Although her research has come to be regarded as on the fringe of archaeology, it arose from a pioneering career that stretched across five decades. Gimbutas, originally from Lithuania, was Professor of Archaeology at UCLA from 1963 to her retirement in 1989, and she died in 1994. Known mainly for her analysis of the Baltic Neolithic and Bronze Age societies and her theories on the origins of Indo-European traditions and ‘Kurgans’, she has been described as ‘one of the most productive and wide-ranging scholars of European prehistory of [the twentieth] century’(Chapman 1998).
Marija Gimbutas was born in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1921. She was the child of doctors, with her mother often cited as one of the first female doctors in Lithuania. Her undergraduate studies were wide-ranging, taking in archaeology, ethnology, folklore and linguistics. After completing an MA on Iron Age burials at Vilnius in 1941, she began doctoral studies, writing her thesis on prehistoric burial rites in Lithuania. These studies were interrupted in 1944 by the second invasion of Lithuania by the Red Army. Gimbutas recounts in interviews how, with her husband, she fled for Vienna with her MA dissertation in one hand and her child in the other. After she completed her PhD at the University of Tübingen in 1946 and held several postdoctoral posts in Germany, she emigrated to the United States in 1949. After first taking an unpaid post, Gimbutas became a fellow at the Peabody Museum, Harvard in 1955. Her time at Harvard is said to have been blighted by the misogyny of the time, but this did not stop her writing and publishing a major synthesis of Eastern European Prehistory (1956) and then the classic work Bronze Age cultures of Central and Eastern Europe (1965). These innovative and pioneering works combined archaeology with linguistics to investigate Indo-European origins and migrations, and led to the proposal of the ‘Kurgan hypothesis’ – that the peoples who built the Kurgan burial mounds brought the Indo-European language westwards into central Europe.
In the early 1960s, Gimbutas moved with her family to California, where she became full professor at UCLA in 1963. Throughout the 70s and 80s, her research became focused on the female figurines of the eastern European Neolithic and Chalcolithic as icons of prehistoric ritual and religion – the ‘Mother Goddess’. It was her writing on this theme which caught the attention and imagination of the feminist movement. Her final three books, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1974), The Language of the Goddess (1989), and The Civilization of the Goddess (1991), however, drew on a wider range of evidence and ideas to explore Neolithic society and religion. Gimbutas contrasted what she interpreted as the goddess-centred, peaceful and equal society of the Neolithic, with the patriarchal and war-like Bronze Age society of the Kurgans. Several researchers have drawn parallels between Gimbutas’ own life and her writings on prehistory – just as her peaceful life in Lithuania was brought to an end by the invasion of the Russian and German armies during the Second World War, so the matrilineal and peaceful Neolithic way of life was brought abruptly to an end by the invasion of the war-loving and androcentric Kurgans (Meskell 1995).
While Gimbutas’ notion of prehistoric societies worshipping a ‘Mother Goddess’ was challenged, her interpretations of Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe as a place of complex social organisation, religious practice, and material culture filled with meaning, continues to inspire and provoke in equal measure.
Written by Penny Bickle
Chapman, J. 1998. The impact of modern invasions and migrations on archaeological explanation. A biographical sketch of Marija Gimbutas. In M. Diaz-Andreu and M.-L.S. Sørensen (eds), Excavating women. A history of women in European archaeology, 295–314, London: Routledge.
Meskell, L. 1995. Goddesses, Gimbutas and ‘New Age’ archaeology. Antiquity 69, 74–86.
Top image obtained from Wikimedia Commons, taken by Michael Everson and published here under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Image below, “Reflexive Representations“, created by Andrew Cochrane and Ian Russell and used with permission.