BMCR 2000.06.01

Ancient Berezan. The Architecture, History and Culture of the First Greek Colony in the Northern Black Sea. Colloquia Pontica 4

, Ancient Berezan. The Architecture, History and Culture of the First Greek Colony in the Northern Black Sea. Colloquia Pontica 4. Leiden: Brill, 1999. 148. $57.00.

Greek colonisation is still a much debated topic in archaeology, but, while there is a long history of research on the subject in the Mediterranean area, the Greek “colonial experience” in the Black Sea has been rather outside the focus of Western scholarship until the last two decades, not only for obvious political reasons (which have by now more or less disappeared), but also because of difficulties caused by the modern languages spoken around the Black Sea and by (non-)accessibility of literature (problems which, for most scholars, still persist). Therefore a book like Solovyov’s, the first synthesis of about a century of work on the Greek settlement of Berezan (19-27), is highly welcome.

Berezan, known in antiquity as Borysthenes, on the northern Black Sea shore between the estuaries of the rivers Dnieper and Lower Bug, is of outstanding interest for the study of Greek colonisation of this area because it was very probably the first Greek colony in the Pontos and therefore the earliest area of contact betweeen colonists and indigenous Scythian tribes. Today it is an island of roughly triangular shape, but it was connected with the mainland by a broad swath of land when the first Greek settlers arrived. Sometime in the 3rd or 4th cent. AD, Berezan became an island; moreover, with the changes of sea level and by erosion, its territory has shrunk at least by half over the past 2500 years. If Solovyov is right in thinking that the settlement at its most prosperous time covered up to 20ha, then only about one tenth of its area (ca. 2 ha) has been studied until now (13). A major problem here is the lack of a revised archaeological map of the island (because of insufficient topographical information); the author offers (convincingly) his own solution (16 pl. 6), based on earlier maps and adds new information from recent excavation reports.

Berezan is an exemplary case for study because of the variety and richness of its archaeological data, which start in the Late Bronze Age and last to the late Antiquity (there were even some periodic revivals in the Middle Ages). Its most remarkable phase lasted from the second half of the 7th to the first half of the 3rd cent. BC. The general opinion, confirmed by the material, is that the history of the place can be divided into basically two periods: a time of both political and economic growth until the 5th cent. BC, then a long and gradual decline into oblivion, during which the key rôle in the area was taken over by the polis of Olbia (see below).

The author starts by giving a list of the main questions connected with Berezan (2): among others the time of the initial settlement, the significance of the settlement for Greek colonisation in this area, trade relations between Berezan and the Greek world, the political and cultural history of the settlement and its relations with the native peoples in the surrounding areas.

Berezan’s exact foundation date remains an unsolved problem (1ff. 29). The church historian Eusebius (whom I would rather not call “Byzantine”) places the event in the year 647/6 BC, but the earliest archaeological strata (containing dwellings and the first graves in the necropolis) date from the last quarter of the 7th cent. BC, which leaves a gap of about two decades. Such discrepancies between literary sources and archaeological material concerning foundation dates in the Black Sea region are an intensely debated topic;1 in the case of Berezan, however, I am convinced that the aporia is mainly caused by applying quite unrealistic standards to Eusebius, who wrote his chronicle some time before 303 AD (at a distance of over nine hundred years from the events) and relied on older sources without having any means to check this chronology. It’s about time that archaeologists and historians take into account the precarious foundations of Eusebius’ chronological efforts and acknowledge that it was rather an achievement to come that close to the dates indicated by the archaeological remains. (Eusebius started his chronicle with the birth of Abraham in 2105/6 BC, yet no theologian would probably wrestle with the difference between this “date” and Abraham’s “real” birthday.)

The area already had some population (indicated by hand-made pottery) in the centuries before the Greek arrival, although probably only a modest one; the rich vegetation of the coastal regions offered excellent conditions to tribal nomads for wintering livestock. Archaeological evidence shows that in the 3rd quarter of the 7th cent. BC Berezan became a place regularly visited by Milesians and possibly other Ionians (29). At the end of the 7th cent., the first dwellings appear on the island, more than 200 dugout and semi-dugout buildings of 3-14 sq.m (30ff.); certain features suggest that these were not only residential buildings but also workshops, though corresponding finds in situ are still lacking (38ff. with reconstruction drawings). Very probably ferrous metals were already processed for marketing, and cattle were raised and grain cultivated for the same purpose. At the same time, a large number of ceramics were imported (mainly from Ionia and Corinth). But who were the inhabitants of this flourishing and apparently rapidly growing settlement? To this question the author gives several sometimes conflicting answers as he has to grapple with two diametrically opposed interpretations of the phenomenon of the numerous dugout buildings found in the early strata: one scholarly opinion regards them as dwellings for the indigenous population of the Lower Bug region, the other takes them as having been constructed by the Greek colonists in a new and unfamiliar environment (6). This second opinion is repeated by Solovyov on p. 34 n. 21 (“… the work exclusively of Greek colonists”), whereas on p.42 he supports the first interpretation (“it seems to me entirely clear that the sources must lie in local traditions of dugout construction”); on p. 70 he ascribes the aboveground residential houses dating from the end of the 6th cent. BC to “colonists bringing in ancient [sc. Greek] building traditions”. This seems convincing, for the reconstructions of the dugouts look so totally un-Greek that it is hard to imagine that at the very beginning colonists should have taken over so completely indigenous building traditions. An additional difficulty in determining the ethnicity of the inhabitants is that no remains of early cult-related buildings have been found (56).

Another matter for further study might be the reasons for the substantial changes in cultural development which took place in the 3rd quarter of the 6th cent. BC. At this time, aboveground building with undressed stone started (initially in the north and northeast areas, 64ff.); these buildings, which had possibly two levels as well as heating and ventilation systems, were grouped in blocks of eight or more houses on a rectangular street plan. Solovyov explains this rapid urbanization with “mass immigration” of Greeks (of Ionian, predominantly Milesian, origin: 78f.). According to him, the interactions of Greeks and indigenous peoples in archaic times would have prepared the way for this Greek colonization of the classical type, developing a more complex political organization and diversified economy. One question, however, remains: what became of the inhabitants of the dugouts, which were apparently superseded by the aboveground buildings?

Solovyov then analyzes the necropolis, which dates from the second half of the 6th to the first half of the 5th cent. BC (79ff.) and exhibits the typical features of Greek necropoleis of the Black Sea area. The burial offerings (amphorae, plain and painted jugs, kraters, cups, lekythoi, askoi, lydia, terracottae, various items of stone and metal, copper coins) were rather inexpensive. As before, the main economic activities of the colony were probably trade and handicrafts (84ff.).

In any case it is clear that Berezan reached the height of its development at the end of the 6th cent. BC, accompanied by engagement in the chora and involvement of the indigenous population (93ff.).

Already in the following decades, however, this development was disturbed, and the 5th cent. BC was apparently a period of deep crisis, which is archaeologically evident in the massive shrinking of the residential area. No theory about the reasons for these changes seems to me wholly convincing, and the matter is further complicated by the results of recent excavations (1987-91) in the northwestern part of the city, which brought to light dugouts of the 5th and 4th cent., solid buildings of high quality, which again raises the question of the identity of their builders.

The only thing certain is that in the middle of the 5th cent. the neighbouring city of Olbia had become the sole political, economic and religious centre of the area. From the second half of the 4th cent. and during the Hellenistic period archaeological evidence is extremely small; apparently, Berezan had become one of many small settlements at the Olbian periphery (114ff. 130f.), although its legal or political status within the Olbian polis remains unclear. The imports of this time (mainly tableware from Athenian workshops) arrived via Olbia, since Berezan had lost its importance as a trading harbour. In the first third of the 3rd cent. BC, Berezan was abandoned by its inhabitants, who fled the mounting pressure by the nomadic tribes and very probably took refuge behind Olbia’s walls.

A short, but remarkable revival of Berezan occurred in the 1st cent. AD, when the centre of the worship of Achilles in the northwest Black Sea was transferred to the island (116ff. 130); this may have happened because Olbia had lost control over the Greek sanctuary of Achilles on the island of Leuke (117). Berezan was still inhabited by both Greek and native people in the 2nd and 3rd cent. AD, when the area was part of the Roman province of Lower Moesia, and the Emperor Antoninus Pius stationed a garrison at Olbia. During the long period of oblivion that followed, the island was now and then inhabited by fishermen and brigands: Slav hand-made pottery dates from the 10th to the 13th cent. From the 18th cent. on, Turkish and then Russian military forces became interested in the island and built fortifications, with devastating consequences for the archaeological remains (16f.).

Of course, a book like this leaves many stimuli for further discussion and research; questions, above all concerning ethnicities, certainly remain (and this not only for Berezan). How precisely can we determine the mutual influence of Greeks and native peoples, and to what extent can archaeological remains tell us something about the ethnic identity of the people who left them? — In any case, I consider it rather bad style when one of the editors, G. R. Tsetskhladze, points out already in the “Introduction to the Issue” that “not all the author’s interpretations and conclusions are beyond challenge” (x), referring to an article of his own which is not beyond challenge itself.2

The problems caused by material inadequately excavated or published are mentioned by the author throughout the book (13; 20 n.14; 56; 65; 110; 112 n.82). At first sight, this seems astonishing, since the scientific history of Berezan is linked with some of the finest names in Russian archaeology (cf. Part 2, 19-27). But troubles because of political and military activities in modern times started early and persist today (xiv; 15f.). However, Solovyov clearly makes the most of what is available and offers a well written and very useful synthesis. The book is beautifully produced, with 118 pictures, maps and drawings, full bibliography and index; there are only very few misprints. One has to wish for more such publications as a base for further discussion and study.


1. Cf. e.g. S. Y. Saprykin, “The Foundation of Tauric Chersonesus”, in: G. R. Tsetskhladze (ed.), The Greek Colonisation of the Black Sea Area (Stuttgart 1998) 227-248; A. I. Ivantchik, Die Gründung von Sinope und die Probleme der Anfangsphase der griechischen Kolonisation des Schwarzmeergebietes, ib. 297-330.

2. G. R. Tsetskhladze, “Greek Colonisation of the Black Sea Area: Stages, Models, and Native Populations”, in: G. R. Ts. (ed.), The Greek Colonisation … (as in note 1), 9-68; on this book, see my review in Museum Helveticum 57, 2000 (forthcoming).