Marija Gimbutas - Life and Work
During the last few years of his life, Joseph Campbell spoke frequently of Marija Gimbutas, profoundly regretting that her research on the Neolithic cultures of Europe was not available during the 1960's when he was writing The Masks of God. Otherwise, he would have "revised everything." Campbell compared the importance of Marija's work to Champollion's decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was not alone in this appreciation. According to anthropologist Ashley Montagu, "Marija Gimbutas has given us a veritable Rosetta Stone of the greatest heuristic value for future work in the hermeneutics of archaeology and anthropology."
The prodigious accomplishments of Marija Gimbutas include the publication of nearly twenty books and over three hundred articles on European prehistory. The texts published between 1946 and 1971 earned her reputation as a world-class specialist on the Indo-European Bronze Age as well as on Lithuanian folk art and the prehistory of the Balts and the Slavs. Her last three books, however, have stimulated vigorous responses from both the academic and lay communities throughout the world. The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1974, 1982), The Language of the Goddess (1989), and The Civilization of the Goddess (1991) reveal an interpretation of European prehistory that challenges many traditional assumptions about the beginnings of European civilization.
Marija Gimbutas was born in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1921 and came to the United States as a refugee from the Soviet regime in 1949 after earning a Doctor of Philosophy degree in archaeology in 1946 at Tübingen University in Germany. Her background was interdisciplinary and included a thorough grounding in linguistics, ethnology, and the history of religions&endash;which was unusual for an archaeologist. Due to an extensive knowledge of European languages, Marija was engaged by Harvard University in 1950 to do research and to write texts on European prehistory (many of the archaeological reports from Eastern Europe were unreadable by her senior colleagues). She remained at Harvard for thirteen years where she also became a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. In 1955 Marija Gimbutas was made a Fellow of Harvard's Peabody Museum.
In 1956 Marija presented her "Kurgan Hypothesis" at an international conference in Philadelphia. With this theory, she was the first scholar to bring together linguistic and archaeological knowledge to solve the problem of the origins of Proto-Indo-European speaking peoples (whom she named "Kurgans" after their distinctive burial mounds) and to trace their migrations into Europe. This hypothesis, and the act of bridging the disciplines, has had a significant impact on Indo-European research.
Marija Gimbutas was the recipient, throughout her life, of many prestigious awards including The Outstanding New American Award in 1960, the Humanities Endowment Award in 1967, the Los Angeles Woman of the Year Award in 1968, Fulbright and American Academy of Sciences fellowships, and grants from the Smithsonian Institution, the National Science Foundation, and other major institutions that supported her work. She was chosen to be a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University for the academic year 1961-62 where she developed her enormous tome Bronze Age Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe (Moulton, 1965).
In 1963 Marija Gimbutas was invited to teach at the University of California, Los Angeles where she remained as a full professor until her retirement in 1989. During those very active years, she was appointed Chair of European Archaeology where she stimulated the development of Indo-European studies, became Curator of Old World Archaeology at the Cultural History Museum, edited a number of scholarly publications, and maintained an enormous output of published work while traveling and lecturing extensively throughout the world. She consistently contributed to Lithuanian journals and encyclopedia and was an important figure in Baltic studies. Most importantly, Marija Gimbutas became project director of five major excavations of Neolithic sites in southeast Europe between 1967 and 1980.
These excavations in the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Greece and Italy made it possible for Marija to focus on an investigation of the Neolithic period (which she termed "Old Europe") in order to understand cultural development before the Indo-European influence. Her preliminary work resulted in the publication of The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (Thames and Hudson, 1974, republished in 1982 as The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe), written while she was in residence in Holland as a Fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1973-74.
Although it is considered improper in mainstream archaeology to interpret the ideology of prehistoric societies, it became obvious to Marija that every aspect of Old European life expressed a sophisticated religious symbolism. She, therefore, devoted herself to an exhaustive study of Neolithic images and symbols to discover their social and mythological significance. To accomplish this it was necessary to widen the scope of descriptive archaeology to include linguistics, mythology, comparative religions and the study of historical records. She called this interdisciplinary approach archaeomythology.
After years of solitary research, the main themes of Old European art and religion were presented in The Language of the Goddess (Harper, 1989). Marija saw that the female form, rendered in thousands of images, reflected the centrality of women in religious and cultural life. Images of the Goddess, and male Gods, both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic, expressed a sacred participation in the great natural cycles of fertility/birth, death and regeneration.
The overwhelming response to The Language of the Goddess from artists, women, mythologists and many others was, for Marija, a complete surprise. When The Civilization of the Goddess appeared two years later (Harper, 1991), over nine hundred people crowded into a Santa Monica church to celebrate its publication. The German exhibition, Sprache Der Göttin (based on The Language of the Goddess), sponsored by the Frauen Museum in Wiesbaden (1993-94) drew thousands of visitors from all over Europe and will continue as a traveling exhibition. It is certain that Marija's vision of Old Europe as a true civilization that was peaceful, egalitarian and expressive of an earth-based spirituality has struck a deep chord. At this critical time when the earth is facing environmental catastrophe and it is clear that we need a change of values, this work questions the precept that Western civilization has always been equated with male domination and warfare. The message is that for thousands of years European people lived quite well as an integral part of the web of nature.
In The Civilization of the Goddess, Marija Gimbutas was the first scholar to describe an overview of Neolithic cultures on a pan-European scale (including habitation patterns, social structure, art, religion and literacy) and to articulate the differences between the matristic Old European and the patriarchal Indo-European Bronze Age systems. This book provides an essential key for deciphering the contrasting cultural elements that became entangled and fused in subsequent European societies.
Marija enthusiastically encouraged linguists, archaeologists and other scholars to investigate the transition between the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Europe. With this intention, she organized several international conferences to stimulate interdisciplinary research. Original papers from these conferences were published in the Journal of Indo-European Studies. Before Marija presented her ideas on the hybridization of Old European and Indo-European elements in cultural development, few scholars were thinking in these terms. Nevertheless, an understanding of the radical transformation in Europe to a patriarchal, warlike social structure has profound significance for our time.
In June of 1993, Marija Gimbutas received an honorary doctorate at Vytautas the Great University in Kaunas, Lithuania. The enormous appreciation she received from the President of the Republic, scholars, students and countless Lithuanian citizens was repeated the following year at her funeral when thousands of people came to express their love and respect for this great Lithuanian scholar. Marija's work on the Balts, which was banned during the Soviet years, placed Lithuanian prehistory within a broad European context. This, and her significant role in the preservation and understanding of folkloric material, has stimulated a new appreciation of Lithuanian heritage. Ironically, Marija could not have become a world-class scholar if she had been confined by the systematic brutality of the Soviet system. Nevertheless, she remained faithful to her motherland and returned with invaluable gifts.
Marija Gimbutas, who died in Los Angeles on February 2, 1994, will be remembered for her brilliant intellect, warm-hearted generosity and a passionate originality and vision. The greatest teaching is by example. In this case, Marija demanded the highest standards of scholarship from herself as well as from her students. Moreover, she had the courage to speak from her own perceptions and to expand the traditional boundaries of her discipline. As Indo-Europeanist Edgar Polomé wrote in her 1987 festschrift, "There are no words to describe the profoundness of the feelings that link this great scholar to her disciples and this great woman to her numerous friends and admirers."
Marija is survived by three daughters, Danute Lake, Zivile Gimbutas, and Rasa Thies and by many spiritual daughters and sons who also love and honor her. May her vision be continued in the world.
Joan Marler January, 1995
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