Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.05.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.05.10

Vladimir F. Stolba, Eugeny Rogov, Panskoye I, Volume 2: The Necropolis. Archaeological investigations in Western Crimea.   Aarhus:  Aarhus University Press, 2012.  Pp. 414; 78 p. of plates.  ISBN 9788772887715.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Adam Rabinowitz, The University of Texas at Austin (

If you are an archaeologist or historian interested in questions of cultural interaction in colonial contexts, and if you work primarily in the Mediterranean, Panskoye may be the most important site you've never heard of. Thanks to the efforts of Vladimir Stolba and the support of the Centre for Black Sea Studies at Aarhus University, this modest farming settlement on the Tarkhankut peninsula in northwest Crimea, on the shore of the Black Sea, now offers English-speaking readers a rich dataset for the study of social relationships and identities in an agricultural borderland between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC. The first excavation monograph appeared in 2002 and reported on a large building of unusual plan and function that had been destroyed along with the rest of the settlement in the 3rd century BC.1 This second volume turns from the world of the living to that of the dead, presenting the results of excavations conducted in the settlement's well-preserved necropolis between 1969 and 1986, for much of that time under the direction of Eugeny Rogov. Stolba estimates that the graves of at least 184 individuals were investigated (53). The earliest of these burials date to the late 5th century, while the latest belong to the first quarter of the 3rd century. Represented are men and women, children and infants, and a wide range of tomb types, grave goods, and funerary practices that reflect connections with both the Greek and the Scythian worlds.

Although a large number of Greek-period cemeteries from the Northern Black Sea coast have been investigated over the course of the last century, information about them tends to be fragmentary and hard to find. Many of these necropoleis were excavated in the 19th or early 20th centuries, most of them have been seriously damaged by looters, and almost all that have been published are presented only in summary form. There is now a general review, in English, of the available evidence from several of these cemeteries, including a preliminary discussion of Panskoye,2 but Stolba and Rogov's volume marks the first comprehensive publication, in a language other than Russian, of a substantial portion of a pristine North Pontic necropolis. Like other post-Soviet collaborative publications of Black Sea cemeteries, it is also of interest for the way it brings together European and Russian scholarly traditions and bibliography.3 Rogov had originally been responsible for the publication of the necropolis, the subject of his doctoral thesis, but died unexpectedly in 2001. This volume is thus composed of both Rogov's manuscript materials (in particular, the description of the burials and the discussion of their regional context), translated from Russian and edited and updated by Stolba, and Stolba's own contributions, which include the artifact catalogues and chapters on the demography and chronology of the necropolis.

The settlement at Panskoye was established in the 5th century BC to take advantage of the agricultural potential of the surrounding steppe. After its destruction in the 3rd century the site was generally abandoned, leaving both residential and funerary contexts undisturbed by the plow. The tumuli in the necropolis were still visible in the modern period, but they did not suffer the looting and unscientific excavation that affected richer tumulus burials elsewhere in Crimea. When large-scale excavations began in 1969, therefore, the archaeologists had access to both the settlement and its cemetery in their entirety. There is a slight chronological disjunction between the two, in that the 5th century is better represented in the necropolis than in the settlement, while activity in the settlement after ca. 270 BC is not reflected in the necropolis (61). The interpretive disjunction between the two in this publication is more dramatic, however, since with a few exceptions the authors do not attempt to relate the evidence from the necropolis to the results of the settlement excavations.

The book instead adopts a traditional approach centered on the detailed description of graves and their contents. A brief section on the history of excavation is followed by synthetic chapters on tomb types and burial rites, demography, and necropolis chronology. After these comes a more substantial chapter that places the Panskoye necropolis in regional context through the description of funerary practices at neighboring Greek sites, specifically Olbia, the cities of northwest Crimea, and Tauric Chersonesos. These chapters are followed by a series of catalogues, the first and most extensive of which presents the description of individual burials, grouped by necropolis sector and associated tumulus. Subsequent object catalogues report on ceramics (amphorae, finewares, plainwares, handmade pots, lamps, and terracottas), epigraphy (amphora stamps, graffiti on vessels, and a fragmentary funerary inscription), stone grave markers and funerary altars, coins, and objects of metal, stone, bone, glass, clay, and shell. This information is supplemented with two appendices, one a report on the "craniology of the Panskoye population", the other a zooarchaeological analysis of an assemblage of astragaloi.

The authors make the most of the exciting evidence this necropolis has to offer about familial, chronological, and cultural relationships. They argue persuasively for the use of the tumuli as burial sites for individual nuclear families across no more than three generations. In a number of cases, graves were built well before the deaths of the married couples for whom they seem to have been intended (the earliest burials in these tumuli are instead those of the couple's small children). Since the tumuli allow family groups to be clearly distinguished, and since in many cases familial relationships (parent, child, adult child, spouse) can be inferred, Stolba is able to reconstruct the stemmata of individual households in his chapter on demography, and can base his observations about age at marriage or mortality patterns on those households (55-57). Such circumstances minimize the risk of sample bias, a common problem in the reconstruction of demographics from cemeteries.

The demographic observations are further supported by the tight chronology of the necropolis, the result of the frequent appearance of amphorae with stamped handles in the graves. That chronological precision also helps to delineate some patterns in a daunting profusion of tomb types, including not only tumuli and the above-ground mud-brick cist tombs over which many of the tumuli were constructed, but also pit or fossa graves, stone cists, and niche graves. Stolba distinguishes an early phase in which niche graves were popular, followed by a second phase in which such graves disappeared and burials of infants in amphorae and of children in slab graves became increasingly numerous. Changes are also visible in grave goods and funerary rituals: in the second phase, for example, anthropomorphic grave markers of a type known at Chersonesos appeared,4 while in the third and last phase, the arrowheads and wine amphorae that had previously been included in burials are replaced by coin offerings (65).

These changes and variations make the most sense when they are considered in a broader regional context. While sensibly reserving judgment on the ethnic or civic identity of any of the individual occupants of these tombs, the authors point out that the niche graves have close contemporary parallels at Olbia, which they suggest might be the home city of the earliest settlers at Panskoye (68). At the same time, however, niche graves also appear in Scythian contexts, and other elements of the Panskoye assemblages—bronze arrowheads, blue glass beads, small handmade pots, a cowrie shell—are common to the burials of non-Greek populations in Crimea. Similar ambiguities characterize the second phase of the necropolis, when some features point to increasing connections with Chersonesos, while others (tombs with multiple burials, bodies in contracted position, slab graves for children) find comparanda in the funerary traditions of neighboring rural settlements and local indigenous groups (76). The provenience of the numerous wine amphorae in this necropolis is also interesting: the majority are from Herakleia Pontica on the southern Black Sea coast, while only a few examples from Chersonesos appear in the last phase of the cemetery's use (232).

The Panskoye necropolis also provides a substantial collection of objects related to rituals that took place during and after burial. These rituals involved both symbolic offerings, reflected by small stone altars and fragments of burned fish-plates, and funerary feasting or drinking, represented by numerous wine amphorae and drinking vessels including fine-ware cups and kraters. This material is discussed in detail in the catalogue of burials, and select individual pots are presented together with vessels from the tomb assemblages in a series of catalogues that will be very useful for students of ceramics in North Pontic contexts. The systematic attention paid to ceramic evidence for ritual practice is a welcome contribution, since such material is often mentioned only in passing in necropolis reports. On the other hand, the organic material is treated more casually. Marine molluscs and eggshells are reported in a few cases, but no other plant or animal remains are mentioned. The only faunal material that was studied in detail consists of the 20 astragaloi in Appendix II, and since these were deliberately deposited as part of a burial assemblage, they provide little information about diet or animal husbandry.

The neglect of the biological evidence is more glaring in the treatment of the human remains. Appendix I illustrates one of the fundamental challenges Stolba faced in the production of this volume: only a small portion of the material uncovered during the excavations is now available for study, with the result that of nearly 200 burials, only five skulls are discussed. It also shows the gap between late Soviet practice and contemporary Western expectations at its widest: while Soviet archaeologists perhaps paid more attention to human osteology than Classical archaeologists in Europe in the mid-twentieth century, their publications focused on populations and revolved around questions of ethnic identity. Current Western necropolis publications, on the other hand, routinely include methodological explanations, catalogues of individual skeletons, and discussions of paleopathology. The skeletal remains at Panskoye were studied by physical anthropologists, who must have provided the determinations of age and sex, as well as the occasional mentions of injuries or pathologies, that appear in the text. But there is no explanation of the analytical criteria employed, and there is no systematic discussion of the human remains in the catalogue of burials or elsewhere. Instead, the appendix on craniology uses the metrical traits of the preserved skulls to distinguish a "dolicho-mesocranial" Scythian type from a "brachicephalic" Greek type (358). Western physical anthropologists tend to be ambivalent at best about such craniometric analysis and now more often base assertions about similarities or differences between populations on nonmetric cranial traits. Though the author’s assertion that the (metrically?) male skulls exhibit "Scythian" proportions, while the female skulls resemble "Greek" populations, is thought-provoking, the appendix is generally unsatisfying. It also includes only one illustration, a photograph of the skull of a child with a traumatic head injury found not in the necropolis but in the settlement, without further discussion.

As disappointing as the dearth of osteological information is, there is not much the authors could have done to correct it: decisions about what to keep or study were made long before publication work began. Another significant omission, however, is harder to excuse. The volume contains a large number of plans both of sectors of the necropolis and of individual tombs, most of them of high quality. Only a single plan of the necropolis as a whole, however, is included in the book: a small schematic diagram meant to show the distribution of altars and stelai. The tumuli are numbered in this diagram, but there is no indication of non-tumulus graves or identification of the sectors discussed in the catalogue of burials (43, fig. 2.38). On a regional scale, the site itself is only shown in a detail of a nineteenth-century map and in a close-up satellite image, while no maps or plans at all accompany the chapter on comparative evidence. The lack of a general labeled plan of the necropolis makes it very difficult to understand the relation of various groups of tombs to each other, and the total absence of maps in the comparative chapter will disorient readers not already familiar with the region.

Otherwise, the volume has few shortcomings. It is generously illustrated with drawings and photographs, including one color plate depicting glass objects, and generally well edited. There are a few places where the original Russian shows through beneath the English translation in a way that might confuse non-Russian-speakers, but this is unavoidable in such a project, and in fact the book is largely free of the grammatical obscurities and typographical mistakes that haunt similar volumes. The few typos here are concentrated in the bibliography, where they are more than made up for by the extensive, exhaustive, and up-to-date list of sources in Russian as well as the familiar English, French, German, and Greek.

This is an important publication. Stolba and Rogov have offered us a vivid picture of life and death in this far corner of the Greek world, while at the same time leaving open a series of questions, large and small, that should inspire new research. Stolba in particular is to be congratulated for seeing Rogov's original project through to completion. Even so, the book leaves me with an impression of unrealized potential, compounded by Stolba's mention of the looting and destruction of the unexcavated part of this necropolis between the 1990s and the present (11). Black Sea cemeteries still offer tremendous opportunities to learn about the ancient world through the study of human remains, but one wonders for how much longer.


1.   L. Hannestad, V. F. Stolba, and A. N. Shcheglov, eds. 2002. Panskoye I. Volume 1: The Monumental Building U6. Archaeological investigations in Western Crimea. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.
2.   J. H. Petersen. 2010. Cultural interactions and social strategies on the Pontic shores: burial customs in the northern Black Sea area c. 550-270 BC. Aarhus and Oakville, CT: Aarhus University Press.
3.   For example, the Pichvnari necropolis in Georgia (M. Vickers and A. Kakhidze. 2004. Results of Excavations Conducted by the Joint British-Georgian Pichvnari Expedition. Volume I: 1998-2002. Batumi and Oxford: Ashmolean Museum and Batumi Archaeological Museum; A. Kakhidze. 2007. The Classical World in the Eastern Black Sea Area: the Fifth Century BC Greek Necropolis at Pichvnari. Batumi and Oxford: Ashmolean Museum and Batumi Archaeological Museum) and the necropolis of Apollonia Pontica in Bulgaria (A. Hermary. 2010. Apollonia du Pont, Sozopol: la nécropole de Kalfata, Ve-IIIe s. av. J.-C.: fouilles franco-bulgares, 2002-2004. Paris: Errance). The contrast between traditions is perhaps less obvious in the Panskoye publication, however, because Stolba himself bridges the gap, as a scholar trained in the Soviet system but now working in a European setting.
4.   See now R. Posamentir and J. C. Carter. 2011. The Polychrome Grave Stelai from the Early Hellenistic Necropolis. Chersonesan Studies 1. Austin: University of Texas Press. ​

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