Viewing lost worlds

Art & Lit

The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC
The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, 20th May – 15th August 2010
Rating: 2.5/5

Old things are great, and things don’t get much older than the artefacts on display in the Ashmolean’s new exhibition.

Exploring the area that is now Bulgaria, the Republic of Moldova and Romania, it presents objects striking, if for nothing else, for their sheer longevity.

It’s not every day that you come into contact with a 7000-year-old object. Here, you are presented with two galleries’ worth.

The first concentrates on figurines – ostensibly crude, asexual blobs of clay. However, closer inspection reveals they are “zoomorphic representations” of the animals that the populations began to rear.

The gallery felt bare, though. The abstract models of the “Mother Goddesses” were indeed fascinating: their enlarged breasts and hips emphasised the fertility of the matriarch, in a culture where, perhaps surprisingly, women were highly regarded. But the collection was too small to have any real presence in the room, and it seemed that a blown-up picture of the present Danube valley was filling in empty space.

I was still taken by the artefacts’ incredible age, well-preserved due to the meticulous burials given to wealthy individuals.

Yet for all the written detail the exhibition had – explaining, chillingly, how bodies were buried with the bones of the cattle devoured at funeral feasts – it seemed a shame that the scope of its displays was rather lacking.

For such an umbrella exhibition title, covering a vast region, it was a little unbalanced to devote one whole gallery to figures, and the other to copper, shell and clay artefacts.

The striking resemblance to modern ornamentation was amusing, though: I wondered if Henry Moore had seen the bulbous female statuettes before sculpting his designs. Or if Terence Conran had stolen his ideas from Central Europe.

Particularly fun were a jazzy pair of ladles from the Romanian Cucuteni culture. At 6450 years old, they were definitely wiser, and still more stylish, than anything you’d find in Habitat.

This exhibition’s conclusion is already evident in its title: the world presented here was lost for thousands of years, with only 20th century archaeology uncovering its history. It is perhaps this that makes the presentation feel a little unfinished: the blurbs themselves admitting that more research is needed if we are to gain the broader representation of these cultures that the Ashmolean’s offering, unfortunately, lacks.

If the Ashmolean is to keep up with the engaging and dynamic exhibitions at London’s large museums, it needs to make the most of its fantastic gallery space.