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The Northern Black Sea in Antiquity: Networks, Connectivity, and Cultural Interactions

The Northern Black Sea in Antiquity: Networks, Connectivity, and Cultural Interactions

Edited by Valeriya Kozlovskaya. Pp. xxviii + 366. Cambridge University Press, New York 2017. $140. ISBN 978-1-107-01951-5 (cloth).

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In the first chapter of this rich and thought-provoking collection, historian Ivantchik argues that until around the middle of the seventh century B.C.E. the Greeks saw the Black Sea as an extension of the circling ocean—part of the terrifying unknown at the edge of the world, on the far shore of which the land of the dead might plausibly be located. As Greeks from Ionia began to venture north along the Black Sea coast in the later seventh century, however, the farther Pontic shores gradually took firmer shape, until the area was finally integrated as a wild but familiar part of the classical world. This book unfolds in much the same way, opening a region that was obscured to Western scholars by the shadows of the Iron Curtain for much of the 20th century. In fact, the reader is invited by the volume’s structure to adopt the perspective of a canny Greek trader, first coming to understand the geography and geomorphology of the northern Black Sea coast, especially in relation to harbors and anchorage; then assessing its markets, goods, and production centers; then closely observing the ways in which the colonial Greek cultures there both reflected and departed from those of the Aegean homeland; and finally peering through the mists again at the “barbarian” groups riding across the steppe to the north.

The area covered by this volume is the arc of the Black Sea coast stretching roughly from Tyras, at the mouth of the Dniester, in the west to Gorgippia on the Russian Black Sea coast in the east. Kozlovskaya argues in her introduction that this area was a closely interconnected zone of shared culture in antiquity, but the geographic focus of the book also reflects the fact that this is more or less the zone of modern Russian scholarship on the Black Sea in antiquity. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that with one exception, the contributors are all scholars who have emerged from that Russian tradition. This makes the collection all the more valuable, because much of the material presented here is otherwise available only in Russian or Ukrainian and thus inaccessible to most Western archaeologists.

The essays that follow the introduction are organized according to two connected principles. The first is chronological: from Ivantchik’s assessment of Homeric views of the Black Sea to Mordvintseva’s mention of the arrival of the Cherniakov culture in the area in the third century C.E., nine chapters move across 1,000 years of history in roughly linear fashion, with a particularly heavy focus on what Chaniotis (ch. 6) dubs “the Long Hellenistic Age” (the late fourth century B.C.E. to the middle of the third century C.E.). The second principle is thematic, permitting the division of those nine chapters into five sections: the first on the geography of the Black Sea in antiquity (both imagined and real: Ivantchik [ch. 1], Kozlovskaya [ch. 2], Buynevich [ch. 3]), the second on trade (as represented mainly by amphora distribution: Monakhov and Kuznetsova [ch. 4], Vnukov [ch. 5]), the third on tradition and change in Greek political culture in the major polities of the north coast (Olbia, Tauric Chersonesos, and the Bosporan kingdom: Chaniotis [ch. 6]), the fourth on similar issues in the visual culture of the same communities (Muratov [ch. 7], Buiskikh [ch. 8]), and the fifth (a single long contribution by Mordvintseva [ch. 9]) on the question of the “Sarmatians,” the designation given by the ancient sources to the nomadic peoples who occupied the North Pontic steppe from the third century B.C.E. to the third century C.E.

In most of these contributions, the tension between Mediterranean models and local Pontic developments is apparent. It is perhaps appropriate, then, that the chapters themselves exhibit a similar tension between two different scholarly traditions. Some chapters engage with theoretical and interpretive issues such as connectivity and networks, both practical and conceptual (Ivantchik, Kozlovskaya), or identity formation and political strategies at the edges of the Greek world (Chaniotis, Muratov). Others are primarily descriptive and quantitative in approach (Monakhov and Kuznetsova, Vnukov, Buiskikh), although these also compare and contrast North Pontic amphora distribution or Ionic architectural forms with their Aegean counterparts. Mordvintseva’s chapter bridges this divide, combining a traditional synthetic description of grave goods and tomb types with a more theoretical discussion of the nature of Sarmatian identity, which she concludes is more a construct of Greek and Roman historians than a phenomenon observable in the archaeological record.

Generally, this tension is productive: it allows the reader to explore an unfamiliar subject from a variety of perspectives while keeping a constant eye on what is Greek and what is unique about the culture and history of the North Pontic coast. Occasionally, however, it can be distracting. There is significant inconsistency, for example, in the length of the chapters; while the more theoretical chapters are of the usual length for an edited volume, the descriptive contributions run from Buynevich’s five-page note on coastal geomorphology to Mordvintseva’s 50-page opus on the Sarmatians. Similarly, while the inclusion of numerous black-and-white illustrations and a set of color plates is laudable, there are some design choices that highlight the differences between traditions. The presence of numerous, fairly legible maps (unfortunately without scales or north arrows) across the chapters is in line with Western practice, while dense, small-scale line drawings that juxtapose large numbers of object exemplars are a more common feature of Russian publications. Some of the color plates are very welcome—in particular, the ceramic fabric sections provided by Vnukov—but one wonders why most show subjects that would have appeared just as well in grayscale (monochrome sculptures, mud volcanoes), while none are dedicated to the polychrome architectural elements discussed by Buiskikh. Readers should note that the final plate, number 11, appears not on the last page of the color insert but on the fourth, together with plate 6.

There are some notable absences in this volume, both in content and in scholarship. The most noticeable gaps in content involve the Scythians, whose early and late phases are mentioned in passing but who occupy little space in the contributions despite their significance for the Greek world between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C.E., and the well-studied rural settlements in the hinterlands of the major North Pontic cities, which appear in the second section in relation to their amphora imports but are not integrated into the book’s broader themes of identity and connectivity. As for scholarship, the bibliography is somewhat biased toward Russian sources, as might be expected, but even when this is taken into account, there are a few surprising gaps on the European side. Most notably, the extensive publications of the Centre for Black Sea Studies at Aarhus are underrepresented: Petersen’s highly relevant book on funerary practices, for example, is absent from the bibliography (Cultural Interactions and Social Strategies on the Pontic Shores: Burial Customs in the Northern Black Sea Area c. 550–270 BC [Aarhus 2010]). Readers hoping for a comprehensive overview of the current state of scholarship on the question of “the so-called Phanagorian regression” (52) and changing sea levels may also be disappointed, as Buynevich skims over this controversy in his discussion of coastal barriers (on the other hand, much of the relevant recent work can be found in the notes for his chapter and in the bibliography).

An ambitious attempt like this to bring together very different worlds could never cover everything or satisfy everyone, and Kozlovskaya’s volume should be judged on what it does accomplish. It offers an excellent, up-to-date introduction to important facets of the material culture of the North Pontic region, with a very useful bibliography (the comprehensive collection of Russian sources will be particularly valuable for those who are unfamiliar with this body of literature) and provides much food for thought for scholars interested in colonization, culture contact, and the ancient economy. The more descriptive chapters provide a comprehensive visual and spatial reference for Black Sea amphoras and Ionic architectural details that will be of great interest to those embarking on research programs in this area. And several contributions could easily stand alone as readings for a graduate seminar, the chapters by Chaniotis and Muratov in particular. In short, The Northern Black Sea in Antiquity brings the contours of this fascinating region, long neglected by Western scholarship, into sharper focus, and charts a promising course toward further research.

Adam Rabinowitz
Department of Classics
University of Texas at Austin

Book Review of The Northern Black Sea in Antiquity: Networks, Connectivity, and Cultural Interactions, edited by Valeriya Kozlovskaya

Reviewed by Adam Rabinowitz

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 1 (January 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1231.rabinowitz

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