06 December 2009

Rebranding Balkan Archaeology: Old Europe at NYU

Photo: Marius Amarie

Last week the New York Times profiled the blockbuster exhibition of Neolithic artifacts from the Danube Valley and environs at NYU's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The artifacts are stunning and I'm now trying to find an excuse to go to New York.

Photo: Rumyana Kostadinova Ivanova/NYT

This exhibit is a brilliant example of an evolving archaeological brand. Check out the title: The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000–3500 BC.

There's a lot to talk about here. First of all, they've gone with the "lost world" concept, evoking the notion of archaeologist as detective and discoverer. It's a powerful concept that evokes our desire for identity, to rediscover ourselves.1 Then we have 'Old' and 'Europe' jammed right into each other for the knockout. Especially in America, anything old has an aura of 'good' and 'authentic' about it. And the type of Americans who go to archaeology exhibits in New York have an desperate enthusiasm for Europe that sometimes verges on the pathetic.

The Lost World of Old Europe. That sounds like the most important, serious, and authentic place ever. But where is it, anyway? Hmm, the Danube Valley. Let's get out the map. Mmmm, Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova. The proverbial ass-end of Europe, associated in western popular culture with vampires, gypsies, gangsters, cheap tracksuits, and unattractive miniature cars.

NOW you see the genius of the title. No one's going to go to an exhibit with 'Bulgaria' in the title, much less 'Moldova'2 - It's a deeply unfashionable part of Europe and not the kind of place New York Times readers go to on vacation. But Old Europe? I definitely want to go there, wherever it is. Well-placed branding makes this peripheral region suddenly central, serious, and worthy of respect.

It's fashionable to dismiss "branding" as inauthentic, but I disagree. Archaeology needs good brands and better marketing. The material in this exhibit is really amazing and deserves to generate excitement - and if good marketing slogans help do away with some of the prejudice against the poorer Balkan countries, all the better.

"Hmmm, how should we rebrand ourselves?" (NYU)

Pace Donald Rumsfeld, the concept of Old Europe has a bit of a history in itself. As far back as V. Gordon Childe it was recognized that Indo-European speakers probably came into Europe from somewhere in the Russian steppes, and mixed with or replaced a previous Neolithic population. The phrase was popularized, however, by Marija Gimbutas in the early 1980s, who used it to describe her idea that the Neolithic civilizations of Europe were egalitarian, matriarchal, Goddess-worshipping cultures - before the Indo-Europeans came along with their chariots and metal and established more centralized, hierarchical agricultural societies.3 While her portrait of a homogenous, matriarchal Old Europe isn't taken seriously by archaeologists anymore, the term has stuck around. I suspect that this exhibit will lead to its revival, especially since it's so convenient for tourist marketing. (Not coincidentally, there are links to the Romanian and Bulgarian tourism agencies on the exhibit website.)

1 As Cornelius Holtorf observed: “Archaeology is not a question of needs being fulfilled but of desires being sustained... the search for the past is at the same time the search for ourselves” (Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004. p.74)

2 Recall the 'Scythian Gold' touring exhibition from a few years back, which studiously avoided too much discussion of its Ukranian origins.

3 And, I might add, a perfect example of 'sustaining desire'. If you find a just, feminist, nonhierarchical society in the past, it helps inspire and legitimate those aspirations in the present. This is why a lot of pagans still read Gimbutas, though her theories have been refuted or heavily qualified by later analyses and new evidence - they want her vision, not the facts.


  1. If you managed to scare up an excuse and make it to the exhibit, come upstairs and say hello.

  2. A great piece - all to often the semantics of exhibitions are dismissed as OTT and unnecessary, when it's a vital part of bringing archaeology to the wider world. If you wanted to air any of this via Heritage Key, give me a shout at sean@heritage-key.com!

  3. illyrian!!!!!!!!