Gothic Greetings From Velvet-Season Crimea

My dynamic friend and colleague Frans-Arne Stylegar has managed to liberate a respectable sum of Norwegian oil money to fund a collaboration with Ukrainian archaeologists under the direction of professor Igor Khrapunov. The first results of this collaboration have been two international conferences on the theme “Between Two Seas. Northern Barbarians From Scandinavia To The Black Sea”. I was kindly invited to take part in the second one, at the beach resort of Gaspra near Yalta on Crimea's Black Sea coast, from which I now report to you, Dear Reader.

The reason that scholars in Ukraine and Norway might have something to talk about at all can be summarised in one word: Goths. Written sources allow us to follow this mobile and successful East Germanic-speaking ethnic group backward through time and across Europe from the ruins of the Western Roman Empire in the 6th century to the mouth of the River Vistula in the 1st century. Each step in this migration has a reasonable counterpart in an archaeological culture.

Prior to that, we don't know if the Goths moved and, if so, whence. In the 6th century they believed that they had come from southern Sweden across the Baltic Sea. This idea of an early migration is not supported by the archaeology, and it should be noted that in the 6th century, all Germanic-speaking groups cultivated tribal mythology that placed their origins in Scandinavia. It is however uncontroversial that there have always been some level of contact between Sweden and the Vistula estuary throughout the millennia, particularly among the elite.

A more specific description of the conference's theme might be “Evidence for contacts between the Baltic and the Black Sea shores in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries”. I don't have much to add to this discussion, but I have been involved with Swedish cemeteries that have recently yielded finds of exclusive Black Sea glassware which aren't widely known. So in addition to presenting a survey of this new evidence, I decided to summarise recent Scandinavian debate on the conference's theme that Eastern colleagues may not be aware of.

The thinking habits of North-western and Eastern European archaeologists are very different. It's probably fair to say that the most Westerners see the Easterners as theoretically backward, and most Easterners see the Westerners as quite extraterrestrial. At the conference I have been continually dismayed at the Easterners' habit of making unproblematic equations between archaeological entities and historically documented ethnic labels. And perhaps worse: if the written sources name three ethnic groups, then my Eastern colleagues will look for three archaeological entities – not two, not four. Several presenters even believe that they can recognise ethnic groups from the shapes of people's skulls, even though we are dealing with a period of extreme ethnic mobility, mixing and upheaval. And ethnicity is after all in a person's mind, not in her bones. (Americans, please quit using that word as a euphemism for race!)

The great strength of the Easterners, in my opinion, is the value they place on an intimate knowledge of the source material. Few Scandinavian academics can compete with them on that arena. It is thus no surprise that the Scandinavians at the conference are mainly museum and excavation unit employees, with a few retired academics. Myself, I'm seen as a conservative and naïvely empirical scholar in some Scandinavian academic circles. Yet in this company I'm a radical theoretician.

Nevertheless, I wish to thank Frans Arne, Prof. Khrapunov and the Kingdom of Norway warmly for supporting my participation here. It is by far the most generous conference invitation I have ever received: “If you can show up at Simferopol airport on Wednesday 3 October with a prepared presentation, then we will take care of everything for you while you're here.”

Yesterday we rode a bus and jeeps to the last place on the planet where Gothic is known to have been spoken natively (by an Asian-eyed 18th century fellow who looked like a Tartar): the mountaintop fastness of Mangup. It has at various times been the home of Goths, Orthodox monks, Muslim Tartars and, most exotically to me, Karaites, a group of tartarised Jews who follow the Torah but not the Talmud. Breathtaking view, beautiful High Medieval fortifications and church ruins, intriguing subterranean rooms that are difficult to date because all the culture layers have been cleaned out from them. Walking down the long path through the leafy woods past the Early Modern Karaite cemetery to the valley floor, my legs eventually began to tremble in a familiar post-coital manner.

My sumptuous hotel room has a balcony fronting on the Black Sea, in which I swim daily. We enjoy three great buffet meals a day. Post-Soviet recovery is apparent everywhere. The scent of evergreens is always on the wind. In the evenings my Russian colleagues sing beautifully in a moonlit bower with a bottle of local wine. Early autumn is known as the Velvet Season here in Crimea – between the oppressive summer heat and the rains of early winter. No wonder this is Eastern Europe's Côte Azur.

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Good to hear Ukrainan archaeology is thriving.
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I find the prehistory / history of the entire region depressing and full of cultures fading to oblivion.
First we have the Kurgan culture, eventually wiped from the face of Earth and only leaving looted burial mounds.
At the beginning of written history, we have Greek coastal colonies and Scythian horsemen in the interior. The Scythians eventually subjugated the Greeks in Crimea, but absorbed enough of their culture to build Greek-style temples.
After that, the Scythians get wiped out by the Sauromatians, while the Greek cities came under the rule of the Pontus Hellenistic kingdom which became the last surviving Greek state. Even Pontus eventually got annexed by the Romans, and then the Goths -who were not interested in Greek urban culture- chased them off.
Once Huns and the massive migrations dissipated nothing remained of the former civilisations (although Greek and Goth languages lived on).
Fast forward and we have Khazar horsemen, vikings raiding the shores of Don for slaves, and Petchengan horsemen replacing Khazars. The the Mongols burned and killed all over the place. Top it with the Black Death arriving to Europe through the local ports. For sheer protracted misery, the place has the Middle East beat.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 06 Oct 2012 #permalink

If there's a Proceedings, I hope you'll tell us about it.

By Jonathan Lubin (not verified) on 07 Oct 2012 #permalink

Yes, there will be a volume. I believe I shall contribute.

I find the prehistory / history of the entire region depressing and full of cultures fading to oblivion.
First we have the Kurgan culture, eventually wiped from the face of Earth and only leaving looted burial mounds.

By Tamanna ummay (not verified) on 10 Nov 2012 #permalink

I agree that the looting of the Kurgan mounds is depressing, but archaeological cultures fading is really just a fact of life. We had two kurgan-building periods in Sweden too, and they both ended. One day maybe a third kurgan period will dawn here. And eventually fade into oblivion.