11 March 2013

The fascination of Phanagoria

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The site of the largest ancient Greek city on Russian soil has yielded many important and exciting finds - both on land and under the sea - as its director Dr Vladimir Kuznetsov tells Lindsay Fulcher.

There are many ancient Greek sites along the coastline of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov in Russia's Krasnodar Territory. There were once dozens of cities and colonies, founded by settlers who arrived in this area during the 6th century BC. Most of them are on the Taman peninsula, separated from the Crimea by a strait, but one of them, Phanagoria, stands out as the real jewel among the archaeological sites. The biggest ancient Greek city on Russian soil, it covers an area of more than 65 hectares. Founded 2,550 years ago by settlers from Teos in Ionia (Asia Minor), Phanagoria survived for more than 15 centuries, from the mid-6th century BC to the 10th century AD. The cultural layer, which is up to seven metres deep, holds a wealth of artefacts, left by various cultures, especially the ancient Greeks. Part of Phanagoria is now under the sea, but despite the work being more difficult, excavation continues, as Dr Kuznetsov explained to me.

'Around a third of the city is submerged, and our underwater excavations have revealed not just interesting finds but also new information about fluctuations in the sea level. We have found the remains of Phanagoria's port structures, and a large number of building blocks and gravestones from the city's necropolis on the seabed, up to 250 metres from the shore. Excavations assisted by soil collectors, which pump out sand, uncovered the large marble plinth of a statue of Sauromates, a 2nd- century AD Bosphoran king, with a 10-line epigraph.'

Excavation has also revealed some unusual constructions 250 metres from the shore, wooden boxes filled with stones. These were used as submarine foundations for port structures, such as quays, built either in the late 3rd or in early 4th century AD.

'The, Taman Peninsula is not rich in stone, so locals always used building blocks for new construction,' he explains. 'This is why stones of various shapes, found not only in the city but also in the necropolis, were recycled and used to fill the submarine foundations. They included not just unusual building blocks but also architectural features, chunks of carved marble, parts of statues, slabs with inscriptions, and tombstones.'

Dr Kuznetsov has been working on this site for many years but when, I ask, was it first discovered?

'European travellers were the first to notice the site during the late 17th century. Following information given by the ancient geographer Strabo they correctly identified the ruins of what he had called a "considerable city" on the Taman coast as those of Phanagoria. It was clear even then that the city was encircled by a huge necropolis consisting of numerous burial mounds, along the roads leading out of the city.

'Some burial mounds, or kurgans, were found to contain fine gold jewellery, and so attracted the attention of Russian officers involved in securing the Taman Peninsula for Russia.

'Archaeologists followed, and most of the finds from the kurgans, went to the Hermitage in St Petersburg. One of the most splendid discoveries was the Great Bliznitsa burial mound, in which some magnificent jewellery, still the pride of the Hermitage's Golden Room, was found.

'But the city, itself, was not excavated until the middle of the 19th century, when the methods used included digging trenches without recording the items found, and regrettably, as a result the site was damaged considerably.'

Excavation at Phanagoria began in earnest in 1936, and continues to this day. But although the boundaries of the city, the period of its existence and the depth of its cultural layer have all been defined, the site remains under-explored - as excavating a city of this size takes a lot of time and money.

'Fortunately, in the last few years, the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Archaeology has under-gone some important changes thanks to extra funding,' says Dr Kuznetsov. 'Since Oleg Deripaska's Volnoe Delo Foundation started to sponsor us, the extent of the excavation has increased and it has become an interdisciplinary expedition involving not only archaeologists and historians, but also a numismatist, an anthropologist, a palaeozoologist, an agrologist, a microbiologist and restoration and other specialists.'

As well as the submerged part, the team is also focusing on the acropolis at the centre of the ancient city, the necropolis, and on the rural area where city-dwellers had estates.

'In Phanagoria's earliest period,' Dr Kuznetsov continues, 'the city would have consisted of small mud-brick houses occupying an area of not more than 20 square metres each.

Every house had a yard, where the family spent the warmest months of the year.

'Traces of craftsmen's dwellings have been discovered; for example, evidence of a bronze workshop and toe-prints in a clay mould were found in one dwelling, suggesting that a sculptor who created a full-size bronze statue lived there.

'The remains of a jewellery work-shop with a small furnace were found in another, and the craftsman who worked there was not a poor man, judging by a hoard of 162 silver coins dating back to the latter half of the 6th century BC found in a pitcher in one of the walls. This is the only treasure dating back to that time to have been found on the Black Sea's northern coast.'

So when, I ask, was Phangoria at its zenith?

'Some huge building blocks, fragments of columns, marble porticoes, heavy stone and marble roof tiles found in the sea prove that when the city flourished, in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, it had large public buildings and places of worship and was one of the more advanced Greek poleis or city-states and sociopolitical centres in the Pontic region.

'Descendants of the Greek settlers lived side by side with the native Sindi Maeotae and Sarmatians. There were many mixed families, and the particular plurality of population that characterised the Greek Black Sea coastal cities gradually emerged. But Phanagoria was not only a large, beautiful ancient Greek city, it later served as the first capital city of the future Bulgarian state, was an important regional centre in the Khazar Khaganate, and was home to the Emperor Justinian in his time. It was also a key centre of commerce, trading all round the Mediterranean, and home to one of Russia's oldest Christian communities.'

In 2011 a find at Phanagoria was named as one of the 10 major archaeological discoveries of the year - Dr Kuznetsov tells me why.

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'We had been giving reports at various international conferences for some time, so the finds at Phanagoria had gradually become better known throughout the academic world. But, in 2011, it was extensive media coverage of one of the finds - the ruins of a large building gutted by a fire - that earned us this recognition. The numerous coins found on the building's floor dated the fire to around the middle of the first century BC. This, as well as the dimensions of the building and its location in the acropolis, linked its destruction with the city's uprising against Mithridates VI Eupator, ruler of the Pontic king-dom, which took place in 63 BC.

'The ancient historian Appian describes how the citizens in the uprising covered the acropolis, where Mithridates had a garrison and where his six children were located, with wood and then set fire to it. All the children, except the eldest daughter, Cleopatra, surrendered. Mithridates sent a ship from his capital, Pangicapaeum (modern Kerch) and rescued Cleopatra. A discovery made during underwater excavations corroborates the identification of the building in the acropolis as the residence of Mithridates.

'The find was the upper section of a marble tombstone bearing the inscription: "Hypsikrates, Wife of King Mithridates Eupator Dionysos, Farewell". The fact that the king's wife had a masculine name was surprising but the ancient biographer Plutarch explained this. In his Life of Pompey, he says Mithridates called his wife Hypiskrates because of her bravery and courage. The tombstone not only confirms the story, but also the fact she died during the uprising in Phanagoria.

'There have been a great deal of finds in the last few years: a great many fragments and shards (and sometimes complete items) of vases, painted Ionian and Attic pottery, terracotta figurines, fragments of Ancient Greek inscriptions, coins minted in various cities, metal items, stamps on bricks and vase handles, precious metal jewellery and much more. All of these finds testify that Phanagoria close ties to many ancient cities in the Black Sea and Mediterranean, and minted its own coins. Like other Pontic cities, Phanagoria shipped grain and fish (sturgeon were particularly valued) and furs to the Mediterranean; the fish trade was a fairly lucrative business. Phanagoria imported luxury items such as jewellery, art, wine, olive oil, clothing and the like.'

What finds came from the necropolis?

'The excavations at the necropolis, which occupies more than 300 hectares around Phanagoria, have revealed various types of tombs, but one of the most important finds in recent years has been a burial chamber in the centre of one of the kurgans in the form of a circular corbelled chamber.

'The chamber resembles one of the famous Mycenaean shaft graves, and this is the only one to have been found in Russia. Unfortunately, it was plundered back in ancient times. The only item to have been found on the tomb's floor was a Bosphoran bronze coin dating back to the fourth century BC.

'But we are not only interested in finding gold objects, everyday objects and weapons, but also items of specialist interest like the remains of those citizens who were buried there. Anthropological analysis of these tells us about a person's diet, his standard of living, what diseases affected the city's inhabitants. We have, for example, established that life expectancy in ancient times was far shorter than it is now, at around 32 years for females and 38 years for males.'

Is it possible to visit Phanagoria and see the finds?

'The site can only be visited during the summer and many of the valuable finds can be viewed in the Archaeological Museum in the nearby village of Taman. But our plans which recently received government-level support, include building a dedicated Phanagoria museum and research centre adjacent to the site. Given the size of the city and the cultural layer that is rich in finds, we can be sure any new museum would fill with the most diverse exhibits very quickly.

'For example, archaeologists recently unearthed a ceramic fragment with a depiction of the Christian cross and the lamb, and in the necropolis, they found a military burial chamber with a well preserved sword.'

Will visitors also be able to see the underwater discoveries?

'The excavation is being carried out in a fairly calm, relatively shallow gulf, so it would be possible to show the underwater site to tourists from a semi-submersible glass-bottom boat. Phanagoria has great scope both for scientific resaerch and for tourism,' says Dr Kuznetsov looking towards the future with confidence and optimism.

∙ Dr Vladimir Kuznetsov, Doctor of Historical Sciences, is Leader of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) Institute of Archaeology's Taman Expedition and Director of the Kuban Historical Cultural Heritage Non-profit Partnership.

∙ For more about Phanagoria visit the website devoted to the Kuban's historical and cultural heritage (www.gipanis.ru).

Minerva. The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology Magazine 

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