The Swastika has to be one of the most misunderstood symbols of our time. In some variation it is found all over the world, this fact has lead many a debate on its exact origin. There is so much to say on this symbol, that it will take me a few parts to go through it all. In this first instalment we will try to answer the question of origin.
The Ukraine is said to be the birth place of the Swastika, based on several finds at the Mezin site in the northern part of the country. The Mezin site is situated on the edge of the Desna river, and based on Mammoth teeth, has a date range from 27,000 BC and 13,000 BC. Given these vastly different date ranges it is possible the site was in use for millennia. The site is an exceptionally important one, giving us a unique look at our Palaeolithic ancestors. The site has so many unique finds, and is so full of intrigue, It is something I will write more about in the future. For now though our focus is on the Swastika and we are not in short supply.
The Swastika finds consist of several carved mammoth ivory birds (example below left) and a lesser known ivory bangle (below right) . These artefacts, as well as being stunningly beautiful, tell us much about our very distant ancestors. Our Palaeolithic forebears are often thought of as living life day to day- hand to mouth, this quality craftsmanship shows a very different story. The dates given to these artefacts are 13,000 BC, putting them at the very last date for the site. If this is because the whole of the mezin site is given that date out of prudence or not I am unsure. I have not been able to find either specific carbon dating or Stratigraphical dating for the finds themselves. Even at this late date they are still the oldest examples of the swastika anywhere in the world, by some margin too!
The design is clearly interwoven Swastikas, the classic sharp right angles are unmistakable. They do though possess a design feature not commonly associated with the swastika today, a “spiralling” nature. This is something I will cover more in a later part, as I believe this gives us an interesting link to the Celtic Triskelion. As we will see as we go through this piece, the Swastika has been imagined in many ways, all beautiful in their own right.
The next swastika on our list of archaeological finds date to the early Neolithic, some 7,000 years after the find from the Ukraine. Before we delve into these interesting finds from Bulgaria, I would like to draw attention to the huge gap between the finds.
The latest date given to the Ukrainian site is 13,000 BC, this puts its last occupation at the time of the younger dryas. The younger dryas was a cataclysmic event, especially for Europe. It is not known exactly what caused it, but what is known is that the temperature in Europe plummeted, to that of ice age levels. Europe especially went into a mini ice age and the Ice sheets that had been withdrawing further north, once again began to move south. This event would of been catastrophic for the people living in Europe at that time. The high culture that was being achieved in Europe, suddenly comes to a halt, and many of the advancements made by these early Europeans would not be “re invented” till thousands of years later. The conditions forced those that stayed in Europe (especially its northern climes) to abandon much of their culture as necessity for survival became their main focus. This in my opinion may account for the large gap in finds. It is possible that the symbol was still in use, but with so much upheaval in their daily lives, producing high quality bone and stone engravings became less feasible. Given this, the likelihood of finding such a piece would shrink dramatically.
The next group of finds, come from Bulgaria and date to the early neolithic, about 6,000 to 5500 BC. Three separate dig sites, Slatina, Mursalevo, Kardzhali, in Bulgaria have produced three very interesting Swastikas. They are better known as the “frog Swastikas”, because of their rather unique look and are made out of Nephrite, a form of jade. As you can see below, these Swastikas, do look at first glance like “frogs legs”. I however find the bumps on the “feet” area indicative of eyes. If they are eyes, then this gives us quite a few options for what they may be depicting. They could be birds like cranes or swans, or because of the serpentine look to them, they could also be snakes of some kind. Whatever they are depicting, again their can be little mistake as to them being swastikas. Again the form is a little different to that which we are familiar with today. There is also apparently a fourth Swastika of this kind from northern Greece outside of Thessaly, like the find from Mursalevo, I have not being able to find pictures. There is very little info on the net about these finds, especially the Greek find. all these swastikas are found in relative close proximity and date form the early neolithic. I know at least one was found buried in the foundations of a homestead, a clear sign of importance. There can be no doubt that the culture living in that part of Europe at the time held these pieces in high spiritual regard.
These stunning pieces are not the only Swastikas found at this time period (6,000 – 5,000 BC) there are quite a few. One of the most interesting from this date range, comes not as a single find, but rather in the form of symbolic writing, the Vinca script. This script, given some of the earliest finds date from the mid 6th millennia BC make them older than proto Sumerian, by over a thousand years. Unlike the Sumerian, this script has not been deciphered, well with any consensus at least. The bulk of these finds come from the fifth millennium BC, and range geographically all over south eastern Europe (including Bulgaria). The oldest of which come from Alba ulia in Romania, on what are known as the “Tartaria Tablets”. The Swastika is used in several forms in the script (see below), again though, with no consensus on its meaning.
The next find of interest, also from Bulgaria, this time in the form pottery. Found in the Devetashka cave, one of many very interesting and enigmatic caves found in Bulgaria. The Devetashka cave is again a site with abundance of Neolithic finds, and continuous human occupation of the cave has been found dating back to the middle palaeolithic (70,000 BC). This find (below) has on it two swastikas, each within a small circle, dating to around 6,000 BC. Both this find and the Swastikas from the Vinca texts are in the more familiar format. In this sense, they are the oldest Swastikas in the form we are accustomed too.
Again from Bulgaria in the north western region, we have the “Gradeshnitsa Tablets”. The Tablets Dating from around 5000 BC, like the Vinca script associated with early writing. One of the tablets appears to show quite a large Swastika type pattern on its rear side, made up of several lines and some dots (below left). This slightly different form of the Swastika looks to me very reminiscent of a much later swastika the “Camunian Rose” type. Another find from 5000 BC and also from north western Bulgaria is a clay pot with a Swastika at its base (below right). This swastika is more inline with how we perceive the swastika today.
Before we move away from Eastern Europe it is worth mentioning the Cucuteni culture, from Northern Romania and Ukraine. This culture is also heavily associated with Swastikas, many of which take on the same form as those from the earlier Mezin site . Cucuteni culture ranges from 5200 BC to 3500 BC, this means that they are separated by at least 8000 years! As you can see below the similarity is striking regardless of distance in time. This also shows us how limited the archaeological record is. There is no way, in my opinion, these people just reinvented the exact same symbol in the exact same way, at the exact same spot 8 thousand years apart.
The next place on our search for early forms of the swastika is northern Iraq. some of these sites run parallel with the later ones above, dating from around 6,000 BC to 4800 BC. They are mainly found in the Samarra (bottom left) and Hassuna (bottom right) cultures of Mesopotamia. I have placed them after the eastern European finds because the Swastikas I could find all appear to the later end of there dates ranges (5000 BC and under) . They are none the less very interesting, and appear to have their own unique form compared to those from Europe.
These finds sum up the earliest archaeological evidence of the Swastika. At around 4000 BC, the swastika begins to appear all over Europe, Asia and Anatolia.
So what can we get from this early archaeological evidence? firstly, We can safely say the Swastika is not of Indian origin, or Asian, as is often claimed. The oldest finds are all in the Eastern Europe, even the oldest which pre dates the others by some 7 thousand years. With the abundant finds in Eastern Europe, it is clear, from an archaeological perspective, this is the birth place of the Swastika. As noted though, the archaeological record is not “fact” it is just the best evidence we have. It is possible the swastika originated in some other place, maybe western Europe or Siberia, both sites associated with the first Cro magnon settlements. The fact that the first find is based of one single site and is seven thousand years before the next, shows the early archaeological record is lacking. That being said, we can only go off of what we have, so for now at least, The Ukraine is the birth place of the Swastika.
Another thing the archaeological evidence points to, is a continuation of culture in eastern Europe. Even with the large gap in dates from the earliest find, it is clear the memory of the Swastika was a strong one. As I mentioned the younger dryas gives us a good theory as to why it disappeared from the archaeological record. Why it took so long to re establish the high culture, and with it the swastika is a question yet to be answered.
The finds from Northern Iraq, also raise some questions, especially given their uniqueness. At first glance they do appear to be of a very different form than those in eastern Europe. This could be down to two main reasons, firstly, it was a separate “birth”, meaning it evolved here naturally with no influence form eastern Europe. Again though given the large dates between the earliest and the later finds it is possible migration and time played a part. So the second hypothesis, would be after the younger dryes some folk moved further south. This would mean that being further from the source and little further in time, they had developed the swastika in a very unique way. This is again a question yet to be answered, but something we will take a look at in later parts.