Late Neolithic/Copper Age Southeastern Europe

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The end of the Neolithic period in southeastern Europe was marked by several changes in settlement layout, house form, and economic and ritual organizations, which suggest that the farming societies that inhabited the region underwent a social transformation at the end of the period, about 4500 b.c. This article outlines the various changes that occurred during the Late Neolithic (c. 5000–4500 b.c.) and the Copper Age (c. 4500–3000 b.c.) throughout southeastern Europe.

The area discussed here extends from the Carpathian Basin south to the Thessalian Plain, including the modern-day countries of Hungary, Romania, the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia, and northern Greece. This region forms a relatively cohesive geographic unit that is bounded on the north and west by the Austrian and Slovakian Alps and on the east by the Carpathian Mountains. The geographic layout of the region, consisting of several small, discrete microregions, each with its own set of local resources, encouraged regional differentiation among the farming societies that inhabited the area at the end of the Neolithic period. This was a sort of prehistoric version of Balkanization that persisted in the region until the twentieth century.


In most of northern and western Europe the Neolithic period led directly into the Bronze Age, but the phases in southeastern Europe included a formal Copper Age, or Chalcolithic period, that started throughout the region c. 4500 b.c. In Greece, where the Bronze Age began slightly earlier than it did farther north in the Balkans and in the Carpathian Basin, this time period is called the Final Neolithic and extended from approximately 4500 to 3300 b.c. In the central Balkans, that is, in Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania, the time period from c. 4500 to 3000 b.c. is labeled the Eneolithic. In the former Yugoslavia the same time period is called the Eneolithic or the Chalcolithic, and in Hungary and western Romania it is termed the Copper Age.

Despite the regional variations in the names that archaeologists have given to this time span, the phase generally is defined by a dramatic increase in the exploitation of copper as a raw material source for producing artifacts. In the first half of the twentieth century archaeologists thought that copper was not utilized at all until the Copper Age. As detailed knowledge of the region has grown from additional excavations and from the development of more precise dating techniques, it has become clear that the exploitation of copper as a source of raw material began in several parts of the region during the Neolithic. Early copper use, however, focused primarily on the production of small artifacts, such as beads, hooks, and decorative trinkets from "native" (pure) copper. By contrast, copper artifacts dating to the fifth millennium b.c. tend to be much more massive than their trinket predecessors. These items include adzes and axes that were produced not simply by hammering native copper into specific shapes but by much more intensive processes of excavating copper-bearing minerals (e.g., malachite) from mines, extracting the copper from the ore (a process called smelting), and casting artifacts in pre-made molds.

Thus while the Copper Age initially was defined on technological grounds as a time when humans first began to exploit copper resources, it now is considered to be a period that saw a dramatic increase in the level of production and the widespread use of smelting to form more massive cast tools. Even more important, the Copper Age has come to be defined as a period when societies throughout eastern Europe underwent dramatic changes in economic and social organization that established the social framework for the transitions in political organization that occurred during the Bronze Age.


During the Late Neolithic in southeastern Europe settlement systems developed in association with specific sites that continued to be occupied or reoccupied for hundreds or sometimes thousands of years. The frequent reoccupation of specific sites sometimes resulted in the formation of stratigraphically superimposed habitation layers that grew several meters high. These types of sites—commonly called "tells"—are typical of the period, but they certainly are not the only kinds of settlements in the region. In one synthesis of the Late Neolithic in eastern Hungary, entitled The Late Neolithic of the Tisza Region, for example, Nándor Kalicz and Pál Raczky placed Late Neolithic site types into three different categories—formal tell settlements, tell-like mounds, and flat settlements. Even this classification is simply shorthand for differentiating sites with various vertical stratigraphic layers into analytical units that basically refer to how long and how frequently each site was occupied and reoccupied.

On a larger scale and almost certainly in relation to the development of these more formalized, highly structured local settlement systems, the Late Neolithic saw the crystallization of more discretely defined regional groups across the landscape. By and large these regional groups are distinguished essentially by differences in ceramic assemblages, but in some areas, such as eastern Hungary, the distinctions extend beyond ceramics to settlement organization and even to subsistence practices. This pattern of regional variation differs dramatically from the patterns of the earlier Neolithic and the Copper Age, both of which are characterized by large-scale regional homogeneity, with very similar house forms, ceramic traditions, and settlement layouts extending over very large geographic areas.

In and around the Thessalian Plain in northern Greece, which had substantial occupation throughout the Neolithic and saw the development of tell sites earlier than the northern Balkans, the Late Neolithic is interpreted largely through the extensive excavations at the site of Dimini, dating to the end of the sixth millennium b.c. Habitation continued at certain other sites, such as Sesklo, a tell that had been established at the end of the Early Neolithic. New sites also began to appear in fresh areas, such as Sitagroi in Thrace.

North of Greece, in south-central Bulgaria, the Karanovo tell, which shows occupation levels dating to the beginning of the sixth millennium b.c., is one of the best-published sites in the region. For years it has been the main site through which all relative regional stratigraphic sequences have been established. Throughout the twentieth century archaeologists used the 12 meters of cultural occupation layers at Karanovo not only to link internal phasing relationships in southeastern Europe but also to develop the relationships of the phases in southeastern Europe relative to those in Anatolia and farther east.

The stratigraphic layers at the Karanovo tell have been divided into six major levels. The earliest phases (I–III) generally correspond to the Early and Middle Neolithic of the region. Phases IV and V conform roughly to the Late Neolithic and phase VI to the Early Copper Age. Findings at other multiphase—or "multicomponent"—tell sites in the region, such as Azmak, located just to the west of Karanovo, have not been published fully, but they suggest that successive, though not necessarily continuous, reoccupation throughout the Neolithic was a common phenomenon.

Farther north, in the former Yugoslavia, the tell of Vinča long has dominated the attention of the archaeological world. Located in northern Serbia, the site was occupied from the Middle Neolithic through the beginning of the Copper Age. There the stratigraphic levels have been divided into four main phases. Level A corresponds more or less to the Middle Neolithic and levels B and C to the Late Neolithic. Level D is associated with the Early Copper Age. The Vinča culture extended over most of Serbia and parts of Bosnia and Croatia and into the Banat region of southwestern Romania. As in northern Greece, Macedonia, and parts of Bulgaria, more sites seem to have been established in regions that previously had been sparsely inhabited.

In the Carpathian Basin two cultural trajectories that succeeded the Middle Neolithic Linear Pottery culture developed on either side of the Danube River about 5000 b.c. In the eastern basin, in the area known as the Great Hungarian Plain, Late Neolithic societies along the Tisza River began to separate into the much smaller regional cultural groups (called Tisza, Herpály, and Cso˝szhalom) that were distributed in different regions of the plain. The subdivision of the plain into three discrete cultural groups occurred gradually throughout the Late Neolithic.

West of the Danube, in Transdanubia, Late Neolithic settlements are assigned to the earlier phases of the Lengyel culture (Lengyel I and II). Unlike the eastern Carpathian Basin, where a relatively abrupt break is apparent in the cultural sequence between the Late Neolithic Tisza-Herpály-Cso˝szhalom complex and the succeeding Early Copper Age Tiszapolgár culture, sites of the Lengyel culture exhibited much more continuity into the Copper Age (Lengyel III). Whereas the societies east of the Danube seem to have witnessed a somewhat abrupt transformation that affected several aspects of social organization at the beginning of the Copper Age (about 4500 b.c.), those west of the Danube acquired social characteristics associated with the Copper Age over a much longer time.


Economically the various Late Neolithic groups continued the generalized farming, herding, hunting, fishing, gathering subsistence patterns that had been established earlier in the period. There was a great deal of variation in different regions, probably relating to the local conditions of the microregions. Late Neolithic societies throughout the region relied primarily on domestic plants and animals, most of which were exploited at even the earliest Neolithic sites in southeastern Europe and the Near East. The principal domestic plants were varieties of wheat and barley, with lentils, bitter vetch, chickpeas, and flax occurring in lesser quantities. The main domestic animals were cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. During the Late Neolithic these animals seem to have been used primarily for meat rather than for milk, cheese, and other "secondary" products.

While the Late Neolithic villagers of southeastern Europe relied predominantly upon these domestic resources for subsistence, they also continued to make use of wild resources available in the local environment. These resources included large wild animals, such as roe deer, red deer, and wild boar, as well as smaller mammals, such as wild hare. In addition they availed themselves of aquatic (fish) and estuarine (birds) resources.

Two types of wheat (emmer and einkorn) and hulled barley were grown in this region in Late Neolithic times. These and other forms of wheat and barley have appeared in varying amounts at sites across the region and were complemented by legumes, which served not only to supplement a diet based primarily on cereals but also to increase the nitrogen content of the soil. In northern Greece, in Late Neolithic contexts at Sesklo, emmer wheat prevailed with einkorn also found in significant quantities. In the Late Neolithic at that site there also were wild figs, grapevines, almonds, and oats. Emmer wheat has been found in the botanical remains from Late Neolithic Dimini, along with einkorn wheat, six-row barley, naked barley, lentils, peas, fava beans, bitter vetch, chickpeas, grass peas, and wild grapevines and almonds. Similar botanical remains were discovered in Late Neolithic contexts at Karanovo in Bulgaria, Anza in Macedonia, Obre in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Gomolava in Serbia. In the central and northern Balkans and in the Hungarian Plain wild apples also occur in very small numbers.

Faunal assemblages in the north tend to have somewhat higher numbers of wild animal bones, a pattern that seems to hark back to the earliest Neolithic in the region. Although there was a great deal of regional variation, the occupants of the southern Balkans kept more sheep and goats (ovicaprids) during the Late Neolithic than did the villagers of the northern Balkans and the Carpathian Basin, where more cattle were exploited. For example, 50–85 percent of the bones in faunal assemblages at sites in northern Serbia, southwestern Romania, and eastern Hungary represent domestic animals, the vast majority of which are cattle. Throughout the Neolithic assemblages in northern Greece, by contrast, there are many more domestic animals, primarily sheep and goats.

The relative increase in cattle in the northern Balkans toward the end of the Neolithic is related to a tendency to utilize animals not only for their primary products, such as meat, fur, and bone, but also for their secondary products, such as milk, cheese, and traction for plowing. The precise timing of this Secondary Products Revolution, a term coined by Andrew Sherratt, remains the subject of much debate, because it has significant implications for the development of economic systems in prehistoric Europe.

Within Late Neolithic settlements in the region, most socioeconomic activities—from subsistence activities to pottery making—seem to have been carried out by the members of individual households. Marshall Sahlins called this pattern the "domestic mode of production," and it predominates in tribal societies, within which social status and political clout usually are based not on hereditary relationships (ascribed ranking) but on the proven ability of each potential leader to earn that status (achieved ranking) within a social network.

Despite the lack of evidence for hereditary social ranking in the period, the layout of settlements and the organization of burial practices at various sites indicate complexly structured social relationships. For example, Dimini in northern Greece was divided into groups of houses arranged around courtyards, suggesting that the social group that occupied the settlement was subdivided into smaller units. A similar pattern is evident at the massive (roughly 50 hectares) site of Makriyalos, where several large rectangular buildings were constructed, probably to serve as gathering places for diverse segments of the population. Farther north, at Selevac and at the smaller site of Divostin (phase II) in Serbia, the distribution of houses across the settlements suggest that the settlements similarly were divided into smaller social units.

In eastern Hungary, Polgár-Cso˝szhalom on the upper Tisza is a large site with a multiditched mound—called a "rondel"—located at the western edge of a very large horizontal settlement. At least five ditches and palisades enclosed an area about 180 meters in diameter with perhaps fifteen burned houses at the center. The floor of one building (house 9) yielded an assemblage of miniature statuettes, clay sun disks, and footed bowls and a pit that produced 259 copper bead fragments, copper wire fragments, and bone tubes. The ashy fill that surrounded the disarticulated copper and bone artifacts led the director of the project, Pál Raczky, to hypothesize that this was a sacrificial pit and that the central area of the roundel served as a sacred precinct or sanctuary.

Alongside the roundel, running roughly east-west, was a horizontal settlement covering an area of some 28 hectares, with several timber-framed longhouses (measuring 8–12 × 4–5 meters) organized into compounds that contained cylindrical wells and small clusters of graves. The settlement is divided internally into discrete groups that probably reflect independent social units, and the roundel feature suggests that this site, like other tells on the Hungarian Plain, probably also functioned as a regional economic and ideological center.

Throughout the Neolithic period burials tended to occur in and around settlements, frequently in small groups or clusters, which most researchers assume were related to some sort of social unit. Cremation burials at Dimini, dating to the late sixth millennium b.c., have been found under floors and near hearths, while primary and secondary burials were discovered in ditches that surrounded the site of Makriyalos in Macedonia. In the early fifth millennium b.c., at Gomolava (associated with the Vinča culture), nearly thirty people, mostly males, were buried in an unused part of the settlement. To the north, on the Great Hungarian Plain, intramural burials also occur within and around the settlements at tell sites, such as on the roundel at Polgár-Cso˝szhalom and at Hódmezvásárhely-Gorzsa, Berettyóújfalu-Herpály, and Vészt-Mágor. Burials also are found at horizontal settlements, such as the flat settlement at Polgár-Cso˝szhalom and at Öcsöd-Kováshalom.

Late Neolithic sites, especially tells, frequently were enclosed with extensive systems of ditches and walls that may have served many functions, from fortifications for defense to symbolic features that separated the site from its hinterland. Whatever the purposes of such features, they represent a significant time investment in the construction of the settlements, which attests to the durability and long-term habitation of specific spots in the landscape. Makriyalos in western Macedonia had three concentric ditches, while later sites in the Lower Danube, such as Polyanitsa and Ovcharovo, had a single substantial wall that surrounded the settlement. Farther north, in the Great Hungarian Plain, the settlement at Polgár-Cso˝szhalom had a fortified roundel reminiscent of those at Lengyel sites in Transdanubia, while such sites as Hódmezvásárhely-Gorzsa and Öcsöd-Kováshalom were encompassed by large ditches that were rebuilt to encircle the settlement as it expanded.

Neolithic tells in southeastern Europe were reoccupied for hundreds or even thousands of years. It is likely that they served as centers for ideological and economic interaction, but their importance has been drastically overemphasized, primarily because, for a very long time, they were the only sites to have been investigated. As survey and excavation around these sites, and at other, non-tell settlements, increased in later years, it became clear that the tells frequently formed the tethering points for social interactions among different types of settlements within the various regionally discrete cultural groups.


The beginning of the Copper Age, about 4500 b.c., is characterized by several technological and socioeconomic changes throughout central and southeastern Europe. From the Carpathian Basin to the Aegean Sea, several trends suggest that the area underwent a social transformation at this time. These trends include a dramatic increase in the production and distribution of tools fashioned from smelted and native copper sources; a tendency toward larger, more homogeneous stylistic provinces or cultural areas; a bias toward smaller and more numerous settlements throughout the landscape; the establishment of formal cemeteries; and the restructuring of the long-distance trade networks that had characterized the region throughout the Neolithic. In addition to these overall patterns it also is assumed that the impact of the Secondary Products Revolution began to affect economic systems seriously at about this time.

In northern Greece the Final Neolithic period extended from c. 4500 b.c. to 3300 b.c., when it led into the Early Bronze Age. Throughout northern Greece there seems to have been a decrease in the number of sites inhabited during this time, which corresponds more or less to the later occupation at Sitagroi (phase III) and the construction of large surrounding walls at Pefkakia and Mandalo.

In Bulgaria the Early Chalcolithic corresponds with level VI at the Karanovo tell. There, as in eastern Hungary, there seems to have been an increase in site numbers at this time, perhaps associated with the foundation of more non-tell settlements. During the fourth millennium b.c. in south-central Bulgaria—the Transition or Hiatus period—there was an overall decline in the numbers of sites. The sites in the northeastern area of the country and in southern Romania were associated with the Gumelnia culture until about 4000 b.c., then with the Krivodol-Salcua complex, and finally with the Cernavoda culture, ending in about 3000 b.c.

Throughout most of the former Yugoslavia the time period from about 4500 to 3800 b.c. is associated with level D at the Vinča tell and then with the Bubanj-Hum culture. In northernmost Serbia, western Romania, and eastern Hungary the time span from c. 4500 to 3800 b.c. is associated with the Tiszapolgár culture, which gave way directly to the Bodrogkeresztúr culture. Throughout the western Balkans, the Carpathian Basin, and westward, the Baden culture extended over a large region at the end of the Copper Age (beginning about 3300 b.c.). Curiously the western half of the Carpathian Basin experienced a much less drastic break from the Late Neolithic, with Lengyel culture (Lengyel III) settlement sites exhibiting a great deal of continuity throughout the Early Copper Age. After about 4000 b.c. sites in Transdanubia show evidence of a relationship to the Balaton-Lasinja cultural complex.


It is difficult, from the archaeological record, to identify precisely the factors responsible for the changes that occurred throughout southeastern Europe about 4500 b.c. However, it seems that there were two major contributing factors, first the widespread use of copper, not only for trinkets but also as a source of raw material for producing much more massive tools, and, second, the extensive effects of the Secondary Products Revolution.

Despite the abrupt disruption of trade networks in several areas, which would imply that the use of copper flourished very early in the Copper Age, the actual quantity of production began to increase significantly only after 4000 b.c. Large copper tools appeared slightly earlier in Bulgaria than elsewhere, toward the end of the fifth millennium b.c. While copper mines definitively dated to this period are known from Bulgaria, eastern Serbia, and Thrace, the spatial and social contexts of the various steps associated with the manufacture of large tools in the Copper Age remain a mystery. Very meager evidence from such sites as Selevac in Serbia indicates that, even during the Late Neolithic, copper smelting may have occurred in domestic contexts. By the end of the Copper Age such sites as Vučedol in Croatia experienced an almost industrial level of production.

Although the precise timing remains unclear, most archaeologists agree that the advent of the Secondary Products Revolution had a major impact on economic systems during the Copper Age. The primary evidence for the revolution derives from faunal assemblages, which indicate that many domestic animals were kept alive longer so they could be used for secondary products.

In northern Greece and throughout most of the central Balkans significant continuity is evident on settlements from the Late Neolithic into the Early Copper Age. In the eastern Carpathian Basin most Copper Age settlements are quite small (less than 1 hectare) and are not associated with Late Neolithic tells. Although Copper Age settlements are present at some tell sites, such as Vészt-Mágor, almost without exception the Copper Age stratigraphic levels on tell sites are separated from those of the Late Neolithic by buried soil horizons that indicate a hiatus in occupation.

During the fourth millennium b.c. the number of sites declined dramatically in most of the region. The majority of tells were abandoned at this time, including most of those in Bulgaria and southern Romania. On the Great Hungarian Plain site numbers decreased substantially during the Middle Copper Age (Bodrogkeresztúr culture) and again during the Late Copper Age, which is known almost exclusively from burials.

The later fifth millennium b.c. also witnessed the establishment of the first formal cemeteries independent of settlements in southeastern Europe. This trend suggests that there was a reorganization in the burial ritual, which throughout the Neolithic took place within settlements. During the Copper Age, by contrast, several large cemeteries appeared across the region. Frequently these cemeteries were isolated in the landscape and were not associated with specific settlements, suggesting that they probably were used by several different settlements. Thus whereas Neolithic burial rites tended to focus primarily on small social groups, probably households and families, the emergence of independent Early Copper Age cemeteries in the region indicates that burial rituals may have served to integrate inhabitants of several different villages.

This shift from intramural burial to formal cemeteries seems to have been made primarily in the eastern Carpathian Basin around 4500 b.c. and slightly earlier in northern Bulgaria, at the beginning of the fifth millennium b.c. In northern Greece a formal cemetery containing cremation burials was established several hundred meters from the tell settlement of Platia Magoula Zarkou later in the fifth millennium b.c. In the Lower Danube large cemeteries associated with the Hamangia culture, such as Cernavoda and Durankulak, each produced hundreds of burials dating to the beginning of the fifth millennium b.c. Although these cemeteries were associated with contemporary settlements, later cemeteries in northeastern Bulgaria, such as Varna, and on the Great Hungarian Plain, such as Tiszapolgár-Basatanya, were not connected directly with settlement sites. The establishment of formal cemeteries continued throughout the Copper Age. On the Great Hungarian Plain during the later fourth millennium b.c. people of the Baden culture sometimes were buried with cattle, as at the large cemeteries of Alsónémedi and Budakalász.

At the end of the fourth millennium a new form of burial, under large mounds of earth called kurgans, became common across the northern part of southeastern Europe from the Lower Danube to the Carpathian Basin. These burials have earlier parallels in the east, in Moldova and the Ukraine, and such scholars as Marija Gimbutas have associated them with the first wave of influence of Indo-European speakers in Europe. Other researchers, such as Colin Renfrew, have contended that the spread of Indo-European occurred at the beginning of the Neolithic. While the kurgan burials of the Late Copper Age certainly have parallels to the east that might indicate a sort of demic migration into the region, they remain very poorly understood. Only once the tradition of kurgan burial can be associated with specific settlement phases will the understanding of the social dynamics of the later Copper Age become clear.


The changes that occurred at the end of the Neolithic in southeastern Europe created the cultural framework for the social trajectories of various societies during the Bronze Age, when the first convincing evidence for the development of hereditary social ranking in the region is found. From the establishment and eventual abandonment of tell sites to the founding of formal cemeteries and the major impacts of the Secondary Products Revolution, the end of the Neolithic in southeastern Europe witnessed a social transformation that had dramatic effects on economic, political, and ideological aspects of life for years to come.

See alsoEarly Metallurgy in Southeastern Europe (vol.1, part 4); Early Copper Mines at Rudna Glava and Ai Bunar (vol. 1, part 4); Milk, Wool, and Traction: Secondary Animal Products (vol. 1, part 4); Varna (vol. 1, part 4); Ovcharovo (vol. 1, part 4); The Early and Middle Bronze Ages in Temperate Southeastern Europe (vol. 2, part 5).


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