A World without Images: Uncovering the absence of figurative representations in Early Neolithic Northern Europe

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Rune Iversen


University of Copenhagen


DKK 4,531,051




Semper Ardens: Accelerate


This project explains the significant absence of figurines among the first farmers of Northern Europe. Small clay figurines make a characteristic feature of Europe's earliest agricultural societies and were part of the initial Neolithic package including domesticated crops and animals, polished stone tools, pottery etc. From the 8th to the 6th millennium BC, Neolithic life spread into Europe from its origin in the Near East. However, as farming reached Central Europe the number of figurines decreased and when agriculture expanded to Northern Europe they had disappeared. This project seeks explanations for the absence of figurines in deep socio-cultural and ritual-religious differences clearly dividing Neolithic Europe in a figurative south-eastern part and an imageless northern part.


Ancient DNA has turned the Neolithization debate upside down. Studies show that the introduction of farming was associated with change in ancestry stressing migration as a driver for the Neolithization. As the Neolithization included the movement of people, it is significant that an essential feature of the original Neolithic practice (figurines) disappeared as it advanced northwards. This absence is not explained by migration but requires social and religious-ideological perspectives. The absence of figurines in Northern Europe indicates that significant socio-religious changes took place. These changes remain largely unexplored due to the recent years' focus on economic and genetic aspects of the Neolithization. This project will balance this bias by reintegrating socio-symbolic aspects.


As the presence of Neolithic figurines in south-eastern Europe is considered social and/or ritually-religious conditioned, the project will approach their absence in Northern Europe by identifying and analysing shifts in social organization and ritual-religious practices among early agricultural communities. First, we will identify where and when the use of figurines ceased. Then, we will address the missing figurines by analyzing converging social and ritual changes followed by an examination of the contexts associated with figurines. We will investigate if other objects replaced figurines, if the figurines' contexts disappeared or changed so they became obsolete, or if figurines can be associated with a certain social-religious strata that broke down and made figurines taboo.

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