Located between the villages of Slavej and Vrbjani, Vrbjanska Čuka is a tell typical of the Neolithic in Pelagonia. Fertile crop fields, rivers, swamps, vegetation, birds and animals constituted an ecological environment where this agricultural settlement was established and developed in the Neolithic, i.e. in the 6th millennium BC. It resulted from the intense life of a community living in daub houses surrounded by ditches protecting them against floods, wild animals and attacks. This Neolithic community was engaged in agriculture, stockbreeding, fishing, hunting and different crafts such as pottery, manufacture of stone tools, but also of various ritual items.

The massive granary, decorated with a relief typical of the artifacts with symbolical feature, witnesses of the exquisite significance of this settlement. Altars, anthropomorphic house models, figurines and the painted patterns on the vessels are the most remarkable. These features confirm that Vrbjanska Čuka was a significant center in the northern half of Pelagonia, not only regarding agriculture, but also regarding beliefs and rites. After the cessation of life of this Neolithic settlement, the tell was not in use during the next five millennia, up until Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, periods of activity confirmed by multiple pits and burials.

With the marshy habitat, abundance of trees, birds and animals typical of the swampy ambient – the ecological environment where the initial Neolithic phases of Vrbjanska Čuka were established was partially different than the landscape we see today. It is located 1.3 km south of the village of Slavej and about 12 km west of Prilep, in the northern part of Pelagonia Plain, considered a region with the densest distribution of Neolithic sites in Macedonia. This is a geographically closed unit surrounded by Mts Baba, Plakenska and Buševa in the west, by Dautica in the north, Babuna and Selečka in the east and the slopes of Mts Neredska and Nidže in the south. Alluvial layers have been found beneath archaeological horizons as a result of a Neogenic lake, which once spilled had a great impact on the dynamic hydrography of this region, along with the copious rainfalls, snowmelts from the surrounding higher mountains and the Crna River overflow.

This site was explored in multiple archaeological seasons as a cooperation between the museums of Prilep and Bitola, from 1979 till 1982, and then from 1987 till 1989. During these studies, a complex settlement was confirmed, composed of multiple cultural layers originating from the Neolithic, Late Antiquity and the Мiddle Аges. Material culture composed of vessels, anthropomorphic house models, altars, figurines, stone tools and sling shots refers to features typical of the Pelagonian Neolithic and the Velušina-Porodin culture. Moreover, numerous dwellings and economic structures were discovered. The massive granary where the crops were preserved and processed stands out. In order to gain new insight into this Neolithic settlement, new field, cabinet and lab research commenced taken by teams from multiple countries. Such an interdisciplinary approach, combining archaeology, geology, archaeobotany, palynology, anthracology, zooarchaeology, geophysical scanning, digital topography and 3D modeling resulted in many new data which enabled a much more thorough insight into the establishment and the development of this Neolithic settlement.

Geomagnetic scanning provided quite valuable information regarding the settlement’s spatial organization. The clear signals of the magnetometer refer to about twenty buildings surrounded by a ditch that existed in one of the tell phases. Buildings had a linear disposition in southwest-northeast and northwest-southeast direction, while the settlement could have been approached by southwest, confirmed by a wider open space without any architecture. Besides at Vrbjanska Čuka, geoscanning was also performed at the neighboring sites Vis Konjarski-Slavej and Tumba-Borotino, settlements that have quite different spatial organization.

Architectural traditions of this settlement are best evidenced by the several explored houses. Some of the buildings were partially investigated during the 1980s. However, the goal is to have them fully studied and documented with the upcoming excavations. One of them is a building referred to as House 2. Considering its inventory composed of 2 ovens, a hearth, a platform for crops processing, the circular structure and the thin inner wall, its complex function as an economic unit within the settlement can be confirmed.

The facility that distinguishes this site from the remaining Neolithic settlements in Macedonia is referred to as House 1. Numerous fragmented, but also completely preserved finds have been documented inside the building with a rectangular base, as well as altars of the ‘table’ type and house models. However, what makes this facility unique is the massive granary discovered in its northeastern part during the excavations in the 1980s.

Moreover, the granary witnesses of a very important element that appeared in the Neolithic, i.e. crops preservation and processing. This complex building composed a system of at least two components: a larger space with a surface of 2 x 2 meters and four smaller units placed one next to another. Its walls were ornamented with sloping ornaments – shapes that are often found in altar-tables and house models at the Neolithic sites in Pelagonia. Bone and stone tools have been found around the very construction, but also fully preserved and fragmented ceramic vessels.

Vessels are the most frequent finds among the ceramic material found at Vrbjanska Čuka. So far, numerous fine facture vessels were registered, their typology being specific for the Pelagonian Neolithic, but with authentic features regarding patterns. Red vessels made of fine clay predominate, their shape varying from an emphasized biconical center and rims mildly drawn towards the outer part. Less frequent are the bowls and the jugs in beige, black and orange-red as well as the other shapes typical of the Early Neolithic in Pelagonia. Amphora-shaped vessels and askoi stand out among the vessels with coarser fabric, decorated with barbotine and densely distributed nipple-like applications.

Anthropomorphic house models were also found during the archaeological excavations. Their cubic boxes have wide apertures typical of Northern Pelagonia. Above the cubic boxes, there are also cylinders with a central aperture and traces of soot referring to smoke passing through. Some cylinders are face-shaped, while others contain features referring to the similar characteristics. These objects were used as commemorative lanterns which were lit to honor the deceased ancestors or certain characters of Neolithic mythology.

Moreover, there are also altars-tables with soot traces of organic matter. Most often they represent gabled houses or they can be stylized as a small table used as an altar. They are often beige and rarely reddish-brown, while the house models are brown and beige with a medium facture and no organic and mineral additives. Triangular applications of the altars are identical with the reliefs of the walls of the massive granary. Thus, these similarities relate the symbolical features of the two apparently different shapes of material culture.

Several types of figurines were found at Vrbjanska Čuka. Those shaped as thin cylinder with a spherical base and applied hands predominate. There are also miniatures with distinct female features, such as wide thighs and plate-covered genitalia. Besides the elongated nose, the diagonal eyes and the hair, bodies rarely contain other elements. Zoomorphic figurines also do not have clear distinctions, besides those representing cattle. Their function is still uncertain and their context reveals no additional information. However, female figurines and cattle predominate, as well as those with no individual face features. It refers to certain roles these objects might have had regarding beliefs, rites, didactics and games of the agricultural communities within this settlement.

Tools, i.e. objects used for cutting, chipping and drilling, are less frequent at this site. Stone axes with well-preserved blades and small flint tools are the most frequent finds, whereas the bone tools (needles, awls and chisels) are rare. Moreover, loom weights and disc-shaped plates and fishing nets were also found, the sling shots used for hunting animals being the most frequent (unlike arrows which were not found at this site).

Initial archaeobotanical analyses of samples taken from Neolithic layers at Vrbjanska Čuka have identified several plants used by Neolithic communities: (a) lentil (Lens culinaris); (2) einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum); (3) barley (Hordeum vulgare) and (4) pea (Pisum sativum). The aim of these analyses is to gain insight into the paleoeconomy of the site and the nutrition of its inhabitants, but also to determine the biodiversity of the environment. Ongoing analyses widen the number of species found at this site and provide more detailed information regarding the life of the first farmers in this part of Pelagonia.

Currently, zooarchaeological analyses indicate that cattle were the most favored animals in the diet of Vrbjanska Čuka community. Also pigs, sheep, goats and mussels were consumed, while there is evidence for presence of dogs as well.

In order to determine more precisely the shape, the scope and the height of Vrbjanska Čuka, during the archaeological campaign of 2016, a digital elevation model (DEM) of the site has been made. A total of 179 spots were registered with a GPS RTK device on an equidistance of 10 and 20 meters throughout the whole surface of the Neolithic tell. Then, TIN interpolation of registered spot values was performed with GIS software providing excellent visualization and insight into the current condition of the settlement. The overall height of the tell is 603 meters, the lowest being 599 meters, while its diagonal length is 130 meters. This proved as an excellent method for documenting Pelagonian sites with distinctive heights between 2 and 6 meters, which also encounters Vrbjanska Čuka and its 4 meters.

Information obtained from excavations, lab analyses, photographs and geomagnetic scanning enabled a 3D modeling of the potential appearance of the Neolithic settlement. 3DS Max software was used for the modeling, while some of the known information regarding the site were reconstructed, such as the surrounding ditch, the location of the houses and their size. The visualization will also contribute towards a better insight into the character of the settlement, as well as its presentation and the educational and scientific programs.

In order to compare the special features and the settlement disposition at this site to the ones of the neighboring prehistoric tells, besides Vrbjanska Čuka (see ‘Architecture’), 'Tumba' Borotino and Vis Konjarski were also geomagnetically scanned. The favorable conditions while scanning enabled a high rate of new data and anomalies, the latter being mostly result of human activity dealing with ovens, hearths, burning of objects and other typical archaeological elements.

On a distance of 1 kilometer of Vrbjanska Čuka, two lesser, diffused tells compose the site of 'Tumba' Borotino. The results shown on the image depict a part of the researched area where a small circular settlement surrounded by ditches has been registered. A concentration of anomalies with low resolution is visible on the southeast, its small size and identical orientation most probably confirming the existence of a site which was used exclusively for inhumation burials.

A smaller tell with Neolithic finds synchronous of the archaeological material documented at Vrbjanska Čuka has been discovered at a distance of only 200 meters northeast. Therefore, two isolated places with a total surface of 3.4 acres were geomagnetically measured. The highest value results are marked on the image. The interpretation of some of the most remarkable positive anomalies speaks of a narrower ditch, a rectilinear structure that could have been a part of a palisade and several anomalies related to structures such as hearths, pits and daub remains. The tell surface not encompassed in these geomagnetic measurements is yet to be researched, as well the potential correlations of Vis Konjarski and Vrbjanska Čuka, given the relatively small distance between them.

There are several reports regarding Vrbjanska Čuka, and parts of the material culture were included in many papers, partially or fully concentrated on the architecture, antropomorphic models, altars, vessels and figurines. They illustrate the current knowledge about this Neolithic settlement and provide a detailed insight in the interior, pottery and symbolic spheres characteristic for the society that inhabited this place.



Reports:

Naumov, G.; Mitkoski, A.; Murgoski, A.; Beneš, J.; Przybyła, М., Komarkova, V; Vychronova, M. Milevski, Đ. and Stoimanovski, I. in print. Research on Vrbjanska Čuka at Slavej - 2017. Archaeologia Adriatica 11. Zadar.

Наумов, Г.; Миткоски, А.; Мургоски, А; Бенеш, Ј.; Пшибила, М.; Милевски, Ѓ., Комаркова, В.; Вихронова, М. и Стоимановски, И. 2016. Истражување на Врбјанска Чука кај Славеј - 2016. Патримониум 14: 13-42. Скопје.

Миткоски, А. 2005. Врбјанска Чука кај селото Славеј, Прилепско. Зборник на Музеј на Македонија 2: 33-46. Скопје.

Китаноски, Б. 1989. Врбјанска Чука. Arheološki pregled 1987: 47 - 48. Ljubljana.

Reviews:

- architecture:

Naumov, G. 2013. Embodied houses: social and symbolic agency of Neolithic architecture in the Republic of Macedonia. In Hoffman, D. and Smyth, J. (eds.) Tracking the Neolithic house in Europe - sedentism, architecture and practice: 65 – 94. New York: Springer.

Mitkoski, A. and Temelkoski, D. 2008. Cult Object from Neolithic Site Vrbjanska Chuka. In Shukarova, B. and Grupche, O. (eds.) Science Meets Archaeology and Art History - Balkan Symposium on Archaeometry: 96-97. Skopje.

Mitkoski, A. and Naumov, G. 2007. Neolithic Structure of possible ritual significance from The Republic of Macedonia. PAST 58: 8-9. London.

Kitanoski, B., Simoska, D. and JovanoviČ, B. 1990. Der kultplatz auf der fundstatte Vrbjanska Cuka bei Prilep. In SrejoviČ, D. and TasiČ, N. (eds.) Vinča and its World. International Symposium The Danubian Region from 6000-3000 BC: 107-112. Beograd: Serbian Academy of Science and Arts, Centre for Archaeological Research, Faculty of Philosophy. Beograd. Bigz.

- antropomorphic models:

Chausidis, N. 2010. Neolithic Ceramic Figurines in the Shape of a Woman - House from the Republic of Macedonia. In Gheorghiu, D. and Cyphers, A. (eds.), Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic miniature figures in Eurasia, Africa and Meso-America: morphology, materiality, technology, function and context: 25 - 35. BAR International Series. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Чаусидис, Н. 2008. Отворите на неолитските жртвеници од типот „Мајка – Куќа“. Macedoniae Acta Archaeologica 18: 75 – 92. Скопје.

Темелкоски, Д. и Миткоски, А 2005. Типови неолитски жртвеници во праисториската збирка на Заводот и музеј – Прилеп. Зборник на Музејот на Македонија 2 (археологија): 47 - 56. Скопје. 2005.

- altars

Naumov, G. 2011. Visual and conceptual dynamism of the Neolithic altars in the Republic of Macedonia. In V. Nikolov, K. Bacvarov & H. Popov (eds.) Interdisziplinäre Forschungen zum Kulturerbe auf der Balkanhalbinsel: 89-129. Sofia: Nice.

Чаусидис, Н. 2009. Балканске „кућарице“ и неолитски керамички жртвеници у облику куће. Во С. Петровић (уред.) Етнокултуролошки зборник XIII: 53-72. Сврљиг.

Темелкоски, Д. и Миткоски, А 2005. Типови неолитски жртвеници во праисториската збирка на Заводот и музеј – Прилеп. Зборник на Музејот на Македонија 2 (археологија): 47 - 56. Скопје. 2005.

- vessels:

Темелковски, Д. и Миткоски, А. 2005. Садова керамика од Врбјанска Чука. Macedoniae Acta Archaeologica 16: 29 – 53. Скопје.

- figurines:

Наумов, Г. 2015. Неолитски фигурини во Македонија. Скопје: Магор.

Темелкоски, Д. и Миткоски, А. 2001. Неолитски антропоморфни статуетки во предисториската збирка од Завод и музеј Прилеп. Македонско наследство 17: 53 – 69.