Book Review

F. MENOTTI & ALEKSEY G. KORVIN-PIOTROVSKIY (ed.). The Tripolye culture. Giant-settlements in Ukraine: formation, development and decline. viii+264 pages, 63 colour and b&w illustrations, 5 tables. 2012. Oxford & Oakville (CT): Oxbow; 978-1-84217-483-8 paperback £40.

Review by David W. Anthony
Anthropology Department, Hartwick College, USA

Anthony image

This useful and occasionally frustrating volume contains crucial new information in English on the giant-settlements of the Tripol'ye culture in Ukraine dated c. 3800–3300 BC—the largest human communities in the world at the time. Tal'ianki, the largest, was initially estimated at 450ha; magnetometry indicates some 2000 structures. Diachenko (2010) reduces Tal'ianki to 341ha, but this is still almost seven times larger than the central tell (50ha) at contemporary Middle Uruk Tell Brak in northern Mesopotamia. The sheer size of the Tripol'ye giant-settlements is puzzling in fourth-millennium-BC Europe, particularly in light of the absence of administrative structures, public works, fortification walls, specialised craft quarters, artefacts of administration (e.g. seals, writing), or any other indicators of centralised power. Yet each giant-settlement was clearly planned, since the houses were regularly arranged in concentric rings with their long axes pointing toward a central plaza. The giant-settlements have been called 'proto-cities', but the authors of this volume generally dismiss this term, citing the absence of urban indicators other than size. Though awkward in English, they adopt another hyphenated label: giant-settlements.

Comparative studies of these giant-settlements have not been previously published in English; this book fills that gap. It is an important and useful source for Western archaeologists. The editors—Francesco Menotti of Basel University and Aleksey G. Korvin-Piotrovskiy of the Institute of Archaeology in Kiev—have cooperated on excavations at Tal'ianki in 2008–2009 and jointly planned the present volume. Produced on glossy paper with good-quality colour photographs, the book contains topical articles by nine leading Ukrainian archaeologists, among whom three (Kruts, Ryzhov and Korvin-Piotrovskiy) have authored or co-authored six of the ten articles. No Western scholars are included after Menotti's brief introduction. The authors are among the leading Ukrainian archaeologists who work on Tripol'ye sites. Videiko, who has worked at the giant-settlements of Maidanets'ke and Nebelivka (with John Chapman), does not contribute. As Kruts and Korvin-Piotrovskiy disagree with Videiko on some issues cited in this volume, the book presents a Tal'ianki-centred perspective. Topical chapters cover house construction, pottery styles, flint tools, settlement systems, migrations and radiocarbon chronology, as well as overviews of the classic and late phases of the Tripol'ye culture, though summaries of zooarchaeological and palaeobotanical evidence are unfortunately absent.

Korvin-Piotrovskiy provides an opening overview of the problems addressed in contemporary Tripol'ye archaeology in Ukraine. He notes that the giant-settlements were relatively few, occupied a very limited territory on the steppe border, and were not urban, because they contained no craft quarters or monumental buildings. He co-authors a second chapter describing an experiment in Tripol'ye house construction, destruction, and subsequent excavation [see also Hamerow's review of Tipper in this review section]. The excavated reconstruction that most resembles a Tripol'ye archaeological deposit was a two-level house comprising a lower storey (for storage?) with an earth floor and log walls, supporting a clay-on-timber-floored wattle-and-daub residential superstructure with a thatched roof. To produce the expected archaeological signature, the team had to fill the house with timber fuel and burn it down—a ritual act of abandonment also documented in Vinca houses. Chernovol's chapter on the houses of the giant-settlements makes clear how complex and heavy these two-storey structures were. The upper residential floor contained a domed clay oven, clay benches, clay troughs for flour, circular clay 'altars', interior wall paintings on clay, and clay-surfaced timber floors, with a balcony-entrance projecting from the short end of the house, probably approached by ladder. Chernovol notes that Complex M at Maidanets'ke contained an unusually large structure (7 x 24m) with distinctive internal clay architectural details, perhaps an administrative building. Current excavations at Nebelivka by Chapman and Videiko have discovered another distinctive structure double or triple this size.

Rassamakin's article on radiocarbon chronology provides a valuable list of 202 radiocarbon dates for Cucuteni-Tripol'ye sites. He emphasises the continuing challenge of creating a radiocarbon chronology that links all neighbouring synchronous cultural chronologies—a task that is made more difficult, he notes (p. 22), by anomalous dates sometimes produced by the Kiev radiocarbon lab in split samples also dated by Berlin or Oxford. In the section on the chronology of the giant-settlements, Table 2.4 (p. 53), dates 17–19 are from Tal'ianki, not Maidanets'ke as listed. These three mislabelled dates were the subject of a study by Rassamakin and Menotti (2011) arguing that they indicate two phases of occupation at Tal'ianki—a claim not recognised in Kruts' short chronology (p. 73) of 50 years for the entire occupation of the site.

Five articles analyse the archaeology of the giant-settlements. Two are by Kruts: the first is an overview of chronological development and settlement systems, the second an overview of the post-giant-settlement era of decline and disappearance. Kruts weighs different theories on the causes of the giant-settlements, and concludes that the evidence supports defensive concentrations, probably against steppe pastoralists who penetrated the forest-steppe after Tripol'ye settlements had largely deforested it, although the botanical/faunal evidence for deforestation is not given. Ceramic typology and radiocarbon dates suggest that the three largest settlements probably represent consecutive relocations, each moving c. 12–15km north-east along the edge of the steppe/forest-steppe ecotone, with a community growing to around 10 000–14 000 people, from Dobrovodi (250ha) to Tal'ianki (450ha) to Maidanets'ke (270ha), over about 150–200 years. (Diachenko (2010) reduces the size estimates of these sites to 211ha, 341ha and 214ha respectively). Ryzhov contributes a related study of the relative chronology of the giant-settlements based on typological evidence, assuming that migrations between Tripol'ye regions are the explanation for observed changes in ceramic style, a conception broadly shared by the other contributors. Ryzhov's stylistic descriptions are greatly expanded in his second article, a typology of the spatial and chronological evolution of Tripol'ye pottery styles. This attention to style has potential advantages for fine-grained social analysis, though this specific use of style is generally neglected. Ryzhov and Kruts agree that changes in ceramic styles coinciding with the growth of the giant-settlements indicate that these sites began with a significant infusion of new people who moved from the Dniester-Prut region—where these styles originated—to the South Bug River at c. 3800 BC. The local Tripol'ye population retained its regional ceramic styles only in sites near the Dnieper, where they became an 'eastern Tripol'ye' group with smaller site sizes that resisted assimilation by the 'western Tripol'ye' group in the giant-settlements.

The last of the five articles is by Diachenko, the archaeologist responsible for the introduction of improved mathematical methods and demographic models to Tripol'ye archaeology. His recalculated site areas for the giant-settlements are quoted above (Diachenko 2010); in the current book he uses only broad size categories. His statistic that 78.4–100 per cent of the structures at Maidanets'ke were occupied at the same time (p. 123) confirms the contemporaneity of the entire settled area. He adds useful data on length of occupation, spatial connections between settlements, satellite communities, and possible ecological pressures on resources. He attributes the defensive concentrations of population to inter-regional migration processes and conflicts between eastern and western Tripol'ye communities.

Most of the authors cite soil exhaustion and, in particular, a decrease in forest resources as reasons for the end of the giant-settlements, but the evidence for ecological degradation is not presented or discussed in detail. Population pressure and ecological degradation are cited as the causes of migrations that led to the founding of the giant-settlements—and are also cited as the causes for their decline.

Although the underlying theories and approaches of these authors are at times different from Western models, a lot of valuable information and important new fieldwork is reported on a phenomenon that challenges our expectations, regardless of theoretical background. Collaborative projects such as this must be applauded and can only improve our joint understanding.


  • DIACHENKO, A.V. 2010. Do problem sistematizatsii poselen' zakhidnotripil's'koi kul'turi u mezhirichi Pivedennogo Bugu ta Dnipra. Arkheologiya i Davniya Istoriya Ukraini 2 (Arkheologiya Pravoberezhnoi Ukraini): 17–23.
  • RASSAMAKIN, Y. & F. MENOTTI. 2011. Chronological development of the Tripolye culture giant settlement of Talianki (Ukraine): 14C dating versus pottery typology. Radiocarbon 53: 645–57.