The Celts in the North Pontic Area: A Reassessment

By Treister, Michail Ju. | Antiquity, December 1993 | Go to article overview

The Celts in the North Pontic Area: A Reassessment


Treister, Michail Ju., Antiquity


The recent great exhibition in Venice of Celtic art and artefacts showed once again the intriguing attraction of the Celtic traditions, so influential in our view of old Europe, both western and central. But what about the Celts in the east, and specifically in the region to the north and west of the Black Sea? And what is the relation between that artefactual evidence, Celtic artefacts in the west, and the evidence from the documents?

Celtic and La Tene in the Pontic

The problem of Celtic material in eastern Europe, including the north Pontic area, has been the subject of research by several scholars (Kuharenko 1959; Machinskij 1973; Wozniak 1974: 139ff.; 1976: 394-402; Treister 1985a; Raev 1986; Simonenko 1987; Raev in press; Raev et al. in press). Recently discovered material, coupled with new approaches to published objects, allows us to concentrate on certain questions, both those disputable and those not raised before. Among them are the three this paper addresses:

the appearance of Celts in the north Pontic area, namely in the Kingdom of Bosporus, in the 3rd century BC;

the participation of Celtic troops in the war campaigns of Mithridates VI on the north shore of the Black Sea;

the possible La Tene prototypes of ornaments, widespread in the region during the first centuries AD.

Oval shields and Celtic weapons in the Kingdom of Bosporus

The earliest depiction of oval shields (scutum) (Eichberg 1987) appears in the Bosporus as far back as the second to third quarter of the 3rd century BC. It was used as an emblem on the obverse of bronze coins issued by Leucon II, the king of Bosporus (Zograf 1977: plate 42(17); Shelov 1978: plate VII(78); Golenko (1972: 23). A unique find was made in 1982 at Nymphaeum, a wall-painting showing a ship named Isis with four Galatian shields on board). It provides the opportunity to establish the date of the oval shields' appearance in Bosporus to the beginning of the second quarter of the 3rd century BC (Grach 1984; 1989; Eichberg 1987: 142, 193, Kat. no. 214, Tafel 30). Starting with the late 3rd-early 2nd century BC, oval shields are carved on Bosporan grave reliefs (Tolstikov 1976), and from the 2nd century BC onwards a series of terracotta figurines of warriors with the same shields appears (Pruglo 1966; Sokolskij 1976: 100, figure 55(15); 105, figure 58(10-11); Denisova 1981: 91-2). By what route did these oval shields reach the Bosporus? It has been suggested they came through Asia Minor (the western Pontic area) and Olbia (Sokolskij 1955: 23; Tolstikov 1976: 85). However, there are no depictions of 3rd-century BC oval shields in Olbia, and all the known finds of terracotta figurines with oval shields in the Northern Black Sea area are in the Bosporan kingdom, mainly in the capital, Panticapaeum (Eichberg 1987: maps 4-5). It therefore seems reasonable to exclude the possibility that these shields penetrated via the west Pontic regions and Olbia. (The finds of silver umbos, bosses for oval shields, in excavations of 1983 and 1985 at the sanctuary in Gurzufskoje Sedlo in the Crimea, near Yalta, are unpublished; they should probably be dated to the 1st century BC.)

The bronze coinage of Leucon II, including the coins with the oval shield emblem, was not used for the payment of the king's war expenses, as was formerly believed (Shelov 1981: 41-2; cf. 1954: 65) therefore we cannot explaining the coinage with reference to paying mercenaries employed by Spartokides, as Pruglo did (1966: 210). This is more apparent when we consider that these statuettes should be dated not to the 3rd-2nd century BC, but to a later period -- the late 2nd-1st centuries BC. Stylistic analysis leads Eichberg (1987: 71, Kat. no. 58) to identify one as the figure of a Thracian or even Persian, and to state that the muscle cuirass of the warrior is insufficient to identify him as Celtic (Eichberg 1987: 71, Kat. no. 59, Tafel 8a). Depictions on the fresco from Nymphaeum, in the context of Bosporo-Egyptian relations in the 3rd century BC, suggest that the oval shields on board the ship prove that Egyptian embassies to the Bosporan Kingdom may have included Galatian mercenaries (Treister 1985: 134-6; 1985a: 37). …

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