BMCR 2020.08.32

Archaeology across frontiers and borderlands. Fragmentation and connectivity in the north Agean and the central Balkans from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age

, , , Archaeology across frontiers and borderlands. Fragmentation and connectivity in the north Agean and the central Balkans from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. OREA, 9. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2018. 456 p.. ISBN 9783700180296 €109,00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The study of frontiers, not only as physical boundaries but also as regions where a variety of societies and cultures interact with each other, has become a prosperous field of research only over the last decades. Prior to that, the role of those “peripheral” regions in cultural, social and economic changes was largely underestimated. The present volume takes one step further, presenting evidence from multiple disciplines on how borderlands participated in the formation of current national and ethnic identities in the area of the Balkans.

“Archaeology Across Frontiers and Borderlands” is the outcome of an international workshop held at the 20th Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists in Istanbul, Turkey in September 2014. The workshop gathered colleagues of various disciplines coming from Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, the Republic of North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. The nineteen contributions published in this volume cover multiple perspectives (political, social, economic etc.) on the archaeology of historical boundaries and offer the groundwork for reflection on important issues.

The volume focuses on the Late Bronze and Iron Ages of the Balkans and Asia Minor, as this was the time of the ethnogenesis of the most well-known ancient nations in those regions. Some of the key issues addressed are the emergence of the first complex societies in the area; the intensification of commercial contacts, especially as the result of Greek colonial activities to the east and west and interactions between people from different cultural backgrounds, like the Persians or the Thracians; and the traces that these phenomena left in everyday life, beliefs and art. Through evidence drawn from a number of regions, the volume explores how people in the past created, maintained, or changed their identities while living on the edge between two or more different spheres of influence.

Starting from the general assumption that modern political borders still divide European archaeology and block archaeological research (S. Gimatzidis), it is suggested that in order to understand the nature of borders in the present, it is essential to examine the borders in the past and the sequence of events and cultures that led historically to the present situation. The region of Thrace offers the most typical example, as today it is divided among Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey; divergent national political interests and the use of different languages in archaeological publications not only prevent a common research model or even collaboration in major projects but also vary significantly from country to country (D. Nenova).

In a world where ancient ruins have been transformed into national shrines and popular tourist attractions, archaeology becomes more and more a discipline embedded in present political borders and often even national narratives (M. Gori). In Albania, for example, after the Second World War, there was a systematic attempt to link the modern Albanian population with its Illyrian predecessors and prove their autochthony (T. Krapf).

It is not, however, only nationalism that divides regional archaeologies, an opinion expressed in several articles: every single scholar operates within discipline-specific cultures of practice that determine his/her approach, depending on particular political or social contexts (R.Vaessen). The only means to overcome such an archaeological regionalism is a translocal approach. The way British scholarship had dealt with western Anatolia since the mid 19th century is an instructive example of how archaeology has been used in the service of a nation which managed cultural heritage as a national commodity. For example, there was a tendency for those scholars to present Ionia (Western Anatolia) as the centre of ancient Greek and by extent, Western culture, and to separate coastal Western Anatolia from the Eastern civilizations in both the past and the present, considering the latter (i.e., the Hittites and the Persians) inferior (Vaessen 73).

It is commonly accepted that we cannot yet escape from a deeply rooted mentality that the geographical borders formed by national policies correspond also to cultural boundaries. However, the interpretational model based on culture-ethnicity has often been proven wrong. For example, in the case of Late Bronze Age Bulgaria, the fact that the regional cultures had been given pre-defined chronological frameworks, based either on historical events or on observations from other regions, resulted in a multitude of conclusions that were not always scientifically valid (T. Dzhanfezova). In the case of Northern Bosnia, the variety of the grave types, constructions and burial customs, makes the establishment of specific cultural groups for the Early Iron Age almost impossible (M. Gavranović); instead, a multitude of burial rites and sets of grave goods (i.e., in the site of Donja Dolina) indicates that multi-layered social relations are not traceable in the archaeological record.

Interactions among different societies and cultures, as well as the exchange of goods, peoples and ideas, are another theme covered in this book. Evidence from material culture such as changes, breaks or continuities in types of artifacts may correspond to ethnic discontinuities, migrations etc., but it can also lead to a misinterpretation of evidence: to link a specific material culture of the past to the contemporary inhabitants, without questioning or considering the collective identity of past cultures, can cause an arbitrary division, like the chronological one between an Anatolian Bronze Age and a Greek Iron Age or the geographical one between Anatolia and the Aegean (S. Mangaloğlu-Votruba). The significant role of local populations in the formation of their own material culture cannot be ignored. It is therefore essential first to understand the indigenous cultures and then examine their external contacts.

How peoples are connected through common cultural codes and the long term consequences of their coexistence is another aspect discussed; one example is the contact of Thracians and Greeks in the north Aegean (D. Tsiafaki), where shared religion (assimilation of Artemis with the Thracian goddess Bendis) and art (Thracian gods and heroes depicted in Attic vase-painting) served as links between them. In time, these communities came to include bilingual individuals or descendants of mixed ancestry (M. Damyanov). The interaction between people and things and the transformation of their meaning through time and space is another notable point (M. Pienazek), this time exemplified by jewellery and precious weapons. While at first all imports are considered exotica, over the course of time they may be integrated into the local culture. Moreover, the proximity between two regions or the specific types of imports have an impact on local tastes and consumption habits (E. Manakidou).

In the absence of published material, there was an earlier tendency to compare different cultural contexts, which usually leads to the wrong conclusions (E. Bozhinova). In this volume, however,  a number of contributions present the preliminary results of multidisciplinary projects conducted over the past few years, which shed light on various aspects of Balkan prehistory: archaeobotanical analysis from a variety of Iron Age sites in northern Greece and Bulgaria confirmed that agricultural production depends on certain socioeconomic choices (S.M. Valamoti, E. Gkatzogia, I. Hristova & E. Marinova Wolff); archaeological fieldwork in the valleys of Struma/Strymon and Mesta/Nestos, which until recently was considered to be the ‘periphery’ of the neighbouring Aegean Bronze Age ‘civilisations’, has now revealed active agents creatively engaged in a foreign network (Ph. W. Stockhammer & B. Athanassov); and the discoveries of the earliest European gold mine in Ada Tepe, on the border between Turkey and Bulgaria (H. Popov & K. Nikov), and what has proven to be a major harbor site between the Aegean and the Black Sea at Maydos-Kilisetepe on the coast of the Dardanelles (G. Sazci & M. Başaran-Mutlu) indicate the dynamic historical role of populations living on the “edge”. Sometimes, historical events may be hidden behind unexpected finds, as is the case of the two clay fragments from ancient Thermi, with inscriptions and incised male figures in Achaemenid attire, associated with the passage of Xerxes’ army during his march on Greece in 480 BC (Eu. Kefalidou & I. Xythopoulos).

One last issue discussed in the volume is the degree of impact the structure of communities has on their future evolution. That none of the settlements around the Thermaic Gulf evolved except for Thessaloniki (K. Chavela), and only after several centuries (in the 4th century BC), shows that settlements organized in small family clans, because of the rivalries that developed between them and their failure to cooperate, did not manage to reach a stronger state formation (the polis).

All in all, this is a remarkable volume that succeeds in taking “border archaeology” one step further by a) offering an overview of previous research and the socio-political circumstances that led to its present form, b) showing that material culture means what its users want it to mean in any given period, rather than serving as an essentialising expression of cultural identity across time, c) proving the active role of local communities, in contrast to several theories that depict them as passive recipients of new beliefs and ideas brought by “invaders”, and d) showing how different state policies interfere in the formation of cultural management and “use” archaeology in order to gain political profits.

The only thing missing is perhaps “a view from the South”: although a couple of contributions comment on the significance of Mycenaeans in the international trade networks of the Balkans during the Late Bronze Age, it would be interesting to consider their impact on socio-economic changes and consumption tastes in the North Aegean, and especially on the revival of Mycenaean customs and beliefs in Macedonia, where it seems that they were adopted several centuries after the Mycenaean decline.

As far as appearance is concerned, the hard cover and the attractive layout (font and good quality illustrations, although a few articles might have benefited from some more) are in keeping with the high-quality volumes we are accustomed to expect from the Austrian Academy of Sciences. This is certainly a worthy addition to an archaeologist’s library.

Instead of an epilogue, I would like to close with the words of one of the contributors themselves: “Becoming aware that archaeology is indissolubly connected to politics and accepting its status as a device of modernity can lead to a better understanding of its role and its effect on society. Recognising it, first of all at a specialist level, will improve scientific practice and thus the relationship between archaeology and archaeologists with society” (Gori 406).

Table of Contents

Barbara Horejs, Preface by the Series Editor (p. 7)
Stefanos Gimatzidis and Magda Pieniążek, Archaeology Across Frontiers and Borderlands: An Introduction (pp. 9-26)
Stefanos Gimatzidis, Claiming the Past, Conquering the Future: Archaeological Narratives in Northern Greece and the Central Balkans (pp. 27-54)
Sila Mangaloğlu-Votruba, Conquering the Past, Claiming the Future: Historical and Archaeological Narratives in Western Anatolia (pp. 55-70)
Rik Vaessen, Working in the Margins: Some Reflections on Past, Present and Future Research in Western Anatolia (pp. 71-92)
Philipp W. Stockhammer and Bogdan Athanassov, Conceptualizing Contact Zones and Contact Spaces: An Archaeological Perspective (pp. 93-112)
Magda Pieniąźek, Foreign Influences and Indigenous Transformations: The Case of Seals and Jewellery from the Late Bronze Age North Aegean (pp. 113-137)
Göksel Sazci and Meral Başaran Mutlu, Maydos-Kilisetepe: A Bronze Age Settlement on the Border Between Asia and Europe (pp. 139-158)
Konstantoula Chavela, Transformations and Formations Around the Thermaic Gulf in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age: The Evidence of Burial Practices (pp. 159-186)
Eleni Manakidou, Protocorinthian and Corinthian Ceramic Imports in Macedonia: Different People, Different Tastes? (pp. 187-202)
Eurydice Kefalidou and Ioannis Xydopoulos, Strangers in a Strange Land: Two Soldiers’ Graffiti from Ancient Thermi (pp. 203–218)
Despoina Tsiafaki, Thracians and Greeks in the North Aegean (pp. 219–241)
Margarit Damyanov, First Encounters and Further Developments: Greeks Meeting Thracians on the Western Pontic Coast (pp. 243-268)
Soultana Maria Valamoti, Evgenia Gkatzogia, Ivanka Hristova, and Elena Marinova Wolff, Iron Age Cultural Interactions, Plant Subsistence and Land Use in Southeastern Europe Inferred from Archaeobotanical Evidence of Greece and Bulgaria (pp. 269-290)
Denitsa Nenova, The Edge of an Era: Changing Aspects in the Southeast Balkans Towards the End of the 2nd Millennium BC (pp. 291-306)
Tanya Dzhanfezova, The Making of Late Bronze Age Archaeological Cultures in Bulgaria (pp. 307-332)
Elena Bozhinova, Settlements or Sanctuaries? Interpretational Dilemma Concerning 2nd–1st Millennium BC Sites in Bulgaria (pp. 333-357)
Hristo Popov-Krasimir Nikov, “Ada Tepe Late Bronze Age Gold Mine” Project: Between Borders (pp. 359-389)
Maja Gori, Bronze Age and the Embedded Macedonian Question (pp. 391-410)
Tobias Krapf, The Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age Transition in the Korçë Basin (SE-Albania) and the Modern Perception of the Emergence of Illyrian Culture (pp. 411-425)
Mario Garvanović, No Group, No People? Archaeological Record and Creation of Groups in the Western Balkans (pp. 427-445)