Early Cross-Culture Settlement On Northern Black Sea

Essay, Research Paper Early Cross-Culture Settlement on the Northern Black Sea Coast Scyles was a Scythian prince who led a double life. He was a prince of the Scythian nomads who controlled a large area surrounding the Greek colonies on the northern Black Sea coast. But like all great Greek plays, his story is a tragedy.

Essay, Research Paper

Early Cross-Culture Settlement on the Northern Black Sea Coast

Scyles was a Scythian prince who led a double life. He was a prince of the Scythian nomads who controlled a large area surrounding the Greek colonies on the northern Black Sea coast. But like all great Greek plays, his story is a tragedy. Scyles was fascinated by the city of Olbia and the high culture of the Greeks. So he created a second life for himself within the walls of Olbia; he kept a Geek wife and built a palace to live in.. He dressed in Greek robes and participated in the Greek religious festivals. However this was his secret for he never told nor shared this part of himself with his nomad tribesmen. His was a world of duality. One day during the celebrations of Dionysus, some of Scyles’ tribesmen came to peer over the city walls and saw their prince parading down the avenue leading the Greek procession in their festivities. It is easy to estimate what happened. Scyles was found out and forced to flee, he sought asylum in Thrace but was handed back for execution to his usurping brother. Treason of nation has always been a capital crime. The story of Scyles is an important because it gives us a glimpse into the world of the Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast. Although they were founded and cultivated by the Greeks, it was ultimately the peoples of the region, mainly the Scyths whose future the cities hands lay in. Archaeologically we can see a unique blend of the two civilizations working together and in opposition to control the power and economy of this region

The city of Olbia was one of the most influential of the Black Sea colonies, and although not the largest it was one of the oldest and had a critical geographical position that gave it its prestige. Archaeologically, Olbia provides an opportunity to examine a classic Greek colony as well as a glimpse at the interaction of two cultures developing alongside each other.


The existing site of Olbia can be seen clearly from the water. It is about three miles in length and lies on the Bug River estuary near the Dnepr River. It’s location is central because of the adjoining agricultural communities of the Scyths. As Greece became dependant on imported wheat, colonies such as Olbia were able to raise the supply needed. Olbia’s riches were made in wheat trade. The Bug estuary provided an ideal low laying shore location for ships to be drawn up to and a higher main ground for defense. This estuary also combines with the Dnepr liman to form a broad network where goods could be shipped down either rivers into the common estuary. Although other industries were well developed at Olbia, it is this connection which brought goods from the town to the native Scyths in return for wheat which made Olbia so successful. The access not only to the Black Sea but into the upper Euxine where the agriculture lay made a very effective transport system.

Olbia was founded in the Seventh century BC as a Milesian factory site. It is one of the best examples of a colony developed from a factory trade site. The original colonizers from Miletus had established a small trade post on the island Berezan years earlier which dealt mainly in fish industries. But as grain trade developed in the area, the colony grew into a city which controlled the Euxine wheat exportation. During the fourth century, the height of Olbia’s power, the city was home to upwards of 30,000 people.

The city itself is triangular in shape. At this point references to Minns’s triangular diagram points are most useful. (Figure 1, appd) The city changed size according to the time and population but in the second half of the fourth century BC, the city was at it’s largest forming the triangle ABC. Its approximate size was 80 acres, with the Bug estuary to the east and deep gullies to the west and north. The triangle represented by ADE was continually populated while the northern boundary was adjusted to population size. Within the ADE triangle are the remains of an acropolis and agora. There was probably an original city wall here but all that remains now are the later Roman fortifications when this small area covered the entire city. But in Greek times the city reached it’s northern limits and although no wall has been found on the western side there are Hellenistic wall remain on the eastern side, including a tower. However during the Greek period but at a later date an enormous wall was constructed using techniques of alternating clay and cinders as is consistent with other early Greek colonies on the Black Sea. This wall was up to4m thick and had large defensive towers. (Mongait, Minns)

In the central part of the old city (ADE) the agora was uncovered. Public buildings open directly onto the agora, as well as the basements of a series of commercial buildings. The use of these buildings served more than one purpose as cult items have been found in concentration in at least two of the rooms as well. There was also a large monumental altar in the center of the agora of great artistic and structural quality. At least fifteen significant inscriptions from the agora have also been found in recent years. Also in this triangle area have been found the remains of a large building which is thought to be the temple of Zeus Olbios and a smaller chapel to Achilles Pontarches. (Mongait, Minns)

The city was densely inhabited. Private living houses, public buildings and industrial buildings covered the entire city. The streets were built at crossing right angles with the main thoroughfare being 10m. wide with room for traffic in both directions. In the main part of the city, again the lower triangle, the main road was crossed by a series of transverse streets approximately 2-3 m. across. On the sides of the main streets public buildings dominate along with large residential housing units with storage annexes, most probably for the elite. The houses were all large with finely crafted jointed walls of dressed stone. On the more narrow side streets, smaller stone houses with tile roofs were built on either side.

Excavations under later Roman barrows also show living areas edging right up to the city walls, however the use of old city as waste also reveals how the city was not completely surrounded but open to size fluctuation at the boundaries. One such house found comprises of two series of two chambers surrounding their own courtyards. One section’s courtyard was cobblestone and had a square mosaic in the center. What is interesting in this courtyard is that not all four sides of the peristyle are identical. Three of the sides are single storied with four Ionic columns and the western fa?ade has a double story with varying columns on both levels. Although this particular house was built probably in the second century BC, the site it was built upon was continuously occupied since the seventh century BC. This is shown in the collected pottery fragments turned up by creating the barrow which provide examples from almost every previous period.

Near E on the diagram, along the wall of the Bug estuary, lay the commercial district. Here is a spring with a broad area of low- lying ground where ships could be beached. There are two roads, one that runs along the river and another, which moves inland. This area has produced the largest amount of coins further indicating the main commercial zone.

Other commercial finds include a pottery factory with four kilns, two large and two smaller ones. It has been determined that the larger kilns were for baking large vessels and tiles and the smaller ones for kitchen and tableware. One of the largest buildings in town was a bakery. There were six rooms, with ovens in three of them.

But perhaps the most influential feature of Olbia is not to be found within the walls. The outlying agricultural centers produced the wheat and agricultural commodities that elevated Olbia over other colonies of the same time on the Black Sea.

Scythians, The Outlying Communities

Chora, is the Greek word for outlying communities or “ the inner hinterlands of the polis.” As mentioned previously around thirty thousand people lived within Olbia, and it is natural that at least as many lived in the surrounding chora. The situational location of Olbia places it directly beside the joining of two huge estuaries, the Bug and the Dnepr. In ancient time this entire area was settled in wheat fields and villages covering the entire peninsula of the combined estuaries. The Greek historian, Herodotus, tells us much about the Scythians of Olbia in his Histories and his description of this group of people just beyond the gates of Olbia, describes the population of the chora. He recorded various tribes of Scythian culture and made distinctions between nomads and Scythian pastoralist communities. He describes a people he calls the Geloni who were descendants of Greek colonists and native who lived around the city. He also describes the city, Gelonus which they built of wood. Some ate what they grew and other produced for the Greek wheat market. Archaeology in recent yeas has uncovered networks of town sites along the middle Dnepr River. These sites include settlements enclosed and fortified with outside cemeteries and industrial works such as granaries, potteries, and smithies for ironworks. The site of Belsk has ramparts which are 21 miles in circumference and is quite possibly the Gelonus of Herodotus. At the site there was a workshop making the type of human skull drinking cups which Herodotus details. (Ascherson 77)

Herodotus also described more nomad people who travel the steppes and return to localities to reap harvests. There were also true nomadic tribes operating as well, such as the Budini who Herodotus describes as the nomadic neighbors of Gelonus. This information of this area coincides with the data we have on the Scythian cultures of this time. In the Black Sea region 9especially the Dnepr and Bug areas as well as the Azov Sea and Crimea steppes) there were three types of basic Scythian culture; the settled agriculturalists, a union of related, partly agricultural/nomadic tribes, and the purely nomadic Royal Scythian tribes ruling the Scythian people and land.

It is also know that by the 5th century BC the Scythians were the largest producers of wheat which the city of Olbia relied on for it’s export trade. The hinterland of Olbia, the region of the Middle and Upper Dnepr as well the Bug area were integral to the city of Olbia’s existence. Archeology shows as well how far reaching these Scythian-Greek trade network reached. Over fifty sites in the area of the lower Dnepr and the Bug give evidence that the Scythian people there had a stable economy before Greek colonization. Sites such as Zavadovka, Zlatopol, Peresadovka, and Subbotov attest to complex settlements with bronze foundries and burial mounds from the early first millennium to the 7th century BC in the area of the Olbian hinterlands. (Sulimirski 1, 127-8) Evidence has also uncovered material attesting to the high skill level of Scythian ironwork in this 7th century as well especially in weapon and sword manufacture. This can also explain how the trade relationship developed so rapidly between Olbia and the surrounding communities. In Nikolaevka there are remains of Greek pottery from Lesbos and Lios during the fifth century when Olbia was still gaining it’s importance. (Sulimirski 2, 3) Indeed it is proposed that the Greek colonies of this area occurred not only for reasons of Greek socio-economic conditions but because of the existing socio-economic conditions of the area. However the importance of Greek colonization to the growth of Scythic peoples can be seen by a simple comparison between the sheer number and location of sites before vs. after-during colonization clearly shows the expansion gained by the new partnership with the Greek colonies (see figures 2 and 3).

Evidence of Cross Acculturation

n Butzer’s book, Archeology as Human Ecology, he details processes of human adaptive process as related to cultures and their environments. The Greeks and Scythians were both subject to these process as a direct result of their dependence of their environment and their interrelations with each other. Environmentally. The Greeks relied on the transport routes of the Bug and Dnepr rivers and liman. The Scyths were dependant on the fertility of their soil as means to produce a surplus of grain to support a socio-economic structure. It is this quality that produced the sedentary agriculturalists within this semi-nomadic culture. Yet both were dependant on each other for the basic workings of their society. This produced a mixture seen in cultural deposits throughout the region.

The investigation of graves and burial goods is most informative on the adaptive culture mix produced by this need. In the earliest graves excavated at Olbia we find this evidence. The graves dating to the early fifth and sixth century show a blend of Greek and Scythian wares. While the ceramic assemblages are mainly Greek there are Scythian metal works, especially daggers found in the graves of Greek inhabitants. (Sulimirski 2, 17) Also present in the necropolis were series of native graves mainly distinguished by the bodies lying in flexed positions. It is also interesting to note that the oldest graves are those located furthest from the city. This complies well with the friendly relations with the Scythic tribes in this period. The Scythic graves also show a strong Ionian influence. Greek objects are found not only among grave goods but Greek style of burials were imitated as well. These burial sites extend as far as Parutino, well into the native agricultural settlements. (Minns 455)

Art forms are another way which we see the two cultures emerging. Greek artisans specifically adapted Scythian styles and subjects into their art for sale to the tribal people. And while Scythic art has it’s own definite and identifiable style, many Greek influences were adopted and can be easily traced such as the Seven Brothers and mirror mounts and designs excavated at Olbia. (Minns 266) Greeks artisans were also present in the hinterlands producing art and wares for the native populations as can be seen at the Oguz excavations. (Minns 284)

Coinage was also a strong indicator of the symbiotic relationships between the peoples. By the fourth century Olbia had it own coinage, the dolphin. There are two main series of Olbian coins known, those featuring Greek subjects and those featuring the native kings. Although some specimen of both groups carry names or characteristics of both Greek and Scythian origins. (Minns 482-7) It is also important to note that outside the Greek world, Olbian coins have been found as far inland on the Russian steppes as the lower Volga and as east as the Astrakhan. (Sulimirski 2, 18)

Clearly these cultures were not only working together but inhabiting common space and adapting culturally to the needs of the development of their respective societies.

Combined Fate

Indeed the growth and development of Olbia can be matched with the growth and development of the Scythian people as well. The history of Olbia and it’s periphery settlements is not a structure of center and periphery. Not only were the peripheral people settled but they also controlled the fate of the center. The Greek colony never tried to conquer or subjugate the interior as was the case in other colonies, such as Bosphorus area settlements, and instead worked in a type of partnership. Olbia was a polis, an autonomous state with its own constitution, coinage, courts and officials. It was also a slave-holding republic.

Part of common illusion that the Greek colony was the center of activity comes from the idea that the Scythians were purely nomadic. But as recent archaeology is showing it is not necessarily the case. Of course it is undisputed that the monumental scale of the colonial cities on the Black Sea are far greater and more concrete than anything produced by the Scyths with the exception of perhaps the Royal burial mounds. But it must also be remembered that this lifestyle of mobility, partial or complete served purposes in Greek favor as well.

The Greek Black Sea colonies, Olbia in specific, had no substantial military of their own. They relied on the native populations for protection. While this may seem at odds, because of the nature of the identity f the enemy, it also clearly shows that the mobile nature of the Royal Scythians and warriors provided a service the Greeks could not survive without. The military strategy of the Scythians relied n this mobility as shown by the defeat of Darius in his campaigns against the Scythians. The ability to quickly retreat and scattered was effective strategy in this region. So in fact the absence of city settlements on level with the Greeks, only adds to the continuing superiority of the status quo organization of the Scyths.

During the third century the Scythians people were put under pressure by migrations of Samaritans tribes westward from the Don and Volga River areas. This served to disturb the supply and production of wheat for export. As these phenomenon occurred we see the immediate effects on the city of Olbia.

As the territories of the Scythians were encroached upon by eastern tribes migrating west we begin to see real conflict between Olbia and her neighbors. Because the traditional power source of the Scythians was failing they starting taxing tribute on the Greek colony to make the difference. The second and third centuries BC in Olbia are characterized by tribes demanding tribute from the city. However because the city was also dependant upon the wheat coming from the tribes, it was in a bad position. The responsibility fell on the shoulders of the wealthy citizens and families of Olbia who had amassed great fortunes during the earlier prosperous years. In particular Protogenes, one such citizen, was called upon repeatedly to pay tributes to tribal kings and repair city fortifications personally. Minns has Protogenes paying about 12,000 gold pieces in protection and tribute for the city. This was an unbelievable fortune. (Minns 462)

Eventually Scythian tribes sacked the city in an effort to stabilize and control the wheat trade. They were unsuccessful and in the first century BC Olbia was completely sacked by the Getae people. However what is poignant is that after the destruction of the city, the Scythians invited the Greeks back to Olbia to reinstate the wheat trade economy.

Evidently both sides had learned the lesson that both communities were dependant on each other. The Greek city could not exist without the cooperation, production, and protection provided by the Scythians. The Scythians on the other hand could not reap the wealth of a trade economy without the expertise and networks of the Greeks.


The Greek settlement of Olbia had far reaching effects on the area and the peoples who inhabited it, the Scythians. However the pattern developed in the history of the city is one which relies on adaptive and cooperative factors with the native populations. Development of a new city and economy in an already inhabited area requires this functions. In both the Scythian and Olbian culture, the other has left distinguishable traces that evidence this process of cross-cultural settlement.

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