Friday 30 January 2015

Taraiš, Taraba

This is a bronze figure representing a smyth working on a piece of metal. It was found somewhere near the village of Vranište in the South Eastern Serbia. It was found by a villager who brought it to the local school teacher. The exact location on which the figurine was found and the circumstances under which it was found are unknown. The school teacher informed the authorities and the figurine eventually ended up in the National Museum in Belgrade. The sculpture is still in the National museum of Belgrade and is cataloged as Hellenistic. 

However I think that the sculpture could be Celtic and is only classified as Hellenistic because at that time when the sculpture was found, the common opinion was that Celts lived in Panonia, above river Sava. Now we know that Celts actually lived on the whole territory of Serbia and that the border between the Celtic and Greek world was somewhere around the today’s border between Serbia and Makedonia .

I already wrote in my post about Bran - Vran that according to the latest archaeological data, Balkans and particularly the territory of today’s Serbia was a mayor Celtic (Gaulic) stronghold between the 4th and the 1st century BC. 

Celts (Gauls) went from their Balkan stronghold to attack Greek lands and to eventually form Galatia in Asia Minor. What is very interesting is that the chieftains of these Balkan Celts (Gauls) from fourth and third century BC are both called Brenus. This name is derived from the word Bran - Vran which can mean three things: raven, defend and black. 

The first meaning, raven, has been preserverd in Breton, Welsh, Irish, Lithuanian, Serbian.

The second meaning, defender, was clearly preserved only in South Slavic languages and you can see the full list of the Serbian bran words related to the meaning defend in the Bran - Vran post. In Celtic languages this meaning is only preserved in the Welsh word "breenhín", and Irish words "branán, braine, braineach" meaning "a prince, a chief, leader" which also exists in Serbian as "branjanj". There is also an Irish name "Bran" with the same meaning which also exists in Serbian as "Brana" and many other variations.  

The third meaning, black, is preserved only in Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Polish which use vran, vron as a word for black. In Serbia there are hundreds of toponimes with the root "bran", "vran" which you can find in the Bran - Vran post of which one is Vranište.

So knowing all this, it is, I believe, extremely interesting that this possibly Celtic smith figurine was found next to the village whose name has a Celtic root, Vranište

The village Vranište is located in the South Eastern Serbia, which is known to have a large Vlah population. This population is most often described as "descendants of the Pre-Slavic Roman population", but is it possible that they are descendants of the Pre-Slavic Celtic population? What is also interesting is that during the medieval time, in the foreign reports about the Balkans, the names Vlah and Serb were interchangeable. The South Eastern Serbia is where we find many "Celtic" crosses still being used as village crosses, like this one from the village of Vlasotince which is located near the mountain Vlasina:

The village name Vlasotince comes from Vlaso + tin + ce = Vlah + tin, tun, dun + ce = Celt + fort, town, settlement + small. The mountain name Vlasina comes from Vlah and means the mountain of Vlahs, the mountain of Celts.... 

Up north from Vlasina, on the confluence of the rivers Sava and Dunav we find Belgrade. 

The name of the river Sava comes from sámh + abhainn = still, calm, quiet, tranquil + river, which is perfect description of the river Sava. The name of the river Danube comes from dun + abhainn = fortress, border, surrounding + river or don + abhainn = murky, dark, brown + river. I think that both of these names describe Dunav, Donau quite well. Belgrade is an ancient city, probably one of the oldest permanently settled places in the world. The earliest settlement found on the territory of today's Belgrade is Vinča tell which dates to the 6th millennium BC and after which the famous Vinča culture got its name. But during the Celtic times Belgrade was known as Singidunum. It was recorded that a Celtic tribe, the Scordisci, settled the area in the 3rd century BC. The first evidence of primitive fortification came later in the 3rd century BC, with the settlement of the Scordisci who picked the strategic hilltop at the meeting of the two rivers as the basis for their habitation. 

The name Singidun is first attested in 279 BC.The name has Celtic dūn "enclosure, fortress" as its second element.

For Singi- there are several theories, the two most widely circulated being that it is a Celtic word for circle, hence "round fort", or it could be named after the Sings, a Thracian tribe that occupied the area prior to the arrival of the Scordisci. Another possibility is that it is a composite name the first part of which (Sin-gi) means "Old prayer" ("sean guí" in Gaelic), implying that this was originally site of Celtic religious significance, in addition to becoming a fortress (dun). This would also fit in with the fact that one of the biggest Celtic burial grounds found in Europe was found in the area. 

Belgrade which was one of the most important strongholds of the Celtic Scordisci empire, which was based on metallurgy. 20 kilometers south from Belgrade  there are two villages, Železnik and Vranić. Železnik in Serbian means “iron town” or “iron place” or “iron works” or “smelting plant”. In medieval chronicles the place is described as once being the major iron and silver processing center. Roman sarcophagus belonging to a Decurion from second century was found near the village. This means that Železnik was important enough to have a military garrison stationed in it, probably because it was still an metallurgical center in Roman time. The name of  the village Vranić has the same root as the village Vranište where the possibly Celtic figurine of the smith was found. Between the villages of Železnik and Vranić, on another hill is a village of Sremčica where the iron ore was mined and where the old iron mines were discovered...

Now here comes the interesting bit. Both settlements, Železnik and Vranić, have parts called “taraiš” pronounced “taraish” situated just after or beyond the village boundaries.

The Irish word "tar" means "approach, arrive; move, travel, towards, come, return". The Irish word "eis" means "after". The Irish word "abhaile" means home. 

Irish expression “tar éis” which is pronounced as "tar aish" means “after” or “beyond”. 

So over two thousand years since the Celts "came and left" the Belgrade area, people in two small villages which are located near the ancient iron and silver mines, use Irish expression taraiš - tar éis meaning beyond, as a name for land which lies just beyond the village boundaries. And in the same place where people call the land beyond the village boundary taraiš, tar éis” the people call fences around their houses "taraba". This is taraba.

And this is a reconstruction of a Celtic palisade, fence, taraba:

Is it possible that people who use the Celtic word taraiš, tar éis” for "the land beyond the village boundary" could use a Celtic word for "fence, the house, village boundary"? The word "taraba" used for the house boundary and probably for the village boundary in the past, could have come from the Irish "tar abhaile" which means to arrive, get home. You know that you have arrived home when you see the fence, the palisade protecting you house, your village. 

Official etymology for taraba says that word taraba comes from Turkish tahta - plank + perde - partition, shelter = tahtaperde = taraba??? The word is used in colloquial Turkish to mean fence. But is it possible that this word instead of being a Turkish borrowing in Serbian, is actually Celtic borrowing in both Serbian and Turkish?

What does this all tell us? Is it possible that Celts never left Serbia? Are descendants of Celts still living in Vranište and Vranić all these thousands of years later, except that they are now called Serbs, in the same way the descendants of Celts today live in Ireland where they are now called Irish? Is it possible that villages like Vranište and Vranić actually date from the time of the Celts? And is it possible that the Celtic influence in Serbia started much earlier, not during the 4th and 3rd century BC, but at the beginning of the first millennium BC or maybe even earlier? 

Monday 19 January 2015

The eyes of god

Prohodna (Bulgarian: Проходна) is a karst cave in north central Bulgaria, located in the Iskar Gorge near the village of Karlukovo in Lukovit Municipality, Lovech Province.  On a sunny day, as you approach the entrance, you are greeted with two shining eyes staring at you from the darkness of the cave. 

These shining "eyes" are created by the light shining through two equal-sized holes in the ceiling of its middle chamber. The holes, look uncannily like eyes and the formation is locally known as the Eyes of God as well as the Eyes of Devil. There is no unanimous opinion on whether this is a natural phenomenon or a result of human activity.  I think that these were probably natural holes which loosely resembled eyes but were then shaped into proper eyes by people....

On the day of the Spring Equinox - March 21, the light passing through "the eyes" shines on an alcove filled with water. This suggests that the cave might have been used by the local population for religious ceremonies related to the beginning of the spring.

Archaeological material found in the Tamnata (Dark) cave which is located just next to Prohodna cave testifies that humans used this cave system since the Upper Paleolithic time.

This is probably one of the most amazing places I have ever seen in my life. It is easy to see how a place like this can instantly create an image of an anthropomorphic giant sky god in minds of people standing inside of the cave.

When I look at this last picture, I have a strong feeling that I have seen this face somewhere before. On a ceremonial helmet or mask or a statue. Anyone knows what I am talking about? :) 

I just remembered what this reminds me of: Zeus, Perun, Indra, Thor, Taranos.... 

Look at the lines on the wall. They look like a bushi hair and beard. All the early sky gods were men with bushy hair and beard. Why? Is this cave the reason? Is this cave the place where the idea of a giant hairy sky god arose  for the first time? And if so when did this happen? The cave has been visited by people since at least upper paleolithic....

By the way, this could also explain a curious custom we find in many cultures, of celebrating sky gods in caves...

Sunday 11 January 2015

Pit ovens

An earth oven or cooking pit is one of the simplest and longest used cooking structures. It is  also the oldest oven type used by people. The earliest ones were found in Central Europe, and dated to 29,000 BC. They were situated inside mammoth bone yurts and were used to cook mammoth meat. 

So what is an earth pit oven?

At its simplest, an earth oven is a pit dug in the the ground. A fire is lit at the bottom of pit and let to burn until only hot coals are left behind. The pit walls and the stones placed in the fire absorb and then radiate the heat back towards the center of the pit. This heat is then used to bake, smoke, or steam food inside of the pit. To make the earth ovens more efficient you can line them with stones as they are much better at absorbing and radiating back heat than the ordinary dirt. 

So how do you make a pit oven? First you dig a hole and line it with stones (optional).

The pit can be circular like the one on the picture above or rectangular like the one on the picture below.

Once we have a  pit, we need to light the fire inside the pit to heat the pit walls and to fill the pit with charcoal. 

Now that we have a pit full of hot coals, we can cook food in it or over it in variety of ways. 

For instance the food can be roasted on a spit over the pit oven. Because the heat is concentrated and preserved for a long time inside the pit by the stone walls, a small amount of wood can be used to roast a lot of meat.

In Serbia and in the rest of the Balkans, no major celebration can be imagined without a roasted pig or lamb on a spit. Where I come from, the roasting process always started with digging of a ditch, an oval shaped pit. The pit was then filled with slow burning hardwood which was burned and turned into a charcoal. Once the pit was full of the smoldering charcoal, the spit was put over the ditch and the roasting would start. Basically the pig was a spit roasted over a pit oven.

The modern version of this type of a pit oven for spit roasting is basically a brick, stone or metal tub, a "trough" filled with charcoal with a spit or spits placed over it.

If you only have a limited amount of wood or if you only want to roast a small amount of meat, or if you want to roast meat inside, you can use a small rectangular pit oven lined with stones. You can burn the wood directly inside the oven or you can fill the oven with charcoal from the hearth and then cook the small pieces of meat or fish on skewers. Barbecuing being national past time in Serbia, I know from my own experience that a shoe box size oven full of charcoal is more than enough to roast enough meat for 10 hungry adults providing you cut your meat in thin slices and roast them on skewers. 

That is one way to use pit ovens. But we can also use pit ovens for slow cooking. To do so, we first need to light the fire inside the pit. 

We need to burn enough wood to make enough charcoal to cover the bottom of the pit. We also need to add stones into the fire while it is still burning so that they absorb the heat of the fire and get really hot. Once the fire has burned out and we only have hot coals and hot stones left at the bottom of the pit oven, we can use wooden tongs to spread the stones over the coals. The pit oven with hot charcoals covered with hot stones and ready for cooking looks like this:

If we have covered the the charcoal with flat stones, or if we are cooking big lumps of meat, food can be placed directly on stones. If we are using round stones then stones are first covered with some edible green leaves and the food is placed on the leaves. The food is then covered with more stones and or branches and leaves. Then the whole contraption is covered with earth which seals the pit and keeps the heat and moisture inside it.

The food cooked in the covered pit can take from several hours to a full day to cook, but the advantage is that the cooking process does not require any additional attention. And the cooked food is delicious.

This is a very good video showing how to make one of these primitive cooking ovens using moss instead of leaves.

Earth ovens have been used in many places and by many cultures in the past, and are still used today. 


Pit ovens were used in many areas in the past. In Central Texas there are large "burned-rock middens" apparently used for large-scale cooking. 

The Mayan pibil cooking from Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, Inka huatia cooking from Peru and Curanto cooking from Chiloé Archipelago in Chile are also examples of the similar pit oven cooking technique from central and south America. In North America we find a so called clambake, a pit oven cooking method invented by Native Americans on the Atlantic seaboard of New England which uses a pit oven dug on a beach and seaweed as stone and food cover. 

Middle East and North Africa

Earth oven cooking is sometimes used for celebratory cooking in North Africa, particularly Morocco; a whole lamb is cooked in an earth oven (called a tandir, etymologically related to the Central- and South Asian tandoor. 

Among Bedouin and Tuareg nomads a simple earth oven is used, often when men travel without family & kitchen equipment in the desert. The oven is mostly used to bake bread. The wheat or barley flour is mixed with water (and some salt) and then placed directly into the hot sands beneath the camp fire. It is then covered again by hot coal and left to bake. This bread is known as Arbut but may be known under other local names.


In Taiwan we find traditional kiln cooking which is, with Inka huatia kiln cooking and Slavic stone pile oven cooking an example of a precursor to a later kiln clay and stone ovens. In all three cooking methods a shallow fire burning pit is encased in a dome made from stones or clay pieces with a small door left on one side for lighting fire and inserting food. The fire is then lit up inside the dome in order to heat up the stones or clay from which the dome is made. When only the charcoal is left, the charcoal is removed and food is put into the dome. The dome is then collapsed onto the food and covered with soil. The food is cooked under the pile of hot stones and dirt. I will talk about these ovens in detail in my next post. This is an example of a Taiwanese clay kiln oven.

The Pacific

Earth oven cooking was very common in the past and continues into the present – particularly for special occasions, because of how labor-intensive the earth oven process was. In Melanesian Polynesian languages the general term is "umu", from the Proto-Oceanic root *qumun: e.g.; Tongan ʻumu, Māori umu or hāngi, Hawaiian imu, Sāmoan umu, Cook Island Māori umu. In some non-Polynesian, part-Polynesian and Micronesian parts of the Pacific, languages are more diverse so each language has its own term - in Fiji it is a lovo and in Rotuman it is a koua. 

In Papua New Guinea the name for the pit oven is "mumu", a word probably borrowed from Polynesian and used by Tok Pisin  and English speakers, but each of the other hundreds of local languages has its own word for pit oven.

Despite the similarities, there are many differences in the details of preparation, their cultural significance and current usage.


Murray River aborigines use clay pit ovens for cooking food. Great oven mounds made of clay can still be seen along the river. Local aborigines did most of their cooking in these clay pit ovens. The women dug a hole in the mound and set a fire in the oven hole to heat the lumps of clay. Then they swept out the fire and placed the animals and roots inside, wrapped in layers of damp grass. The hot clay lumps were placed on top and the meal was cooked in a few hours. 


The earth ovens were used from the Neolithic period onward with examples from this period found at the sites of Rinyo and Links of Notland on Orkney. Pit ovens are more commonly found in the Bronze and Iron Ages sites such as Trethellan Farm and Maiden Castle, Dorset. Examples from these periods vary in form but are generally bowl-shaped and shallow in depth (30–45 cm) with diameters between 0.5 and 2 metres. 

Also there is a possibility that the Bronze Age Irish fulacht fiadh cooking sites, at least the ones with stone lined troughs, were used for pit cooking and not for boiling. I will write a whole post about fulachts. They are extremely interesting and important.

The pit cooking method is thought not to be common in Europe today. The only two examples are Cretan kleftiko ("thief style") cooking, and peka or sač ("under the bell") cooking which is found in the Slavic countries of the Balkans. Kleftiko involves wrapping the food in clay and cooking in a covered pit with charcoal. In the Balkans the pit oven cooking evolved into slaw cooking inside of a fired clay dish heated on charcoal (pit),  under a fired clay (now days also cast iron) bell shaped baking lid covered with hot coals. 

Peka or sač is basically a portable transportable clay pit oven. You can cook anything inside it: bread, meat, whole meals. As far as I know this type of cooking is unique to the Balkans. I will dedicate a whole post to this type of cooking as it is extremely important for understanding cultural continuity on the Balkans. 

This is all I have to say about that (pit ovens). Hungry anyone?

I believe that one of the most important human discoveries was accidentally made during the construction and use of these pit ovens. During the construction of a pit oven, once the hole is dug in the ground, it needs to be smoothed so that it doesn't crumble when it is used. So wet hands are used to smooth the pit walls. At some stage in the past people digging the hole for the pit oven must have by chance dug a hole in clay. If the pit was dug into clay, the smoothed pit walls will very much resemble unbaked clay pot walls. Once the fire is lit at the bottom of the clay pit, because the heat is concentrated inside the pit and into the walls, the clay walls will get fired. So by accident people would have ended up with a pit oven whose walls were made of a thin fired clay, ceramic layer. People would have soon realized that the walls of these clay pit ovens don't crumble and that they heat up well and retain heat for a long time, just like stones. And that if you make a small fire burn constantly at the bottom of the clay pit oven, then you can stick things like bread patties, to the walls of the pit where they would get cooked quickly and evenly. In the center of the below picture  you can see a 19th century example of this type of a primitive dug in clay oven from Kermanshah area of Iran. These ovens were used for both heating and cooking. Women on the picture are making breads.

The central Asian tandoor oven, used primarily for uncovered, live-fire baking and grilling, is essentially a permanent pit oven made out of clay or firebrick with a constantly burning, very hot fire at the bottom.

The tandoor was brought to India from Persia via the Afghanis. There is also evidence that tandoor was present to India as far back as 3000 BC as there have been small mud plastered ovens similar to tandoor found in Indus valley civilization sites of  Kalibangan and Banawali

In Armenia we find a version of tandoor oven called tanir. Tonir was worshiped by the Armenians as a sun symbol and it is known as a "sun in the ground".

Remember our lucky pit oven builders who dug their pit in clay? They would also have noticed that if the rain filled the fired clay pit, the water would remain inside the pit and would not dry through water seeping and absorption into the walls, and the walls would not get soggy and would not crumble. If one of people using the clay pit oven stood by mistake on the edge of a cool clay pit oven and broke the edge of the oven off, he would have noticed that the bit that was broken off was hard like a stone. What do you think, how long it would have taken for someone to made a clay figurine and throw it into a pit oven to see what happens? Is this what happened in Dolní Věstonice site dated to 24,000 BC, where the earliest objects made of ceramic, thousands of fired clay figurines, depicting human and animal forms were found? The most famous of these figurines is the so called "Venus from Dolni Vestonice".

This is the clay structure found in Dolni Vestonice. The figurines were found lying around it. 

This was interpreted as originally being this type of clay oven:

Doesn't it look like a covered cooking pit? Or a clay cooking pit turned on its side? There are actually some clay and stone cooking methods which can be regarded as direct precursors of these types of clay ovens. I will talk about them in my next post.This is a bread oven from Serbia still used in the 20th century. Do you see any similarity between the above "kiln" and this "bread oven"?

Archaeologists suggest that it is this type of clay oven that was used for pottery firing in Dolne Velstolnice. This is quite possible. The thing is we don't even need this type of oven to fire pottery. You can use plain and simple cooking pits to achieve this. We know they used cooking pits for cooking mammoth meat. These pits are perfectly capable of firing pottery as well.
How to pit fire pottery by Mike Pewtherer

This is an example of a Japanese pit fired pottery:
Pit Fire pottery by Ryo Mikami

These are ery good videos showing how pit firing of pottery is done. 

Pit fired pottery video 1
Pit fired pottery video 2
Pit fired pottery video 3

Pit fired pottery video 4

So the pit firing method works. In the Japanese example you can see the circular wall which creates over ground pit. Doesn't it look very much like the clay structure found in Dolni Vestonice?

No pots or utensils were found on the sites of this culture. So how long do you think it took before someone realized that the same principle of baking clay in pit ovens can be used for a baking clay dishes? Well according to the archaeological data it only took about 8,000 years... But I believe that development thought process involved was the one I just described. I believe that this exactly how clay kiln and production of ceramic were invented. The reason why it took 8,000 year to get from fired clay figurines to fired clay pots was that until the first settled acorn eating cultures developed in the northern hemisphere, people did not have any practical need for making clay pots. But once people settled and started cooking acorn porridge, a need arose for a waterproof and fire proof container that could be used for cooking liquid food. Enter fired clay pit oven, a waterproof and fire proof container, a sort of a dug in clay pot. And from here all you need is to follow the above discovery steps and you end up with this, pottery from acorn eating Yomon culture dated to about 12,000 BC. 

Now people had portable fired clay pits that they could move around, and use for cooking. I will talk about the development of pottery in detail in one of my next posts. 

Have fun, Stay happy and healthy.