The rise of royalty in prehistoric Europe

Extraordinary burials discovered in south-eastern Europe marked out individuals even at a time of egalitarian societies. Attila Gyucha and William A Parkinson guide us through spectacular finds from eleven countries that show how the elite grew their power in prehistory.


From the Neolithic to the Iron Age, the lands of south-eastern Europe played host to dramatic social changes as people made the transition from egalitarian farming communities to societies ruled by formidable chiefs and mighty kings and queens. Across a period of some 5,500 years, communities with increasingly complex political and economic inequalities developed, and an emergent elite grew their power and influence by exerting control over four focal aspects of prehistoric life: technology, trade, rituals, and warfare. For a new exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago, we selected artefacts crafted during the Neolithic, Copper Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age (about 8,000 to 2,500 years ago) from the exceptionally rich archaeological heritage of south-eastern Europe to explore the importance of these four aspects in the evolution of social inequality and hierarchy in the Balkans and beyond.

Gold objects including bracelets, dress appliqués, a miniature diadem, pendants, and a sceptre from the 5th-millennium BC burial assemblage of Grave 36 at Varna, Bulgaria. The grave is a cenotaph, probably associated with a young man. IMAGE: courtesy of Varna Regional Museum of History, Bulgaria. Photographer Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

The exhibition is an unprecedented intercontinental collaboration between the Field Museum and 26 museums in 11 south-east European countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. It provides a unique opportunity for people from these countries to reflect on their common prehistoric past, for North American communities from these parts of Europe to come together and celebrate their common cultural heritage, and for people without direct connections to these regions to learn about and appreciate the long and rich cultural history of south-eastern Europe.

Ceramic figurine from Bardhosh-Pristina, Kosovo, 5200-4600 BC. Size: 24.5 x 11.5cm. IMAGE: courtesy of National Museum of Kosovo. Photographer Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

We begin this long history in a land before kings, with the early agricultural communities of the 7th to the 5th millennium BC. These Neolithic communities are commonly assumed to have been egalitarian, where social status was based on age and gender or was achieved through personal skills and actions, rather than being automatically passed on to the next generation. The mortuary record, however, suggests that some people were treated differently. Archaeologists have recovered burials in south-eastern Europe where the funerary process deviated from the regional norm and the number and quality of grave goods that were included were truly extraordinary. For example, a woman who was placed in a wooden coffin at the tell-centred site of Polgár-Csőszhalom in Hungary around 4900-4600 BC was buried with elaborately crafted objects, including arm-rings and necklaces made of Spondylus shells from the far-off Adriatic or Aegean Sea, indicating her important status within the community.

Ceramic figurines and chairs from a possible Neolithic sanctuary at Poduri-Dealul Ghindaru, Romania, 4900-4750 BC. Size (figurines): 3.4-8.7cm high; 1.5-4.7cm wide. IMAGE: courtesy of Neamţ County Museum Complex, Romania. Photographer Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

As well as grave goods, spectacular objects that would have been used as focal elements during the course of different ritual activities have been uncovered. Human figurines made of fired clay were common artefacts in many regions of south-eastern Europe, but their forms and decoration varied by region and period. A wide range of explanations has been proposed for the role of figurines in Neolithic communities: researchers have interpreted these objects as the representations of particular members of the community, ancestors, or supernatural creatures. Two examples from Kosovo, dating to 5200-4600 BC, represent the central Balkans, with characteristic facial features. In a few cases, figurines have been found as part of a larger assemblage of human depictions and other objects. In a possible sanctuary at Poduri, in Romania, 21 figurines of different size and decoration were recovered, along with 13 chairs, possibly representing members of the community, or perhaps a pantheon of gods.

The Neolithic was a dynamic era, with a trial-and-error approach taken to various aspects of life, including the organisation of settlements, subsistence, and social structure. People in south-eastern Europe enacted a wide range of responses to the challenges they faced, establishing institutions to secure social cohesion in regional and local communities, and developing innovative agricultural techniques to supply food to a growing number of people. The markedly diverse archaeological record testifies to the flexibility and adaptive capability of Neolithic communities across the region.

Gold anthropomorphic pendant from Progar, Serbia, 4000-3500 BC. Size: 9 x 7.3cm. IMAGE: courtesy of Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, Croatia. Photographer Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

Over a thousand years after most people in south-eastern Europe had settled into a village lifestyle based on farming and animal husbandry, a series of technological and social changes occurred, heralding a first gilded age of sorts. Throughout the region, archaeologists have recognised a formal Copper Age that followed the Neolithic period and preceded the Bronze Age. Starting in the 5th millennium BC and ending at the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC, this era was characterised by the production of large copper artefacts, especially axes and adzes, and also by other transformations in social organisation, including the establishment of some of the first formal cemeteries in Europe.

The earliest use of copper in the region dates at least to the beginning of the Neolithic period, around 6200 BC, when early agricultural groups in the Danube Gorges in Serbia and Romania shaped and drilled chunks of ‘native’ copper metal and copper minerals, such as malachite and azurite, to make beads. Sometime around 5000 BC, metalworkers developed an innovation that would allow them to extract copper metal from copper minerals: smelting. This must have been seen by others as an almost magical act, carried out by specialists who possessed important knowledge.

Hoard assemblage from Brad, Romania, containing a copper axe and valuable personal adornments made of deer canines, copper, and gold, 4200-4050 BC. Size (ceramic vessel): 12cm high; 21cm maximum diameter. IMAGE: courtesy of Neamţ County Museum Complex, Romania. Photographer Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

After 4500 BC, artefacts made of smelted copper, including large mould-made axes and adzes, circulated throughout south-eastern Europe, linking the diverse farming communities from the Carpathian Basin to the Adriatic, the Aegean, and the Black Sea into networks of social interaction through which flowed ideas, information, and objects. Copper was not the only metal to be exploited during this time. Gold, panned from the rivers of the Balkans, also began to be used for crafting a wide variety of objects, including ornaments and status symbols.

In addition to innovations in metallurgy, the Copper Age witnessed the widespread adoption of a new funerary practice whereby the deceased would be buried in stand-alone cemeteries that were not directly associated with settlements. This created an important new venue for the performance of funerary rituals, which now would be carried out not only in front of the members of one’s own household and village, but on a regional stage as well.

Ceramic wagon model from Szigetszentmárton, Hungary, 3500-3000 BC. Size: 7.6 x 7.3 x 7.2cm. IMAGE: courtesy of Hungarian National Museum. Photographer Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

During the Copper Age, the burial ritual started being used regularly to mark aspects of a person’s life other than gender, age, and personal skills, such as positions of rank and hierarchy within their community. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Copper Age cemeteries of Varna and Durankulak along the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. In those cemeteries, during the middle of the 5th millennium BC, several hundred people were buried with unprecedented amounts of gold, copper, and other precious objects to mark social status. One burial at Varna contained almost a thousand gold artefacts and a variety of other objects made of exotic materials indicating the individual’s outstanding status and power in the region. Other graves contained artefacts but no dead bodies; these ‘empty graves’ or cenotaphs most likely represent people who died elsewhere. The assemblage of gold objects – including bracelets, dress appliqués, a miniature diadem, pendants, and a sceptre – from Grave 36 at Varna was part of a cenotaph, probably associated with a young man as suggested by other burials in the cemetery.

Another tradition that evolved during the Copper Age was the burial of groups of objects in hoards. Sometimes, these caches of objects may have been functional – people burying valuable things in troubled times so others would not find them – but in many cases hoards were ritually placed into the ground to recognise specific events, moments, deities, or people. Based on later examples, we presume that some hoards commemorate alliances or perhaps the memory of a leader.

Bronze cuirass from the Danube River near Pilismarót, Hungary, 1200-1100 BC. Size (back): 50.5cm high. IMAGE: courtesy of Szent István Király Museum, Hungary. Photographer Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

During the Copper Age, major innovations were introduced in south-eastern Europe, including the wheel and the wagon. Their importance for the local communities is indicated by wagon models, such as the one from Szigetszentmárton in Hungary. People from the steppe may have brought domestic horses with them during the transition between the Copper Age and Bronze Age, and they became important symbols of power and prestige across south-eastern Europe in the millennia to come. In fact, horses might have played a significant role in laying the foundation for dramatic changes in leadership and hierarchy that occurred throughout the region during the Bronze Age.

Many of the economic and political innovations that had emerged in the Neolithic and the Copper Age coalesced during the Bronze Age to form a world that was permanently altered – a new world rife with hierarchies and inequality. Bronze, a hard new metal, was widely circulated throughout south-eastern Europe, and was used not only to make gilded goblets wielded by celebrating chieftains but also for crafting effective weapons. Warfare occurred much more frequently, and a warrior class formed in many Bronze Age societies. In both warfare and social display, horses became critical elements. The tradition of hoarding continued and became much more elaborate. The cemeteries that had become the stage for expressions of regional identity and individual differences during the Copper Age grew along with the increasing size of Bronze Age communities. But perhaps the most significant transformation that occurred during this period was the establishment of durable hierarchical political systems with ranks of hereditary leaders, at least in some parts of south-eastern Europe.

Gold hair-rings in a ceramic vessel from Lovas, Croatia, 1500-1200 BC. Size (vessel): 9.8 x 9cm. IMAGE: courtesy of Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, Croatia. Photographer Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

At some point at the end of the 4th millennium BC, ancient metalworkers discovered that mixing copper with other elements made it harder and more useful: it was this process of alloying that turned copper into bronze. Some prehistoric smiths experimented using arsenic as an alloy, but they quickly realised that tin was the better solution. But unlike copper, which occurs geologically in several places across south-eastern Europe, tin is much rarer, and the ancient sources that we know were exploited are located as far away as Cornwall in England, to the west, and Afghanistan, to the east. Thus the component parts of bronze linked the communities of the region into an intercontinental trading network that connected distant worlds.

A few centuries after the introduction of bronze metallurgy, different advanced weapon types were invented and crafted in large numbers in south-eastern Europe. The exhibition features both offensive and defensive weapons: for example, a unique two-part cuirass found in the Danube River in Hungary and a sword from Komsi in Albania. Not only the large amounts of weapons but also the regular construction of massive fortifications – some with evidence for sieges, such as at Sântana in Romania – indicate the common occurrence of warfare during the Bronze Age. These wars brought about devastation for communities, but provided opportunities for warriors to enter a newly emerged military elite. Homer’s epic poems illuminate this world and reflect on a warrior hero-cult that might have developed across south-eastern Europe. Weapons were major elements in the display of elevated social status over the course of communal ceremonies and performances. For instance, gold daggers from Perșinari in Romania and a gold greave from Szeged in Hungary, the latter decorated with non-figurative motifs and cut into three pieces before interment, were not used in combat but might have signalled the high rank of their bearers.

Gold pendants from the Sarasău (Szarvaszó) Hoard, Romania, 1300-1200 BC. Size (largest pendant): 8.4cm diameter. IMAGE: courtesy of National History Museum of Romania and Hungarian National Museum. Photographer Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

Continuing the tradition of hoarding, many Bronze Age hoards included not only pieces of scrap metal for reuse but a wide range of objects that were buried together to commemorate an event, moment, or person. Hoards came to be associated with increasing demonstrations of status and wealth inequality, too. The Lovas Hoard from Croatia included more than 480 pieces of bronze and 22 gold hair ornaments, buried sometime between 1500 and 1300 BC. This hoard was found isolated – not in a cemetery or in a settlement – making its purpose something of a mystery. Other hoards incorporate many gold objects, such as the Sarasău (Szarvaszó) Hoard from 1300-1200 BC, parts of which are owned by Hungary and Romania. Including 11 gold pendants of snail-like spirals, three crescent-shaped pendants, and a long and a short string of gold beads, this hoard was found by a cowherd when heavy rain exposed it in the middle of the 19th century, and it is reunited in the exhibition for the first time since its discovery.

Throughout the Neolithic and the Copper Age, there had been flashes of hierarchy – for example, in those burials at Varna and Durankulak – but the emergence of these hierarchical systems remained localised to specific regions, and generally did not last longer than a few generations. During the Bronze Age, by contrast, hierarchical societies based on inherited rank spread through many regions of south-eastern Europe. In these contexts, people found themselves in a new, unequal world where horse-riding warrior chiefs donned ostentatious accoutrements of gold and bronze. These hierarchical communities of the Bronze Age laid the foundation for the emergence of the tribal kingdoms of the Iron Age, for the birth of royalty.

Silver goblet from Agighiol, Romania, 350-300 BC. Size: 18cm high. IMAGE: courtesy of National History Museum of Romania. Photographer Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

Like the Copper Age and Bronze Age, the beginning of the Iron Age is signalled by the introduction of a new metal. The know-how of iron metallurgy dispersed rapidly, and tools and weapons made of iron began to supplant many of their bronze counterparts throughout south-eastern Europe at the onset of the 1st millennium BC. The Iron Age also saw many other significant changes across the region. Complex trade networks unfolded over long distances and diplomatic relations linked remote societies. Large standing armies fought bloody battles with weapons that did not change fundamentally until the introduction of firearms. Inequalities in status and wealth reached unprecedented levels, and lavish ceremonies commemorated victories and defeats and celebrated the living and the dead. All these processes were orchestrated and controlled by military leaders, powerful chiefs, and mighty kings and queens.

In the first centuries of the 1st millennium BC, iron quickly became a popular material. As opposed to the ingredients of bronze (that is, copper and tin), which were typically acquired from remote areas at high cost, iron deposits occur naturally in many places throughout south-eastern Europe. Working with iron, however, requires higher temperatures than copper or bronze. The rapid spread of advances in pyro-technology from south-west Asia culminated in the mastery of ironworking across the Balkans and neighbouring regions over the course of a mere couple of centuries. In addition to the archaeological record, which up to the Iron Age is our only source of information for reconstructing the past, we also have Greek and Roman literary sources that provide a wealth of written information about this exciting period. These written sources report on a variety of ethnic groups and tribes that lived throughout the Balkans and beyond – for example, the Triballi in the northern Balkans, the Autariatae and Dardanians in the western Balkans, and the Odrysae in the eastern Balkans – and were linked through complex exchange networks.

Silver gilt helmet from Peretu, Romania, 325-275 BC. Size: 26.5cm high. IMAGE: courtesy of National History Museum of Romania. Photographer Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

Like the literary sources, the archaeological record testifies to regular, lasting contacts between remote regions. A large, elaborately decorated bronze vessel from Ártánd, in Hungary, but crafted in the Greek city-state of Sparta, was buried with a member of the military elite of the Great Hungarian Plain, indicating the distances over which his trade prowess, and possibly his reputation, extended. Thracian burial assemblages and treasures from present-day Bulgaria and southern Romania are frequently decorated with motifs derived from Persia, Greece, and the steppe region, including an array of mythical animal and human figures on weapons, vessels, jewellery, and horse harnesses. These designs show the exchange of ideas among specialised artisans who made these items for the elite within the vibrant multicultural milieu of Iron Age south-eastern Europe. One spectacular object, found in a rich Thracian tomb at Agighiol, Romania, in 1931, is a silver goblet dating to 350-300 BC and covered with images of striking creatures including a stag with elaborate antlers, as well as a bird with a fish in its beak and a rabbit in its claws. Along the top, a continuous wave with birds’ heads echoes the water-like depiction below.

There is ample evidence, too, for warfare in the archaeological record. The outstanding role of weaponry in elite status display is most ostentatiously illustrated by gold and silver gilded ceremonial helmets that are sumptuously decorated with mythical motifs. These rare helmets, including one on display from a lavish tomb at Peretu, Romania, are among the most exquisite artefacts manufactured throughout the history of Europe.

Gold wreath from Zlatinitsa-Malomirovo, Bulgaria, with an appliqué in the form of the goddess Nike, 375-325 BC. Size (wreath): 19cm in diameter. IMAGE: courtesy of National Museum of History, Bulgaria. Photographer Ádám Vágó © Field Museum

Ancient Thrace is extraordinarily rich in dazzling burial assemblages, hinting at the ample resources of those interred in such lavish style. Artefacts from a rich grave of a 18- to 20-year-old man discovered at Zlatinitsa-Malomirovo in Bulgaria included an impressive set of weapons, a figurative silver gilded greave, and a golden wreath adorned with an appliqué masterpiece in the form of the goddess of victory, Nike. These make this burial phenomenally furnished, even in the context of other splendid Thracian tomb assemblages.

Other similarly marvellous Thracian groups of objects were recovered as treasures or hoards, with no direct evidence for associated burials. The 4th-century BC Borovo Treasure, for example, was discovered in Bulgaria in the 1970s. It includes five silver gilded vessels – three rhyta (drinking horns) ending in a horse, bull, or sphinx, a bowl, and a jug – that signify the importance of feasting in the life and death of the Thracian elite, with drinking wine its focal feature. These and similar awe-inspiring Thracian metal artefacts were produced locally, as well as in Greek workshops, probably in the Greek colonies established and flourishing along the coast of the Black Sea.

Bronze objects from a burial assemblage from Milci, North Macedonia, including bracelets and pendant rattles, 700-650 BC. Size (largest pendant): 13cm high. IMAGE: courtesy of National Institution Museum–Gevgelija, North Macedonia. Photo by Filip Kondovski

The archaeological record also speaks to the significant power that women held in Iron Age societies in different parts of south-eastern Europe. Female graves furnished with abundant jewellery are especially common in the central Balkans. Excavations of the Donja Dolina cemetery in Bosnia and Herzegovina unearthed many examples, including the remains of a young girl, about 12 years old, whose grave is displayed in the exhibition as if in situ, showing how she was buried, around 600-550 BC, with ceramic spindle whorls and a vessel, and wearing a headdress ornamented with a forehead piece and rings, a torque, a gorget, armbands, fibulae, and decorative chains, all made of bronze. Another female burial, from the large necropolis of Milci in North Macedonia, stands out because its grave goods are abundant and unique compared to other burials in the same cemetery, illustrating her political power as well as – through the cult wand and pendant rattles – her probable ritual power.

The world of cultural and political diversity, but at the same time hybridity, that characterised south-eastern Europe from the beginning of the 1st millennium BC gradually faded away after the 4th century BC. The rise of the formidable Macedonian Empire, the migration of Celtic tribes from the north, and eventually the conquest of the Roman Empire fundamentally altered the social and cultural development of south-east European societies forever. But that is another story to tell.


First Kings of Europe runs at the Field Museum, Chicago, IL, until 28 January 2024. Visit for more information. It will then travel to the Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau, Quebec, between 31 April 2024 and 19 January 2025.

Two hardback books have been published by UCLA’s Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press to accompany the exhibition: First Kings of Europe: from farmers to rulers in prehistoric south-eastern Europe, edited by Attila Gyucha and William A Parkinson (ISBN 978-1950446247; $75) and First Kings of Europe: exhibition catalog, co-authored by Attila Gyucha and William A Parkinson (ISBN 9781950446391; $49.95). In addition, the Field Museum and the Canadian Museum of History published a souvenir book, entitled First Kings of Europe and co-authored by Ryan Schuessler, William A Parkinson, and Attila Gyucha.