BMCR 2023.02.02

Cultural identity within the northern Black Sea region in antiquity: (de)constructing past identities

, Cultural identity within the northern Black Sea region in antiquity: (de)constructing past identities. Colloquia antiqua, 31. Leuven: Peeters, 2021. Pp. xvi, 227. ISBN 9789042944237

This monograph is a much-needed attempt to bridge the traditions of Western and Eastern European scholarship on a region often overlooked by the former and on a topic which, as the author convincingly demonstrates, has been historically misunderstood by scholars trained in the latter. Porucznik argues that Soviet and post-Soviet archaeologists have largely ignored Postcolonial and Postmodern approaches to ethnic and cultural identity, preferring instead to continue in a cultural-history approach to archaeological interpretation that has been abandoned in the West. Drawing from a broad range of literary, epigraphic, archaeological and numismatic material across the entire span of the Greek occupation of the northern Black Sea coast (ca. 7th–6th centuries BC to the 3rd century AD), she employs such mainstays of modern Western theory as hybridity and ‘middle grounds’ of mediated colonial encounter to support the existence of a more pluralistic conception of identity in North Pontic apoikiai (a term preferred to the problematic ‘colonies’) than has generally been recognised. Greeks and non-Greeks (Scythians, Sarmatians, Taurians etc.) were not monolithic cultural blocks existing in opposition to each other but were intrinsically intertwined in communities sustained by adaptive approaches to social and cultural self-presentation.

Given that many recent Anglophone publications on the northern Black Sea region have been collections of articles or conference proceedings, it is refreshing to have a single-authored monograph in which the author can present their argument comprehensively.[1] The book is subdivided into four chapters: the first two serve largely to set the theoretical groundwork for the more case-study focused chapters three and four. The first, introductory chapter summarises the history of Western and Eastern European scholarship on the northern Black Sea coast and concludes with a nod to Rostovtzeff as a forerunner of the more multicultural approach of the present author. While this survey is brief, it establishes the author’s main criticisms of previous binary concepts of identity in North Pontic antiquity, that they fail to account for the nuances within the mixed communities of the region. This approach is developed further in the second chapter, which attempts to define what is meant by ‘ethnicity’ as a sociological, anthropological and archaeological category. Evaluating a range of scholarly approaches, from the traditional (ethnicity as related to common ancestry) to the postmodern (ethnicity as a malleable tool for one’s own self-representation), Porucznik argues strongly in favour of the latter, and towards the end of this chapter begins to explore how a more flexible definition of ethnic identity might help interpret some of the overarching trends found in the material culture of the northern Black Sea apoikiai.

Chapters 3 and 4 are composed of in-depth analyses of specific narratives, artefacts and historiographic traditions through this interpretative lens, prior to a short conclusion. Chapter Three is devoted to three case studies which concern the self-representation of North Pontic individuals in their local context: the second origin myth of the Scythians given by Herodotus (4.8-10); the local hero cults attested epigraphically at North Pontic sites; and Iphigenia at Tauris and the Parthenos cult in Chersonesos. Concerning the first, Porucznik places particular emphasis on the fact that this is the story of Scythian ancestry told by the Greek inhabitants of the northern Black Sea themselves, and she convincingly demonstrates that the Heraclean genealogy presented (in which Scythians are descendants of a union between Heracles and the Rankenfrau) constitutes an attempt to bridge the cultural divide between the two co-existing groups by integrating the Scythians into the Greek conceptual space of the mythical past. Similarly, the discussion of local hero cults, such as those of Heuresibius at Olbia and Chersonasos at Chersonesos,[2] links their appearance to the emergence of North Pontic self-identity in the apoikiai, which had grown initially from the shared experience of migration and became full-fledged as the Greeks and non-Greeks of the area consciously forged a collective identity together. The discussion concerning the increasing alignment of representations of the Chersonesean patron goddess Parthenos to those of Artemis, further makes an intriguing case that even explicitly local cults were subject to the influence of representations and ideas from the wider Greek oikumene. In Chapter 4, this panhellenic context is foregrounded, as the Mediterranean conceptualisations of a series of North Pontic Others (Cimmerians, Scythians, Taurians, Amazons and Sauromatians/Sarmatians) are explored in relation to their influence on ancient and modern understandings of the region. For example, the ancient tendency to furnish topographic features of the northern Black Sea with names related to the Homeric and Herodotean Cimmerians has confused the understanding of the region’s history in both antiquity and the present day, with Cimmerians still frequently considered the forerunners of the Scythians in the area, despite their absence from its archaeological record. Equally, the use of similar (and at times the same) topoi to describe various ‘barbarian’ traits, such as Scythian-Taurian savagery and Sauromatian-Sarmatian matriarchal culture, has provoked further misunderstandings, as their repetition has ensured that they have become fixed parts not only of ancient Greek literary culture but modern archaeological discourse, a process well analysed by Porucznik.

But in such a broad approach (the book covers a millennium across several northern Black Sea poleis), there are inevitably moments when detail is lost and generalisations made. Scholars of the Western tradition, for example, may be surprised to learn that ‘an Athenocentric approach, according to which Athens and Old Greece were perceived as the centre of Greek culture, has been rejected by Western European scholars’ (pg. 5 and repeated on pg. 63), when undoubtedly this paradigm still persists, albeit in a more muted way than previously. The book, further, does not wear its intellectual influences lightly, and, particularly in the first two chapters, the succession of names, theories and disciplinary turns name-checked are more liable to confuse than enlighten the reader. Concerning the ancient material, similarly, there is a persistent tendency to deal with a topic and its conflicting interpretations in only two or three pages before introducing another, at times resulting in the failure to develop some of the interesting implications of the author’s interpretation of the material. For example, the cult of Achilles Pontarches, which emerged in the first centuries AD in Olbia, is described as an ‘urban cult’, representing a shift from the predominantly rural Achilles worship that had existed in the centuries prior. But many of the dedications to Achilles as Pontarches continued to be erected in the chora of the city, with an opportunity being missed to explore the changing nature of the urban-rural divide at this time, an omission made all the more frustrating by the fact that this division emerges in the Conclusion as a cornerstone oppositional concept in Porucznik’s understanding of North Pontic identity construction. There is also the risk that, in being written for two audiences (Western and Eastern European), the book can seem to range widely from the innovative to the obvious, depending on the reader’s academic background. The thorough discussion of the archaeological remains of the Kizil-Koba culture, for example, will be welcomed by many scholars in the West, who Porucznik correctly surmises have frequently overlooked this material, despite their interest in the literary representations of the Taurians of Herodotean and Euripidean fame to whom this archaeological culture most likely corresponds. But this is immediately followed by an exploration of the so-called Sauromatian matriarchy that contains a deconstruction of the equation of certain kinds of objects with genders (i.e. weapons = male; jewellery = female), a formula that has that has long since been rejected by archaeologists in the West. This, however, is unfortunately an inevitable pitfall in attempting to align two intellectual cultures, and the reader would be wrong to dismiss the book’s originality and interest simply because it at times covers well-worn theoretical ground.

On the contrary, there is much in this book that will interest both the specialist and the newcomer to northern Black Sea archaeology. The inclusion of well-known subjects, such as the Scythian origin story and Iphigenia in Tauris, alongside interpretations of more recherché topics, like the dual titulature of the Bosporan Kingdom and the sacred calendars of specific apoikiai, means that both audiences are likely to be engaged by the subjects this work covers, while its overall theoretical argument will be pertinent to any future discussions of Greek ethnicity and self-representation. Porucznik’s key insight, that the pluralistic identities created at a local level to mediate colonial interactions were shaped, but not supplanted, by the influence of Panhellenic ideas, will interest any Classicist working on an area of the ancient world that has traditionally been defined as a periphery, from Iberia and Magna Graecia in the West to Gandhara in the East. We should be grateful, further, for the work undertaken to position this interpretation within both the Western and the Eastern European archaeological traditions. For while Rostovtzeff’s ideas concerning North Pontic identity were generally disregarded by the scholars who succeeded him in Eastern European institutions after his exile, Porucznik nevertheless consistently notes the contributions of Eastern European scholarship to her discussion, as well as the gaps in Western academia, ensuring that the two traditions are balanced throughout. At a time when the eyes of the world are fixed on the North Pontic region, and Western institutions, communities and individuals stand in solidarity with Ukraine, this book is an important contribution to the understanding of the region’s ancient history.



[1] For instance, V. Cojocaru, A. Coşkun and M. Dana (eds.) 2014. Interconnectivity in the Mediterranean and Pontic World during the Hellenistic and Roman Periods, Cluj-Napoca; V. Kozlovskaya (ed.) 2017. The Northern Black Sea in Antiquity: Networks, Connectivity, and Cultural Interactions, Cambridge; M. Manoledakis, G. R. Tsetskhladze and I. Xydopoulos (eds.) 2018. Essays on the Archaeology and Ancient History of the Black Sea Littoral, Leuven; cf. as counterexamples: C. Meyer 2013. Greco-Scythian Art and the Birth of Eurasia: From Classical Antiquity to Russian Modernity, Oxford; and D. Braund 2018. Greek Religion and Cults in the Black Sea Region: Goddesses in the Bosporan Kingdom from the Archaic Period to the Byzantine Era, Cambridge.

[2] Both subjects she has discussed in print previously: J. Porucznik,  2017. ‘The Cult of Chersonasos in Tauric Chersonesos — Numismatic and Epigraphic Evidence Revisited’ ACSS 23, 63–89; 2018. ‘Heuresibios Son of Syriskos and the Question of Tyranny in Olbia Pontike (Fifth–Fourth Century BC)’ BSA 113, 399–414.