The First Kings of Europe Exhibition: A story about ancient societies and current international collaboration in southeastern Europe

Attila Gyucha1 & William A. Parkinson2, 3

1University of Georgia
2Field Museum of Natural History and
3University of Illinois at Chicago

On March 31, 2023, a unique exhibition entitled First Kings of Europe opened at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, IL, USA. Developed by the Field Museum and curated by the authors of this summary, the exhibition is the outcome of a long-term intercontinental collaboration to showcase the exquisite archaeological heritage of the Balkans and the surrounding regions for a North American audience at three venues.

First Kings of Europe displays objects from the Neolithic through the Iron Age from 26 museums in 11 countries in southeastern Europe (including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia) to tell the story of how egalitarian communities in the Neolithic became societies ruled by mighty chiefs and formidable kings and queens in the Iron Age. For the exhibition, we incorporated four narrative threads to discuss how leaders, elites, and rulers came to exert their dominance and control over time: technology, trade, warfare, and ritual.

Given the length of the project and its unprecedented scale and complexity, the organization and development of First Kings of Europe was an exceptionally challenging and adventurous process that required dedication, patience and persistence from all our collaborators. The idea for the exhibition started eight years ago. As an organic continuation and extension of our collaborative archaeological work in southeastern Europe over the past few decades, we (Gyucha and Parkinson) began to entertain the idea of the exhibition in 2015 while working together at the Field Museum where Gyucha was employed as a postdoctoral fellow at the time. The project concept and synopsis were submitted to the Field Museum in early 2017. After it tested exceptionally well with potential audiences, the project received a green light for development a few months later. During the following three years, we travelled across southeastern Europe multiple times to establish and reinforce relationships with partner institutions, collect information about potential artifacts, discuss ideas with our local colleagues and measure and photograph the objects that would be loaned for the exhibition. Each institution welcomed us with incredible hospitality, for which we cannot be grateful enough!

Then COVID happened. The project was suspended for a few months, only to be given new life by the commitment of two venues (the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University and the Canadian Museum of History), who agreed to host First Kings of Europe, as well as the receipt of a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. A condensed version of the exhibition opened in September 2022 in New York, under the title “Ritual and Memory: The Ancient Balkans and Beyond,” followed by the recent, ‘Grand Opening’ at the Field Museum in Chicago. See Figure 2.

Figure 2. The banner of the exhibition at the main entrance of the Field Museum in Chicago.

First Kings of Europe showcases more than 700 objects exhibited in an area of 700 square meters. The exhibition starts with a replica of the crown of the last queen of Romania (Queen Mary) with a program statement that outlines the narrative: “You know what kings and queens are … But the world did not always look this way. To understand how we got there, we have to tell a story.”

The exhibition is organized chronologically, beginning with the Neolithic, about 8,000 years ago—a period commonly assumed to have been characterized by an overall lack of institutionalized social and economic disparities among community members. We emphasize, however, that even these early farming societies recognized some forms of social differences, indicated by burials with exceptionally rich artefact inventories and hierarchies, reflected in figurines and face pots that presumably depict powerful supernatural entities, such as ancestors, lineage leaders, or deities.

The second section features the Copper Age and starts with an immersive transitional experience entertaining a significant innovation in human history: metallurgy. This section showcases some of the first large metal tools in the world that likely signalled incipient forms of status display over vast regions in southeastern Europe. Caches of valuables that were commonly interred in the ground during this period also are exhibited, testifying to an early form of conspicuous consumption by an emerging elite. Cemeteries separated from villages that served as arenas for social competition also were established in the Copper Age throughout the broader region. In addition to a burial assemblage from the famous Varna cemetery in Bulgaria with some of the oldest gold artefacts in the world, the exhibition also explores how groups from the eastern European steppe region impacted material culture and funerary practices as they related to the life and death of local leaders in southeastern Europe.

Innovations that had developed and spread during the Copper Age (such as the wagon and domesticated horses) gained more momentum in the Bronze Age. Another immersive transitional experience from the Copper to Bronze Age sections depicts the awesome effect that mounted warriors would have had on ordinary people who previously had never encountered riders on horseback. See Figure 3. This emerging warrior elite (some of whom may have served in the retinues of powerful chiefs) is represented by many exquisite objects and assemblages in the exhibition. The deposition of hoards peaked in this period, the reasons for which likely included the display of status during the course of communal ceremonies. In addition to tools and weapons, these hoards also contained jewelry, including one of the most symbolically-charged assemblages of the show: the Sarasau/Szarvaszó hoard. This cache, found in the middle of the 19th century in Transylvania, was split between museums in Hungary and Romania and it is reunited for First Kings of Europe for the very first time since its recovery. The Bronze Age section also discusses cross-regional commonalities indicated not only by weapon types, but also practices and objects related to symbolic behavior. The Field Museum exhibition team also built a provocative three-dimensional burning pyre to evoke the dramatic experience of cremation during the communal funerary ceremonies which occurred in many parts of southeastern Europe during the Bronze Age.

Figure 3. The immersive transitional experience between the Copper Age and Bronze Age sections of the exhibition.

The final Iron Age section of the exhibition begins by showcasing the princely graves of the central Balkans and the iconic Iapoda archaeological heritage of the western Balkans. This portion of the exhibition includes an in situ burial of a young Illyrian girl from Bosnia and Herzegovina who left the basement storage of the national museum in Sarajevo for the first time since she was unearthed over 100 years ago to travel to Chicago. The last section starts with another dramatic Bosnian artefact, a stone funerary urn with engraved motifs of mythological figures and ceremonies. The section continues by recalling a period during which armies of warriors fought mighty battles and leaders established and consolidated their standing into chiefdoms and tribal kingdoms. The final portion of the gallery focuses on the peoples and kingdoms of Thrace, exhibiting artefacts such as weapons, jewellery, and fancy horse harnesses, which were manufactured with exceptional technical and artistic sophistication. Visitors can see an emblematic assemblage of a royal Thracian warrior from Bulgaria and a richly decorated silver gilt helmet decorated with mythological figures from Romania. As a narrative bookend to the historic crown that starts the exhibition, it ends with a gold wreath and a lavishly decorated iron and gold-plated breastplate from Bulgaria. The exhibition starts with one of the last crowns commissioned for a European royal, and it ends with one of the earliest crowns. The story of how these early kings and queens emerged from their common past in the Neolithic, Copper Age, and Bronze Age is told in between.

In addition to the astonishing artefacts and assemblages that are displayed in the galleries, the exhibition also includes several features that facilitate learning and enhance the visitor experience. There are touchable replicas of metal axes, an intricate diorama showing life on a Neolithic tell site, and large and atmospheric murals depicting what life would have been like in different periods of prehistory. A central video helps the viewer understand how the development and institutionalization of social inequality in the ancient world laid the groundwork for the world we live in today, a world rife with political and economic inequities. Visitors also can explore the Varna cemetery and interactions between far-flung communities over time through two hands-on digital interactives. Each section has a soundscape that was composed for the show. We also worked with a Chicago brewery to produce two kinds of beers, ‘Beer for Kings’ and ‘Beer for Commoners,’ to promote the exhibition.

Three books accompany the exhibition. In addition to a small souvenir book that was produced in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of History that draws directly from the exhibition text, we also published two books with the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. First Kings of Europe: From Farmers to Rulers in Prehistoric Southeastern Europe is an essay volume containing a foreword and ten chapters written by 21 authors. Local researchers and (in a few cases) non-locals conducting long-term, truly collaborative archaeological projects in southeastern Europe were invited to contribute to this book. The text, which was written to be accessible to even a general, non-specialist audience, is accompanied by several high-quality photos and other illustrations.

The last book, First Kings of Europe: Exhibition Catalog, complements the essay volume and presents detailed descriptions and photos of all the artefacts displayed in the exhibition, along with an introduction and short essays. Reflecting the exhibition structure, the book is subdivided into four chronologically organized sections: the Neolithic, Copper Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. The 114 catalog entries that describe the artefacts and assemblages were written by 35 scholars, most of whom also made key contributions throughout the organization and development of the exhibition.

We believe that the unprecedented endeavour of First Kings of Europe will have broad and long-lasting impacts at multiple levels. The narrative was designed to help a general audience understand the origins of social and economic inequalities in the ancient world and to relate this forward in time to their lasting impact on our world today. The exhibition also promotes the recognition and appreciation of the fantastic archaeological heritage of southeastern Europe in North America and worldwide. For the descendant communities from these regions who now live in North America, the exhibition contributes to the preservation and celebration of their identity. Additionally, for communities living in southeastern Europe, the exhibition reflects on and celebrates their shared common past, long before the modern boundaries that in recent history have sub-divided the region and which are frequently the sole focus of depictions of this portion of Europe in other parts of the world. The books are some of the first volumes that attempt to engage comprehensively with the later prehistory of the region, and we are confident international scholars and students across the globe will likely appreciate them as synthetic works that can be used for teaching and learning.

Finally, and most importantly for us, the project embodies genuine cooperation between countries and colleagues in a region that tends to be associated with a long history of conflicts and tensions, and the project underscores and looks forward toward their connected future. See Figure 4. The exemplary cooperation and engagement we experienced with our colleagues from 26 institutions across 11 countries to create the exhibition has set the stage for other projects (whether or not they are archaeological in nature) which we believe will strengthen and deepen international collaboration throughout the region. We are truly honoured to have had the opportunity to collaborate with our colleagues and friends from these institutions and we are humbled that they granted us the ability to present their exceptional archaeological heritage to North American audiences. We will forever be grateful to them.

Figure 4. The representatives of southeastern European partner institutions, the Field Museum, and the America for Bulgaria Foundation at the opening in Chicago.


The First Kings of Europe exhibition was developed by the Field Museum of Natural History. The exhibition has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Generous support also was provided by the America for Bulgaria Foundation and Discover card.

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