Obituary: Marija Gimbutas

By Renfrew, Colin | The Independent (London, England), February 23, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Marija Gimbutas


Renfrew, Colin, The Independent (London, England)


Marija Birute Alseikaite, archaeologist and Indo-European scholar; born Vilnius 21 January 1921; Research Fellow, Peabody Museum, Harvard University 1955-63; Professor of European Archaeology, University of California at Los Angeles 1964-90; married 1942 Jurgis Gimbutas (three daughters; 1963 marriage dissolved); died Los Angeles 2 February 1994.

MARIJA GIMBUTAS, with her encyclopaedic knowledge of the prehistory of Eastern Europe, was a leading international figure among archaeologists. Moreover her deeply felt conviction that Europe, before the coming of the Indo-

Europeans, was a harmonious land where women and men co-existed on a basis of equality, under the auspicious influence of a great Mother Goddess, earned her in recent years something of a cult status among feminists in the United States.

She was born Marija Alseikaite in Vilnius, the old capital of Lithuania, in 1921 and grew up with a deep attachment to her homeland, its language, its traditional customs and its mythology, which remained one of the fundamental motivating forces of her life's work. After taking an MA degree at the University of Vilnius she and her husband, Jurgis Gimbutas, with their baby daughter, travelled to Tubingen, suffering many hardships during the later war years. She took her PhD in Tubingen in 1946, and emigrated to the United States in 1955.

Initially offered rather routine translation work at Harvard University, she was soon in a position to publish in her own right. Her Prehistory of Eastern Europe (1956) was followed by the monumental Bronze Age Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe, which established her at once as the foremost figure in this field and earned for her a full Professorship at the University of California at Los Angeles.

There followed a period of enormous creative energy and originality. She organised or co-directed archaeological excavations at a number of important prehistoric sites in Yugoslavia (Obre, Anzabegovo), Greece (Sitagroi, Achilleion) and Italy (Scaloria). Their prompt publication did much to extend knowledge of the neolithic period in Europe, and her own studies of the terracotta figurines and other finds of symbolic significance brought a new emphasis and understanding to these categories of material and to prehistoric cult practice. She published major works on The Balts (1963) and The Slavs (1971) which brought together the archaeological and linguistic evidence for the origins of these peoples together with reference to their folklore and mythology. She was the recipient of many honours, as well as honorary degrees, including the Outstanding New American Award in 1960 and the Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year Award in 1968.

In 1960 Gimbutas published her important theory on the origins of the Indo-European languages and the people who spoke them, which she situated in the Kurgan Culture, north of the Black Sea, just before the Bronze Age (c3500 BC). Increasingly she drew attention to the remarkably rich cultures in southeast Europe in the preceding phase, the Copper Age, with their wide repertoire of small clay sculptures and other indicators of a rich symbolic life.

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