In Ukraine, Megastructures Help Chart the Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization

The arrangement of large public spaces at the sprawling Maidanetske site suggests the culture became less democratic before collapse

Maidanetske Settlement
PLOS One/2019 Hofmann et al.

The Tripolye are among Europe’s most intriguing early cultures. From about 3600 B.C. to 4100 B.C., they lived in settlements of up to 10,000 inhabitants in areas that are now Ukraine, Moldova and Romania. Most of what we know about the culture comes from the layouts of those massive settlements, which were first observed using aerial photography in the 20th century.

Often covering hundreds of acres, the settlements regularly included massive structures that served as meeting houses for the Tripolye. In a recent study that appears in the journal PLOS One, researchers decided to analyze the changing orientation and size of the remains of these megastructures in Maidanetske, a site about 100 miles south of Kiev. As Isaac Shultz at Atlas Obscura reports, the researchers’ findings offer better insight into how Tripolye society was organized, and why it disappeared.

In total, the team looked at the layout of 3,000 houses in the settlement, and then narrowed down 13 structures, ranging from 2,000 to 13,000 square feet, that likely served as public spaces. While the large centrally located public spaces were probably designed to serve the community as a whole, scattered through the settlement were smaller gathering spaces, possibly intended to serve smaller segments of the population. As time went on, however, the researchers found evidence that these smaller and medium-sized buildings fell out of use, with more emphasis on the larger, community-wide buildings.

The position of these public buildings, as well as how they changed over time, helps tell the story of Maidanetske: The research suggests that in the beginning, a complex, hierarchical structure was in place to govern such a large, widespread settlement. These public spaces were likely places for people to discuss and make economic, governmental and ritualistic decisions and iron out disputes. Over time, however, something changed. As Ruby Prosser Scully at New Scientist reports, it’s possible that the centralized government was dysfunctional, or the population rebelled against the changes in their government system. Whatever the case, as power became concentrated in fewer hands, social imbalances began to make such a huge population ungovernable, resulting in the end of Maidanetske.

“The case of Tripolye mega-sites seems to be an example of how humans should not govern,” archaeologist and lead author Robert Hofmann at Kiel University in Germany tells Shultz. “Dysfunctionality of social institutions, lethargy, and lack of democratic participation contribute to deterioration of the social fabric in a human society.”

As Stephanie Pappas at LiveScience reports, looking forward the team wants to figure out more about what these public spaces were used for. Currently, they are excavating a trash pit from a megastructure found in Moldova and have noticed differences between what is found in the public trash and what is found in domestic trash pits, though they have yet to do formal comparisons.

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