They have unearthed evidence that Stone Age women were wearing mini-skirts – along with short tops and bracelets – more than 7,500 years ago.
A series of stone figurines wearing the prehistoric fashions were unearthed at one of Europe’s oldest known villages – a community that nestled between rivers, mountains and forests in what is now southern Siberia.
The finding pushes back the origins of fashion and art in Europe by hundreds of years to a time when our ancestors were first getting to grips with farming.
“According to the figurines we found, young women were beautifully dressed, like today’s girls in short tops and mini skirts, and wore bracelets around their arms,” said archaeologist Julka Kuzmanovic-Cvetkovic.
The unnamed tribe lived between 5400 and 4700 BC in the 120-hectare site at what is now Plocnik. Remains at the site reveal that they knew about trade, handcrafts, art and metallurgy while a thermal well nearby might be Europe’s oldest spa.
“They pursued beauty and produced 60 different forms of wonderful pottery and figurines, not only to represent deities, but also out of pure enjoyment,” said Dr Kuzmanovic.
Women, it seems, have always paid attention to their appearance
Little is known about the life of people – known as the Vinca – who made the figurines.
The Vinca culture flourished between 5500 and 4000 BC in Bosnia, Serbia, Romania and Macedonia. It got its name from the present-day village of Vinca on the Danube River near Belgrade where eight villages have been found.
The latest discoveries suggest these early farmers had developed a sophisticated division of labour and organisation.
Houses had stoves, there were special holes for trash, and the dead were buried in a tidy necropolis. People slept on woollen mats and fur, made clothes of wool, flax and leather and kept animals.
They were especially fond of children. Artefacts include toys such as animals and rattles of clay, and small, clumsily crafted pots apparently made by children at playtime.
One of the most exciting finds for archaeologists was the discovery of a sophisticated metal workshop with a furnace and tools including a copper chisel and a two-headed hammer and axe.
“This might prove that the Copper Age started in Europe at least 500 years earlier than we thought,” Dr Kuzmanovic said.
The Copper Age marks the first stage of humans’ use of metal, with copper tools used alongside older stone implements. It is thought to have started around the 4th millennium BC in south-east Europe, and earlier in the Middle East.
The discovery of Europe’s oldest mine at the nearby Mlava river suggested at the time that Vinca could be Europe’s first metal culture, a theory now backed up by the Plocnik site.
“These latest findings show that the Vinca culture was from the very beginning a metallurgical culture,” said archaeologist Dusan Sljivar of Serbia’s National Museum. “They knew how to find minerals, to transport them and melt them into tools.”
The metal workshop in Plocnik was a room 25 square yards, with walls built out of wood coated with clay. The furnace, built on the outside of the room, featured earthen pipe-like air vents with hundreds of tiny holes in them and a prototype chimney to ensure air goes into the furnace to feed the fire and smoke comes out safely.
In Bulgaria and Cyprus, where other workshops have been found, the early metal workers blew air on to the fire using straws rather than relying on chimneys.
They probably experimented with colourful minerals that caught their eye – blue azurite, bright green malachite and red cuprite, all containing copper.
The village was destroyed at some point, probably in the first part of the fifth millennium, by fire.
The Plocnik site was first discovered in 1927. Some findings were published at the time but war, lack of funds and objections from farmers meant it was investigated only sporadically until digging started in earnest in 1996.
The copper forges have been dated to about 5,500 BC, and a copper ax head the same age has now been found in Serbia too.