We have reached a tipping point with our recent investigations of Trypillia mega-sites, with too many contradictions to allow us to maintain the standard or maximalist views. Nine lines of argument can now be marshalled in favour of two more modest alternative interpretations, viz. the minimalist view of mega-sites as seasonal aggregation sites with much lower populations and a ‘middle way’, with much smaller populations living year-round at the mega-site.
Mega-Site Planning and the Evidence of Quarters and Neighbourhoods
While it is true that the earlier mega-site plans shared coherence and regularity, a closer examination of the recent plans shows much more variability than once identified. In addition to the two extensive multi-functional ‘empty’ areas—an Inner Zone inside the inner radial streets and a Middle Zone between the main house circuits—the plans of Nebelivka and Maidanetske show an Outer Zone between the outer house circuit and the enclosing perimeter ditch (Chapman et al. 2014b) (Fig. 2). What is important is the lack of regularity in the layout of these zones at Nebelivka. The maximum width of the Middle Zone varied from 60 m to 140 m, while that of the Outer Zone varied from 40 m to 75 m. There is much variability in the way that design concepts are worked out locally, suggesting a bottom-up approach to planning.
This is also true for the neighbourhood and the quarter (Fig. 5) (and for Maidanetske and Taljanky: limitations of space do not permit a detailed analysis of these two plans). The number of houses in a neighbourhood ranged from 3 to 25 (Quarter L). While the majority of neighbourhoods consisted of linear arrangements of houses, there were several examples of house groups laid out around a central space resembling the plan of a founder settlement (e.g. the so-called ‘Nebelivka Square’: Fig. 4). There was also great variation in the number of pits in any given quarter, with totals ranging from 0 to 217 (Quarter N).
Quarters developed in such markedly different ways that no single quarter resembled any other in size or content. Quarters varied in width from 190 m to 560 m, with the number of neighbourhoods varying from 5 to 18. This again shows that the mega-site developed from the bottom up within the overall constraints of key ancestral planning principles.
In the standard view of mega-site development (e.g. Videiko 1996, fig. 6), the beginning of the Maidanetske mega-site occupation consisted of a small group of houses dispersed across the mega-site (Videiko’s Phase 1). There was no explanation of how the scattered houses related to overall mega-site planning principles and no model for how the house circuits developed from these early neighbourhoods into the consolidated house circuit of Phase 2. In other words, the problem of deriving complete house circuits from a limited initial mega-site occupation is not restricted to the minimalist view but is clearly shared by the maximalist model as well.
Assembly Houses and the Mega-Structure
If ‘local’ variability is the key to the growth of quarters and neighbourhoods, similar variability is found in the frequency, size, location and history of the larger structures we term ‘assembly houses’ because of their integrating functions within each quarter. The number of assembly houses in a quarter varied from none to three, with different residents probably building their own assembly house in sequence as a quarter developed over time. There was great variability in the spacing of assembly houses (from 100 m to over 800 m) and in their sizes—mostly within the range 120–475 m2, but with the largest covering an extraordinary 1320 m2, making it one of the largest structures in prehistoric Europe. Equally, the way that assembly houses were burned down varied across the mega-site, with a majority burnt round the walls and only a few completely burnt. While the assembly houses integrated different quarters, their form, location and mode of burning again suggest a bottom up approach to planning inconsistent with the standard view.
Although the largest assembly house (the ‘mega-structure’) was special in its sheer size (Chapman et al. 2014a) (Fig. 3), it resembled the standard Trypillia house in both its internal features (podium, platforms, bin) and the deposition of modest numbers of ceramics and figurines. The paucity of its special finds (limited to a set of 21 miniature vessels, a group of scattered fired clay tokens, and a single gold hair-ornament) gives no indication of the materialization of hierarchy. More figurines have been found in each of the excavated pits at Nebelivka than were found deposited in the mega-structure. The finding that the mega-structure was simply the household writ large raises questions about the supposed intra-site hierarchy, which could have operated at the level of the quarter or, more likely, the neighbourhood, with considerable ‘local’ autonomy of cultural practices within the mega-site overall.
Johnson’s (1982) paper on ‘scalar stress’ dealt with the decision-making consequences of increasing numbers, using business studies and industrial psychological research to indicate that the key number seven was the maximum for face-to-face consensus-based decision-making and that more units required a higher-level co-ordinating group. For the mega-sites, the coeval occupation of 500 houses would have resulted in a four-level decision-making hierarchy, with household leaders represented in neighbourhood committees, neighbourhood committee leaders giving their views at quarter committees, and the final say left to the mega-site leader. This seems utterly improbable in the Neolithic—not least in the absence of any materialization of such a hierarchy. If the scalar stress approach was applied to the maximalists’ population estimates, this would imply a five-level hierarchy, with a governing body at the pinnacle. Such four- or five-level hierarchies do not easily fit into current views of European prehistory. Instead, a far smaller population organised through local neighbourhoods with some co-ordination of communal feasting and other events at the quarter level would have minimised the problems of scalar stress raised by the maximalists’ view, although issues of disputes between heterarchically-organised neighbourhoods can never be dismissed.
Communal Cooking for Feasts
Much has been made of the impressive feature excavated at Nebelivka in 2014 (Fig. 6). The Ukrainian side interprets this as a pottery kiln, emphasizing the Childean urban criterion of craft specialization. However, since the modus operandi of this high-temperature feature is unclear, we suggest that it was not a kiln but a large-scale cooking facility to support feasting in the quarter or the neighbourhood. The geophysical investigations at Nebelivka identified no anomalies of such intensity as to be consistent with the kilns found at Maidanetske and Taljanky; at the two last-named sites, the presence of neighbourhood-level pottery production was not consistent with highly centralised ceramic production, as acknowledged by Müller and Pollock (2016). At Nebelivka, a large-scale cooking facility was consistent with the medium-way interpretation of a smaller population as much as with seasonal congregations. The disposal of large quantities of animal bones in the large pits adjoining houses at Nebelivka is again consistent with neighbourhood-centred feasting rather than massive quarter-wide consumption practices, complementing the special placed deposits typical of these pits.
The Nebelivka Micro-Region: The Question of a Hinterland
Most urban theorists have assumed that the city and its hinterland of smaller sites were inter-dependent, bringing each other into being (Smith 2007). Urban sites entailed such high levels of resource provisioning that the contributions of the smaller sites are generally considered essential to social reproduction.
It is therefore noteworthy that the Anglo-Ukrainian Project’s intensive, systematic fieldwalking within a 5 km radius of Nebelivka yielded no sign of manuring scatters and no small sites at all (Nebbia 2017). The targeted fieldwalking of areas of high settlement potential within a 20 km radius produced a few small, contemporary Trypillia sites (Nebbia 2017). In the case of other mega-sites, the two small Trypillia sites of Mosurov 2 and 3 lay within 4.2 km of Taljanky, while the small sites of Talnoe 2 and 3 lay within 3.3 km of Maidanetske (Gaydarska 2003, Fig. 1). However, we cannot be certain that the occupation of these four small sites was coeval with that of the mega-sites. The results give no sense of rural hinterland at all for mega-sites, with all of the negative logistical connotations (e.g. the procurement of cereals or salt) representing a serious challenge to claims of classic urban–rural structure for Nebelivka.
Extensive and Intensive Agriculture
There has long been a tension between the supposed size of mega-site populations and Pashkevich’s (2005) view that Trypillian agriculture was inefficient, based upon low-yield cereals and extensive in scale, relying on the natural fertility of the chernozem soils rather than additional agrarian practices. However, recent flotation results at Nebelivka and Maidanetske confirm the predominance of low-yield cereals. Addressing the population–intensification relationship, Bogaard (2014) suggests a general trend in Eurasian prehistoric farming: extensification was a more typical response to population growth than intensification, although ‘local’ intensification may also have developed near an expanding site (e.g. in the large open areas at the heart of the mega-sites).The evidence for plough agriculture is limited to two plough models of dubious provenance (Ciuk 2008), while the Nebelivka fieldwalking showed no evidence for manuring practices. Equally, the lack of hinterland sites cannot support the extensification of Trypillian agriculture, which in turn would have relied upon the current evidence for wheeled transport and sledges (Ohlrau et al. 2016, p. 209). In the absence of either intensification or extensification of mega-site agriculture, Pashkevich’s model for Trypillian agriculture may be accepted as the appropriate, sustainable level for Trypillia cultivation. This kind of farming, however, would have been unable to support the high population levels of the maximalist model; rather, the new archaeobotanical results indicate much lower population levels or seasonal settlement.
The Provision of Salt
It is now generally accepted that salt was one of the key resources for all prehistoric populations (Monah et al. 2007). Previous modelling of salt demand for CT sites (Chapman and Gaydarska 2003) has been applied to differing population estimates for Maidanetske (Table 1). For the lowest population estimate of 7500 people, salt procurement is required on a large scale, while an unimaginably vast scale was required for the highest population estimates (we have to accept that these figures would defeat even the mighty power of cattle-drawn sledges). The current state of prehistoric salt exploitation has yet to resolve a paradox: the undeniable evidence for Cucuteni salt exploitation in the Eastern Carpathian piedmont zone—with complex transportation demands across several major interfluves—can be contrasted with the logistically easier movement of salt from the Black Sea limans up the Southern Bug to the mega-site heartlands but the as yet complete absence of salt production sites on the Black Sea littoral (Mircea and Alexianu 2007). The alternative of a seasonal mega-site population, with visitors to festivals or pilgrimages bringing their own salt, or a small population reliant on other visiting groups for provisioning the mega-site, presents a more achievable model for salt provisioning.
The House-Building and Burning Experiment
In 2014, the Anglo-Ukrainian Project constructed 2/3 scale imitations of Trypillia houses—one one-storey and the other two-storey, with the aim of studying house construction and the results of house-burning. For safety reasons, only the two-storey house was burnt down in May 2015 (Johnston et al. in press). This experiment confirmed the surprising scale of resource use for both building and burning houses. While a total of 3 m3 of good-quality timber was required for the construction of the two-storey house, close to ten times more was needed for the successful burning of this house. This means that the construction of a module of 100 standard 12.7 m × 4.8 m. houses would have left a major deforestation signal in the pollen diagram. Moreover, burning this same module of 100 houses would have required the collection and combustion of 2 million ‘Nebelivka standard’ trees (defined as 2 m in height with a diameter of 20 cm), producing a major fire event in the pollen record. This estimate would rise to 20 million trees for the burning of over a thousand houses at the end of the Nebelivka occupation proposed by the maximalists.
The Nebelivka Pollen Core
Sediments dating to the Middle Holocene (before, during and after the mega-site occupation) were located and cored at <300 m from the northeastern edge of the Nebelivka mega-site (Albert et al. submitted). Our expectation was that the mega-site would have produced a massive human impact signal, but the scale of the human impacts was far less than expected throughout the diagram. While it can be objected that the Nebelivka 1B diagram cannot yet be dated to a decadal level, the key point is that wherever the occupation of the mega-site is placed relative to the pollen core, there are no instances of strong human impact anywhere in the diagram. In summary, there were five unexpected absences: (1) deforestation episodes or sustained forest clearance (in fact, one re-afforestation episode occurred in the mega-site period); (2) big cereal peaks (a low cereal curve was present); (3) big pastoral peaks; (4) major charcoal peaks (nine separate ‘fire events’ were defined, with only two dating to the mega-site period); and (5) big erosion with high sedimentation rates (the slowest sedimentation rates occurred in the mega-site period). These absences are hard to explain in the context of a large, full-time, permanent occupation, whether in relation to house-building and house-burning phases or the intensification and/or extensification of agriculture and pastoralism. The Nebelivka 1B core provides the greatest challenge to the standard and maximalist notions of mega-site dwelling. The most obvious interpretation of the findings on human impact is a far smaller population creating and burning far fewer houses, cultivating far fewer crops and tending far fewer animals than is postulated in the standard account. What the diagram supports is an alternative model based upon three premises: a low-intensity arable model, consistent with Pashkevich’s model; a long-term pattern of small-scale house burning, with a small number of house-burnings every year and the occasional combustion of a larger number of houses to produce the twin peaks in large-size charcoal; and no obvious evidence for a maximalist occupation of all of the houses in the last phase of settlement at Nebelivka.
Discussion: The Transformation of Identity
These findings show that the standard and the maximalist views of Trypillia mega-sites are no longer tenable. The two alternatives are: (1) the minimalist view of a seasonal occupation of a much smaller population in some form of congregation site (perhaps as a summer aggregation or a pilgrimage site); and (2) a ‘middle way’, in which much smaller populations than currently envisaged in the standard models dwelt at the mega-sites on a year-round basis.
In the minimalist view, mega-sites are seasonal agglomeration centres, with the active participation of hundreds of pilgrims or festival-goers from many smaller sites. There are two key components of the mega-site: (1) a small permanent population maintaining the central site, contributing their own subsistence labour for out-of-season dwelling; and (2) the vast majority of visitors to the mega-sites coming from up to 100 km away, from many small settlements, and bringing their own pottery, figurines, food and salt, building their own houses and burning them after several visits. The mega-sites were congregation sites, hosting the central gatherings of the Trypillia annual calendar.
The second model is the ‘middle way’, in which a much smaller permanent, year-round, long-term population is proposed for the mega-sites. In this view, the mega-sites remained central places in a relatively empty landscape. This model takes into account the evidence for coherence and consistency of planning at all the mega-sites and the presence of neighbourhood pottery production. No detailed modeling of the middle way has yet taken place but the initial estimate of population would be in the order of two or three thousand people who moved to Nebelivka from no more than sixty small settlements. The next stage of research is to model the two more modest views of Trypillia mega-sites and compare the results with the nine lines of evidence summarised here.
What does this mean for the status of mega-sites on the urban–non-urban continuum? Whichever of the four models of mega-sites is accepted, it is clear that mega-sites were low-density settlements constructed within an ancestral framework of specific, readily expandable planning principles, whether they were hierarchically structured, heterarchical or operated in a more egalitarian fashion. The standard and the maximalist views were based upon the dramatic size of population consonant with urban forms, as well as a necessary intensification in resource procurement—whether cereals, meat, flint or salt. By contrast, the middle way and the seasonal models shed the argument of population size as an urban indicator (Cowgill 2004) while maintaining their vast size. Their size and complexity remain important arguments for a different kind of urbanism. The implication of the seasonal and middle-way views is the presence of far fewer people more widely dispersed over the mega-site, thus lowering an already low settlement density. In the introduction to this Special Issue, Gaydarska (2017) has proposed two variables which help to distinguish urban from non-urban settlements: centrality and intensification. The paucity of small sites within 20 km of the mega-sites raises the question ‘to what were mega-sites central?’ A realistic answer is obtained by looking at a radius of 50 km or 100 km—distances which pilgrims or visitors to seasonal festivals could well have travelled within a week from the clusters of small sites identified by Nebbia (2017).
Given the uncertainty over intensification of agriculture, and having no statistics to compare the intensity of pottery and figurine discard on sites of varying sizes, I propose that the principal form of intensification focused on the third element of the Big Other—the houses. In the mega-sites, the traditional house was expanded to form sets of long-houses, with the establishment of assembly houses at some of the mega-sites culminating in the building of the Nebelivka mega-structure. The sheer number of houses built at Nebelivka was the third form of house-based intensification. It was the focus on intensification of the house, rather than public temples with their figurines, or prestige metal objects, that gave a distinctive character to the Trypillia mega-sites—one of the few groups of monumental sites which did not make use of stone monuments.