The phenomenon of prehistoric ritual pits: Several examples from the central Balkans
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In recent years, the phenomenon of pits with special deposits, i.e. ritual pits, seems to have, once again, attracted attention both in Europe and in the Balkans. In the central Balkans, scientific literature related to this topic is still deficient, hence one of the objectives of this paper is to change the current state and rekindle interest in the study of this form of manifestation of the spiritual culture of prehistoric man. It appears that one of the oldest reasons for sacrificial offerings is primal, instinctive fear. The fear of the transience of life or of death compelled our ancient ancestors to make some sort of “agreement” with the surrounding forces, bestowing particular sacrifices onto them. Sacrifice represents one of the rituals of prehistoric communities which could have been performed in a number of ways and in different circumstances. One of these are offerings placed in pits, in the form of specific objects, food, drink or living ...beings sacrificed to higher powers and accompanied by certain symbolic actions, for the purpose of gaining their favour or help. When interpreting pits, what should further be considered is that the fundamental difference between a discarded object and an object used for a ritual purpose lies in the fact that the object of ritual character is still meaningful to man, performing a symbolic function, unlike the former, whose role is lost after being disposed of. Aritual object, an item or a living being sacrificed in a pit, is no longer of common, worldly significance (food, drink, tools, etc.), but rather possesses a symbolic, sacral meaning, intended for higher powers, to propitiate and appease them, that is to create some form of the oldest religious communication. Not only is it difficult to identify the pits used for ritual purposes in the course of fieldwork, but it is even more challenging to interpret them and practically impossible to accurately reconstruct the actions performed during the rituals. Many authors who concern themselves with this topic concur that the context of a pit and the objects within it, the choice of offerings and their symbolism, along with the pit’s stratigraphy and other patterns observed in it, are in fact the features that make it distinct, i.e. ritual. Similar pits are known throughout history and their descriptions can be found in ancient written sources, as well as identified in the field, with certain differences, stretching back all the way into deep prehistory. This paper presents several newly discovered ritual pits in the central Balkans from the Eneolithic, Bronze and Iron Age, and additionally mentions some of the previously published pits from the area and its near and more distant surroundings. In the course of recent investigations conducted at the site of Bubanj, two ritual pits were recorded in the Early Eneolithic horizon of the Bubanj-Hum I culture. Next to the first, shallower (up to 0.2 m), oval shaped pit, of around 2.5 m long and 1.7 m wide, an oven was noted, while the pit was filled with whole vessels, parts of grindstones, chipped and polished stone tools, baked clay, animal bones, etc. (Figs. 1, 2; Pl. I). Two smaller hollows were noted in the northern part of the pit, while several postholes, which might have supported some kind of roof or shelter construction, were detected somewhat deeper in the subsoil, around the oven and the pit. Below this pit, a smaller one was noted, around 0.7 m deep and with a base diameter of about 1.2 m, filled with yellow, sandy, refined soil. The bottom of the pit was dug to the level of the subsoil and levelled. The second ritual pit from Bubanj was considerably deeper (around 1.5 m) and approximately 1.7 m in diameter, with baked walls and filled with red ashy soil. It contained fragmented or whole vessels, chipped stone tools, a part of an altar, an air nozzle (tuyиres), a polished stone axe, tools made of horn, a fragment of a grindstone, pebbles, house daub and animal bones (Fig. 3; Pl. II). Part of the inventory had been burnt, particularly in the lower section of the pit. This paper also mentions the Late Eneolithic pit from Vinča, containing eight whole vessels in an inverted position (Fig. 4; Pl. III), as well as the Bronze Age complexes from Kokino Selo and Pelince, in northern Macedonia (Figs. 5, 6), comprising several dozen pits, commonly with a broken stone construction, in which whole vessels, along with tools made from chipped and polished stone, baked clay or bone and large amounts of daub were discovered. In the Iron Age, the number of ritual pits significantly increased in all of Europe and, from this period, two pits from the area surrounding Vranje are presented - one with mixed contents (the skulls, without the lower jaw, of at least six male wild boars, as well as the skulls, lower jaws, right pelvic bones and shoulder blades of at least six deer, along with parts of grindstones, pottery and daub fragments and a chipped stone tool) and the other with a complete skeleton of a young female horse, a baked clay weight and chipped stone flaking debris (Figs. 7, 8; Pl. IV).1 The pits were dated, by means of conventional C14 dating, to the period from the mid-6th to the mid-4th century BC.2 By comparing and analysing a large number of pits from the central Balkans and the neighbouring areas, it was observed that ritual pits, as a form of an ancient, primitive religiosity, had already emerged in the Palaeolithic and endured in Europe throughout the entire prehistory, despite various natural and social changes that occurred during this extended period. The pits proved to have been located both outside inhabited areas, as well as in settlements (even under houses), either individually or clustered, and in some cases also constituting entire complexes, with protective architecture in the form of a roof or a shelter (Bubanj, Ohoden). The surface areas occupied by the complexes, along with the dimensions and shapes of the pits, the stratigraphy of their contents, their architecture and many other elements vary considerably, even within a single complex. It is for this reason that it is not possible, at this moment in time, at least without very detailed and comprehensive analysis, to discern some regularities or patterns which could, with any certainty, be considered reliable. This primeval custom, therefore, cannot be linked to any particular period, culture or region, but was entirely dependent on the state or level of the spiritual consciousness of an individual or a community. This religious idea started to decline during the Roman domination and vanished entirely at the time of Christianity.
Source:Starinar, 2015, 65, 7-35
- Arheološki institut, Beograd