Hidden Figures

Long-buried treasures now unearthed at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

A photo of a very old bronze sword next to two small bronze tools and a spiral arm band

Ancient hoard with bronze swords, axes, and arm-guard spiral (1700–1500 BCE) discovered in Romania

In present-day Romania, archaeologists have discovered 21 stylized female figurines and 13 model chairs—none more than 3.5 inches in height—inside a vessel at a site where a sanctuary likely stood almost 7,000 years ago. Although the unearthed ceramic women all share a similar shape, close inspection reveals variations in their faces and bodies, and scholars believe that each depicts a different character. Some have ventured that this collection represents a Council of Goddesses, with the larger figurines symbolizing older divinities. Other researchers believe that these artifacts were used by the Neolithic community that created them to understand aspects of group identity in an earthly realm. Despite the multiple interpretations of this astonishing grouping, scholars are united in their conviction that the figurines served a potent ritual function.

A photo of 21 ceramic figurines of women and 13 model chairs arranged in a circle against a black background. The figurines are various sizes but all have no arms and very large hips.

The ceramic female figurines and model chairs (4900–4750 BCE) that were discovered in Romania.

Although no textual sources from this prehistoric culture have come down to us through time, the objects themselves, as well as the location of their discovery inside a vessel, tell us something about one of the first settled European farming communities. Whether these ceramic women were intended to evoke supernatural figures or members of a living community, we know that ancient people attempted to steer their destinies or understand their place in the world through ritual objects. The figurines offer a glimpse into the cosmology of this civilization from ancient southeastern Europe, and hint at practices that mediated human-divine relations and provided structure to social connections.

These figurines are among the artifacts on display in Ritual and Memory: The Ancient Balkans and Beyond, which showcases a range of ancient eating and drinking vessels, jewelry, sculptures, swords, axes, altars, and more, all from a region that stretches from the Balkan Mountains to the Carpathian Basin. Beginning in the Neolithic Period (about 8,000 years ago) and extending through the Iron Age (about 2,500 years ago), the show features seldom-exhibited ritual objects used by men and women, warriors and wives, kings and farmers, in celebrations and in funerals. On view at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World through February 19, the exhibition invites visitors to consider beliefs, ritual practices, and community organization in different ancient cultures, and what such artifacts reveal about the connections between various groups in the region in times of both war and peace.

A photo of a large silver bowl with gold trim surrounded by other silver and gold objects: one pitcher and three ornate drinking vessels, each with a base shaped like a different animal (a sphinx, a bull, and a horse)

This ancient treasure from Bulgaria (360–300 BCE) includes a silver gilt bowl, pitcher, and rhytons styled with a sphinx, a bull, and a galloping horse.

Featuring loans from 11 countries, Ritual and Memory also serves as a reminder that present-day borders are new and based on modern history rather than ancient precedent. The fluidity of cultural practices and the interactions between different ancient groups reinforce the dynamism of ancient southeastern Europe rather than fixed homogeneous divisions. The participation of 17 lending institutions further signals a new era of international cultural diplomacy and collaboration: our unique historical moment presents an unprecedented opportunity to explore new perspectives on the ancient world across a broad sweep of space and time.

A photo of a small model of a wagon made of bronze and iron

A bronze and iron wagon model (800–700 BCE) from Romania

Although many American museums have entire galleries filled with works from the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and the ancient Near and Far East, among other cultures, artifacts from ancient southeastern Europe are unfamiliar and rarely exhibited. Yet these stunning works are a revelation: mother goddess–style figurines, weapons, miniature architectural models, elegant pottery, adornments in gold and amber, and more, all reveal great artistic and technological accomplishment and suggest the ritual practices of enigmatic cultures. Presenting more than 200 artifacts, the exhibition invites visitors to consider the worldviews, ceremonies, and social order in these long-silent civilizations, and to explore a much broader view of the interconnectedness of ancient cultures than can be understood through conventional narratives of antiquity.

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Photos from top: National History Museum of Romania; Neamţ County Museum Complex; Rousse Regional Museum of History; National History Museum of Romania; all photos © Field Museum/Ádám Vágó