Ancient Dacian empire highlight of Europalia festival


Six cultures mingle at the Gallo-Roman Museum in a cornerstone exhibition of Europalia Romania

Dacian tales

What do the Dacians mean to you? If you are keen on Roman history, you might just remember them as the barbarians defeated in the frieze that wraps around Trajan’s Column in Rome.

But if you are Romanian, the Dacians will be much more familiar. They are considered one of the nation’s founding peoples and the source of its language, which is why Dacia has a starring role in the Europalia Romania festival currently taking place across Belgium.

The exhibition Dacia Felix at the Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren, begins with the Roman occupation of Dacia, from 106 to 271 AD, and then works backwards. It briefly considers Trajan’s Dacians wars, then explores the more obscure time before the occupation.

The two indigenous peoples considered are the Dacians and the Getae, both part of the broader Thracian culture of south-eastern Europe. The two groups are likely to have co-existed and even overlapped in terms of territory, customs and language.

It’s hard to be sure, since they left no written records. All we have to go on is archaeology and the stories told about them by the Greeks and Romans.

Dacia Felix

For the purposes of the exhibition, the Getae prospered between 500 and 250 BC, in the lands south and east of the Carpathian Mountains, up to the Black Sea. This takes in roughly half of present-day Romania, but also Moldova and parts of Bulgaria and Ukraine.

As for the Dacians, their ascendancy begins two centuries later with Burebista, a leader who succeeded in uniting tribes over a wide area of south-eastern Europe, from around 60-50 BC until his death in 44 BC. The alliance did not last, but a Dacian kingdom endured within the Carpathian Mountains and some low-lying territory between the mountains and the river Danube until the Romans invaded in 106 AD.

The title Dacia Felix is how the Romans described their new province, and the exhibition opens with a coin bearing this inscription (discovered in the British seaside town of Eastbourne, of all places). It loosely translates as happy or prosperous Dacia, possibly a reference to the abundant deposits of gold and other metals in the territory.

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This wealth rapidly disappeared into Trajan’s coffers, funding building projects back in Rome, and the creation of the column.

The gold and silver ritual objects created by the Dacians and the Getae are the undoubted stars of the show. They range from heavy gold armbands worn by the Dacian kings, to a gold and silver Getic drinking horn, shaped like a bull’s head, featured on the exhibition posters.

Alongside this drinking horn is an equally fine jug, almost certainly made in the same workshop. One is from the National Museum of Romanian History in Bucharest, the other from a museum in Vratsa, Bulgaria.

“We think it’s the first time in 2,500 years that these two pieces have been brought back together,” says Bart Demarsin, head of temporary exhibitions at the Gallo-Roman Museum.

One of the Roman military units created here in the Tongeren area eventually ended up in Dacia

- Bart Demarsin, Gallo-Roman Museum

The detail in these ritual objects is fascinating, from finely shaped animal motifs to geometric patterns, some apparently representing facial tattoos. Some of the animals are realistic, others are hybrids that suggest a deeper symbolic meaning. The one frustration is that we can only speculate about their meaning.

After the Dacians and the Getae, the exhibition opens up to include three other cultures that touched the region in antiquity: the Greeks, whose traders settled along the coast of the Black Sea; the Scythians, whose influence extended from Central Asia as far west as the Danube; and the Celts, whose influence extended from north-western Europe into Transylvania.

In this way the theme shifts from the Roman Empire to the subtle influence of people trading and mingling across the whole of Europe, and beyond. One of the most interesting exhibits comprises brightly coloured glass beads, each moulded into a head with two stylised faces. Made by the Phoenicians in the eastern Mediterranean, these were brought to Europe by the Greeks and traded to the Getae and the Celts. When this supply dried up, the Celts started making beads with the same design, to meet the continued demand.

The Celtic connection is also a connection to Flanders, a common culture demonstrated by similar objects found here and in Romania. There are also parallels to be drawn in the Romanisation that both the Gauls and the Dacians underwent as a result of being conquered, with Roman culture merging with local customs.

Then there are more direct connections. “One of the Roman military units created here in the Civitas Tungrorum – the area of which Tongeren was the capital and home to soldiers descended from the Tungri – eventually ended up in Dacia,” Demarsin explains, referring to the local tribes. “At a certain site, called Arcobadara in Roman times, they built the military fort and were stationed there for a long time.” There are even artefacts from present-day Romania that mention the Tungri.

The various objects in the exhibition are brought to life by films of Romanian landscapes and archaeological sites, and by an audio guide in Dutch or French. There is a separate immersive audio guide for kids, interactive games throughout the exhibition and a programme of events next spring on Romanian traditions.

Tickets to Dacia Felix also get you into Roots: the Civilizations of the Lower Danube at the Grand Curtius Museum in Liège, from 8 November. This exhibition goes back even further to look at the Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures in the region.

More Europalia highlights

After five editions dedicated to far-away lands, Belgium’s biennial arts festival Europalia returns to the EU for its 50th anniversary edition. Europalia Romania takes on the ambitious task of showcasing the arts and culture of an Eastern European country continuing to recover from a profoundly turbulent 20th century.

Besides the Dacia Felix exhibition in Tongeren, there are several other highlights in the programme.

Brancusi: Sublimation of Form at Bozar in Brussels surveys the life and work of Constantin Brancusi, Romania’s most famous artist and a major figure in 20th-century modernism. The festival has also commissioned Brancusi-inspired performances for the gallery from Belgian and Romanian artists, including choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

Ion Grigorescu: Cinema at Kiosk in Ghent explores the film work of this pivotal figure in Romanian contemporary art, from Communism to the present.

by Flemish choreographer Wim Vandekeybus is a new performance inspired by Romanian fables and its ancient forests. It premieres in Bruges on 8 December before touring to Hasselt and Brussels.

Electrecord: Romania in Vinyl Covers at Muntpunt in Brussels presents the work of a record label active throughout the Communist period. The venue also has an exhibition by political cartoonist Dan Perjovschi

Urs Geest at CIAP in Hasselt finds artists Casper Fitzhue and Bart Van Dijck reporting on their travels to the east of the Carpathians and their immersion in the local ritual of the dancing bear.

Europalia runs until 2 February

Photos, from top: Busts of Roman emperor Trajan (left), who added Dacia to the immense Roman Empire, and a Dace (right) wearing a pointed hat, a sign of high rank, courtesy Vatican Museums, photo by Ian Mundell; ritual drinking horn 325 BC - 275 AD, courtesy National Museum of Romanian History, Bucharest; Gold spiral bracelet 100 BC - 50 AD, courtesy National Museum of Romanian History, Bucharest; Traces by Ultima Vez, photo by Wim Vandekeybus