A world without images: The absence of figurines in Early Neolithic Northern Europe

This project views the absence of figurative representations as a symptom of significant socio-religious changes occurring during the spread of early agricultural life. By re-introducing emphasis on social and ritual aspects, the project will extend the prevalent discourse on the Neolithization. 

Groups of Neolithic figurines from Drama, Bulgaria. Photo: Valeska Becker.

The absence of naturalistic depictions in Early Neolithic Northern Europe is particularly striking as tens of thousands of clay figurines are found in SE Europe and Anatolia where they were linked to the rise and spread of early agricultural societies. Hence, figurines were part of the initial Neolithic ‘package’ that spread from SW Asia into Europe from the 8th to the 6th millennium BC. However, as farming reached Central Europe the number of figurines decreased and when it expanded to Northern Europe they had disappeared. This project seeks explanations for the absence of figurines in deep socio-cultural and ritual-religious differences clearly dividing Neolithic Europe into a figurative south-eastern part and an imageless northern part.


In recent years, the study of ancient DNA has turned the long-running Neolithization debate upside down. Repeated studies show that the introduction of farming was associated with change in ancestry stressing migration as a driver for the Neolithization. As the Neolithization included the movement of people, it is significant that an essential feature of the original Neolithic practice (the figurines) disappeared as it advanced northwards. This absence is not explained by migration but requires social and religious-ideological perspectives. The absence of figurines in Northern Europe indicates that significant socio-religious changes took place. These changes remain largely unexplored due to the recent years’ focus on economic and genetic aspects of the Neolithization. This project will balance this bias by reintegrating socio-symbolic aspects.



As the presence of Neolithic figurines in south-eastern Europe is considered social and/or ritually-religious conditioned, the project will approach their absence in Northern Europe by identifying and analysing shifts in social organization and ritual-religious practices among early agricultural communities. First, we will identify where and when the use of figurines ceased. Then, we will address the missing figurines by analyzing converging social and ritual changes followed by an examination of the contexts associated with figurines. We will investigate if other objects replaced figurines, if the figurines’ contexts disappeared or changed so they became obsolete, or if figurines can be associated with a certain social-religious strata that broke down and made figurines taboo.



 The World without Images project draws on an internationally highly profiled advisory board of renowned researchers with expertise knowledge on the European Neolithic. The board comprises:



Name Title Phone E-mail
Becker, Valeska Doris Postdoc +4535329746 E-mail
Bristow, Rebecca PhD Fellow +4535329607 E-mail
Iversen, Rune Associate Professor +4593509427 E-mail



Project period: 1 september 2022 - 31 August 2025.

PI: Rune Iversen