Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.10.29

Askold I. Ivantchik, Kimmerier und Skythen. Kulturhistorische und chronologische Probleme der Archäologie der osteuropäischen Steppen und Kaukasiens in vor- und frühskythischer Zeit. Steppenvölker Eurasiens, 2.   Moskau:  Paleograph Press, 2001.  Pp. 324; pls. 135.  ISBN 5-89526-009-8.  €75.80.  ISBN 3-8053-2977-6 (von Zabern).  



Reviewed by Balbina Baebler, Georg-August-Universitaet Goettingen (bbaebler@gmx.de)
Word count: 1610 words

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review, for which she alone is responsible.]

The present volume, the second in a new German-Russian series edited by A. Ivantchik and H. Parzinger, the head of the "Eurasien-Abteilung" of the German Archaeological Institute, will probably be of prime interest for prehistorians and specialists in Near Eastern archaeology, but it also contains much useful material for classical archaeologists or philologists interested in Herodotus and Scythia. The Cimmerians, to whom the book is devoted, are in many ways a most intriguing people. On the one hand, they appear in many different sources: they are mentioned already in the bible and in cuneiform texts; Homer knows their name; Aristeas of Prokonnesos first locates them in the steppes on the Northern shores of the Black Sea (in his Arimaspeia, around 550 BC); and Herodotus (IV 11-13) provides some information concerning their history. And yet they remain strangely elusive; although the Greeks named the "Cimmerian Bosporos" after them, it is difficult to determine where exactly they lived, all the more so because a clear definition of what material culture is to be called "Cimmerian" is still lacking.

I(vantchik)'s book is divided into two main parts, the first of which deals with the archaeological identification of the Cimmerians, the second with chronological questions, mainly the date of the transition from pre-Scythian to early Scythian culture in the Eastern European steppes.

The author thus tackles two of the most difficult and most hotly debated issues connected with the Cimmerians and Scythians. His painstaking discussion of past and present scholarship throughout the whole book makes impressively clear how widely interpretations and proposed dates often diverge. To give just one example: the dates of the beginnings of early Scythian culture range from the mid-8th cent. BC to the early 6th cent. BC. I.'s well-balanced surveys of the literature, among them many Russian, Georgian and Armenian publications (which are still accessible only with great difficulty in Western libraries), is one of the greatest assets of the book.

The first part is of interest mainly for philologists: At the end of the 8th cent. BC written sources begin to throw new light on the inhabitants of the steppes and for the first time allow us to give names to the people dwelling there and to reconstruct historical events. These written sources, however, also create a new kind of problem: how can they be linked with archaeological remains? What kind of "archaeological reality" is in a name? Since different peoples may be part of one and the same archaeological culture, this question is often almost unsolvable or has led to some all too convenient solutions, e.g. the hasty ascription of pre-Scythian finds to the "Cimmerians" (16f.). I. has a very convincing strategy for dealing with this problem: he focuses on the Assyrian written sources (14-20), which start in 714 BC, when the Cimmerian campaigns are first mentioned. The cuneiform texts have two advantages compared with other written sources. They were created just at the time when their authors came into contact with the Cimmerians, and they were of 'pragmatic' character, coming from the Assyrian administration or secret service, and therefore they lack the historical or mythological stylization of later (Greek) accounts.1 To avoid the problems caused by the cultural similarity of Cimmerian and Scythian archaeological remains, I. narrows his focus to those areas of Anatolia for which the written sources bear witness to the presence of Cimmerians but not Scythians. Instead of concentrating on material from the Cimmerians' homeland in the steppes, which cannot be linked to contemporary written sources, he analyzes the archaeological remains of those regions which were the goal of the Cimmerian military campaigns and therefore mentioned in the cuneiform accounts. Four burial complexes are analyzed (two on the acropolis of Norsuntepe on the upper Euphrates, 21-41; two in the vicinity of Imirler and Amasya 42-56); it can be shown that the architecture of the tombs' stone vaults and the bimetallic battle pickaxes ("Streitpickel") with the picture of a bird of prey on them were very probably distinctly Cimmerian. These features appear also in graves of Southern Central Caucasia (55f.); there lay the "country of Gamir" where the king of Urartu was beaten by the Cimmerians in 714 BC. Apart from these peculiarities, however, the Cimmerians belonged to the same archaeological culture as the early Scythians.

The two following chapters (57-112) deal with "single finds" in Asia Minor that have been consi-dered to be Scythian. These, however, may cause the reader considerable disappointment, for it soon becomes clear how often archaeological remains are rather carelessly named "Scythian" and then considered to be a proof of the presence of Cimmerians and/or Scythians. The best known examples are certainly the so-called "Scythian" arrowheads, which were in fact quickly adopted by most of the peoples of Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Iran; at the end of the 7th cent. BC they are one of the most widespread and common kinds of weapon in the whole region. I. can show as well (58-66) that the residents of several Urartean frontier settlements not only themselves used items (mainly weapons) of Cimmerian and Scythian style but also fabricated them on their own. These items are therefore very often a proof not of actual presence but of cultural influence. An exception may be provided by the famous Scythian 'rolling animal' ("Rolltier", 73-79) which does not appear in the art of the Achaemenids or elsewhere in Asia Minor but was popular only in Cimmerian and Scythian art; but even such definitely Scythian motives are found on small ivory or metal plaques that cannot be linked with dated strata. On the other hand, deposits with a clear Cimmerian connection, such as the securely dated layer of the Cimmerian destruction at Sardis, may contain almost no finds that can safely be identified as Cimmerian (79-96).

These difficulties seem to have engendered considerable speculation (84-93). For example, superficial similarities between Scythian animals and the ibexes and boars on the little ivory plaques from the Artemision at Ephesos have led to far-reaching conclusions about Cimmerian participation in the cult of Artemis. I. convincingly shows that these ivory plaques are Lydian, dating from the first half of the 6th cent. BC. (The depiction of these animals has roots in Oriental art as early as the 3rd millennium BC, so that not even Cimmerian transmission needs to be supposed.)

Nor can the riding archers on a relief of Assurnasipal II at Nimrud (884-858 BC) (97-112) convincingly be identified as Cimmerians or Scythians; therefore they provide no evidence of an incursion of these peoples into Assyria in the 9th cent. BC. Here again I. reaches this conclusion through careful observation of iconographical details: the horses depicted on the relief are never controlled by the thighs of a rider but always by the hands (sometimes those of a neighboring rider), a widespread technique in the Near East in no way typical of Cimmerians or Scythians.

The second part of the book (113-279) is devoted to problems of historical interpretation and chronology regarding pre- and early Scythian culture, which the reviewer, being a Classical archaeologist, considers herself less competent to evaluate. I.'s method again is convincing: he aims to find points where it is possible to link late pre- and early Scythian monuments with systems of absolute chronology in the Near East and Middle Europe (the so-called Hallstatt-period). Many pages are devoted to the cultural relations between the Near East and Europe from the 9th to the 7th cent. BC (136-225), as demonstrated by the development of the horse bridle. Chronological conclusions can then be drawn from carefully observed changes in technical and iconographical details (e.g. in the fabrication of the snaffle) in combination with dated contexts.

The last chapter of this part deals with Near Eastern elements in the pre-Scythian culture of the Northern Caucasus (226-278), as exhibited in helmets, pectorals, scaled armor ("Schuppenpanzer") and war chariots ("Streitwagen").

In an excursus devoted to the destruction level of Hasanlu IV (261-278), its traditional date of 805 BC (conquest by the Urarteans, an important secure point for many of the chronological links in the book) is defended against recent doubts.

The main conclusions of this part are the following: the beginnings of early Scythian culture (the so-called Kelermes-period) are earlier than usually assumed; this culture is securely attested in the first half of the 7th cent. BC and very probably began already in the 8th cent. BC. On the other hand, the monuments of pre-Scythian or Novocerkassk culture must be dated at the latest in the 9th cent. BC. There are no arguments whatsoever to link the people of this earlier culture with the military campaigns against Near Eastern states. Very often "Scythian" features of finds consist only in superficial similarities; in other cases the importing of genuine Scythian items was longstanding so that they are proof of cultural and economical relations but not of wars. The archaeological cultures of the Cimmerians and Scythians are almost identical, but the cuneiform texts distinguish them clearly and they occupied different territories; most probably they were related Iranian peoples.

This volume is certainly the best and most solid book on Cimmerians and early Scythians available today. Its careful analysis of archaeological remains and written texts is exemplary, and the dates and interpretations obtained with these methods must be taken into account by everyone dealing with these matters. The volume is beautifully produced, with an extensive bibliography (286-310), two maps with the sites mentioned and indices (316-323); 135 drawings and black-and-white plates of all the items discussed allow the reader to follow the arguments easily. I found no misprint in the whole book.


Notes:


1.   Extensive linguistic and etymological analysis of texts and names connected with the Cimmerians can be found in an earlier book by the same author: Les Cimmériens au Proche-Orient (Fribourg-Goettingen 1993).

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