Rousse Regional Museum of History
"All that I experienced afterwards had already been in Roustchouk". Elias Canetti
Religious Concepts and Beliefs of the People of the Rousse Tell during the Chalcolithic Age

Dimitar Chernakov, Curator at the “Archaeology” Department

As a result of the almost a century-long archaeological excavations at the Rousse tell we have a certain image for the spiritual life of man, who have lived here for more than 6 millennia. The archaeological sources for this are the objects, related to prehistoric cults and rituals, and mostly the ceramic statuettes, since they are the most often ones. Among the idol plastics the predominant are the votive figures of pregnant women, idols-symbols, bone idol-amulets, which have been worn on the neck for expelling evil spirits away. The pregnant woman is related to the woman-mother, the continuity of the family, with the cult for fertility standing at the basis. On some of the faces of the statuettes personality features are modeled, which makes them among the first portrait depictions in human history.

The middle place between the artistically decorated vessels and the idol plastics is taken by the anthropomorphous vessels, with separate anatomical details hinted on them, most often of a face. Among the finds of the site there are several fragmented vessels of this type, one of which has been restored. Discovered in the V construction horizon, the vessel has lower conical middle protuberant parts, with a mouth edge profiled to the outside. Anthropomorphous features are modeled over the section under the mouth – a nose, eyes and ears. Geometric ornaments have been placed through the use of white paint on the protuberant middle section – spirals and doubled concentric circles. The face is colored in red, its borders have been limited with a narrow white strip. Thus, the modeled vessel represents an entire stylized image, displaying a pregnant woman. The ceramic vessel could be interpreted also as a symbol of the female beginning in the Cosmos, maybe because it is made of clay, i.e. from the body of the goddess Mother-Earth.

The discovered idol-vessels and hollow idols could have probably been family anthropomorphous totems, related to prosperity and protecting from evil spirits. With magic aims in mind, they had to be “fed”, and this is the reason for them to be modeled with hollow, vessel-shaped bodies. The widespread ceramic statuettes are schematically representing a female body with underlining the pelvis (steatopygia). They are seated, half-seated, or standing. The seated idols are most likely representing a female deity – the Great Goddess Mother – progenitress, related to the concept of fertility, and the standing ones are depicting priestesses-suitors, devoted to the prehistoric cults. The ornamentation of the statuettes mainly from the Early and Middle Chalcolithic horizons shows the wearing of clothes. For decoration of the chest the most often used are two or more parallel vertical lines, which are broken at an acute angle in their upper end and are turning under the arms, marking a short bodice. For marking the decoration of the lower dress a volute is used, underlining the rounding of the shape and showing shalwar-like clothes and the decoration of the legs is made of concentric belts, parallel lines, etc. In most of the cases the bodice is not reaching the waist area, where the prehistoric sculptor has marked a belt as an unaltered part of the female costume during the Chalcolithic Age. The symmetrically placed couples of spiral motifs at the waist area can be interpreted as the subsequent buckles. Small parts of the anthropomorphous figures are depicted with a longer dress down to the ankles, probably marking a shirt. 

The zoomorphous ceramic figures, found in the tell, are also a common phenomenon. Seven types of plastic animal images are known, depicting: large herbivorous animals (cattle), small herbivorous animals (goats and sheep), omnivorous (swine), predatory animals (wolf, dog, etc.), birds, reptiles and fantasy animals. Their emergence is due to the deification not only of animals-predecessors (totems), but also to the cult of the dead. Archaeological evidence for this issue are found in a field situation inside the tell – in grave №1 from the XIII horizon, found in the western periphery, a zoomorphous figure is placed as a grave inventory. The figures with the shape of a bull are presenting another deity of the prehistoric pantheon – the totem ancestor. In the consciousness of people, it is equal to the Great goddess – Mother, who have given the birth of the family and the tribe. It is the symbol of male reproduction and has executed all of the security and protective functions related to its members.

In the tell are found 12 ceramic flat items with a polygonal or oval shape with widening in the bases, interpreted by some researchers as “altars”. It is the only example so far for such a large quantity of finds of this type, discovered in one site. Their vision resembles a fronton or a back façade of a building. Their two surfaces, marking the facial and the opposite part of the plates, usually used as ornamental fields. The motifs on some of them are interpreted as sign compositions or as a calendar system. The various forms of the “altars” were probably in relation to the various cults.

In relation to the improving cults and their service rituals during the Late Chalcolithic Age the elaboration and use of other items with non-utilitarian purpose became massive. These were small ceramic models of furniture, vessels, and phallic plastic depictions. The number of items discovered in the tell and known in the scientific literature as “cult tables” is relatively large. They consist of a quadrangular flat plot or a basin, modeled over four legs. The surface is mainly unornamented. Anthropomorphous depictions (eyes) are placed over some of the tables. The functional purpose of this type of items is interpreted in a different way in the scientific literature. Some of the presumptions state that these were items used as lamps, holding light through the burning of oil and a wick or that they were altars, where gifts to the gods were delivered in order to sue out fertility for the land and the health of the animal stock. Part of the given sacrificial food, presented as a gift to the gods in the general settlement altar, was probably placed in the cult tables. The small ceramic models of chairs were probably copying the original prototype of the Chalcolithic Age. They were modeled with quadrangular seat over four legs and a back with pentagonal shape and an opening in the middle. Another type of chairs was the one with four legs and no back. It is possible that their elaboration and use was related with the so called seated idols, which were modeled over and together with a chair/throne. The ceramic models of phalluses are cult items, related to the idea of fertility and the male reproductive power. On two of the phalluses of the tell there are anthropomorphous features, represented in a stylized manner – eyes and a mouth. They were probably given to the newly-wedded couple or to a childless family. The anthropomorphous features can remind for the emergence of a new beginning, that the seed from the deified nature of the phallic element can give birth to a new life, a continuation of the family.

Items with non-utilitarian purpose are found mainly in dwellings and waste pits. In the second case they are found predominantly in a fragmented state, which brings forward the presumption for them to be out of use. These artifacts are a material expression of the prehistoric religious beliefs of the earliest farmers. The religious-mythological system of the prehistoric farmers is constructed over the concept for the interference of the male and female beginning in the Cosmos, from where the life in nature and society was cyclically revived. They were deifying the Sun, the Moon and the natural disasters since their harvest and food was depending on them. Thus, the idea of fertility was brought to a cult. It correlates with the female’s fertility. Hence the women became responsible for the harvest abundance, because they were aware of the “mystery” of creation. This is the reason to be possible that some of the prehistoric priests to have been women.

Since the dawn of his realization as a thinking creature, man has tried to explain for himself the inexplicable in this world. The latest versions, which have reached to us, are giving us the reason to relate them to the mythology of the Chalcolithic society and that of the prehistoric Rousse in particular. The prehistoric farmers believed in the tripartite essence of the visible and invisible world – heavenly inhabited by the gods, earthly inhabited by men, animals and items, and post-mortal – residence of the souls of the deceased. The visible world – the world of humans, animals and items, was a creation of the gods and has been visited by them or their mediators on different occasions. In order to propitiate these gods and to win their benevolence, the prehistoric men were conducting various rituals – domestic ones of the separate families, and general settlement ones – concerning the members of the entire family community on the territory of the prehistoric Rousse. The feedback between men and gods was conducted by priests, depicted through parts of the clay idols.

In the XV horizon of the tell were found the remains of a building, interpreted by the researchers as a sanctuary. It is 10 m long and 8 m wide, with an orientation of the shorter sides to the north-south. The construction has been erected in the center of the settlement around the square, shaped there. The destructions’ situation shows clearly two layers, separated by a middle layer of ash and coals with a thickness of 0.06 m. This was probably a two-floor building or a one with a used attic space. We are judging about its relative exterior outlook by the discovered clay model of a two-floor building, colored in white and red. The discovered separate fragments of coating are bearing traces of wall ornamentation of the building with white limestone material and red ocher. After the destructions were lifted away, the wall bases and holes with charred wood inside were outlined. The floor was unleveled with a strong lowering in the southern part. Over the northern short wall was attached a large ceramic bas-relief with female features depicted in a pose of adoration. It has reached to us in a fragmented state, the trunk and the head are preserved. In its present restored state the figure has size of 0.65 m in height and 0.38 m in width. Ornamentation of red color, organized in spiral-meander motifs, is placed on the lower half of the figure. Most probably, the figure represents a female suitor, a mediator between men and the gods of the prehistoric pantheon. Again in the central area of the tell at a depth between 2 m and 2.45 m were revealed the destructions of a building. Several fragments of wall coatings were found within its outlines. They were ornamented in red, white and yellow paint. The decoration was organized in geometric motifs. According to the researchers the case here is of a building with a cult purpose.

The revealed situations are presenting information for the practice of establishing a sacral place during the Chalcolithic Age. The situation of the temple is an earthly projection of the myth for the heavenly space – the sky, where the main deities lived in its center. The residences of the priests, the gods’ substitute within the settlement, were also in the center. Thus, a sacred space was shaped, enlightened by the rituals and prayers, because this was the precise site where the connection with the superhuman creatures was established. This is the reason for the territory around the temple not to be built-up because living there was a priority only to the gods and their substitutes – the priests.

The necropolis of the settlement has not been discovered so far. Inside the settlement, concentrated more in its periphery or in proximity to dwellings, have been registered a large number of human skeleton remains. They were found within the Late Chalcolithic layers. They have more signs of accidental funerals, than of traditional practices. The burials are single, couple and group ones, with the single ones being a predominant part. The buried were placed inside a pit with oval shape and no stone surroundings around the graves, placed in a crouched “hocker” position. Most of the skeletons are lying on their right side. Their orientation is different – the predominant ones are the ones with legs to the north and head to the south, or the opposite. The legs of the deceased are highly or weakly folded, and their hands are usually placed in front of their faces. The burying in a crouched position resembles the situation of the fetus in the mother’s womb. The embryonic position has been accepted as an act of return to the womb of mother-earth, where the deceased were interred. In very few of the situations there is data for placing grave inventory which consists only of several clay vessels and adornment. Over the bones of some of the revealed skeletons there are traces of red ocher, and rarely was it placed inside vessels next to the buried one. It has most likely been identified with the blood and life, thus aiming at the symbolical continuation of the life of the deceased in the underworld. Through the use of red ocher were ornamented various ceramic depictions which have been related to the prehistoric cults. The concepts of the prehistoric men from the settlement for the afterlife seem to repeat the known scheme of the world, where they have lived. This is the reason for placing items and vessels, used by the man in during his life, inside the grave pit next to the buried person. Honoring the dead members of the settlement was also an additional prerequisite for this, which is a known phenomenon up to the present day. The prehistoric people believed that the man whose birth was given by earth, when dying, returns to his mother, which also a god’s creation. The proximity of the dead with the sacred space turns them into semi-gods and thus the people from the Chalcolithic Age are awing to them. This is the reason for the presence of a cult to the deceased.

The spiritual life of the Late Chalcolithic society is shaped and controlled by the representatives of the priest’s class. It periodically organizes and executes cult rituals, conducted mainly inside the temple. The priests are conducting the spiritual connection of the prehistoric people with the gods, which is a prerequisite for their high social status. The discovered clay idols in a pose of adoration are probably reproducing these priests in small size and in a specific period they were used as their symbol-substitutes in the intervals between the general settlement cult ceremonies. Thus, they are discovered mainly inside the dwellings and have been an unaltered part of some kind of domestic ritual for prosperity.