‘Against all odds’: Field Museum explains evolution of social inequality through Balkan artifacts

With more than 700 pieces from 26 different institutions in 11 countries, ‘First Kings of Europe’ details humanity’s journey from equality to hierarchy.

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A crown is displayed as part of “First Kings of Europe,” an exhibit that sheds light on Neolithic, Copper, Bronze, and Iron age treasures from southeast Europe at the Field Museum.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“The world wasn’t always as unequal as it is today,” said Bill Parkinson, the curator of anthropology at the Field Museum and professor of anthropology at University of Illinois Chicago, while walking through the museum’s newest exhibit, “The First Kings of Europe.”

He, along with longtime colleague Attila Gyucha, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Georgia, have spent the last eight years threading a needle through southeast Europe — including Gyucha’s native Hungary — from the Neolithic Era to the first kingdoms of the region’s Iron Age.

The exhibit tells the story of how egalitarian societies of old transformed into the current world of hierarchies and leaders through more than 700 pieces from 26 different institutions in 11 countries — including armor, swords, jewelry and animal-shaped lamps — some of which have never been displayed, or displayed together, before. 

Parkinson described it as “absolutely unprecedented.” Gyucha said the project came together “against all odds” and said “no one thought it could happen.”

“It’s mind blowing to have it all in one place,” Parkinson said, noting that many of the pieces are prized possessions of the museums they came from, including some of the first gold objects forged by humans. “We’re asking them to give up a lot, and we’re humbled that they trusted us to be able to do this.”

Another set of gold jewelry is being displayed together for the first time since it was discovered by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was split between the countries that came out of the fallen kingdom.

Our goal “is to talk about the common past in this part of the world where in the Balkans people frequently want to focus on the divisions,” Parkinson said. 

To put it together, the pair spent nearly three years traveling through the region visiting museums they would eventually borrow from. Gyucha said it was a worthwhile endeavor, as the two found objects they didn’t know from their studies but fit the story they were trying to tell. 


Gold jewelry and ornaments are displayed as part of “First Kings of Europe.” Curators spent more than three years traveling to museums across southeast Europe in search of artifacts to help tell the story of egalitarian societies evolving into hierarchies. Some of the items were divided among various museums after they were discovered and appear together for the first time in years.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Oftentimes they were offered replicas, though Gyucha said they politely declined and pushed for originals, which they were lucky enough to receive for the duration of the exhibit— aside from the replica crown at the beginning and a few recreations shown alongside the originals, often damaged objects, to show what they looked like in their day.

“You can feel the vibes from the artifacts,” Gyucha said of the pieces chosen for “First Kings of Europe,” the first exhibit he has curated. “You can feel the history, and that was really important to us.”

One such object was a stela — a large stone that could be likened to a headstone today — depicting a lavish funeral for an important leader, including people mourning and carrying a casket in a procession.

The curators likened it to President John F. Kennedy’s funeral on the piece’s plaque, noting the massive ceremony and number of dignitaries who came to mourn the former president’s death.


Historical copper axes, right, and replicas, left, are on display.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“What starts out in the Neolithic [period] as rituals that are bringing communities together, in the Iron Age are used to separate the elite from the commoners,” Parkinson said while cleaning a smudge on a glass case containing items ceremonially buried with a young boy in one of the region’s first cemeteries.

The exhibit is “talking about the evolution of inequality. … But also the evolution of leadership and the people who actually came to be rulers in those societies.”

The exhibit, a smaller version of which previously spent a year in New York, will open Friday and run until next year, when it heads to Quebec.


A stone stela is similar to a headstone today. It depicts the funeral of an important leader, including mourners carrying a casket in a procession.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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