Artezian, a fortified settlement on the Crimean Peninsula
Images and text by professor Nikolai Vinokurov
Artezian lies close to the Azov Sea in the Crimean Peninsula of Southeastern Ukraine, a picturesque region of steppe grasslands, winding rivers, springs and reservoirs, abundant in fish and wild birds. Here, for over 20 years, a Russo-Crimean archaeological expedition has been excavating the fortified settlement of Artezian along with a team of international volunteers.Map showing location of Artezian excavation
There has been a human presence here since Prehistoric times and the landscape as we see it now has changed very little since then, with chains of Bronze Age barrows (second and third millennium BC) aligned with dirt roads and tracks connecting the coastal regions with the more remote interior of the Kerch peninsula.By the fifth century BC, with the foundation of the Bosporan kingdom, this area became an important economic and strategic base of Imperial power, colonised by military settlers. The larger settlements occupied commanding elevations, ideal for defensible fortified towns requiring a clear line of site and communication to the other regions of the Bosporan state.Situated in the middle of this territory and covering approximately seven hectares Artezian sits high above the surrounding landscape well protected by the natural terrain.Ceramics found within the necropolis burials
An area of 8000 square metres has been excavated so far and archaeologically, the site contains a complex stratigraphy that reaches to a depth of around six metres and stretches back over thousands of years. However, the most informative layer is the burnt one which represents the near destruction of the settlement at the time of the Bosporon/Roman war of 44-45 AD. Lying 1.20 metres beneath the surface, it contains a wealth of finds such as hundreds of terracotta figurines (many complete), thousands of coins and domestic utensils, and the remains of weapons belonging to the defenders of the fortress.
It would also have been an ideal place to exert control over the surrounding regions, housing the king’s governor, a military garrison, tax collectors and merchants
It is not clear what this ancient fortification was originally called but some historical researchers believe this may have been Parosta, mentioned by the Roman author Pliny and the Greek geographer Ptolemy. Parosta, when translated from ancient Persian, means ‘standing at the front’ and from Indo-Aryan as ‘situated by the mouth of a river by the port’. Certainly its location suggests that it was on the front-line of a complex system of fortifications encircled by banks and ditches guarding the vitally important centres of the Bosporan kingdom from attack by marauding nomads from the steppe. It would also have been an ideal place to exert control over the surrounding regions, housing the king’s governor, a military garrison, tax collectors and merchants.Excavations in the southern area revealing structures dating to the 1st century AD
The fortified settlement is laid out in a rectilinear plan with the central area containing the citadel. Around the edges are ancient altars that are now represented by four ash mounds. Throughout its 1200-year history the fortress appears to have been repeatedly burnt down during attacks and damaged by powerful earthquakes. The citadel consists of mighty rectangular towers and walls constructed from large, rough-hewn stone blocks dating from the turn of the first century BC to the first century AD. The towers are notable for their mathematically exacting construction designed to provide protection against earthquake damage. The fortress itself was surrounded by a ditch (three to five metres deep and up to 12 metres wide) which was partially faced with stone. A subterranean drainage system consisting of square masonry blocks was used to conduct water away from the ditch. Within the walls of the citadel, four wells, with a depth of up to 15 metres, have now been excavated, three of which are faced with timber and one with stone.
One of the rulers in this period was a mighty adversary of Rome, the King of Pontus, Mithridates VI Eupator Dionysus. The lower floors of the citadel housed impressive barracks dating from this period and these grand buildings, situated on several terraces, were extremely well planned. The walls were constructed of a chequerboard pattern consisting of large blocks with smaller stones packed in between, an unusual feature in the northern Black sea region.
Glass bottles used as grave goods
When combined with the richness and variety of the excavated finds and the quality of the architecture, there is clear evidence that the inhabitants had attained a good standard of living
When combined with the richness and variety of the excavated finds and the quality of the architecture, there is clear evidence that the inhabitants had attained a good standard of living. The business and domestic premises grouped together in a regular arrangement along the paved streets had rendered walls built of stone and adobe with tiled roofs. The residential buildings contained water and sewerage drainage systems, and some houses contained marble classical architectural detailing. The occupants had spacious granaries and large wine-making premises with semi-basement areas and vessels dug into the floor for wine storage. The population was also occupied in cattle rearing, poultry farming, hunting and fishing, pottery manufacture, weaving, copper smelting, iron work and glass blowing. In the hinterland area there is evidence of agriculture sub divisions, including ancient vineyards, farmsteads and vegetable plots. Also, still visible are a number of quarries for the extraction of building materials.
The settlement’s necropolis occupies over 15 hectares of which around 3000 square metres have been excavated. This consists of approximately 400 burials as well as seven monumental barrows with stone vaults for the wealthy elite. The dead were buried in coffins or sarcophagi, decorated with painted gypsum mouldings, and placed in the graves were sets of red lacquer and glass wares, such as dishes, bowls, jugs, goblets, embalming vessels and small phials for precious fragrances. The burials of women and children contained beads, bronze bracelets, earrings and rings, while the adult males were buried with daggers, swords, arrow tips and metal fittings for clothing and equipment. Also excavated in the necropolis were the burials of horses and dogs. Horses were buried with iron curb chains and buckles, forming part of the bridle and harness. Several of them had traces of serious battle wounds incurred during their lives which appeared to have successfully healed.Statuettes depicting hunting scenes were found in large quantities
The recovery of weapons, the remnants of metal armour and the war wounds of the buried testify to the existence of a strong military presence including a cavalry contingent within the population. Statuettes of static and galloping horsemen, images on graves in the strata of the first centuries AD, the burial of horses in the necropolis, the presence of good stabling and the large number of horse bones found in the other strata paint a very clear picture of this. Aside from the military evidence it also appears that the inhabitants enjoyed a good level of education and cultural continuity, for the settlement contains many thousands of examples of graffiti and inscriptions using the Greek alphabet with abbreviations of Greek words and names. The material culture of the period is also Greek in appearance showing very little barbarian influence.
This long period of relative stability was to come to an end, for around the fourth century AD there was a notable reduction in the size of the settlement’s population and the site of Artezian fell into neglect
This long period of relative stability was to come to an end, for around the fourth century AD there was a notable reduction in the size of the settlement’s population and the site of Artezian fell into neglect. This was due to worsening environmental conditions and military upheavals across the region, eventually leading to the extinction of the Bosporan statehood system. From out of the steppe Khazars and Alans then appeared. Living in yurts and small circular adobe houses with cattle enclosures, their religion and language was entirely different to that of their predecessors, and so marked the beginning of a new way of life in the region.
Professor Nikolai Vinokurov of Moscow State Pedagogical University has been the director of the Artezian expedition since 1988, and has carried out excavations on the site in co-operation with the Crimean Branch of the Institute of Archaeology of the National Science Academy, Ukraine.
Original text translated from the Russian by Sophie Mamattah, John Sullivan and Tatyana Van Loo.
The Artezian project accepts volunteers each year. For more information on dates and costs, please contact prof. Nikolai Vinokurov at: email@example.com