Unique sculptures date from the historical moment when two peoples and two cultures met on the banks of a section of the river, now known as the Iron Gates.
By James Gorman
LEPENSKI VIR, Serbia — The faces are haunting. About 8,000 years ago, over a period of perhaps 200 years, artists that lived in this settlement on the banks of the Danube carved about 100 sandstone boulders with faces and abstract designs. The faces are simple, with wide round eyes, a stylized nose and down-turned open mouths. They do not look happy.
I imagine these stone heads posing an existential question something like the one my son startled us with when we told him that he had to go to play group even if he didn’t want to. He was 3, and as the loss of freedom struck him, he wailed: “How did this happen to me?”
Archaeologists say the heads seem to be a mixture of human and fish features, accounting for their strangeness. Some designs look like fish skeletons. The gorges and pools in this part of the
Danube were long a home to sturgeon and other large fish that sustained human life. Perhaps a fishing people imagined their souls migrating into fish after death.
And many of these sculptures were kept in strange trapezoidal dwellings, with hard limestone floors. In some cases the dead lay buried under the homes. So the sculptures might have represented ancestors. I take this as consistent with my interpretation. You die and suddenly you’re a sturgeon: What’s your first question?
Lepenski Vir — Vir means whirlpool in Serbian — was first inhabited more than 12,000 years ago and off and on over thousands of years. Archaeologists excavated it from 1965-70, when most of the site was flooded during the building of the first of two dams on the Danube.
But I first came upon the museum and reconstruction of the site in Serbia only a few months ago as a tourist. I was stunned by the sculptures and the mystery of the site’s past. It sits across the river from a mountain cliff on the Romanian side of the river, and its trapezoidal homes echo the shape of the cliff. There are other sites of similar age, a few of them with boulder sculptures, on either side of the Danube in this area, now known as the Iron Gates. But only Lepenski Vir has boulders with faces.
I called Dusan Boric, an archaeologist who has studied the site extensively, to find out more. Dr. Boric, a fellow at Columbia University’s Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, said Lepenski Vir is more important than ever for research. Studies of ancient DNA that trace patterns of human migration into Europe, chemical analyses of bones and pottery, and continuing archaeological studies of burial practices place the site at the very moment when farmers from the Near East began to migrate into Southeastern Europe and met the hunters and gatherers who lived there at the time.
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