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Cultural Interactions and Social Strategies on the Pontic Shores: Burial Customs in the Northern Black Sea Area c. 550–270 BC

Cultural Interactions and Social Strategies on the Pontic Shores: Burial Customs in the Northern Black Sea Area c. 550–270 BC

By Jane Hjarl Petersen (Black Sea Studies 12). Pp. 362, figs. 80, color pls. 15, tables 17. Aarhus University Press, Aarhus 2010. $60. ISBN 978-87-7934-520-1 (cloth).

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The last decade witnessed an important increase in publications concerning the Greek colonization of the Black Sea. A prominent position herein is occupied by the Danish Centre for Black Sea Studies and its Black Sea Studies series. In this 12th volume of the series, Petersen publishes her Ph.D. thesis, which was defended at Aarhus University in 2007. Petersen applies statistical analysis and recent approaches to ethnicity and cultural interaction to selected sites to understand contacts between groups that are traditionally divided into “Greeks” and “Barbarians.” Petersen states that the adoption of certain structures, or gifts, in funerary ritual hints at complex social and cultural interaction, and that they are an expression of status and social position rather than a representation of ethnic markers. The book comes with a database, available online (, although the present reviewer did not manage to find it there.

Petersen opens with an introductory chapter explaining the goals, terminology, and theories of funerary archaeology. She has opted to use the terminology published by Sprague (Burial Terminology: A Guide for Researchers [Oxford 2005]). This choice facilitates a clear structure and consistency in the discussion of the evidence. Petersen refers in this introductory chapter, rather briefly however, to current scholarly ideas on Greeks and the Other and ethnicity, which she intends to explore for the selected sites.

In the first chapter, Petersen situates Russian scholarship under the czarist and communist regimes until the present. The presentation of the selected sites in the following chapters is organized by means of a general introduction to the past research of the site, an introduction to the history of the site, analysis and conclusions of the funerary evidence, and parallels with surrounding localities.

The introduction to Olbia in chapter 2, the first site discussed, is little more than a summary of the relevant chapter in Grammenos and Petropoulos (Ancient Greek Colonies in the Black Sea [Thessaloniki 2003]) (this can also be said for Petersen’s introduction to all sites discussed in the volume). More literature is available, especially for Olbia, and its inclusion would have helped to overcome the text’s superficiality. Petersen suggests that age was the determining criterion for the choice of burial location in Olbia. Nevertheless, one has to be careful, since Petersen classifies graves for which no skeleton is preserved to indicate the age of the deceased according to length (i.e., below 1.5 m is considered to be a child’s grave, above 1.5 m an adult’s grave). A specific feature in the Black Sea burial ritual, however, is the occurrence of inhumations of adults in a crouched position, in pits that easily measure less than 1.5 m. In fact, at Olbia, burials of adults in a crouched position have been documented (66). Although the suggestion of a reserved burial site for children is interesting, it seems odd that this treatment would have been reserved for the lower-status children only, as Petersen suggests, whereas the higher-status children would have been buried in their family’s plot, which is documented in the Olbian kurgan burials.

The evidence from Kerkinitis constitutes the third chapter. The kurgan burials are traditionally attributed to the local population, but based on a comparison with nearby Kalos Limen, Petersen invites us to see the ritual as local resistance against the threat of Chersonesos: the northwestern Crimea was initially influenced by Olbia and only from the mid fourth century B.C.E. on by Chersonesos.

With the discussion of the recent multidisciplinary excavations of Panskoe I in chapter 4, Petersen’s discussion becomes more engaged. Both women and children are well represented in burial, and this may be because of their important position in agrarian society, in contrast to the male-oriented polis society. Gender distinction based on gifts was not practiced; women were buried with weapons and horse gear, men with spindlewhorls.

The challenging discussion of gift-giving practices continues with Nymphaion in chapter 5, where Petersen observes changing attitudes: gifts in kurgans are related to horses and drinking, in contrast to flat graves, where gifts are related to unguents and oil. During the last phase of Nymphaion, more oil-related gifts are deposited.

In chapter 5, available funerary evidence from the western Greek colonial world, specifically some selected South Italian sites, is presented for comparative purposes. These necropoleis suffer from similar problems in the interpretation of “mixed” burials. Petersen argues that social strategies are responsible for the choice of rites and gifts, not the wish to distinguish oneself in an ethnic sense.

In a brief concluding chapter, the results of the analysis of the earlier chapters are summarized. The book concludes with a brief Russian summary (six pages) and some beautiful color plates of prestigious metal gifts related to horses and drinking. The book has no index.

Petersen deserves praise for her critical publication of this material, which is not easily accessible for western scholars. The author does a splendid job with the analysis of the data, and in many cases the accompanying discussion is challenging and complemented by interesting observations. To this praise, however, some reservations must be added. The theoretical base of the book is very light. While Petersen is acquainted with current western theories on ethnicity and interaction, she fails to include any bibliography on important concepts, such as boundaries or hybridization, and other references to theoretical concepts are limited to the notes. A proper introduction to some of these theoretical approaches would have been appropriate for a book on cultural interaction, and its absence signals a weakness, especially for a book that seeks to challenge other research traditions. While the choice to counterbalance the Black Sea evidence with comparative data from Mediterranean contexts is a logical one (and a model for future studies), Petersen limits herself to one chapter. This results in a rather unbalanced treatment of the evidence that limits its value for her conclusions.

The book lacks adequate visual reproductions of the evidence; apart from numerous tables and graphs, images are kept to a minimum. For example, not a single tomb structure is reproduced, and very few grave gifts are illustrated. Likewise, plans are not always clear, sometimes lacking detail and explanation. Additionally, the editing has missed a few typing errors. Despite these shortcomings, the volume contains an important presentation of material and interesting suggestions for some hotly debated issues in the archaeology of Greek colonization.

Lieve Donnellan
Department of Archaeology
Ghent University
Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat 35
9000 Ghent

Book Review of Cultural Interactions and Social Strategies on the Pontic Shores: Burial Customs in the Northern Black Sea Area c. 550–270 BC, by Jane Hjarl Petersen

Reviewed by Lieve Donnellan

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 1 (January 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1161.Donnellan

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