Excavations carried out by the CRC 1266 in collaboration with colleagues from Kyiv and Chişinau have revealed a new type of settlement, deliberately laid out on a circular plan for thousands of inhabitants and with assembly houses. The spatial design of these settlements expresses a worldview that valued social equality.

Communal life was attractive and lasted for ten generations before the city collapsed. What happened? It appears that its inhabitants failed to devise new decision-making processes for a growing population.

6,000 years old, gigantic, and round: a stone age “reform settlement”

From the late fifth millennium BCE, thousands of people came together in the wooded steppes west of the Carpathian Mountains in modern Ukraine and founded vast settlements in regions that had previously been virtually uninhabited, collectively named “Trypillia” after the site near Kyiv where the first of the type was discovered. These settlements, whose inhabitants supported themselves by livestock and arable farming, now lie buried beneath thick layers of black earth.

Like the neighbouring mega-sites, the city of Maidanetske, covering an area of more than 2 km², was extremely attractive. From around 3900 BCE, it saw an influx of new inhabitants to reach a population of approximately ten thousand before being abandoned over a fifty-year period around 3650 BCE.

  • Excursion

    How to make the past visible:
    a note on magnetic survey

  • Photo of magnetic survey being carried out with a tractor-drawn magnetic cart with 6 sondes.

    In exploring the Trypillia settlements, magnetic survey has proved to be of particular value, though other geophysical methods are used to supplement it. Magnetic survey makes use of two effects: 1. Thermoremanent magnetisation 2. Induced magnetisation

  • Sequence of the formation of thermoremanent magnetisation.

    Thermoremanent magnetisation: When cooling down after intense heating, certain materials (e.g. clay) store the direction of the earth’s magnetic field at the time of firing. Objects ‘preserved’ in this manner can be made visible as magnetic anomalies by measuring them against their non-fired surroundings.

  • Schematic illustration of a magnetic measurement above a covered pit.

    Induced magnetisation: The humus-rich soil found in pits and ditches contains a higher proportion of iron, leading to higher magnetisation in contrast to the surrounding soils. This allows pits and ditches to be identified by magnetic survey.

  • a) Magnetic mapping of the Trypillia settlement Maidanetske (Ukraine), b) interpretation of the settlement structure based on magnetics.

    The composition of the soil on the excavation site, in combination with the fact that most houses were burnt, enabled the layout of entire settlements to made visible.
    Large-scale manual magnetic survey was already begun in the Soviet era, at a time when the technique was little used elsewhere. Today, motorised instruments allow settlements to be mapped rapidly and in high resolution.

Mega-sites consist of the remains of thousands of burnt-down houses built along concentric ring roads. The basic layout displays remarkable similarities to modern ideal cities or reform communities of the kind often envisaged by social reformers.

The founders of Trypillia settlements likewise set a high value on social equality. The ring-shaped plan of the settlements was intended to ensure that their inhabitants enjoyed equal access to infrastructure. Public spaces contain assembly houses known as ‘megastructures’, where decisions at levels ranging from the neighbourhood to the entire settlement were put to democratic debate in a manner familiar from non-state communities. And these buildings were indeed key community centres, spaces in which decisions were made, rituals enacted, feasts celebrated, and children raised.

  • Neighbourhood with assembly house in the Maidanetske mega-site.

Building types...

Activities in the assembly house hold the community together. It is a place of communal weaving, corn-grinding, and eating, but above all of discussion and decision-making.

... in Trypillia mega-sites

Each residential building is divided into different zones of activity. The first-floor entrance is used for hulling cereals. The main room contains a dome-shaped oven for cooking, a dining area with a table-like fireplace, and sleeping quarters. Along one wall, decorated vessels are displayed on a clay shelf.

  • Excursion

    Trypillia assembly houses

  • The assembly houses of Trypillia communities are defined by three features deducible from the settlement plans recreated using geophysical and archaeological tools. These are (1) a prominent and visible position in the public space, (2) architectural distinctness from residential buildings, and (3) their extraordinary size.

  • In the large settlements, their position at communicative ‘nodes’ within the public space corresponds to a decentral form of political and social organisation. Certain population groups – brought together by neighbourhood, kinship, age or economic interest – connect via megastructures: in the ring corridor, in smaller plazas, in the radial ring roads, beyond the rings of residential development.

  • Magnetic survey and remains of ceramics, grindstones, cereals, animal bones, flint blades, and loom weights show that this is where people came together to weave, to grind cereal, and to share meals. And while they were doing so, they discussed – free from political coercion – the everyday concerns of the mega-site and made democratic decisions about how to address them.

  • Five stages in the development of communal life between 4300 and 3650 BCE can be identified:

    1. Small communities, each with a central institution;
    2. small communities join to form large settlements with an additional, overarching institution;
    3. decision-making processes are increasingly centralised;
    4. the decentral institutions disappear;
    5. the population fragments into small groups.


  • Typical remnants of houses in Trypillia mega-sites include a baked clay platform, walls, and items of furniture.

  • Archaeologists cautiously using trowels to expose the remnants of dwellings.

  • Everything must be carefully measured and documented before the baked clay is removed.

  • Since they often contain common rubbish, as well as traces of ritual meals, pits are valuable sources of archaeological evidence.

  • In order to prevent even the smallest finds – gaming counters, beads, or bones – from going undetected, all spoil from the excavation is carefully sifted.

Mega-sites of today

Excavations of the future in Los Angeles

Mike Davis’s “City of Quartz” is one of the key works of urban sociology. It is rooted in the “Chicago School” of sociology, which examines the impact of different actors and social groups on urban life. The city of Los Angeles is described as the result of a varied history of economic cycles of boom and bust, of the influx of people and capital, of crisis and emigration, of gentrification and the development of resistance. The growth of quartz crystals offers a metaphor for these historical processes, which are driven by planning and seemingly arbitrary forces alike.