Online Review: Book

Meetings of Cultures: Between Conflict and Coexistence

Peter S. Allen

114.4

Edited by Pia Guldager Bilde and Jane Hjarl Petersen (Black Sea Studies 8). Pp. 422, figs. 146. Aarhus University Press, Aarhus 2009. $63.95. ISBN 978-87-7934-419-8 (cloth).

Meetings of Cultures is the second major collection on the archaeology of the Black Sea area that Guldager Bilde and coeditors have produced (the other, coedited with V. Stolba, is Surveying the Greek Chora: The Black Sea Region in a Comparative Perspective [Aarhus 2006]). In this more recent volume, the editors have assembled a disparate set of articles divided into five sections: "Setting the Scene," "Spaces of Identity," "Claiming the Land," "The Dynamics of Cultural Exchange," and "Mind the Gap." The 19 essays are a mixed bag, comprising condensed excavation and survey reports and analyses of artifacts, published materials, and textual studies.

It is hard to argue that the Black Sea region played a terribly significant role in the larger picture of ancient Greek history. Unlike the far-flung colonies of the Roman empire that produced numerous individuals who went on to gain prominence in Roman affairs, none of the cities scattered along the shores of the Black Sea spawned important personages, nor did they leave us with any significant architectural or monumental legacies. Nevertheless, this area was important to the ancient Greeks, and there is a body of textual material to supplement the ever-expanding archaeological record of Greek involvement there. The authors represented in this volume draw from both these sources.

The Greeks and others came to the Black Sea region for a variety of reasons. Some were traders and set up emporia to facilitate exchange with indigenous peoples, while others were true colonists, establishing cities of their own or settling into already established communities. This led to different relations between the various groups, so it is impossible to give a one-size-fits-all description of interrelations. Most of the contributors to this volume stress the complexity of the situation and try to convey a more nuanced picture of relations between Greeks and locals. The traders came for the obvious reasons—metals, grain, slaves, timber, fish, and cattle—but it is not clear what the Greeks provided in return. None of the authors manages to address this, but they do make it clear that, although this trade was mutually beneficial, the Greeks seem to have had the upper hand and even collected tribute in certain cities.

The larger question addressed here (exemplified by Attema's contribution, "Conflict or Coexistence?") is whether Greek colonists and local peoples were in conflict or living together peacefully. The conclusions are mixed. Where there had been little or no indigenous settlement before the arrival of the Greeks, the settlers met little or no resistance, whereas in areas already occupied by natives, conflict ensued when the Greeks arrived and, in some cases, continued even after some degree of accommodation had been achieved between the two groups. The authors attempt to go beyond the stereotype of the Scythians as nomadic shepherds overrun and totally dominated by the so-called civilized Greeks who cultivated the land. Summerer observes that colonization of this area is usually seen through the eyes of the conquerors, as a matter of "domination" and "resistance." He expands the conversation to consider "mimicry," "hybridity," and "dynamic cultural creation," mostly through examining architectural terracottas from settlements on the south coast of the Black Sea (263). There has been considerable excavation in this area for more than 100 years, much of it of poor quality, so there are still problems with dating and documentation. Nevertheless, earlier archaeologists were good at creating inventories of grave goods and other finds, so we have some knowledge about the artifacts excavated in the past. Smekalova, for example, makes good use of earlier excavations in her account of six previously identified sites.

Although the scope of the volume is broad, both geographically and chronologically, encompassing the greater Black Sea region and the period beginning with the earliest Greek settlements right down to the fourth century C.E., a number of the articles are quite specialized, including Mordvintseva's contribution on phalerae for horse harnesses from a votive deposit and Gavriljuk's on black-glazed pottery from a set of graves. Others are quite expansive and substantive, contributing significantly to our understanding of life in antiquity in this region.

In a challenge to the accepted wisdom that the distinctive kurgans (burial mounds) were constructed for the burial of Hellenized so-called barbarian elites, Petersen argues that the goods recovered from these burials are evidence of conquest. Her analysis of kurgan grave goods chronicles a shift from local autonomy to the population's "incorporation into the Bosporan kingdom in the 4th century" (229). Earlier grave goods were more likely to be weapons, jewelry, and drinking vessels, whereas later graves yielded artifacts more related to the use of oil—lekythoi, alabastra, and strigils. Moreover, social and economic stratification are clearly suggested by the distribution of grave goods.

Through an examination of proxeny grants, Osborne shows that the inhabitants of Olbia adopted some imported Greek political and economic practices that were to their own advantage but modified them according to local values. Greek religious ideas and practices were also imported from cities that colonized Olbia. The proxeny decrees reveal parallels with Thessaly and Athens in particular, although the native Olbians also borrowed and adopted customs from other Greek cities.

A major asset of this volume is that the authors use original sources from antiquity, including Plato, Xenophon, Ovid, Strabo, and others. Herodotus is the touchstone for several contributors, since much of the textual evidence for information about ancient settlement around the Black Sea area is based on his accounts. Most scholars agree that Herodotus probably traveled quite extensively there, visiting Greek colonies and recording his impressions. Some, like Hinge in this volume, try to reconcile Herodotus' observations with archaeological and epigraphic evidence, generally concluding that Herodotus can be taken at face value.

Most contributors make good use of photographs (including satellite photos from NASA and Google Earth), maps, charts, and other graphics. In his piece, Karjaka gives a credible archaeological account of Olbia's perimeter and chora based entirely on aerial photographs, without having moved a single shovelful of dirt or even having conducted a surface survey. However, more and better maps would be useful, as many authors refer to settlements that do not appear on the furnished maps.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution of this volume is that it brings to the English-speaking world the research of scholars working in the Black Sea region, since most of the archaeology, history, and philology of this area has been done by scholars who publish in Russian, Danish, and other languages that most American scholars do not command. For this alone, the editors are to be commended. It is hoped that Guldager Bilde and others will continue to publish material on this frontier region that deserves to be better known to archaeologists and historians of Greek antiquity.

Peter S. Allen
Department of Anthropology
Rhode Island College
Providence, Rhode Island 02908
pallen@ric.edu

DOI: 
10.3764/ajaonline1144.Allen

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Use [fn]...[/fn] (or <fn>...</fn>) to insert automatically numbered footnotes.
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Click "Save" to submit your comment. Please allow some time for your post to be moderated.