Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.05.09

Ulrich Sens, Kulturkontakt an der östlichen Schwarzmeerküste: griechische Funde in Colchis und Iberien; Kontexte und Interpretationen. Schriften des Zentrums für Archäologie und Kulturgeschichte des Schwarzmeerraumes 15.   Langenweißbach:  Beier & Beran, 2009.  Pp. 252; 62 p. of plates.  ISBN 9783941171114.  €67.00.  

Reviewed by Frederick Naerebout, Leiden University (

[A table of contents is included at the end of this review.]

The volume under review, part of an impressive series (19 volumes, of which 16 have appeared in the past 5 years), is a study of the archaeology of the area to the south-east of the Black Sea: the Transcaucasus, in the ancient world known as Colchis, referring to the river plain opening towards the sea, and as Iberia, lying further inland towards the east on the other side of the watershed of the Lichni mountains. Most of this area is now part of the Republic of Georgia (and of its break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia), stretching from the Black Sea coast to near Tbilisi. Ulrich Sens concentrates on the period of Greek settlement, from the first contacts, possibly 8th/7th century B.C. to the late 4th century B.C., when several Greek poleis are supposed to be well-established. His main question is what this Greek presence has meant for the cultural history of the area.1 In order to formulate an answer, he turns to a theoretical framework from social sciences, viz. acculturation, although straightaway admitting that archaeologists will always have difficulty in bridging the gap between an assemblage of artefacts, on the one hand, and an acculturative process on the other.

Sens offers us three main parts: a first part concerning the early history of contacts between Greece and eastern coasts of the Black Sea, a second part discussing in six chapters the possible Greek colonisation of the area, and a short third section addressing questions of acculturative processes between Greeks and locals. Colchis entered the Greek perception when it was identified with the mythical Aia, goal of the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece, from the 7th century onwards. The frequency and intensity of contacts and the extension of Greek geographical knowledge of the area, however, remains in doubt. Objects of undisputed Greek provenance found in Colchis (or Iberia) and conversely, Caucasian material at Greek sites are rare, and thus it is impossible to put a date on Greek settlement in whatever form. This flies in the face of much received ideas about archaic colonisation in the area. That is fairly typical of this book: the author frequently stresses how little we know, and how previous authors have jumped to conclusions unwarranted by the evidence.

There certainly is very little to go by as far as the three known Greek colonies, if that is what they were, Dioskuri(a)s, Gyenos and Phasis are concerned. These settlements have not been located (indeed, in all of Georgia no Greek architectural remains dating from before late Hellenistic times have been found), neither towns nor inhabitants are mentioned in any inscriptions, in fact they are not mentioned at all before the 4th century B.C. (with maybe a single exception), while most written sources date from Roman imperial times. In the middle section of his book, Sens devotes one chapter each to the above mentioned coastal settlements and another three chapters to the south-west coast of Colchis, the interior of the same, and Iberia. Of the 150 pages of these six chapters, 70 contain catalogues of finds – a selection of the most important items. Sens is, as he states himself, even more selective when excavations have been published in western languages and thus are readily accessible (as is the case with the area around Poti above all); these catalogues are supported by tables of individual artefacts from seven specific sites in an appendix to the volume and by 62 plates. This leaves 80 pages of introductions and analyses, which I will summarize below. The introduction and analysis of each chapter tend to be somewhat repetitious – some of this redundancy is irritating, and should have been edited out.2

Sens first discusses the area of Sukhumi where Dioskurias/Sebastopolis is supposed to have been situated: it is only from the mid-4th century that a significant number of Greek objects occur. That is when Dioskurias is certainly in existence, mentioned by Ps.-Skylax and attested by amphora stamps. Next Sens turns to Ochamchire which is supposed to be Guenos/Cygnos. Although he rejects the identification of Ochamchire as Guenos, he considers a Greek presence here in the late 6th/5th centuries not unlikely. The third town is Phasis, somewhere in the area of modern Poti. Phasis is attested in Ps.-Skylax, but possibly also in the 5th century B.C., when Hesiod could have meant the city, and not the river Phasis. The number of literary sources for Phasis is large, the local finds however are remarkably sparse. Coins were possibly minted there which could indicate an archaic Milesian polis foundation. Sens, however, is doubtful: although the ascription of the handful of early coins to Phasis has been defended with quite reasonable arguments, it worries Sens that no trace of an early town has been found as yet. In his fourth chapter we come to south-west Colchis, the area on the coast around Barumi. The burial sites at Pichwnari and Tsikhisdsiri contain 5th- and 4th-century Greek ceramics. Lekythoi, rarely found as grave goods outside the Greek cultural sphere, may indicate ‘Bestattungen von Personen…die aus einer von griechischen Kultur geprägten Region stammen’, who were either Greeks or Hellenised (but see note 1102, where Sens feels the need to defend his own temerity in even suggesting as much). With chapter 5 we move inland. Grave sites at Wani, Sairkhe and Ichvisi show an increase in the number of Greek objects in the 5th/4th centuries, not so much ceramics as metal objects and jewellery, showing what is likely to be direct contact between local elites and areas of Greek culture, by trade, or the migration of craftsmen who settle and/or train their indigenous counterparts. Sens interestingly compares Hallstatt- and Latène Europe, for instance finds from Heuneburg. But Achaemenid influence is present as well. It is only in the early 3rd century, outside Sens’ timeframe, that we encounter Greek architecture, Greek inscriptions, and local ceramics following Greek musters. As elsewhere in the Transcaucasus, a serious impact of Greek culture is late in coming. The last chapter of the book’s central section deals with Iberia. There only a few Greek objects have been found; instead, there is a strong and lasting Achaemenid influence. The Lichni mountains appear to have been a watershed in more than just the literal sense.

We come back to the acculturation of the introduction in a very short section at the end, where the ‘Akkulturationsprozesse’ have acquired a question mark. In what is a bit of a lame conclusion, Sens tells us what we had already seen in his previous chapters: that the Greek settlements on the coast, themselves of an unknown character, have had but little influence on their immediate surroundings; in a few instances, especially deeper inland, they were in contact with local overlords who used Greek or Greek-style objects in their self-display. This is about all we can say. The author wrangles with the question whether we can call this acculturation. Of course we can – but it is all very small scale. Sens, however, goes on doubting, because we cannot really distinguish first contacts from subsequent developments, and because it is questionable whether the different groups who are parties to the acculturation process can be properly distinguished at all. The first is a mistranslation of the English ‘first-hand’, which is understood as ‘at the first occasion’, while of course meaning ‘direct’, ‘without intermediaries’ (this is Gotter’s misunderstanding, replicated here3). The second is a good point, and Sens argues convincingly, throughout his volume, that there is no easy way from individual finds to ethnicity, not even to cultural traits. Still, he accepts the presence of Greeks in Colchis. So there will have been acculturation; only, with such meagre evidence, what we are left with is so little that one could feel a bit wrong footed by the ‘Kulturkontakt’ of the title and the ‘Akkulturationsprozesse’ of the introduction, as the nature of these acculturation processes and their consequences will have to remain unknown.

This volume is an extremely decent production, as rarely seen in Anglo-Saxon book publishing nowadays: cloth bound, printed on cream coloured heavy stock without a glare, two columns in very readable type, no misprints, and plates of real photographic quality. It is quintessentially German. And it is that too as far as the contents is concerned: it is very thorough, but especially refreshingly ‘nüchtern’ – that is: unimpressed by fads and fashions, and laying out the facts without too many speculative departures (the English equivalents, ‘sensible’ and ‘level-headed’, are a bit tame). The author shows that there has been too much written on the Greek presence in Georgia that is unfounded, because of partisan or wishful thinking and a cavalier treatment of the evidence.4 The book’s exceptional clarity makes you come away with the idea that you know all there is to know – for the time being – about the south-eastern Pontic Greeks in the archaic and classical periods. It is something of a pity that that is so very little.

Table of Contents (from the publisher’s website)


I Vorkoloniale Kontakte zwischen Griechenland und dem östlichen Schwarzmeerraum
Kolchis und Argonauten in schriftlichen Quellen und bildender Kunst archaischer Zeit
Archäologische Funde als Zeugnisse für Kontakte zwischen Griechenland und der östlichen Schwarzmeerküste im 8. und 7. Jahrhundert v. Chr.

II Von sporadischen Handelskontakten zur Gründung griechischer Kolonien? – Die östliche Schwarzmeerküste vom 6. bis zum mittleren 4. Jahrhundert v. Chr.
Die griechische Kolonisation des Ostpontos – Einführung in die Problematik
A Die Bucht von Suchumi und ihr Hinterland
B Die Siedlungshügel an der Dschikimur-Mündung bei Otschamtschire
C Das Umland von Poti – Phasis im Spiegel archäologischer und literarischer Zeugnisse
D Die südwestliche Kolchis
E Das Kolchische Binnenland
F Iberien

III. Griechen und Einheimische am Ostpontos – Akkulturationsprozesse in Kolchis und Iberien?



1.   This is not a tell-all-you-know-about-Georgia-in-Antiquity kind of book: the author stresses repeatedly that he does not want to duplicate what is to be found in the work of authors such as David Braund and Otar Lordkipanidse. It is definitely helpful to keep D. Braund, Georgia in Antiquity. A History of Colchis and Transcaucasian Iberia 550 BC- AD 562, Oxford 1994, and O. Lordkipanidse, Archäologie in Georgien. Von der Altsteinzeit zum Mittelalter, Weinheim 1991, at hand when reading this volume.
2.   This text started life as a 2006 dissertation written within the context of the research program ‘Formen und Wege der Akkulturation im östlichen Mittelmeerraum und Schwarzmeergebiet in der Antike’ of the Deutsche Forschungs Gemeinschaft. It was ‘slightly edited’ as the author puts it. He should have been a bit more strict on himself.
3.   U. Gotter, ‘“Akkulturation” as Methodenproblem der historischen Wissenschaften’, in W. Essbach (ed.), Wir/ihr/sie. Identität und Alterität in Theorie und Methode (Würzburg 2000) 373-399. It is a pity that Sens did not take the trouble to look up any of the original English language publications Gotter refers too.
4.   He tends to overlook some recent work that supports his critical stance: for instance the entries for Dioskouris, Gyenos and Phasis in M.H. Hansen & T.H. Nielsen (edd.), An inventory of archaic and classical poleis (Oxford 2004) 952-953, not referred to by Sens, are almost equally careful in their wording.

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