The dig 

Dragoslav Srejovic (right) on site

Dragoslav Srejovic (right) on site

The prehistoric settlement at Lepenski Vir – the Whirlpool of Lepena – lies on a limestone shelf beside the River Danube. The location comprises a small, steep-sided, natural amphitheatre, with the river to the east, high cliffs to the west, and access only via a narrow passageway to the south. Three successive settlements were built here, with some eight distinct phases of activity in all, the superimposed stratigraphic levels having a depth of up to 3.5m (11ft 6in) in places.

A total of 136 separate structures were identified in excavation. The structures, trapezoidal in shape and facing towards the river, were characterised by stone kerbs, fireplaces, thresholds, and perhaps domestic altars. They were ranged around a central open space. The shape of the structures and the layout of the settlement as a whole seem to have mirrored the form of the natural amphitheatre.

Substantial quantities of faunal remains were recovered, including bones of red deer, aurochs, wild boar, and fish. Most remarkable among the discoveries were sculpted limestone representations of fish; many structures had one of these located close to the hearth.

The discoveries

Sculpted ritual heads

Sculpted ritual heads                   

The third main phase – Lepenski Vir III – seems to have been an Early Neolithic settlement which shared the broad Starčevo Culture of the region. Cattle, pig, and sheep/goat are represented in faunal assemblages of this date. 

The two earlier phases (I and II) are academically more important, since they appear to have been settlements of Mesolithic hunters and fishers – something much rarer in the archaeological record.

Archaeo-environmental assemblages from the site indicate that the Mesolithic inhabitants were living well by collecting plant foods, hunting large mammals, and fishing for catfish, carp, and other species. The settlement may have accommodated up to 100 people at any one time, presumably with separate families living in each structure. These shelters were probably made of timber and thatch, with floors of red-limestone plaster over beaten earth.

The deductions

Excavated remains of a shelter

Excavated remains of a shelter

The most curious thing about the site is the seemingly close integration of everyday life with ritual activity. Each structure appears to have been both a domestic residence – where, one assumes, people ate, slept, performed routine chores, and sheltered from cold and rain – and also a ritual space. Stone platforms beside the fireplaces may have been altars. The fireplaces themselves were perhaps of sacred significance. And both seem to have been associated with strange fish-like sculptures, perhaps one for every home. 

These are formed from large, rounded river-boulders. One famous example is carved with stylised fish-scales, bulbous fish-eyes, and a downturned fish mouth. Others have just a crude fish-head. Another especially well-executed example may represent some sort of fish/human hybrid, having either gills or arms, and perhaps genitalia, though whether female or male is unclear.The most curious thing about the site is the seemingly close integration of everyday life with ritual activity. Each structure appears to have been both a domestic residence – where, one assumes, people ate, slept, performed routine chores, and sheltered from cold and rain – and also a ritual space. Stone platforms beside the fireplaces may have been altars. The fireplaces themselves were perhaps of sacred significance. And both seem to have been associated with strange fish-like sculptures, perhaps one for every home.

It seems probable that fish – or perhaps a particular species of fish – was a totemic animal for the Mesolithic clan that inhabited Lepenski Vir around 6000 BC. Animal totems express group identity, but they can also be a focus of fertility cults, and the presence of the fish-spirit (deity seems too strong a word) alongside the living family when gathered around the life-giving fire seems suggestive of both. Lepenski Vir speaks to us of a remote prehistoric world in which the sacred and the profane were inextricably entwined.

The settlement was situated on the water’s edge. In 1971, prior to construction of a dam on the Danube that raised river levels, the entire site was lifted and reassembled about 29.5m (100ft) higher up the bank. Today, it is covered by a building that includes a museum, and a visitors’ centre showing film footage of the original excavation. 

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