Special class of buildings reflect social organization in Ukraine in the 4th millennium BCE

So-called "mega-structures" in ancient Europe were public buildings that likely served a variety of economic and political purposes, according to a study released September 25, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Robert Hofmann of Kiel University, Germany and colleagues.

Between 4100-3600BCE, the archaeological record in Eastern Europe reveals "giant-settlements" of the Tripolye culture that were home to many thousands of people. Recently, archaeological work at the giant-settlement of Maidanetske, Ukraine has uncovered evidence of so-called "mega-structures," large buildings of uncertain function also known from other similar sites.

The Authors say1 "The eldest protourban megasites of Europe collapsed after some generations around 3700 BCE, during which time they flourished with up to 10,000 inhabitants and attracted surrounding communities in the Northpontic forest steppe with their extremly fertile black soils. Now our interdisciplinary study detected one reason for their collapse: a social imbalance in decision processes led to an increased centralisation of power structures. These did not allow the managment of the city-like settlements any longer. In consequence, these Tripolye megasites are an example, how humans should not govern. Nevertheless, in consequence urbanism devloped much later in Europe then in the Near East."


  • 1. In this study, Hofmann and colleagues compare the mega-structures of Maidanetske to over 100 others from 19 other ancient European settlements to investigate their function. The highly public location of these structures within their settlements and the lack of evidence of permanent habitation within them led the researchers to conclude these were public spaces. They also document a hierarchy of mega-structures based on their architecture and location; some were apparently well-suited to serve the entire community, while others served smaller segments of the community. These lower-level structures are also observed to decline in use over the history of the settlements.

Robert Hofmann, Johannes Müller, Liudmyla Shatilo, Mykhailo Videiko, René Ohlrau, Vitalii Rud, Nataliia Burdo, Marta Dal Corso, Stefan Dreibrodt, Wiebke Kirleis. Governing Tripolye: Integrative architecture in Tripolye settlementsPLOS ONE, 2019; 14 (9): e0222243

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0222243

Recently, high-resolution magnetometry surveys have led to the discovery of a special category of buildings–so-called ‘mega-structures’–situated in highly visible positions in the public space of Tripolye giant-settlements of the late 5th and first half of the 4th millennium BCE. In this paper we explore what these buildings actually are and how they can contribute to the understanding of the development of social space in Tripolye giant-settlements. For this investigation, we linked newly obtained excavation data from the giant-settlement Maidanetske, Ukraine, with a much larger sample of such buildings from magnetic plans obtained in the region between the Carpathian foothills and the Dnieper River. Accordingly, Tripolye mega-structures represent a particular kind of integrative building documented in many non-ranked ethnographic contexts. Based on our results we are interpreting that these buildings were used for various ritual and non-ritual activities, joint decision-making, and the storage and consumption of surplus. In Tripolye giant-settlements at least three different categories of mega-structures could be identified which most likely represent different levels of socio-political integration and decision-making. The emergence of this hierarchical system of high-level integrative buildings for the whole community and different low-level integrative architectures for certain segments of local communities was related to the rise of Tripolye mega-sites. The presence of different integrative levels most likely reflects the fusion of different previously independent communities in the giant-settlements. Later in the mega-site development, we observe how low-level integrative buildings increasingly lose their importance indicated by shrinking size and, finally, their disappearance. This observation might indicate that the power which was previously distributed across the community was transferred to a central institution. It is argued that the non-acceptance of this concentration of power and the decline of lower decision-making levels might be a crucial factor for the disintegration of Tripolye giant-settlements around 3600 BCE.