The first Ukrainian sites ascribed to the culture were discovered by Vicenty Khvoika. The year of his discoveries has been variously claimed as 1893, 1896 and 1887. In any case Khvoika presented his findings at the 11th Congress of Archaeologists in 1897, which is considered the official date of the discovery of the Trypillian culture in Ukraine. In the same year similar artifacts were excavated in the village of Trypillia (Ukrainian: Трипiлля, Russian: Трипольe) in Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine. As a result, this culture became identified in Soviet, Russian, and Ukrainian publications as the 'Tripolie' (or 'Tripolye'), 'Tripolian' or 'Trypillian' culture.
Today the finds from both countries, as well as those from Moldova, are recognized as belonging to the same cultural complex. This is generally known as the Cucuteni culture in Romania and the Trypillian culture (variously romanized) in Ukraine. In English, 'Cucuteni-Tripolye culture' is most commonly used to refer to the whole culture, with the Ukrainian-derived term 'Cucuteni-Tripillian culture' gaining currency following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Cucuteni-Trypillian culture flourished in present-day Moldova, Romania and Ukraine. As of 2003, about 3,000 cultural sites have been identified, ranging from small villages to "vast settlements consisting of hundreds of dwellings surrounded by multiple ditches".
The culture extended northeast from the Danube River Basin around the Iron Gates gorge to the Black Sea and Dnieper River, with its historical core around the middle to upper Dniester River. It encompassed the central Carpathian Mountains as well as the plains, steppe and forest steppe on either side of the range. During the Atlantic and Subboreal climatic periods in which the culture flourished, Europe was at its warmest and moistest since the end of the last Ice Age, creating favorable conditions for agriculture in this region.
In terms of overall size, some of Cucuteni-Trypillian sites, such as Talianki (with a population of 15,000 and covering an area of some 335 hectares) in the province of Uman Raion, Ukraine, are as large as (or perhaps even larger than) the more famous city-states of Sumer in the Fertile Crescent, and these Eastern European settlements predate the Sumerian cities by more than half of a millennium.
Archaeologists have uncovered an astonishing wealth of artifacts from these ancient ruins. The largest collections of Cucuteni-Trypillian artifacts are to be found in museums in Russia, Ukraine, and Romania, including the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Archaeology Museum Piatra Neamţ in Romania. However, smaller collections of artifacts are kept in many local museums scattered throughout the region.
These settlements underwent periodical acts of destruction and re-creation, as they were burned and then rebuilt every 60–80 years. Some scholars have theorized that the inhabitants of these settlements believed that every house symbolized an organic, almost living, entity. Each house, including its ceramic vases, ovens, figurines and innumerable objects made of perishable materials, shared the same circle of life, and all of the buildings in the settlement were physically linked together as a larger symbolic entity. As with living beings, the settlements may have been seen as also having a life cycle of death and rebirth.Some Cucuteni-Trypillian homes were two-storeys tall, and evidence shows that the members of this culture sometimes decorated the outsides of their homes with many of the same red-ochre complex swirling designs that are to be found on their pottery. Most houses had thatched roofs and wooden floors covered with clay.
Characteristically vessels were elaborately decorated with swirling patterns and intricate designs. Sometimes decorative incisions were added prior to firing, and sometimes these were filled with colored dye to produce a dimensional effect. In the early period, the colors used to decorate pottery were limited to a rusty-red and white. Later, potters added additional colors to their products and experimented with more advanced ceramic techniques. The pigments used to decorate ceramics were based on iron oxide for red hues, calcium carbonate, iron magnetite and manganese Jacobsite ores for black, and calcium silicate for white. The black pigment, which was introduced during the later period of the culture, was a rare commodity: taken from a few sources and circulated (to a limited degree) throughout the region. The probable sources of these pigments were Iacobeni in Romania for the iron magnetite ore and Nikopol in Ukraine for the manganese Jacobsite ore. No traces of the iron magnetite pigment mined in the easternmost limit of the Cucuteni-Trypillian region have been found to be used in ceramics from the western settlements, suggesting exchange throughout the entire cultural area was limited. In addition to mineral sources, pigments derived from organic materials (including bone and wood) were used to create various colors.
In the late period of Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, kilns with a controlled atmosphere were used for pottery production. These kilns were constructed with two separate chambers—the combustion chamber and the filling chamber— separated by a grate. Temparatures in the combustion chamber could reach 1000–1100°C but were usually maintained at around 900°C to achieve a uniform and complete firing of vessels. Toward the end of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, as copper became more readily available, advances in ceramic technology leveled off as more emphasis was placed on developing metallurgical techniques.
Many of these artifacts are clay figurines or statues. Archaeologists have identified many of these as fetishes or totems, which are believed to be imbued with powers that can help and protect the people who look after them. These Cucuteni-Trypillian figurines have become known popularly as Goddesses, however, this term is not necessarily accurate for all female anthropomorphic clay figurines, as the archaeological evidence suggests that different figurines were used for different purposes (such as for protection), and so are not all representative of a Goddess. There have been so many of these figurines discovered in Cucuteni-Trypillian sites that many museums in eastern Europe have a sizeable collection of them, and as a result, they have come to represent one of the more readily identifiable visual markers of this culture to many people.
The noted archaeologist Marija Gimbutas based at least part of her famous Kurgan Hypothesis and Old European culture theories on these Cucuteni-Trypillian clay figurines. Her conclusions, which were always controversial, today are discredited by many scholars, but still there are some scholars who support her theories about how Neolithic societies were matriarchal, non-warlike, and worshipped an "earthy" Mother Goddess, but were subsequently wiped out by invasions of patriarchal Indo-European tribes who burst out of the Steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan beginning around 2500 BC, and who worshiped a warlike Sky God. However, Gimbutas' theories have been partially discredited by more recent discoveries and analyses. Today there are many scholars who disagree with Gimbutas, pointing to new evidence that suggests a much more complex society during the Neolithic era than she had been accounting for.
One of the unanswered questions regarding the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture is the small number of artifacts associated with funerary rites. Although very large settlements have been explored by archaeologists, the evidence for mortuary activity is almost invisible. Making a distinction between the eastern Trypillia and the western Cucuteni regions of the Cucuteni-Trypillian geographical area, American archaeologist Douglass W. Bailey writes: There are no Cucuteni cemeteries and the Trypillia ones that have been discovered are very late.
The discovery of skulls is more frequent than other parts of the body, however because there has not yet been a comprehensive statistical survey done of all of the skeletal remains discovered at Cucuteni-Trypillian sites, precise post excavation analysis of these discoveries cannot be accurately determined at this time. Still, many questions remain concerning these issues, as well as why there seems to have been no male remains found at all. The only definite conclusion that can be drawn from archeological evidence is that in the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, in the vast majority of cases, the bodies were not formally deposited within the settlement area.