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Posted on Sep 13, 2017

Theories of the Prehistoric in a Cold War Context

Rasa Navickaitė, PhD Candidate at Central European University, received an AABS dissertation grant for her project “The Pre-Historic Goddess of the Cold War: Transnational Life and Reception of Marija Gimbutas.”  She tells us about the research she conducted in California this summer:

My dissertation is an intellectual biography and reception history of Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994) – a renowned Lithuanian-American archaeologist and an advocate of the controversial hypothesis of the peaceful, egalitarian, matristic, and matrilineal pre-historic civilization of Old Europe. Gimbutas left a wealth of scholarship, from her early works on the Bronze Age Europe, the Balts and Lithuanian folklore, to her later, much debated works on the culture of Neolithic Old Europe and its Goddess-centered religion. Her oeuvre and her charismatic personality made Gimbutas a source of inspiration for various socio-political movements between 1970s and 1990s: from the American Goddess spirituality movement, to the anti-Soviet Eastern European ethnocultural movement, to post-socialist Lithuanian feminism. Despite Gimbutas’ intellectual influence on the both sides of the Iron Curtain, and her reputation as one of the most notable Lithuanian diaspora intellectuals, a comprehensive analysis of Gimbutas’ reception is still lacking. My dissertation aims to unearth how the theory of Old Europe was received by different social movements on the both sides of the Iron Curtain and how this informs our understanding about the gendered character of historical, political, scientific, and ideological narratives of the Cold War and its aftermath.

The AABS dissertation grant gave an incredible opportunity to access the archives necessary for my research on Gimbutas’ life, work and influence in the United States. Although Gimbutas was the professor of archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, her personal archive is housed by the OPUS Archives and Research Center and the Pacifica Graduate Institute, located close to Santa Barbara. With the help of the AABS grant I could spend more than two productive weeks in this archive. Moreover, the grant enabled me to travel to San Francisco and conduct interviews with scholars and activists who have been heavily influenced by Gimbutas’ provocative ideas, especially the members of women’s spirituality movement, as well as her personal assistant and biographer Joan Marler. Lastly, I also visited Gimbutas’ home in Topanga Valley, Los Angeles, where I had an opportunity to converse with some of her family members. The possibility to do this research allowed me to understand better both the scholarly and personal connections of Gimbutas and grasp the impact of her ideas on American popular culture and academia alike. With the help of the AABS, this transnational biography and reception history of Gimbutas can be truly transnational, with an appropriate weight given to her influence in the U.S. as much as to her importance in Lithuania and other Eastern European countries.