Lepenski Vir is an important Mesolithic archaeological site located in Serbia in central Balkan peninsula. The latest radiocarbon and AMS data suggests that the chronology of Lepenski Vir is compressed between 9500/7200-6000 BC. There is some disagreement about the early start of the settlement and culture of Lepenski Vir. But the latest data suggest 9500-7200 to be the start. The late Lepenski Vir architectural development was the development of the Trapezoidal buildings and monumental sculpture The Lepenski Vir site consists of one large settlement with around ten satellite villages. Numerous piscine sculptures and peculiar architecture have been found at the site.
Archaeologist Dragoslav Srejović, who first explored the site, said that the sculptures of this size so early in human history and original architectural solutions, define Lepenski Vir as the specific and very early phase in the development of the prehistoric culture in Europe. The site is noted for its level of preservation and the overall exceptional quality of the artifacts. Due to the fact that the settlement was a permanent and planned one, with organized human life, architect Hristivoje Pavlović labeled Lepenski Vir as "the first city in Europe".
Lepenski Vir is located on the right bank of the Danube in eastern Serbia, within the Iron Gates gorge. It is situated in the village of Boljetin, near Donji Milanovac.
The location of the settlement and its continual habitation of several millennia, points to the prominent, "busy place". The view above and across the Danube is wide open and the stable and enduring terrain on the river's bank which resists the aggressively erosive effects of the Danube. The stability is secured by 2 or 3 boulders at the top of the plaz, a rocky cape deeply protruding into the river. The boulders acted like a natural anchor to the terrain on which the settlement developed. The long habitation was also enabled thanks to the vicinity of the big river, natural richness of the hinterland, thermic benefits of the accumulated limestone cliffs (taking in account the ice age which just finished) and the presumable knowledge of some birth control principles, given the limited area on which the settlement could grow, even though it is believed that there is still an undiscovered part of the settlement.
Due to the protruding rocks, the whirlpools were created, and the swirling waters are more oxygenated, richer in algae and thus abundant in fish. The whirling makes the fishing easier, as opposed to the rushing waters of the Danube through the gorge. Also, the swirling water actually deposited the materials on the downstream side of the plaz, known today as Katarinine Livadice, making it stronger and more stable, instead of allowing the fast and strong river current to erode it. In the immediate hinterland, there is a slope of Košo Brdo. Embedded into it is the natural stone niche or a rock shelter (abij), called Lepenska Potkapina, which was explored by archaeologist Branko Gavela (sr).
Downstream from Lepenski Vir, in the direction of the Vlasac location, and half-way to the mouth of the small Boljetinka, or Lepena river, there is a 40 m (130 ft) high vertical Lepena Rock, rising over the river. At the foothills of the rock, the Romans built a road which is today submerged under the waters of Lake Đerdap. It is situated at the depth of 13.5 m (44 ft), together with the commemorative road plaque of Emperor Tiberius. The slope above the Danube between the Lepena Rock and the mouth of the Lepena river is also called Lepena, so as the bight where the slope ends.
The site was discovered on 30 August 1960, on the lot owned by the local farmer, Manojlo Milošević.
After almost three decades of pause, archaeological exploration of the region was organized by the Belgrade Institute for Archaeology. Construction of the Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station was to begin and it would flood the bank regions with its artificial lake, so archaeologists wanted to explore the area as much as possible prior to that. Head of the project at the time was Dušanka Vučković-Todorović, a fellow at the Institute. The explored area included the territory between Prahovo and Golubac. Archaeologist Obrad Kujović explored the Lepenski Vir section with his assistant Ivica Kostić, following the works of previous travelers and archaeologists like Felix Philipp Kanitz or Nikola Vulić. The location appeared ideal for the settlement so Kujović and Kostić surveyed it. They've found so much ceramic fragments that it seemed like they discovered a ceramics workshop. Kujović recognized it as an important archaeological site, collected fragments, dated them as part of the Starčevo Culture and made a report for the Institute. Srejović, intrigued by the findings, contacted Kujović in 1961 for detailed information.
Srejović managed to acquire funds and on 6 August 1965 began exploration of the site with Zagorka Letica, which continued with excavations through 1966 and 1967. Probing of the terrain in 1965 grew into the protective excavations in 1966 and developed into the fully, systematic excavations in 1967 as they dug deeper. The cultural-archaeological layer starts below the surface layer of humus, 50 cm (20 in) thick.
It was only in 1967 that its importance was fully understood after the discovery of the first Mesolithic sculptures and the findings were publicly announced on 16 August 1967. The excavations ended in 1971 when the whole site was relocated 29.7 m (97 ft) higher to avoid flooding from the newly formed artificial Đerdap Lake, created by the construction of the Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station. The main contribution to the exploration of this site was through the work of professor Dragoslav Srejović of the University of Belgrade. Exploring up to the depth of 3.5 m (11 ft), 136 or 138 buildings, settlements and altars were found in the initial excavations in 1965-1970. A necropolis was discovered in 1968.
The main site consists of several archeological phases starting with Proto-Lepenski Vir, then Lepenski Vir Ia-e, Lepenski Vir II and Lepenski Vir III, whose occupation spanned from 1,500 to 2,000 years, from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic period, when it was succeeded by the Neolithic Vinča culture and Starčevo culture, both upstream the Danube, 135 km (84 mi) and 139 km (86 mi) from Lepenski Vir, respectively. A number of satellite villages belonging to the same culture and time period were discovered in the surrounding area. These additional sites include Hajdučka Vodenica, Padina, Vlasac, Ikaona, Kladovska Skela and others. Found artifacts include tools made from stone and bones, the remains of houses, and numerous sacral objects including unique stone sculptures.
It is assumed that the people of Lepenski Vir culture represent the descendants of the early European population of the Brno-Předmostí (Czech Republic) hunter gatherer culture from the end of the last ice age. Archeological evidence of human habitation of the surrounding caves dates back to around 20,000 BC. The first settlement on the low plateau dates back to 9500-7200 BC, a time when the climate became significantly warmer.
Treskavac was very important to the habitants of Lepenski Vir. The development of the settlement was strongly influenced by the topology of the surrounding area. It sat on a narrow plateau on the banks of the river, squeezed between cliffs and the flow of the Danube. As such it offered only limited resources in terms of food, raw materials and living space. This is reflected in the findings from the earliest layer. Proto-Lepenski Vir represents only a small settlement of maybe just 4 or 5 families with fewer than a hundred inhabitants. The primary food source of the inhabitants was probably fishing. Fishing communities of this type are typical for the wider Danube valley region during this period.
In later periods the problems of overpopulation of the original settlement became evident. At this time important sociological change occurred.
Archaeological findings in the surrounding area show evidence of temporary settlements, probably built for the purpose of hunting and gathering of food or raw materials. This suggests a complex semi-nomadic economy with managed exploitation of resources in the area not immediately surrounding the village, something remarkable for the traditional view of Mesolithic people of Europe. More complexity in an economy leads to professional specialization and thus to social differentiation.
This is clearly evident in the layout of the Lepenski Vir Ia-e settlement. The village is well planned. All houses are built according to one complex geometric pattern. These remains of houses constitute the distinct Lepenski Vir architecture. The main layout of the village is clearly visible. The dead were buried outside the village in an elaborate cemetery. The only exceptions were apparently a few notable elders who were buried behind the fireplaces in houses.
The complex social structure was dominated by a religion which probably served as a binding force for the community and a means of coordination of activity for its members. Numerous sacral objects that were discovered in this layer support this theory. The most remarkable examples are piscine sculptures, unique to the Lepenski Vir culture, which represent one of the first examples of monumental sacral art on European soil.
Lepenski Vir gives us a rare opportunity to observe the gradual transition from the hunter gatherer way of life of early humans to the agricultural economy of the Neolithic. More and more complex social structure influenced the development of planning and self-discipline necessary for agricultural production.
Once agricultural products became a commodity, a new way of life replaced the old social structure. Distinct characteristics of Lepenski Vir culture, its house architecture and fish sculptures, disappeared gradually. Lepenski Vir III is representative of a Neolithic site and is more typical of other sites across a much wider area. The exact mechanism of this transition remains unclear, but the evidence suggests development through evolution rather than outside invasion.
The number of separate localities, central settlement and the satellite villages, in the Lepenski Vir-Kladovska Skela region is about 25. They were explored by the 1980s, when the river valley was flooded after the construction of the Iron Gate I and Iron Gate II Hydroelectric Power Station:
Based on an amount of anthropological changes on the skeletons, a microevolution was attested, as Srejović estimated that at least 120 generations lived in the settlement (2,000 years) while Hungarian anthropologist János Nemeskéri (hu) estimated that during the entire human habitation in Lepenski Vir, there were 240 to 280 generations, or almost 5,000 years of continual habitation. They made the distinction between the Lepenski Vir culture (1,500-2,000 years) and simple occupation of the same habitat (5,000 years).
Seven successive settlements were discovered on the Lepenski Vir site, with the remains of 136 residential and sacral buildings dating from 9500/7200 BC to 6000 BC.
The layout of the houses, which are on the inclined plateau which opens to the river, is a terrace like, while they are spread in the fan-like shape, allowing the access to the river for the people from the houses further from the bank. As for the tools used for the construction works, not much survived or is not recognized as such. Apart from the human instinct for best use of the space and for the "please the eye" concept in architecture, it is quite possible than Lepenians possessed certain knowledge in this area that we wouldn't usually attribute to or expect from people in that period, or which atrophied in time as the civilization didn't survive and left no written documents. Mostly the burned deer antlers were discovered, but it is believed that, in order the divide the trapezoid shape of both the plateau and the houses they must have used sticks, tightening of the ropes, vertical rods, etc., or natural help, like the shadows.
The history of architecture still has no definite answer what is older: house (as a habitat) or temple (as a shrine). In Lepenski Vir, it appears that there was a process of gradual desacralization, which means that the shrines turned into the houses in time. The houses from the Vir I period are marked with the Arabic, while those from the Vir II with the Roman numerals. For example, the houses 61 and 65, from the Vir I were superimposed with the houses XXXIV and XXXV, from Vir II.
All the settlements follow the shape of the underlying terrain, a horseshoe-shaped plateau. Settlements always face the direction of the river, which was the obvious focus of life for its inhabitants. The basic layout of the settlement consists of two separate wings and a wide empty central space which served the purpose of a village square or meeting place. The settlement is radially divided with numerous pathways leading to the edge of the river. The outer edges of the village are parallel to the surrounding cliffs.
Domestic objects represent the transition from tent structure to house. All the houses share a very distinct shape, built according to a complicated geometric pattern. The basis of each of the houses is a circle segment of exactly 60 degrees, constructed in the manner of an equilateral triangle. The tip of the trapezoid base, a shape previously unknown in human settlements, is pointed into the direction of the wind (košava). The shape of the house base is authentic and not recorded in any other locality. The material used for the floors is the local limestone clay, which, when mixed with the animal dung and ash, hardens like a concrete. Because of that, the floors are almost in perfect condition. On the edges of the floors there are remnants of the stone reinforcements which served as the carriers of the upper constructions, which means the houses were covered. The covering material was some easily degradable material or was similar to the surrounding loess, so it couldn't be distinguished from it during the excavations. The clay, a reddish muddy plaster, is still abundant in the region. In the village of Boljetin there are still several houses plastered with it. The material is called lep, hence the name of the locality, Lepenski Vir, or literally "red clay whirlpool". Even today, the brandy producing cauldrons, called lepenac, are still being used. They are made of wood, but plastered with the red loam, which is also used by the local swallows to harden the nests. As for the construction which covered the houses, it is not known what they looked like. They may have resemble the modern look of the brandy cauldron, wood covered with red clay or they have used the wattle instead of the proper wood.
According to Srejović, the planned design of the settlement, its functionality and proportional forms, shows the almost modern sense of architecture. Despite a major age distance between then and now, the architectural plan of the settlement seems so contemporary and recognizable today, while architect Bogdan Bogdanović said that "everything, absolutely everything, to the smallest detail" about the Lepenski Vir, has enormous importance.
The houses are completely standardized in design, but greatly vary in size. The smallest of the houses have an area of 1.5 m2 (16 sq ft) while the largest one covers 30 m2 (320 sq ft).
In the youngest periods, Vir III-a and III-b, which already corresponds to the Starčevo culture, the pit-houses are discovered, though some can also be found in the oldest period, Proto Vir. Digging just to the level of freezing point, which is in this area no more than 80 cm (31 in), the natural, constant temperature of the ground can be utilized. The walls of the dugout were plastered with mud which was then impregnated by huge fires. The clay was hardened to such an extent, that architect Radmilo Petrović managed to take out the complete clay coverings, like giant clay bowls out of the mold.
Another reason for digging the houses into the ground is the inclination of the terrain on which they were built, which is 11 degrees. On other localities, the conditions were different. On Vlasac, for example, the natural, funnel-shaped gullies were adapted into the houses.
House labeled as the House 49, is the smallest of all, and considered to be the most intriguing. Majority of researchers believe that this house was the prototype for the entire settlement. The fireplace in this house is also the smallest, not bigger than a shoe No. 42. Still, evidence shows that it was still used for fire.
The 30 m2 (320 sq ft) large house 57, from the Vir I-e period, is overlaid with the house XLIV from the Vir II, which covers 42 m2 (450 sq ft), making it the largest discovered house. It was obviously a very important for the settlement, not just because of its size, bad due to the location (it was nicknamed the "Central House") and the fact that its floor lapidarium yielded, depending on the source, 7-9 sculptures, more than any other house (17% out of the total of 52 sculptures). When the location was flooded, the study envisioned that the "flooding line" will cross right through this house, which would allow for further explorations, but the suggestion was ignored and the flood line was breached when the reservoir was formed. The most representative sculptures were discovered in this house, like the Praroditeljka ("Foremother"), Danubius, Praotac ("Forefather"), Rodonačelnik ("Progenitor"), Vodena vila ("Water fairy").
The interior of each house includes a fireplace in the form of an elongated rectangle placed on the long axis of the floorplan. These fireplaces were built from massive rectangular stone blocks. The fireplaces are further extended with stone block to create some kind of a small shrine in the back of the house. These shrines were always decorated with sculptures carved from massive round river stones and represent perhaps river gods or ancestors. Another significant feature of the houses is a shallow circular depression in the ground placed precisely in the exact middle. This may represent some kind of an altar.
The sculptures, fireplaces, altars, tables, arranged square stones, round depressions and intriguing triangles were all built ("concreted") into the hardened porphyritic floors. In all the houses they are in almost the same basic layout, which resembles the human figure. The scientists still can't agree on the purpose of the artifacts, except that the fireplaces were indeed used for the fire. Still, the proper function is not clear. Archaeologist Milutin Garašanin (sr) described them as the "cult pit" or eventually a "ritual fireplace". In 1968, architect Peđa Ristić (sr) expressed doubt that this was a simple fireplace. He asserted that the rectangular shape of the fireplace is unpractical, with the poor ability to conduct the smoke away. However, when he was working on the reconstruction of the houses, Ristić concluded that probably every house had a spit, which explaines the elongated shape of the fireplace hole. Radivoje Pešić (sr) was also skeptical about that purpose. He paid attention to the triangles, which he claimed were the ancient archetype of a writing system. This is not supported by the modern science, and they are still being considered a symbols, not proto-letters. Pešić also concluded, since the symbols spread from the fireplace in a sequence that can't de deciphered, that it was actually a sacrificial altar and called the entire complex of artifacts a "fire altar".
Archaeologist Ljubinka Babović accepted the Srejović's theory that the layout within the house represent the human figure, but she believed that the figure is actually an anthropomorphized representation of the Sun, with added hands. She asserted that every house was actually a small Sun shrine and that plan of the settlement represents the astronomical movement of the Sun. She referred to the round stones as an ash hole, because ash was discovered in the round depressions. Philologist Petar Milosavljević (sr) originally concluded that that this ash hole, cornered by the rectangular stones, was the fireplace, following Pešić's idea, but later changed opinion, accepting the general consensus that the rectangular hole in the center is the proper fireplace. Archaeologist Đorđe Janković (sr) wrote of the "unusual stone fireplaces for the complex ritual purposes". Srejović also used the semantic distinction between the inner fireplace, ognjište, and the outer one, vatrište. Excavations on the locality Vlasac point to the gradual transformation from vatrište to ognjište, or bringing the fire inside the houses. Regardless of which of the depressions are the proper fireplace, it is evident that the human-like floor installation is made of several elements, which are connected by some, still non deciphered, functional relations, but also by some visual and artistic ones.
A pebble stone, placed in the geometrical center of the house and part of the floor installation representing the "head" of the perceived figure, is also variously explained. As it has a dent in it, it was suggested that it served as a primitive lamp, the so called "Magdalene lamp", a rushlight with a wick made of moss. The dent was made so that grease or tallow could be placed in it. Ristić opposed the theory saying that no evidence of fat or burning have been discovererd in any of the stones. He called the stones upretnik ("resistance stone") and believed their function was to serve as the foundation for the sticks or pillars, which held the covering construction of the house. During his reconstruction of the house, he used it for exactly the same purpose. Another idea is that it was used as a pouring vessel (for honey, etc.) which was used during the rituals. The proposed theory that it was used a grindstone was rejected as this was still the pre-harvesting period. Still, it may have been used for grinding wild seeds or some aromatic herbs. The stones have a curious engravings in the lower section. As the stones were "cemented" into the floor, the engravings couldn't be observed by the living, above the ground, so it is suggested that they were meant for the dead, which were sometimes buried under the floor of the house. Babović described the floors as a "border between day and night".
Central piece of the central section, the "body", was a controversial fireplace. It was definitely used for fire as the evidence of burning and ash are found. It was elongated, in the scale of 1:3 or 1:4 and surrounded by stones. In the older periods, the thin stones were used, later the thicker ones and in the end, quite rough and irregular stones, too, even though the geometry remained refined. It is suggested that the size of the fireplace is actually used as an etalon, a measurement module for the proportions of the house. Ristić said that the length of the fireplace is equal to the length of the spit, calculating that this length is the radius of the circumscribed circle which is the base of the house. Based on the measurements in 51 houses, it was established that the average fire hole is 78 cm (31 in) long and 24 cm (9.4 in) wide, which gives the ratio 1:3.25. Average with is another reason why some of the archaeologists believe that this wasn't a proper fireplace, being too narrow and impractical. The depth of the hole varies from 15 to 25 cm (5.9 to 9.8 in), but at least one quarter of those have a cascade bottoms. In these cases, the section closer to the entrance into the house, is 10 to 15 cm (3.9 to 5.9 in) lower. The overall size of the fireplaces varies, depending on the size of the house, but it appears to be more balanced than the sizes of the houses. The smallest fireplace is 13 to 26 cm (5.1 to 10.2 in), while the largest are in the House 54 (32 to 111 cm (13 to 44 in)) and House 37 31.5 to 105 cm (12.4 to 41.3 in).
Around the fireplace, the larger stones were placed, sometimes in two levels. They are differently called "stone tables", "sacrificial plates", "market stalls" or "hands". The stones were poured with the red floor plaster. In the later period of the Lepenski Vir I phase, the number of stones around the hole reduces or they disappear altogether. Instead, the triangles appear, which encircle the fireplace in an ellipsoid manner. They have been called simply triangles but also "triangular forms", "fireplace triangles" or "forks". Apart from Pešić's, generally unsupported interpretation that they are a proto-writing, the triangles have been described as the "little houses for the dead", support for the spit's skewers, openings for the pouring of the drinks and food to the dead buried under the floor, support for the construction of some larger stove-like object above the fireplace, symbols of the light or fire and simply the vents for the heat from the fire. In all cases but one, the tips of the triangle are oriented towards the fireplace. The exception is located on the locality Kula. The prototype of the triangles appears to be a human, female mandible, traversed with a small stone plate, which is pressed into the floor at House 40.
The "legs" of the installation almost extends outside of the house. The round depression, which also can't be explained for sure (fireplace, ash hole, etc.) is in this section, and is equally accessible both from the inside and outside as it is situated at the entrance into the house. In literature, it is also named "(slanted) stone doorsteps" or simply "entrance". Babović noticed that there are several variants of it, which prompted her to classify the houses (or shrines, as she called them) in 4 categories. The categories are:
In the Neolithic, or Starčevo phase of Lepenski Vir, the Lepenians began building dome-shaped furnaces in the houses. They were built on the floor made from compacted earth, with the horseshoe-shaped foundations made of crushed stone. The calotte, or the dome of the furnace was made of baked earth. The hut, which was built on the most elevated section of the settlement's terrain and was positioned almost in the center of it, had the largest furnace, 1.5 m × 1.4 m × 0.5 m (4 ft 11 in × 4 ft 7 in × 1 ft 8 in). Some researches believe that due to its size and position, it was probably built for communal use, but they also pointed out that its proportions equals those of the "prototype house", House 49. It also has been suggested that the furnace from Lepenski Vir was a prototype for building of other furnaces, due to the archetypical uniformity of bread ovens in the wider Balkan area, and even further, and the canonical repetition of the same shape from the Neolithic to the modern age.
The outer fireplace was almost an continuation of the internal central installation. Placed on the entrance, it also acts like an obstacle ("fire serving as a door"). It probably served as a protection against wild animals, but also for heating of the house. The internal fireplace was too small for that purpose, and woods had to be cut and prepared for its small size. On the other hand, simply bringing the wood from the nearby lush forests or taking large logs brought by the Danube into the bay, they could set large fires outside the houses. Ritualistic meaning of the outer fire's location have also been proposed (keeping the shadows inside the house, ritualistic bypassing of the fire when entering the house, fire as the entrance into the world of the spirits, etc.). Srejović pointed out that location of the outer fireplace was actually quite logical, given the views of the humans at that time. "The only 'building material' the Lepenians had was being used to live the cave life...so their houses had the cave atmosphere". The cave people also light fires at the entrance into the caves, otherwise they would choke to death. Memory of living in caves was probably quite alive at the time, as the humans in other parts of Europe at that same time still lived in caves or natural shelters. The existence of a large outer fireplace and, apparently, not much practical internal one, prompted Pavlović to conclude that the small hole in the house actually served to keep and maintain the fire or ember, which developed in time into the ritual. He compared it to the way the Pythian priestesses kept the fire at Delphi.
The remains of the settlements in Lepenski Vir abide to the universal rules of architecture, so the architectural remnants should be perceived and evaluated by those rules. However, the reconstruction of Lepenski Vir "resembles a gigantic, complex jigsaw puzzle, without having an exemplar picture".
The science still has no definitive answer what the houses looked like above the ground and there are numerous ideas from the architects, urbanists, historians and anthropologists. Vojislav Dević suggested long, intertwined arch-like wattle ("fish skeleton") while Živojin Andrejić opted for a transversal arches. Diagonally crisscrossed arches, with one wide at the entrance to prevent the bottleneck, were proposed by Pavlović. Srejović originally distanced himself from any proposition, considering all of them flawed in some way. In his 1969 book he did print the reconstruction of Đorđe Mitrović, however his text differed greatly from the illustration. The concept was judged by some as clumsy, primitive, technically impossible and, simply, wrong. Still, the drawings became internationally known. Srejović again distanced himself saying that such roof construction was too primitive for the perfectly shaped base, adding that we should count with additional, still unknown elements, which may enable the completely different construction. In 1973 he also rejected Ristić's reconstruction, claiming that none of the proposed solutions so far seems definitive and that every idea had some incorrect details. He asserted that any final solution would "subdue the imagination of the creators" and that it will take generations and generations to solve the problem. Later, in 1980, Ristić received his PhD from the University of Graz on the subject "Reconstructions of the prehistoric architecture in Lepenski Vir".
Borislav Jovanović, who explored the Padina location tried the reconstruction as the basic "three-stick hut". The "official", Mitrović's version, after many changes and adaptations became technically possible by the time of the opening of the visitor center in Lepenski Vir, in 2011. The main problem was the relation of the inclinations of the roof surface and the purlin. Marija Jovin and Siniša Temerinski, from the Institute for the protection of the monuments, created a model based on the pronounced inclination of the purlin, removal of the central pillar and change of the direction of the roof carrier. That way, the concept of a slender, elongated construction was achieved, which allowed the excellent conduct of the smoke outside of the house. It was based on an older version of the simple tripod by Velizar Ivić and a more complex variant of Petar Đorđević, who worked on the excavation on the Padina location. Bojana Mihajlović and Andrej Starović from the National Museum in Belgrade created holographic animation of the house based on the "shallow" purlin and with animal hides on the roof instead of the pieces of wood. Completely opposite was the holographic version of the house by Dušan Borić. In the later period of explorations on the Vlasac locality, Borić constructed his version of a house on location, but it contains vertical walls which appeared much later in architecture. Some other proposed reconstructions were deemed even less possible as they included the orthogonal base or upper floor, based on the assumption that stony, garland-like reinforcements are actually remains of the former stone walls. Almost all proposed reconstructions, regardless of differences, belong to the pyramidal or tent-like type (even if they are shaped like frustum).
Some of the dead were buried in the houses, under the exceptionally preserved floors. They are believed to be a prominent members of the group but there are also some children skeletons.
Srejović believed that the Lepenians developed the "cult of the head", which is why all discovered sculptures are actually head portraits. The ritual burials included a curious practice of removing the skull from the head, then the mandible from the skull before they all would be buried separately. Skulls were placed in a special stone constructions. A skull would be placed on a larger stone slab and then it would be protected by the crushed stones. All separately buried skulls are male while all the mandibles are female.
They were built into the base of the houses. Best preserved is the skeleton from House 69. Because of the excellent conditions of the skeleton and its apparent height, archaeologist Aleksandar Bačkalov, who discovered it, though it was quite "handsome" or "dashing" and named it Valentino, after famous Hollywood's Latin lover, Rudolph Valentino. Bačkalov discovered it in a shallow dig which originates from the Proto-Vir, or Vir I-a period. Valentino died c. 8200 BC and architect Goran Mandić worked on his facial reconstruction. The position of the skeletons buried under the floors is such that above the genitals are widening parts of the central installation, which prompted some researches to conclude that it actually symbolizes the birth, regardless of the skeleton's sex and that the posture of the skeleton, the so called "Turkish style" represents the childbirth position.
Ash also had some ritual meaning, as ceramic vessels filled with ash were also discovered.
The Lepenski Vir sculptures are numerous prehistoric figurines dating from 7000 BC found intact in the Lepenski Vir. The earliest sculptures found on the site date to the time of Lepenski Vir I-b settlement. They are present in all the following layers until the end of the distinct Lepenski Vir culture. All the sculptures were carved from round sandstone cobbles found on the river banks.
The sculptures can be separated in two distinct categories, one with simple geometric patterns and the other representing humanoid figures. The latter are the most interesting. All of these figural sculptures were modelled in a naturalistic and strongly expressionistic manner. Only the head and face of the human figures were modelled realistically, with strong brow arches, an elongated nose, and a wide, fish-like mouth. Hair, beard, arms and hands can be seen on some of the figures in a stylized form. Many fish-like features can be noticed. Along with the position which these sculptures had in the house shrine, they suggest a connection with river gods.
The sculptures were components of the house itself, as they were built into the stone flooring. They are the oldest group ("portrait") of sculptures discovered so far. Though the sculptures are no more than 60 cm (24 in) in length, they are considered historically "monumental", as no older sculptures of this size are so far being discovered, and the discovered sculptures from the same period, like in Asia Minor and Palestine, are also smaller. Also unlike other sculptures from that period, which have carved noses and eyes, the ones in Lepenski Vir have mouths and ears.
Art historian and professor at the University of Belgrade Lazar Trifunović (sr) said that the sculptures look like "being made by Henry Moore".
Some of the sculptures became popular due to the media attention. In their book "The Art of Lepenski Vir" from 1983, Srejović and Babović individually described some of them. Probably the best known is the Praroditeljka, or "Foremother", pictured to the right. 51 cm × 39 cm (20 in × 15 in), the image is often exploited in the media and became a symbol of Lepenski Vir. Srejović and Babović considered it "impressive", a possible embodiment of the female principle of the fishlike beings. She is thought to be equal to the opposite, male version "Danubius". Female elements and attributes appear as canonical, symmetrical, rigid and though shaped like a figure, eventually quite reduced. It has two plastic vents on the shoulders. Traces of the red coating pigment are still visible. Another sculpture is important as it is the first portrait-type sculpture bigger than a human head in real life in human history. Named Rodonačelnik, or "Progenitor", it represent a head which measures 52 cm × 33 cm (20 in × 13 in). Considered a type of totem, it is more humane than fishlike. It has been described as "mysterious and lonely". There are remnants of the red pigment on the eye bags and on the neck.
Though Obrad Kujović discovered the locality first, it is Dragoslav Srejović who is today recognized as a man who discovered Lepenski Vir. In his publication "Lepenski Vir" from 1969, he mentions "a group of experts" who noticed the locality before him "at the end of the summer of 1960", but never gave their names, while he mentioned many other people who helped with the excavations. In 1979, the daily Večernje Novosti published an interview with Kujović who repeated the story how he discovered the location. He added that "for the scientific exploration and interpretation of the discovered materials" the glory rightfully belongs to Srejović, but objected that Srejović never mentioned the people who discovered it. Srejović replied that he accepts the Kujović's claim and that it is important to know the exact date of discovery for such an important site. He added that he omitted their names as they were hired and paid (by the Institute of Archaeology) to survey the terrain. However, in 1996 a 30th anniversary of the discovery of Lepenski Vir was organized. Kujović publicly asked Srejović if he already acknowledged that the discovery happened in 1960, why he didn't organize the 35th anniversary. Srejović died later that year.
As concept of "architecturally modern" settlement and its culture seemed so disconnected from the other knowledge on the subject at the time, fringe theories on the civilization of Lepenski Vir developed. Ufologists claimed that the Lepenians were actually aliens from outer space. Such theories existed even in Russia, while one of the proponents of the ancient astronauts theory, Erich von Däniken, showed interest in the locality.
First archaeoastronomical surveys were conducted during the winter solstice in 2014. They pointed to the possibility of having an event of "double sunrise" during the summer solstice. The volcanic Treskavac hill, across the Danube from Lepenski Vir, has a rocky lump near the top and an inclination higher than the inclination of the apparent Sun's orbit. The Sun appears above the Treskavac, then goes behind the lump and reappears again. The phenomenon was observed and confirmed during the summer solstice of 2015. The entire passage, which was filmed, lasts a bit over 4 minutes. Scientific literature mentions two archaeological locations in Great Britain where the "double sunset" has been observed on the solstices, but "double sunrise" is not recorded. As the axial tilt changed since then, a geospatial analysis was conducted, using the GPS, which proved that the "double sunrise" occurred at that time, too, and that it was visible from the original location of Lepenski Vir.
The phenomenon was noticed by Pavlović and Aleksandra Bajić, which published their findings in 2016 book "The Sun of Lepenski Vir". As only the specific position of the Sun during the winter and summer solstices was important to calculate the time, as a reference point which repeats after one year, they believe that Lepenians used the "double sunrise" as a basis for some kind of a solar calendar, which they dated to 6300-6200 BC. As Lepenski Vir was a sedentary community for several millennia, Pavlović and Bajić hold that the inhabitants must have observed the phenomenon, especially at that time when people were much more perceptive of the nature around them than they are today. Even Srejović, who died in 1996 and was unaware of the phenomenon, based on the geographical configuration of the gorge said that the "dance of light and shadows occasionally reach the levels of hierophany". The terrain was further surveyed with the theodolite and the astrogeodesy analysis was conducted in 2017. The results show that the "double sunrise" was visible from every house in Lepenski Vir, without exception. Also, the axial azimuth of the houses, measured previously by Ljubinka Babović, shows 65° to 75°, so they are all facing the Treskavac hill.
The Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station became operational between 1970 and 1972, when the artificial Đerdap Lake was formed. The lake was to flood the original location of the site so the almost complete site was relocated to another location. After being checked and confirmed to be "archaeologically sterile", a new location was chosen, some 100 m (330 ft) downstream and 30 m (98 ft) higher than the previous one. The access from the river is less approachable than on the original location, due to the scree accumulation on the bank and the excess dirt from the preparation of the new site. The largest part of the discovered settlement, which consists of almost all houses from the Vir I period, was relocated in 1971. The highest level of the lake is on the plaz, which is buried under 30 to 34 m (98 to 112 ft) of water. As the Danube now passed over the natural rocky "anchors" which previously caused it to whirl, it took only 10 years for the river to level and wash off parts of the old bank and to undermine the old location, already weakened by the archaeological excavations.
The old location of Lepenski Vir itself is 12 m (39 ft) below the present level of the lake, while the localities of Vlasac and Padina are 15 m (49 ft) and 6.5 m (21 ft) below, respectively. Archaeologists (Srejović, Branislav Ćirić, Milka Čanak Medić, etc.) prepared a study "Relocation project" on preserving and protecting the bank, especially preventing the landslides, but the study was mostly ignored.
The locality of Lepenski Vir was never fully excavated. Srejović himself said that there is "more of Lepenski Vir, both up and down", meaning below the Proto-Vir and further into the hinterland. The Proto-Vir layer is completely flooded, while some of the Vir I excavations weren't relocated, like the houses which occupied the most elevated section of the plateau (houses 61, 65, 66, 67), though they were still flooded. Basically, the material remains of the cultures in the Iron Gate Gorge were almost all flooded and forever lost for the scientific research.
The results, published for the first time on 16 August 1967 on the press conference organized by Lazar Trifunović, radically changed the history of Europe. It was noted that the printing of some history textbooks was halted so that they can be revised. Opposing voices however, claimed that Lepenski Vir can't be dated in Mesolithic as the Europe was barely inhabited at the time and the population lived in caves and other natural shelters.
Problems with Lepenski Vir are typical for similar archaeological sites from prehistoric periods: without written evidence and absence of the wider context, the excessively broad conclusions are extrapolated from a quite narrow circle of information. The possible exlusion of the still uncovered but relevant facts, diverts the exploration of Lepenski Vir into difused directions. Classicist Milan Budimir described it as the "bold hypotheses which sheds a dubious light on the (historical) dark".
Still, Lepenski Vir is the oldest planned settlement in Europe and has a unique, trapeze-shaped houses seen nowhere else. Its culture yielded not only the first portrait sculptures in history, but also the first sculptures in sizes larger than those in real life in the history of human art. The sculptures are the largest made by humans up to that period and among the first to have carved mouth or ears. Additionally, the skeletal remains from Lepenski Vir make almost half of one of the largest Mesolithic anthropological series, which is important for the future bio-archaeological and DNA research.
Already on 26 May 1966, the State Institute for the protection of the cultural monuments protected Lepenski Vir as a cultural monument (Decision 554/1), expanding the level of protection on 3 February 1971 (Decision 01-10/21). In 1979 Lepenski Vir was declared a Cultural Monument of Exceptional Importance (State Gazette, No. 14/79). Despite its immense importance, Lepenski Vir has not yet been nominated for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Partially due to the bureaucracy of the state and technicalities, partially because the Museum of Lepenski Vir had to be finished first. Ristić proposed a floating, boat-museum. The problem also may be the fact that the original location of the site is flooded while the locality was elevated to the safer ground. However, the houses 61 and 65 were not moved and at the low water level, they are only 59 cm (23 in) below the surface, so technically, they could be nominated for UNESCO.
Architect Branislav Krstić (1922-2016), former commissioner in UNESCO, suggested in 2010 that Lepenski Vir should be nominated together with the entire Iron Gates Gorge, as an "integral cultural and natural monument". As Krstić stated, apart from the ancient cultures, the wider area of Lepenski Vir was later part of the Roman, and later Byazntine, Danubian Limes, contains Roman and mediaeval fortresses, like Golubac Fortress or Fetislam, while the monumental Iron Gates Dam is a monument to industrialization and electrification in the 20th century. Ristić opposed this course of action, saying that the original, "crystal clear" artifacts (sculptures) should be separated from the architectural remains which were ruined, partially because of the submergence and partially because of the "catastrophic archaeological mismanaging during the 1960s excavations". He asserted that the architectural remains were frail to begin with, and that during the excavations it was only partially presented but totally destroyed during the relocation. Architect and artist Aleksandar Deroko called it the "largest cultural massacre of the 20th century" and said that "none of the world renown scientists will be able to explore the site anymore". The elevated and reconstructed section in the museum was to be relocated by the project of Milorad Medić, which envisioned the relopcation of the entire floors in the steel frames. The frail floors crumbled into the pieces and dust, so they were moved in parts and them reassembled in the museum. Ristić believes that the focus should be on the sculptures, which are fully preserved: "Just like the cave paintings (in Lascaux) exposed the soul of the Paleolithic man from 20,000-30,000 years ago, so the pebble sculpting (in Lepenski Vir) exposed the soul of the Mesolithic man from 7,000-9,000 years ago", accusing the museum of being an "incomplete forgery...that has neither the soul nor the science, and has no purpose". He concludes that Lepenski Vir, due to its importance, deserves a monumental mark, a counterpart to the monumental, cliff sculpture of the face of Decebalus, leader of the Dacians from the 1st century. Serbian counterpart should be a gigantic face from the Lepenian sculptures, which would appear to arise out of the Danube. He proposed the Lepena Rock, halfway between Lepenski Vir and Vlasac.