Beneath the Black Sea: The Crimea: Present & Past - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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The Crimea: Present & Past "Beneath the Black Sea"
Summer 2000


(Map by Lynda D'Amico)

Jutting out from the central northern coast of the Black Sea, the peninsula of Crimea is an autonomous republic within the country of Ukraine, and is connected to the mainland by a spindly five-mile wide isthmus. While the seemingly endless steppes that cover southern Ukraine continue into northern and central Crimea, three mountain ranges rise up to almost 5,000 feet along the southern coast of the peninsula before dropping steeply into the Black Sea. These mountains protect this strip of coast from the strong winds and harsh weather of the steppe, making the area a subtropical paradise of vineyards, orchards, and gardens. Coastal Crimea was once known as the "Soviet Riviera," and plenty of old party apparatchiks and KGB dons are seeing out their golden days on these sunny shores.

I first came to Crimea in the summer of 1997 as a member of a three-person team from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), based at Texas A&M University. Sergei Zelenko, director of Kyiv University's Underwater Archaeological Research and Training Center (UARTC) invited us to join his expedition to identify Athenion, an ancient harbor town mentioned by second-century historian Arrian in his description (periplus) of the Black Sea.

As a graduate student studying the maritime history of the Black Sea, Crimea held a particular attraction to me. By simple virtue of its geography, the peninsula has been a crossroads of culture and trade for millennia. The coastline was first settled in the Palaeolithic period; in the fifteenth century B.C., a nomadic tribe known as the Cimmerians moved into the peninsula and remained there until being ousted by another nomadic tribe--the Scythians--in the seventh century B.C. The Scythians, along with a native population settled along the coast known as the Taurians, soon came into contact with Greek settlers who were establishing coastal colonies all around the Black Sea. Trade between the northern and eastern steppes and the Mediterranean, facilitated by both nomads and Greek colonists in Crimea (most notably at Pantikapaion and Chersonesos became fabulously lucrative (see "All that Glitters is Scythian," January/February 2000) and established Crimea's position as a center of east-west commerce for another 2,000 years. At first, all of this activity is rather surprising when you consider the size of the peninsula--only 150 miles at its widest point from east to west, and 100 miles from north to south--but it was the sea and ships that made Crimea the crossroads that it was.

The first millennium A.D. brought with it successive waves of peoples into Crimea: Sarmatians, Germanic Goths, Huns, Khazars, Pechenegs, Polovtsians, and, in the tenth century, Slavs, who were booted out in the thirteenth century when the Mongols swept through the interior of the peninsula, giving the land the name it still holds today: Kyrym, or Krim. Archaeologists who work in Crimea often compare the peninsula to a large, narrow-necked bottle: "All of these peoples and cultures are funneled down into the bottle, but they can't get back out," Zelenko jokes. "It's just layer upon layer of invaders."

During the same century that the Mongols moved in, the Italian city-states of Venice and Genoa took advantage of the chaos in the interior and established colonies along Crimea's southern coast that funneled goods from the Silk Road to European markets. The most substantial archaeological remains of the Italian presence in Crimea are the thirteenth-century Genoese fortresses at Sudak (medieval Soldaya) on the east-central coast of Crimea; Balaklavsakaya on the southwestern coast near modern-day Sevastopol; and Feodosiya (Genoese Kaffa, a town best known as the gateway of the bubonic plague or Black Death from Asia to Europe) on the eastern coast.


Pottery recovered from the thirteenth-century shipwreck at Novy Svet

During our 1997 expedition, a day trip to the small coastal village of Novy Svet, about four miles west of the Sudak fortress, revealed the possible presence of a thirteenth-century shipwreck in the harbor. Sergei and his UARTC team returned to Novy Svet in 1999 to make a preliminary examination of the wreck, which carried transport jars for wine, oil, water and incense; glassware; and a considerable amount of thirteenth-century glazed pottery.

The dates and provenience of the materials, along with the fact that many of them showed evidence of being burnt, coincided nicely with a report from August 14, 1277, of a battle between Pisan and Genoese forces in Novy Svet harbor, which resulted in a Pisan ship set afire and sunk. [Next...]

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