Archaeological evidence shows that these fires were not accidental.

Between 5500 and 2750 BC, the present-day states of Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine were inhabited by a group of people, known as the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture.

Although not as well known as the Sumerians of neighboring Mesopotamia, the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture was equally important. They are the oldest known society in Europe, and may have been one of the important ancestors of human civilization as a whole.

Surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, and by the Dnieper and Dniester rivers, the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture was extremely advanced. They grow wheat, barley and legumes. In addition, they also built large kilns to burn pottery and wear bronze jewelry. Cucuteni-Trypillian axes were also made of bronze, and were used to cut down trees to build houses.

In fact, the word “impressive” is still not enough to assess the capabilities of this culture. Reinforcing wooden frames with dry clay, the Cucuteni-Trypillians were able to construct one of the largest buildings in the world – multi-storeyed and the size of two basketball courts (nearly 700 square metres).

Cucuteni-Trypillian buildings have puzzled archaeologists for centuries. The reason is not the size of the structures, but their special state of conservation – every 60 to 80 years the cottages mysteriously burn down.

In fact, Cucuteni-Trypillia is not the only ancient human community to record this phenomenon. Houses burn down so often in Central and Eastern Europe that scientists have given it a special name: “Burned house horizon”.

The mystery of the burning houses

The image of the Cucuteni-Trypillia cultural community was recreated by researchers.

Causes of fires

For a long time, fires were thought to be caused by common causes such as lightning strikes or enemy attacks. That’s a reasonable assumption, especially since most prehistoric homes were filled with combustible materials like grain and textiles. And most of all, is there no reason for people to intentionally destroy their own property?

However, scientists have come up with some surprisingly good reasons for the phenomenon of burning their own houses.

Mirjana Stevanovic, an archaeologist from Serbia, argues that the structures of houses in this area “were destroyed by deliberate burning and most likely for symbolic reasons”.

Her research echoes those of Vikentiy Khvoyka, another scholar who believes that houses burn down when the inhabitants who live in them die.

Meanwhile, Evgeniy Yuryevich Krichevski, a Russian archaeologist, has taken a more realistic approach. He suggested that the prehistoric peoples of Eastern Europe were not destroying the houses, but strengthening them.

According to him, the heat of the fire will harden the clay walls, while the smoke helps to repel insects. More recent studies have also developed a more realistic view, arguing that old structures were burned mainly to make space for new ones.

Find the past

In 2022, a team of Hungarian archaeologists and conservationists sought to better understand the nature of this house fire by analyzing soil and vegetation recovered from a site near Budapest. The findings indicated that out of the three fire incidents that took place at Százhalombatta-Földvár, two seem to have been deliberately ignited.

Archaeologists Arthur Bankoff and Frederik Winter went in a different direction. In 1977, the couple purchased a run-down house from a rural family in the Lower Morava River Valley in Serbia. Incidentally, this house was made from the same material as the burned houses, so archaeologists wanted to know what would happen if they burned it.

The mystery of the burning houses

Typical structure of a house built by the community of Cucuteni-Trypillia

The results showed that while the wooden roof was destroyed, the house’s clay plastered walls remained surprisingly intact. This, coupled with the fact that the experiment required an enormous amount of fuel, suggests that the prehistoric fires were intentional rather than accidental.

Bankoff and Winter aren’t the only researchers who burn houses in the name of science. In 2018, a team of Ukrainian and British archaeologists burned not one but two historically accurate structures.

However, this experiment was different in that instead of buying existing houses, they actively built houses in the style of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture. In the end, the results are almost identical. The walls of both buildings are still intact, as are the many clay pots and figurines inside. Furthermore, no flames were able to spread, indicating that the operation was safe and controllable.

Once again, the researchers marveled at the amount of fuel that prehistoric humans had to use to reach the maximum temperature recorded in the sediment. Specifically, they will need firewood equivalent to more than 130 trees for each one-story building and 250 trees for a two-story building. Thus, a settlement of 100 houses would require a forest of nearly 10 square kilometers to burn.

By linda

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