Gimbutas, Marija

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GIMBUTAS, MARIJA (19211994) was an archaeologist, prehistorian, and influential interpreter of Stone Age religion. Born January 23, 1921, in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, Gimbutas grew up in a progressive and well-educated family. Her parents were both physicians who founded the first hospital in Lithuania. The family belonged to a circle of the best-known intellectuals and artists of their time in Eastern Europe. Even as a young girl, Marija developed a wide range of interests and talents; among other interests, she proved to be a highly gifted musician. In 19371938 she participated in an ethnographic expedition to southeastern Lithuania. This trip was the beginning of her lifelong attraction to folklore, an interest that had a prominent influence on her work in archaeology and her studies of prehistoric civilizations and cultures. In 1938 Gimbutas began to study linguistics at the University of Kaunas. The next year, after Vilnius had been freed from Polish occupation, Gimbutas returned to the Lithuanian capital. There she resumed her studies of folklore and began to collect materials from various regions of Eastern Europe.

Academic Career

Following the invasions of Lithuania, first by the Soviet Union and then by Nazi Germany, Gimbutas joined the underground resistance movement. Nonetheless she still completed her graduate studies in archaeology in 1942. She immediately began to publish articles on Baltic archaeology, mythology, and folklore. By now she was married and a mother. Together with her husband and daughter, she went to Tübingen, a German university where she completed her doctorate on prehistoric burials in Lithuania.

Gimbutas did not want to return to Lithuania after the end of World War II because her country had been integrated into the Soviet Union. She immigrated instead to the United States in 1949. The following year, she started working at Harvard University; in 1955 she was appointed a research fellow at Harvard's Peabody Museum. After 1964 she accepted a position at the University of California, Los Angeles. Gimbutas became involved in a wide range of projects concerning archaeological excavations in southeastern Europe and began to interpret her findings synthetically in light of her knowledge of folk art, folk tales, and Baltic mythology. This synthetic approach formed the core of her work and made Gimbutas's descriptions of Stone Age culture and religion vividly three-dimensional. At the same time, however, her synthetic approach is also what made her work so problematic.

Gimbutas's hypotheses assumed a distinctive shape over time. By the end of her life she was able to present a congruent picture of Neolithic civilization in her late publications, The Language of the Goddess (1989) and The Civilization of the Goddess (1991). She introduced one of her most important theories as early as 1956 at an international conference in Philadelphia. She claimed that the early and, as she believed, highly unified agricultural civilization of southeastern Europe was destroyed by mounted herdsmen and warriors, whom she named "Kurgan people" after the Russian word kurgan, meaning "hillock." Gimbutas hypothesized that the Kurgan people were Indo-Europeans who entered Europe from 4000 bce onward and brought their patriarchal hierarchies with thema type of social structure that had previously been unknown in southern Europe but soon gained ascendence there.

Evaluations of Gimbutas's Work

The Kurgan theory plays a crucial role in Gimbutas's large-scale ideas about European prehistory, for it provides an explanation for the disappearance of what she called "Old Europe"a presumably matriarchal and goddess-worshipping civilization that was overcome by newer forms of social structure dominated by patriarchal structures and beliefs. It is not easy, however, to reconstruct the evolution of her ideas about the organization of a civilization called "Old Europe."

The main criticism of Gimbutas's work concerns her methodological inaccuracies. Nowhere did she ever inform her readers about the ideas she drew on or the tools she used for her reconstruction of cultural and religious meaning in prehistorya period for which there are virtually no extant written historical sources. Gimbutas seems to have been aquainted with G. W. F. Hegel's philosophy of history and certainly with J. J. Bachofen's ideas but cites them nowhere in her work. Moreover she never once addressed the obvious similarities between her own work and the concepts of these two cultural theorists. Instead, she insisted that she gained her insights solely from archaeological materials that revealed to her an inherent "archaeomythology" although she constantly referred to folklore from much later periods for parallels to supposedly prehistoric ideas. In addition Gimbutas's belief that cultural change can only have been brought about through military invasions by the Kurgan peoplewhile at the same time ignoring other possible explanationspoint to an oversimplified Darwinian view of history. Consequently the byways of Gimbutas's epistemological journeys seem to have been completely unclear to her throughout her career. In various interviews she claimed intuition as an important source of her information but did not offer the interviewers any further explanation of the connections between her intuitive ideas and the archaeological materials.

Gimbutas had initially been interested in determining the origins of culture in the Baltic area, but as she worked her archaeological investigations widened into an exploration of the general origins of a Pan-European prehistoric culture. In the course of her research she reached out far over the East and later the whole of Europe, where she detected an antagonism between the kind of Bronze Age culture imported by the assumed Indo-Europeans, or Kurgan people, and the previous Stone Age culture of "Old Europe." The latter term was meant to designate a homogeneous culture of Neolithic agricultural societies that emerged in eastern and central Europe in the seventh millennium bce and in western Europe during the fifth millennium bce. Gimbutas assumed the existence of important connections between these European societies and parallel developments in Asia Minor.

Gimbutas thought that her theories about archaeomythology allowed her to explain the symbolism of a vast amount of archaeological materials from different periods and different regions of prehistoric Europe. Archaeomythology as a scholarly methodology, however, is viewed as highly problematic by most contemporary archaeologists and prehistorians. Gimbutas drew together numerous unconnected discoveries and interpreted the finds in the light of much later written sources and folkloric artifacts. Neither her concept of a Kurgan people nor her belief in a unified and coherent Stone Age culture in "Old Europe" has been accepted by mainstream academia. Nevertheless Gimbutas herself had a firm interest in Neopaganism, and her ideas are extremely popular in certain feminist circles in the early twenty-first century. They have made substantial contributions to contemporary beliefs about goddess-centered cultures. In the early 2000s Gimbutas's most prominent successor, Joan Marler, teaches archaeomythology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

As an inspiration for alternative religions in the early twenty-first century, Gimbutas's books are also of special interest to students of contemporary belief. Gimbutas seemed to project recent ideas and ideals into a remote past insofar as she detected primary religious concerns for peace and ecology in Stone Age culture. According to her interpretation, the religion of Stone Age people revered a monotheistic goddess who could appear in many forms. Gimbutas understood "the Goddess" as a representation of the generative as well as the destructive forces of nature. Her entire research focused almost exclusively on statuettes and figurines that she had detached from their archaeological contexts and interpreted in light of her goddess theory.

Gimbutas constructed an ingenious picture of the Stone Age religious mind-set that will probably never be proven entirely right or wrong as a result of the lack of written sources that could explain the meanings of Neolithic figurines, symbols, and icons. The application of later testimonies to these artifacts is certainly questionable. In favor of Gimbutas's approach, however, such testimonies often offer the only possibility for the researcher to make some sense of prehistoric archaeological materials. In any case Gimbutas's lifework provides a wealth of materials and provocative stimuli for readings of Stone Age religions. One particular problem that arises in assessing Gimbutas's work is that Gimbutas herself remained unaware of her own inclinations toward nineteenth-century theories about the history of culture and the inner dynamics of cultural developments. Shorn of this important background, her ideas may seem to be simply quixotic. Equally importantly her work tends to be either defended or rejected out of hand with little attention to the support that subsequent scholarship might offer. An appropriate challenge for the future would be a careful review of Gimbutas's ideas in the light of contemporary discussions of cultural theory.

See Also

Archaeology and Religion; Bachofen, J. J.; Gender and Religion, article on History of Study; Goddess Worship, article on Theoretical Perspectives; Neopaganism.


Gimbutas's lifework is summarized in her two late and highly influential books, The Language of the Goddess (San Francisco, 1989) and The Civilization of the Goddess (San Francisco, 1991). An important earlier monograph is The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe 7000 to 3500 bc: Myths, Legends and Cult Images (San Francisco, 1974). The title was changed in the second edition to The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (San Francisco, 1982). Appreciations of her approach are included in Joan Marler, ed., From the Realm of the Ancestors: An Anthology in Honor of Marija Gimbutas (Manchester, Conn., 1997), and in a collection of articles in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 12, no. 2 (1996). Substantial criticism from mainstream archaeology is summarized in Brigitte Röder, Juliane Hummel, and Brigitta Kunz, Göttinnendämmerung: Das Matriarchat aus archäologischer Sicht (Munich, Germany, 1996).

Julia Iwersen (2005)