Obituary: Marija Gimbutas

Colin Renfrew
Wednesday 23 February 1994 01:02 GMT

Marija Birute Alseikaite, archaeologist and Indo-European scholar; born Vilnius 21 January 1921; Research Fellow, Peabody Museum, Harvard University 1955-63; Professor of European Archaeology, University of California at Los Angeles 1964-90; married 1942 Jurgis Gimbutas (three daughters; 1963 marriage dissolved); died Los Angeles 2 February 1994.

MARIJA GIMBUTAS, with her encyclopaedic knowledge of the prehistory of Eastern Europe, was a leading international figure among archaeologists. Moreover her deeply felt conviction that Europe, before the coming of the Indo-

Europeans, was a harmonious land where women and men co-existed on a basis of equality, under the auspicious influence of a great Mother Goddess, earned her in recent years something of a cult status among feminists in the United States.

She was born Marija Alseikaite in Vilnius, the old capital of Lithuania, in 1921 and grew up with a deep attachment to her homeland, its language, its traditional customs and its mythology, which remained one of the fundamental motivating forces of her life's work. After taking an MA degree at the University of Vilnius she and her husband, Jurgis Gimbutas, with their baby daughter, travelled to Tubingen, suffering many hardships during the later war years. She took her PhD in Tubingen in 1946, and emigrated to the United States in 1955.

Initially offered rather routine translation work at Harvard University, she was soon in a position to publish in her own right. Her Prehistory of Eastern Europe (1956) was followed by the monumental Bronze Age Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe, which established her at once as the foremost figure in this field and earned for her a full Professorship at the University of California at Los Angeles.

There followed a period of enormous creative energy and originality. She organised or co-directed archaeological excavations at a number of important prehistoric sites in Yugoslavia (Obre, Anzabegovo), Greece (Sitagroi, Achilleion) and Italy (Scaloria). Their prompt publication did much to extend knowledge of the neolithic period in Europe, and her own studies of the terracotta figurines and other finds of symbolic significance brought a new emphasis and understanding to these categories of material and to prehistoric cult practice. She published major works on The Balts (1963) and The Slavs (1971) which brought together the archaeological and linguistic evidence for the origins of these peoples together with reference to their folklore and mythology. She was the recipient of many honours, as well as honorary degrees, including the Outstanding New American Award in 1960 and the Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year Award in 1968.

In 1960 Gimbutas published her important theory on the origins of the Indo-European languages and the people who spoke them, which she situated in the Kurgan Culture, north of the Black Sea, just before the Bronze Age (c3500 BC). Increasingly she drew attention to the remarkably rich cultures in southeast Europe in the preceding phase, the Copper Age, with their wide repertoire of small clay sculptures and other indicators of a rich symbolic life. The invading Indo-

Europeans were credited with the destruction of these rich prehistoric societies, and their replacement with a male-dominated, militaristic society ultimately ancestral to the Celts, the Greeks and indeed to most of the other languages and peoples of Europe today, including our own.

She wrote extensively on the evidence for early cult in 'Old Europe', as she termed this vanished pre-Indo-European society, and while not all scholars accepted these broad and radical theories, even the sceptical had to acknowledge her mastery of detail, the sweep of her ideas and the depth of her conviction. Warm-hearted and energetic, she advocated and expounded her views with an enthusiasm and integrity which brought them wide public acclaim.

Gimbutas's Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe was published in 1974, rather in advance of the great tide of feminist writings in the United States and Britain. When the second edition appeared in 1982 with the revised title of Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe I teased her mildly that the change might seem a somewhat fashionable reflection of the currents of contemporary thought. She silenced me totally, in the nicest way, by indicating that the revised title, giving precedence to the feminine element, had in fact been the original title on her typescript, but had been changed in the first edition at the insistence of her publishers. Indeed her conviction of the importance and persistence of pre-Indo-European ways of thought and of the early significance of the Mother Goddess cult throughout Europe made her a precursor, not a follower, of fashionable trends. As she put it in 1989: 'We are still living under the sway of that aggressive male invasion and only beginning to discover our long alienation from our authentic European Heritage . . . non-violent, earth-centred culture . . . and its symbolic language, whose vestiges remain enmeshed in our own system of symbols.'

With the publication of Gimbutas's The Language of the Goddess (1989) and The Civilisation of the Goddess (1991) her views found their most effective popular expression. They will be debated for years by specialists, and they have also given a wider public a new insight into the richness and diversity of earlier societies in Europe and a vision of a spirituality different from that of our own, Indo-European-speaking society.

To her many students Marija Gimbutas was indeed something of a 'Mother Goddess' herself and to the many friends who would visit her in Topanga Canyon she was an indomitable figure, of warmth and energy, possessed of a rare life-force which she drew in large measure from her Lithuanian origins. Of the many accolades bestowed upon her, the honorary degree from her old Alma Mater, the University of Vilnius, probably meant the most to her. She was a figure of extraordinary energy and talent. The study and the wider understanding of European prehistory is much the richer for her life's work.

(Photograph omitted)

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