Chersonesos: The Ukrainian Pompeii: Danny Wood Visits a Remarkable Excavation in the Ukraine

By Wood, Danny | History Today, January 2005 | Go to article overview
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Chersonesos: The Ukrainian Pompeii: Danny Wood Visits a Remarkable Excavation in the Ukraine


Wood, Danny, History Today


CHERSONESOS IS AN ENORMOUS, ANCIENT RUIN alongside the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol, on the shores of the Black Sea. The expansive site is a mix of Greek, Roman and Byzantine remains; and, hundreds of hectares of ancient, agricultural farmland that make it unique in the world.

To archaeologists like Adam Rabinowitz, from Texas University's Institute of Classical Archaeology, the soubriquet for Chersonesos, 'the Russian (or Ukrainian) Pompeii', is well deserved.

The Roman amphitheatre, hundreds of metres of defensive walls and a Greek temple perched on the sea's edge look impressive, but the most significant remains within the ancient city limits are from the Byzantine era. We know much less about how ordinary people lived in this period than we do for a great many other periods. So this site in particular provides us with a window. The comparison to Pompeii is an apt one. 'As you look at the remains you can basically reconstruct the entire life of this town, in the same way that you can reconstruct the life of the citizens of Pompeii in AD 79.'

Texas University and the local Archaeological Park have uncovered the foundations of a small, two-storey blacksmith's workshop, a tavern with large scale food preparation areas, a chapel and dozens of broken storage vessels. Graves that have been excavated near the site paint a sorry picture: over half the skeletons belong to infants or children. Burnt, wooden remains and a woman's headless corpse under a collapsed wall suggest that this once-bustling, medieval quarter came to a sudden end. During the thirteenth century the area was suddenly abandoned, probably because of an invasion by the Mongols.

But the most important feature of Chersonesos is that it's probably the best place to study ancient farming. Hundreds of hectares of agricultural land called Chora, fanned by Greek colonists, is still as it was more than two thousand years ago. This area was the equivalent of the 'wild west' for ancient Greek civilization. What the Chora tells us about the interaction between ancient Greek colonies during the third and fourth centuries BC and local tribes, makes Chersonesos unique in the world. Dozens of ancient farmsteads with their wine presses and crumbling defensive towers survive in now-barren fields once covered with vineyards.

'What happens at the margins of a colonial situation has become increasingly interesting for ethnographers and sociologists in the modern period but it's taken a long time for anybody to start thinking about it in the Classical period,' says Adam Rabinowitz.

Work on the Chora--brought to the attention of Western archaeologists by Dr Joseph Carter--is still at an early stage. Evidence suggests that local people were paid, rather than enslaved, to work on farms and there's Greek pottery made according to local, 'barbarian' pottery styles. There was a surprising amount of interaction between Greek and local cultures here. Rabonowitz says there are tantalizing hints that the interaction between the Greeks and the 'barbarians' (the local tribes) was quite different to how historians have normally interpreted it.

'What people usually say is that there were these barbarian populations who were sort of crude and uneducated and when they saw Greek culture they realised that it was better and so they became like Greeks in so far as they could, being stupid barbarians. In fact, the situation in my opinion was much more dynamic and there was much more influence both back and forth and much more transformation of culture on both sides."

The way the Greeks adopted local cultural traditions is very obvious in the remains of ancient tombstones.

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