final book The Civilization of the Goddess (1991), which presented an overview of her speculations about Neolithic cultures across Europe: housing patterns, social structure, art, religion and the nature of literacy. The book advanced what she saw as the differences between the Old European system, which she considered goddess-centered, and the Bronze Age Indo-European patriarchal cultural elements, which she claimed fused to form the classical European societies.

In her work Gimbutas reinterpreted European prehistory in light of her backgrounds in linguistics, ethnology, and the history of religions and challenged many traditional assumptions about the beginnings of European civilization. Joseph Campbell and Ashley Montagu each compared Marija Gimbutas' output to the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Joan Marler has written, "Although it is considered improper in mainstream archaeology to interpret the ideology of prehistoric societies, it became obvious to Marija that every aspect of Old European life expressed a sophisticated religious symbolism. She, therefore, devoted herself to an exhaustive study of Neolithic images and symbols to discover their social and mythological significance. To accomplish this it was necessary to widen the scope of descriptive archaeology to include linguistics, mythology, comparative religions and the study of historical records. She called this interdisciplinary approach archaeomythology."

Marija Gimbutas arrived in the United States as a refugee from Lithuania in 1949 after earning a PhD in archaeology in 1946 at Tübingen, though she never forgot her Lithuanian heritage. She began immediately at Harvard University, translating Eastern European archaeological texts, and becoming a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. In 1955 she was made a Fellow of Harvard's Peabody Museum.

In 1956 Gimbutas introduced her "Kurgan hypothesis" combining archaeology of the distinctive burial mounds called "Kurgans" with linguistics to unravel the problem of the origins of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) speaking peoples, whom she named "Kurgans" and to trace their migrations into Europe. This hypothesis, and the act of bridging the disciplines, has had a significant impact on Indo-European research. Marija Gimbutas directed major excavations of Neolithic sites in southeast Europe between 1967 and 1980.

Gimbutas' forcefully expressed and speculative theories have been extended and embraced by a number of authors in the Neopagan movement, although her conclusions are generally considered highly speculative. Her critics instance grave goods as characterizing more familiar Neolithic gender roles, note early fortifications and criticize her emphasis on the few female figures among many male or asexual figures. Andrew Fleming [1] (http://www.lamp.ac.uk/archanth/staff/fleming.htm), "The Myth of the Mother Goddess," (World Archaeology 1969) denied that Neolithic spirals, circles, and dots were symbols for eyes, that eyes, faces, and genderless figures were symbols of a female, or that female figures were symbols of a goddess. Peter Ucko [2] (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/staff/profiles/ucko.htm) even speculated that fertility figures were Neolithic dolls.

Unlike some of her enthusiastic followers, Gimbutas did not identify the diverse and complex Paleolithic and Neolithic female representations she recognized as a single universal Mother Goddess, but as a range of female deities: snake goddess, bee goddess, bird goddess, mountain goddess, Mistress of the Animals, etc. Her attempts at deciphering Neolithic signs as ideograms, in The Language of the Goddess (1989), received the stiffest resistance in her field of all her speculations.


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