BMCR 2011.03.44

The Lower City of Olbia (Sector NGS) in the 6th Century BC to the 4th Century AD (2 vols.). Black Sea Studies 13

, , , , , The Lower City of Olbia (Sector NGS) in the 6th Century BC to the 4th Century AD (2 vols.). Black Sea Studies 13. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2010. 657; 407 p. of plates. ISBN 9788779345232 $110.00.

Entire book available online

This imposing new book deals with Olbia, an important colony of Miletus on the northern shores of the Black Sea, close to the Bug Estuary. The ancient city is topographically divided in three distinct sectors. The so-called Upper City occupies a higher terrace towards the right side of the Bug estuary, whereas the Lower City is located on the river’s bank; the terraced area between these two sectors is also inhabited. The present monograph, published in two volumes (the first one containing the text and the second comprising the rich illustration), focuses on the northern part of the Lower City (the NGS Sector). This area has been one of the most intensively investigated in the city. Ample archaeological research started in 1985 and continued over two decades. The monograph includes information coming from excavations made up to 2002 and reflects the efforts of a large team comprising mainly Ukrainian and Danish researchers.

The short preface of the editors is followed by an introductory chapter written by Sergej D. Kryžickij and Nina A. Lejpunskaja, and divided in two parts. The first one (“The Lower City and Sector NGS – history of research”) provides a gazetteer of the history of research in the mentioned area, starting with the first investigations in the 19 th century. A large part is dedicated to the excavations made during the last two decades by different archaeological teams led by Kryžickij and Lejpunskaja.

The second half of the introduction (“The main stages of development of building activity in the Lower City”, pp. 19-24) consists of an overview of the development phases identified on this site. It has to be noted that the Archaic layers and most of the urban evolution of Olbia have been better revealed in the Upper City, so the stratigraphy of the Lower City has often been compared with data from the mentioned area. That being said, a consistent layer of habitation or monumental constructions have not been discovered in situ for the Archaic period, aside from a series of sunken huts. It seems that the beginning of the Lower City itself was later than that of the Upper City, more precisely in the last quarter of the 6 th century BC. During the Classical period, as well as in the following centuries, the urban development in the Lower City corresponds in general to that in the Upper City. The structures of the 5 th – 4 th centuries BC were only partially preserved due to subsequent building interventions, but they seem to indicate that a coherent urban design was already in place in this part of Olbia. Most of the investigated archaeological contexts belong to the Hellenistic period. The beginning of this phase was marked by a huge fire, combined with massive destructions of the civilian buildings and the city’s fortification, these events being considered the consequences of the military actions of Zopyrion in 331 BC. Afterwards, Olbia experienced a period of economic prosperity reflected by extensive building activities and a re-organisation of the city’s layout. The main features of the Lower City were maintained until the late Hellenistic period. Archaeological investigations also revealed several consequences of some significant landslides which happened in the second half or towards the end of the 3 rd century BC. It has also been noted that the economic activity and the standards of life decreased in comparison with the earlier period. Thus urban habitation in this sector of Olbia already ceased in the time of the Getic invasion, in the 1 st century BC. Lastly, the Roman period, starting at the end of the 1 st century BC or the beginning of the 1 st century AD, was initially dominated by the presence of certain manufacturing structures. Some larger constructions belong to the 2 nd and 3 rd centuries AD, whereas from the second half of the 3 rd century or the beginning of the 4 th century AD the northern sector was not inhabited and the sole documented activity was a burial ascribed to the Černjachov Culture.

The following chapter deals with the building remains, being again divided in two parts. The first one, written by Sergej D. Kryžickij and Nina A. Lejpunskaja, presents the structures dated from the 6 th to the 1 st centuries BC and their accompanying finds. The authors have chosen to present first the general stratigraphy of the mentioned sector. Unfortunately the description of archaeological layers is not accompanied by the necessary illustration, which would have contributed to a better understanding of the gradual development in this sector. The description continues with the dwellings belonging to the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods, the latter being presented in detail, given the large number of excavated contexts. A particular attention is paid to the general structure of habitation (the existence of “houseblocks”, the street network and the layout of civilian houses, including their annexes, and of the public buildings, etc). The description of each archaeological structure is accompanied by references to the corresponding archaeological inventory which supports the dating of various phases of construction or refurbishment. Information concerning the building materials is also included, together with some proposals of restoration. The entire chapter, accompanied in the second volume by many illustrations, offers a coherent image of the urban development of the northern sector of the Lower City.

The second part of this chapter, written Valentina V. Krapivina, concentrates on buildings and their inventories dated to the Roman times (“Building remains and accompanying finds, first centuries AD”). The contexts belonging to this period appeared in the upper layers, so most of them were more or less damaged by several modern interventions. The nature of the structures and their inventories suggest that the investigated sector was a manufacturing suburb during the first centuries AD. The identified buildings had a less systematic plan, although in certain cases the old Hellenistic structure was reused. Also to this period can be ascribed a grave belonging to the Černjachov Culture, according to the funerary rite, ritual and inventory. V. V. Krapivina considers that its presence on site is related to the second Gothic invasion from AD 269-270, when the warlike nomads camped in Olbia with their families.

The following part covers the extensive presentation of the finds recovered from the site, being the largest from the entire monograph. This part is made up of several different contributions, and the numerous specialists involved used a quite consistent methodology to analyse the discoveries, although occasional discordances do occur. Perhaps the most visible, and at times confusing, is the different manner in which the main chronological phases are presented in the chapters concerning architecture and finds respectively, as well as in the “Context List”. Still, the efforts to maintain the methodological principles is important for understanding the general development of the site and its role in the entire urban structure of Olbia from the Archaic period until the first centuries AD. The finds section of the monograph begins with a short introduction, written by Pia Guldager Bilde, who presents the methodological principles on which each category of finds has been registered and analysed (“The finds: a brief introductions”). The author mentions that the team decided to include in the analyses only finds coming from the 1985-2002 excavations, and only those coming from “closed deposits”, to keep the size of the catalogue within reasonable dimensions, as the total number of artefacts recovered during over 20 years of investigations is huge. Still, this principle was maintained in only some of the finds chapters, whereas others also took into consideration artefacts discovered after 2002 or coming from other contexts than the “closed deposits”. Guldager Bilde also provides information concerning the manner in which the artefacts were recovered, selected and registered, using in general a unitary system. A particular attention was paid to the finds which can provide information concerning the dating (fine pottery, lamps, stamped amphorae etc). Their detailed analysis allowed the identification of six phases of development in this sector, covering a large chronological interval starting in the late Archaic period and lasting until the late Hellenistic period.

The methodological introduction is followed by 26 chapters (from A to X), some having distinct sub-chapters, each focusing on a certain category of finds and following a similar structure. They begin with a discussion regarding the corresponding category of finds and continue with a catalogue. Some of these chapters are larger and bring significant contributions to the general study of certain artefacts, for example those written by Nina A. Lejpunskaja (“Late Archaic painted tableware” and “Louteria”), Vladimir I. Nazarčuk (“Black-figured pottery”), Søren Handberg and Jane Hjarl Petersen, with Pia Guldager Bilde, Line M. Højberg Bjerg and Tat’jana L. Samojlova (“Glossed pottery”), notably the sub-chapter written by Søren Handberg and Jane Hjarl Petersen (“Black-glossed pottery”), Pia Guldager Bilde (“Mould-made bowls” and “Terracottas”), N. A. Gavriljuk (“Cooking ware” and “Handmade pottery”), these two chapters being important given the common lack of interest for these categories of pottery, Mark L. Lawall, Nina A. Lejpunskaja, Pavel D. Diatroptov and Tat’jana L. Samojlova (“Transport amphoras”) and Anna S. Rusjaeva (“Graffiti”).

Other studies have less imposing dimensions, but the presence of comprehensive catalogues of artefacts offers reliable information for further analyses on various related subjects, thus being very useful for interested specialists. In this category can be placed the chapters written by Olga E. Buravčuk (“Red-figured pottery”), Valentina V. Krapivina (“Red-glossed pottery” and “Weights”), Alexander V. Karjaka (“Greyware pottery”, “Redware pottery”, and “Tiles”), Nina A. Lejpunskaja with contributions of Alexander V. Karjaka (“Thick-walled pottery”), Jakob Munk Højte (“Lamps”), Nina A. Lejpunskaja (“Sculpture”), Valerij V. Krutilov (“Small stone objects, Moulds, Metal objects, Bone objects”), Olga O. Puklina (“Glass objects”) and Alla V. Bujskich (“Architectural details”).

In general, archaeological finds are correctly identified and analysed, although there are a few exceptions. For example in the chapter written by N. A. Gavriljuk regarding the handmade pottery, which is divided by origin, within the “Thracian Group” category, catalogue no. K 130-132 (p. 354, with illustrations in the second volume, pl. 269), the vessels more likely belong to the Poieneşti-Lukaševka Culture, suggesting some connections with the eastern Carpathian region (see the monograph of M. Babeş1). Also, there is a strikingly small number of metal objects, given the size of the excavated sector and the duration of the project. The same can be said about the curious lack of numismatic finds. Unfortunately the botanical and faunal remains were not kept, so such important analyses are also missing.

In summary the monograph of the NGS sector of the Lower City of Olbia is a remarkable work, a quite comprehensive and up-to-date analysis of a difficult and less published site, which will greatly contribute to the wider discussion concerning the evolution of the Greek colonial presence on the Black Sea shores. The outstanding quantity of various finds brought in scientific circulation by this volume will also support further synthetic analyses on various social and economic aspects in this region and beyond.

The monograph is closed by two appendixes, the first one listing the contexts of discovery, and the second one consisting of some statistical considerations. The latter was written by N. A. Gavriljuk and includes several tables of archaeological finds by context of discovery. The text is accompanied by a vast bibliography. The second volume contains the illustrations, consisting of 407 plates – pictures and plans of archaeological excavations and of the contexts and buildings, as well as drawings, figures and black-and-white or colour pictures of the finds included in the catalogue, all of excellent quality. The reviewer detected no typographical errors; sometimes English ceramic terminology was used in a curious manner (for example greyware pottery or redware pottery).


1. M. Babeş, Die Poieneşti-Lukaševka-Kultur. Ein Beitrag zur Kulturgeschichte im Raum öslich der Karpaten in den Jahrhunderten vor Christi Geburt, Bonn 1993.