Varna is a fifth millennium B.C. cemetery located on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Excavated in the 1970s and 1980s by Ivan Ivanov of the Varna Museum, the cemetery radically changed the understanding of the social structure of Late Neolithic southeastern Europe. No absolute dates are available; correlation with contemporary dated sites suggests that Varna was in use between 4900 and 4400 B.C.
EXTRAVAGANT GRAVE GOODS
Discovered by chance by a farmer plowing his fields in 1972, Varna contains almost three hundred burials. It is one of the largest cemeteries in southeastern Europe from this period, and its graves contain some of the most extravagant assemblages of goods for any period of European prehistory. Although pottery vessels are the most common inclusion, the concentrations of gold, copper, and shell are particularly striking. Ceramic vessels aside, two types of objects dominate the finds: tools and body ornaments.
The three thousand gold objects (which together weigh more than 6 kilograms) from Varna represent the first use of gold metallurgy anywhere in the world. At Varna gold was fashioned into more than thirty shapes, ranging from hammered sheet plates, convex circular disks, individual solid or cinched beads, and small rolled loops to large doughnut-shaped bracelets and arm rings. Diadems, lip studs, and earrings are matched by more erotic and gendered objects, such as a sheet-gold penis sheath with open head and holes at the base for attachment to the body. All of these objects were used as body ornaments, attached to skin, hair, or clothing or, like the bracelets, worn as jewelry. Some reference to animals is clear from the horned sheet-gold clothing appliqués found in one burial and the solid gold animal astragalus found in another.
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
Exceptionally, sheet gold was used to cover axe heads and scepter handles. A few pots had designs painted on with a gold solution. Colin Renfrew has argued that the use of sheet gold to cover objects that were made of less exotic materials, such as stone or wood, created the illusion of a large solid gold axe or scepter. The effort expended on this work proves that gold was a highly valued material in the fifth millennium b.c. Spondylus and Dentalium shell also was used to make ornaments, particularly beads, pendants, rings, and bracelets.
A very different range of objects was made from the other major exotic material—copper. Whereas gold and shell were fashioned into body ornaments and jewelry, copper was used to make tools. Most striking are massive axes, adzes, and chisels, although smaller objects, such as awls, also were present. The significance of the copper tools is in the extravagance of their size and the infrequent evidence that they were used before deposition in the graves. Another category of unused tool placed in the Varna burials consists of extraordinarily long flint blades. Deposition of superblades complements that of the large copper tools; both are extravagant objects, the products of specialist knowledge, skill, and experience, the association with which would have advertised specific elements of the deceased in dividual's identity.
Although extraordinary in number when taken together, the exotic and lavish Varna grave goods are concentrated in disproportionately few burials. Of the 211 graves that were undisturbed and for which published data exist, 170 contained 10 or fewer objects, and 23 contained no grave goods at all. Overall, the most common grave good was pottery, which appeared in 80 percent of burials. Only 18 graves (a mere 8.5 percent of the entire cemetery) contained the extraordinarily large assemblages of exotic pieces; some of these burials had hundreds of gold items.
Incomplete site publication prevents firm conclusions about grave-good association with different ages or sexes, but patterns do emerge. Varna has burials of men, women, and children as well as some graves with large numbers of goods but no skeletons. The excessive concentrations of grave goods, however, occur almost exclusively in the adult male graves or in the bodiless burials. For example, in grave number 43 a man about 40 to 50 years old was buried with the following objects: 890 gold beads, 42 round gold appliqués, 16 gold rings, 11 gold lip plugs or earplugs, 10 other gold appliqués, 6 sheet-gold rings for covering an axe handle, 5 sheet-gold rings for covering a bow, a Spondylus bracelet with 2 pieces of sheet-gold covering, 2 convex gold disks positioned over the deceased's knees, a stone axe scepter with four sheet-gold shaft coverings, 2 flat gold plates at the deceased's waist, a gold penis sheath, 4 gold arm rings, 3 copper axes, a copper chisel, a copper awl, a copper point, a flint point, 3 flint blades (one of which was a superblade 39 centimeters long), 2 stone axes, 2 bone points, and 4 ceramic pots and a lid. Similarly extraordinary assemblages come from many of the bodiless graves.
consequences for reconstructing social structure
Unusually for the region, the cemetery at Varna is not associated with a nearby settlement tell. Together with the lack of complete publication, it is difficult to assess the site's contribution to the understanding of contemporary Balkan social structure in the fifth millennium b.c. Finds from smaller cemeteries at other sites, such as Golyamo Delchevo, Vinitsa, and Devniya, have been published more fully and provide comparative contexts for interpretation. At these sites two important patterns are evident.
First, as at Varna grave-good distribution is uneven, with more grave goods deposited with men's bodies than with women's and more with adults than with children. As at Varna, in terms of the number of grave goods, bodiless graves are more similar to men's than to women's or children's burials. The distribution of copper objects in these cemeteries reinforces the age and sex distinction: more were placed with men (and bodiless burials) than with women and more with adults than with children. Thus in terms of grave-good assemblages there was a clear distinction among certain individuals, with some men being inhumed with disproportionately large numbers of objects and with a much higher proportion of exotic objects.
Against this pattern of distinction among individuals within cemeteries runs a second, apparently contradictory pattern. Although there are exceptions, across individual cemeteries most bodies were placed in common positions (crouched on their sides or lying on their backs with legs straight) with their heads pointing in the same cardinal direction. It appears that, while grave assemblages expressed differences among individuals, similarities in body positioning signified membership within a common social group. This contradiction is best understood in terms of the contemporary relationship between the place of death (that is, the extramural cemetery) and the place of living (the settlement village).
In the fifth millennium b.c. the ceremonies and deposition of bodies with special objects started to concentrate in special places away from village houses and activities. This was different from what had happened in previous millennia, when burials were placed within the boundaries of a village, often under the floors of houses or in nearby pits. The shift to an extramural burial ground, within sight of the village but physically distinct from it, provided a place for death and its display that was separate from the day-to-day reality of life that took place in the village. Death had become a very public, extremely visually provocative ceremony, during which people illuminated the identities of particular, predominantly male members of the community.
While Varna's size, the scale of grave-good deposition, and the lack of an associated settlement tell make this site different from the inland cemeteries, all of the cemeteries, Varna included, shared similar principles that directed the ceremony and props of death and the role that events of burial played in publicly expressing individual status. Burial was the big stage, and on it the leading characters of local life played out their prominent (as well as supporting) roles. Furthermore it is in the light of the role that mortuary ceremony played in public expressions of status and hierarchy that the purpose of the bodiless graves becomes clear. Traditionally these burials are termed "cenotaphs" and are interpreted as symbolic burials of local residents who died far away from their homes. It is much more likely that bodiless burials are the remains of political events enacted when elites and local authorities needed to use mortuary ceremony to make highly visible, public statements about social structure but when no member of the community needed burying.
significance of varna in the interpretation of european prehistory
The spectacular finds from Varna and their clear disproportionate distributions focusing on adult males and cenotaphs had an irreversible impact on the existing interpretation of southeastern European prehistory. The Balkan Neolithic no longer could be reconstructed as egalitarian in political makeup or as the home to mother goddess–worshipping, peaceful, sharing, matriarchal early farming communities. It was immediately clear that these traditional interpretations were bankrupt. Because of the Varna material, but also because of the finds from many other sites and various reinterpretations of older excavations, the Neolithic of southeastern Europe is understood as a dynamic, pulsating period in which society was riven with conflict and tension and in which tremendous efforts were invested in proposing and maintaining competing versions of reality.
Bailey, Douglass W. Balkan Prehistory: Exclusion, Incorporation, and Identity. London: Routledge, 2000. (The best available overview of the region for the period; includes discussion of Varna, other contemporary sites, mortuary practice, and social structure at the time.)
Chapman, John. "Social Inequality on Bulgarian Tells and the Varna Problem." In The Social Archaeology of Houses. Edited by Ross Samson, pp. 48–92. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.
Fol, Alexander, and Jan Lichardus, eds. Macht, Herrschaft, und Gold: Das Gräberfeld von Varna und die Anfänge einer neuen europäischen Zivilisation. Saarbrücken, Germany: Moderne Galerie des Saarland-Museums, 1988. (Contains a partial catalog of the cemetery with good photographs of the most exciting Varna grave goods.)
Renfrew, Colin. "Varna and the Emergence of Wealth in Prehistoric Europe." In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Edited by Arjun Appadurai, pp. 141–168. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Douglass W. Bailey
1. The four social orders, or categories, of Hindu society, Brahmans, Kṣatriyas, Vaiśyas, and Śūdras. These divisions date from the time of the early Aryan settlement in N. India, and, according to the Ṛg Veda, were created by the gods from the body of Puruṣa, the first man. Into these four major divisions the castes (jāti) later fitted. Some maintain there is a fifth category, the Harijans, or untouchables, while others place them within the Śudra division, dividing this into two segments, ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’. The three upper varṇa are termed ‘twice-born’, since the male family members go through a thread ceremony (upanayana) which implies a spiritual rebirth, marking the transition into adulthood, and the student stage (āśrama) of life. Reading, writing, and the pursuit of knowledge were regarded as irrelevant for the Śūdra way of life, so that varna was excluded from the thread ceremonies.
The word varna means ‘colour’, hence the hypothesis that the system reflects an observed difference in appearance between the fair-skinned Aryan (‘noble’) invaders from the north and the darker skinned indigenous inhabitants (dāsas, ‘slaves’).
2. See BINDU.
VARNA , major seaport on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria; ancient Odessus ; called Stalin 1949–1956). During the 1880s there were 300 Jews in Varna. The organization of the community was made possible by the Tedeschi brothers. In 1919 there were 1,500 Jews; in 1938, 2,000; and in 1943, 1,254. Besides the Sephardi community, there was also a small Ashkenazi community. The Alliance Israélite Universelle opened an elementary school for boys and girls in the town in 1880 and two vocational centers, one for boys in 1885 and one for girls in 1898. A newspaper in Ladino, Il Judio, which had at first been published in Constantinople, was published in Varna from 1922 to 1927 under the editorship of David Elnecavé. In 2004 there were 217 Jews in Varna, affiliated with the local branch of the nationwide Shalom organization.
S. Mézan, Les Juifs espagnols en Bulgarie, 1 (1925), passim; M.D. Gaon, Ha-Ittonut be-Ladino (1965), passim.
[Simon Marcus /
Emil Kalo (2nd ed.)]