BMCR 2022.03.19

Environment and habitation around the ancient Black Sea

, , , Environment and habitation around the ancient Black Sea. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. 340. ISBN 9783110715705 $137.99.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This edited volume brings fresh insights to the investigation of the Black Sea region, collating numerous contributions that present a wide range of perspectives, methodologies, and concrete case studies on the topic of environment and habitation in the classical period. The environment, interpreted by the authors and editors to refer to many things such as landscape, human habitat or geographical region, is the common denominator—le fil rouge if you wish– that is discussed through material culture and written sources as the stage upon which people interacted and connected in the past in this extremely diverse region. The essays move through different lenses, zooming in for particular case studies (see e.g., Baralis and Lungu) and out again to provide more open discussions of the region as a whole (see Stoyanov; Grumeza). The primary objective of the volume—as nicely phrased in the introductory chapter—is to probe different types of sources (i.e., numismatic, texts, archaeological material) to deconstruct previous views of the Black Sea that were shaped by disciplinary boundaries, and open up new lines of discussion in the study of the region by combining scholarly contributions from different disciplines.

The chapters mainly follow a geographical order, starting with specific case studies in the southwest of the Black Sea (i.e., Stoyanova and Damyanov on Apollonia Pontike) and progressing clockwise to discuss evidence from the different regions around the Black Sea.

The first three essays focus on distinctive archaeological evidence from Apollonia Pontike: the monumental architecture of the temenos dated to the Late Archaic and Early Classical Period (Stoyova and Damyanov), the funerary customs of the settlement, with particular attention to the cremation practices (Panayotova, Damyanov and Reho), and finally the spatial development of the necropolis (Damyanov). While all three contributions are well articulated and solidly based on material culture, I found Stoyova and Damyanov’s essay particularly noteworthy. The authors present a compelling argument combining architectural material—i.e., ceramic building materials, terracotta and stone remains—with pottery to investigate the phases of construction and reconstruction of the temenos from the 6th century to the 5th century BC. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of ceramic building materials, which are often an understudied type of material culture in architectural and archaeological analysis.

The fifth contribution focuses on tracing economic patterns in the Classical and Hellenistic periods through the study of Thasian amphorae and Thracian waterways as a proxy for economic development (Stoyanov). The following chapter (Baralis and Lungu) presents a comprehensive description of the survey and excavations at Caraburun-Acic Suat. Baralis and Lungu provide us with detailed reports of the 2011, 2015, and 2016 field seasons by not only describing the results of the geophysical survey, settlement organization, architectural structures, pottery, and archaeozoological analyses, but also clearly combining the data to guide the readers towards a better understanding of the life in the Golovița lagoon from the 6th century BC to the Roman period. I found this chapter particularly convincing, and the evidence presented was so well articulated that even a non-specialist could grasp the main concept and learn about the communities’ strategies of adaptation and exploitation of lagoon resources (i.e., architecture and food). In addition, Baralis and Lungu also address the impact of the Black Sea natural environment on past communities by analyzing the inner organization of the sites in relation to the regional landscape and the use of diverse building materials.

The seventh contribution (Peter) aims at investigating the representation of indigenous traits in Roman coinage from Thrace and Lower Moesia (3rd century AD), presenting the interesting case study of the image of Serapis/Theos Megas as part of the iconography of imperial portraits. In the following contribution, Grumeza presents an original discussion on the roots of the Sarmatae by combining written, epigraphical, and archeological sources. This chapter presents a meticulous account of all the available evidence, from the first mention by Tacitus, who locates them in the Hungarian plain (ann. 12.29-30), to the more extensive epigraphical and archaeological materials associated with the Sarmatian provinces in the 2nd and 3rd century AD, and the abundant written records and material finds of the 4th century AD. The author’s conclusion is complex and multifaceted, characterizing the Sarmatians and Scythians as originally being part of the nomadic cultures associated with the Steppe region, who then progressively “started to settle down and develop sedentary features (p.172)” in the Great Hungarian Plain, a well-known frontier zone.

The next four contributions focus on investigating the Black Sea region through textual sources: the ninth chapter (Braund) analyses in detail a passage of Herodotus (4.82) and its connection with the foundation myth of Tyras, while in the tenth essay Chiai looks at the description of Scythians in Herodotus and Pseudo-Hippocrates. Particularly, the author describes how both texts present the climate conditions of the territory as a key factor to justify Scythian lifestyle and appearance. While Pseudo-Hippocrates shows them in a negative light, Herodotus offers a more positive take. One poignant example is the contrast between the diet of the Greeks based on an agricultural and urban lifestyle and that of the Scythians who were nomadic and based their diet on a shepherds’ primary and secondary productions (i.e., meat, milk, and cheese).  Pseudo-Hippocrates notes with a touch of environmental determinism how the natural environment did not only influence the Scythians’ lifestyle but also their characters and physical features, in a negative way. On the other hand, Herodotus connects their strength and invincibility to the harsh environment and climate conditions that characterized their homeland. In the eleventh chapter, Craik similarly comments on the Black Sea environment, biodiversity, and ethnicity as portrayed in the Hippocratic corpus, and critically evaluates the textual mentions of environmental conditions that impacted the local populations. Finally, Guzman discusses the cult of Achilles in the Dromos Achilleios (i.e., Tendra peninsula).

One of the most compelling contributions of the volume is the work by Stolba and Andresen, which analyses the efficacy and reliability of past survey data. By re-investigating a previously surveyed area, the authors compare past and present data to ascertain the presence of long-term occupation in West Crimea. The surprising results (I would encourage anyone involved in archaeological survey to read this contribution) provide a concrete example of the difficulties that arise when comparing survey data. The authors own survey revealed a significantly increased number of sites in the area previously surveyed. But the most startling discovery was the presence of sites that presented a different chronological horizon from what was documented in previous surveys. The narrative of this contribution is particularly compelling, the discussion inserts itself perfectly into current scholarship, and the idea behind the research is innovative—and necessary—for the academic debate even outside the Black Sea region. I particularly appreciate the final call to adapt and create flexible but systematic approaches to field survey.

The subsequent contributions range from analyzing possible connections between the Black Sea and Cyprus (Lund), to understanding the concept of the hinterland as an economic proxy for Milesian colonization (Gavrylyuk), to assessing landscape transformations in the Cimmerian Bosporus region as a consequence of Greek colonization (Petropoulos). The seventeenth chapter describes the royal tumulus at Karagodeuashkh, specifically the female burial in the structure. Vakhtina’s scrupulous description of the grave goods, specifically metal finds, opens up new research directions regarding the identity of these Bosporan communities, the role of women in these societies, and their perception of the afterlife. The three final contributions shed light on the Colchis and the settlement of Gyenos–Kyknos, with attention to its foundation (Braund), the nature of Naukleroi on the Black Sea southern costal settlements (Avram), and Sinope’s changing religious landscape (Barat).

All of the essays included in the volume are well articulated, scientifically sound, and generally multidimensional. They make brilliant use of evidence and present sound arguments based on the available primary and secondary sources. While the contributions are complex, the material is presented in a way that is easily accessible to both specialists and non-specialists alike. The book’s core strength is the meticulous but engaging use of different sources, and how these were integrated into the follow-up discussions. However, the book misses the opportunity to systematically address the impact of the environment on these different case studies. Although the editors mention in the introduction that they did not want to impose a narrow definition on their authors, the book would have benefitted from a more focused discussion of the ways in which an environmental impact is reflected in the written sources or the material culture studied in this book. As it stands, some contributions do not always make their link with the natural environment clear, but the volume nevertheless presents a worthwhile collection of different essays centered around the Black Sea region. Furthermore, all of the contributions manage to circle back to one of the many connotations of “environment”—i.e., human habitat, surroundings, landscape, and territory—and justify the connection in the end. Another minor point of criticism is that some of the essays would have benefited from more visual aids to help the reader to picture some of the materials and arguments presented.

To sum up, the volume is a compelling read that advances current scholarship on the history and archaeology of the Black Sea region. I could easily envision this book being directed to undergraduate and graduate students, and scholars working on the Black Sea, as well as the Mediterranean and Caucasus regions.  The authors—and editors—deserve praise for their ability to constructively combine different approaches into a cohesive and forward-looking work; their approach should be adopted by more publications.

Table of contents

Introduction: Black Sea Environments, David Braund and Vladimir F. Stolba  pp.1-6
Late Archaic and Early Classical Monumental Architecture on the Island of St. Kirik, Apollonia Pontike, Daniela Stoyanova and Margarit Damyanov pp.7-38
Cremations in the Necropolis of Apollonia Pontike: Patterns of Distribution in Space and Time, Krastina Panayotova, Margarit Damyanov and Maria Reho pp.39-56
Spatial Developments in the Necropolis of Apollonia Pontike, 5th to 3rd Centuries BC, Margarit Damyanov pp.57-76
The River System of North-Eastern Thrace as a Medium in Economic Relations in Classical and Hellenistic Times, Totko Stoyanov pp.77-90
Colonising the Southern Sectors of the Danubian Delta: the Settlement of Caraburun-Acic Suat, Alexandre Baralis and Vasilica Lungu pp.91-120
Local Traits in the Iconography of Gordian III and Philip the Arab’s Coinage Produced in Thrace and Lower Moesia, Ulrike Peter pp.121-156
Sarmatae and Sarmatia: From the North Pontic Area to the Great Hungarian Plain, Lavinia Grumeza pp.157-176
Heracles’ Footprint by the River Tyras: Immortality and Acculturation on the Geto-Scythian Frontier, David Braund pp.177-194
Perception of Diversity and Exploration of the Environment: Greeks and Scythians in the Archaic Period, Gian Franco Chiai pp.195-212
Environment, Biodiversity and Ethnicity in the Black Sea Region: Evidence from the ‘Hippocratic’ Corpus, Elizabeth Craik pp.213-224
Racing for Love: Achilles and Iphigenia in the Black Sea, Marta Oller Guzmán pp.225-234
Archaeological Surveys and Replicability of their Results: A Case Study from West Crimea , Vladimir F. Stolba and Jens Andresen pp.235-254
Another Perspective on the Black Sea: The Landscapes and Regionality of Hellenistic Cyprus, John Lund pp.255-268
Hinterland as a Macroeconomic Factor in the Milesian Colonisation of the Northern Black Sea Area (the Case of the Twin Cities of Borysthenes–Olbia), Nadiya A. Gavrylyuk pp.269-280
Colonisation and Landscape Transformation: Cross-Cultural Interactions in the Cimmerian Bosporus Region, Elias K. Petropoulos pp.281-304
The Female Burial at Karagodeuashkh, Marina Yu. Vakhtina pp.305-320
Gyenos: Reflections on Etymology in Colchis and Tales of Argonauts and Giants, David Braund pp.321-334
A Few Remarks on the Naukleroi of the Cities on the Southern Shore of the Black Sea during the Imperial Period, Alexandru Avram pp.335-344
Cults in Ancient Sinope: Originality and Standardisation, Claire Barat pp.345-358