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Come to Chersonesos: Institute helps preserve 2,500-year-old city in Ukraine for future generations

One of the most far-flung outposts of Greek civilization is quietly situated on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine. The 2,500-year-old city of Chersonesos has been home to the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Slavs and has survived invasions by the Mongols, Ottoman Turks and others. It’s the entry point of the Orthodox faith to Russia. It’s neighbor to modern Sevastopol, the secretive site of the Soviet Black Sea fleet. Yet few outside the region have heard of the site, and even fewer have visited.

Aerial view of Chersonesos
Aerial view in 2001 of Chersonesos with the renovated St. Volodymyr’s Church. The entrance to Sevastopol Harbor is in the distance.

This is expected to change in coming decades, due in large part to the work of The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute of Classical Archaeology (ICA).

ICA has been working at Chersonesos since 1992 when its director and founder, Dr. Joseph Coleman Carter, was invited to the site by the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos. Over the next decade, ICA created long-term collaborations with the Preserve and the governments of Ukraine and Sevastopol. Those collaborations evolved beyond simply excavating the site.

The organizations are now working together on multiple plans to preserve Chersonesos for future generations, with very substantial backing from the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI) enabling them to do so. Among the projects is the creation of a unique archaeological park at Chersonesos that will preserve the unique ancient landscape of the city and its territory, or “chora.” Visitors will witness ancient wheat production, an ancient vineyard and gardens, including an herb garden. It will be the first-ever park of a chora, illuminating rural life of the past for visitors and bringing tourists to the area to help stimulate the local economy.

“No one expected in the early ’90s that ICA would be in such a role,” says Asele Surina, program coordinator for ICA. “Chersonesos was a research project. But the need was so great and the people were so eager and responsive that momentum began to build. And now we as an institution feel a sense of responsibility to the site.”

Blue glass lamp stand
Blue glass lamp stand, first half of 5th century A.D.

Chersonesos is sometimes compared to the famous site of Pompeii, the ancient city perpetually preserved after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius buried it in ash. The territory of Chersonesos contains many stone farmhouses, and much of the dense grid of country lanes that divided the chora still exists. And the artifacts recovered at the site—from decorated sarcophagi to mosaic floors to household items in blue glass—are as impressive as those found at any site around the world.

“Here is a city that is almost completely preserved, because nothing was built over it,” says Carter. “It was simply abandoned.”

Today locals pass through the ancient city to get to the beaches on its coast, and a handful of families come to the chora to visit their dachas, or country homes. But while Ukraine acknowledges Chersonesos as a critical part of its cultural heritage—an image of the city appears on the one-hryvnya note, the equivalent of the U.S. dollar bill—making this monument to the past accessible to the world has been a challenge.

Map showing the Ukraine, Crimea, the Black Sea and Chersonesos
Modern political map of Ukraine and the Black Sea region.

ICA first helped by applying on behalf of the Preserve to the World Monuments Fund to put Chersonesos on the list of most endangered sites. When the Ukrainian government came to the conclusion that it should nominate the site to the UNESCO World Heritage List, ICA stepped in to help with that. Plans for conserving the site and creating an archaeological park are also driven by the goals of the Preserve itself.

“It’s really nice to be able to help them,” says Surina. “They are so devoted to the site, giving their lives working for a great goal, but with little monetary reward. All of a sudden they have this opportunity. It’s very meaningful for all of us. And it’s something very tangible and completely driven by what people are asking for.”

Working with preservation at this level is a recent turn for ICA. Its real claim to fame is its pioneering work in the archaeology of the chora. In fact, ICA is recognized as an international leader in the study of rural populations in the classical world.

Archaeologists have generally focused on the city, just as ancient historians focused on the urban culture. Yet even in the ancient world, the city only represented a portion of the life of the populace.

Plate decorated with figures of fish
Red figure fish plate, 4th century B.C.

“We have plenty of evidence to show that the majority of the ancient world probably lived in the countryside, contrary to what scholars have thought in the past,” says Carter.

The economy of the ancient world was, to a large extent, based on agriculture, and much of its population lived outside the cities. In fact, the cities themselves grew up around areas where good farmland was discovered and the economic basis for life was established. The city could not survive in isolation.

ICA’s groundbreaking project on the study of rural populations began in 1974 at Metaponto in the far south of Italy. Its work has turned the common image of the archaeologist—with wide-brimmed hat and brush in hand—on its head.

“We’ve carried archaeology a bit further than classical archaeologists have in the past,” says Carter. “We look to economic motivations and causative explanations that go beyond generals and battles and so forth. What was the situation of the land? Why were these people suffering from malaria and syphilis? What crops were they raising? Why did their economy fail?”

Mosaic floor tile from Chersonesos
Center of mosaic floor made of marble, limestone sandstone and terracotta, with a chalice and peacocks, 6th century A.D.

Answering questions like these requires a multidisciplinary approach. Archaeologists working with ICA still survey the land. But at the same time palaeobotanists study seeds to determine what crops were common in the ancient world. Geomorphologists conduct intense studies of the soil. Physical anthropologists examine human remains. ICA even helped move archaeology into the space age.

ICA has partnered with the university’s Center for Space Research (CSR) to use remote sensing images from space to view ancient territories. ICA and CSR received a major grant from NASA to study the imagery over Chersonesos, which enables researchers to better understand the way land was divided in the chora.

“I think we can be considered a leader in this area,” says Carter. “No other project has had the same range that we have in terms of the scientific approaches that have been employed.”

Those scientific approaches have allowed ICA to shed light on a broader swath of the ancient world than ever before. For example, ICA has published detailed studies on the diet and nutrition of the people of Metaponto and its surroundings. At the same time it’s examined the relationships between colonizing peoples and those who are colonized. And in a groundbreaking finding, it discovered that the ancient people of Metaponto suffered from syphilis, a disease thought to have been introduced to Europe from the new world, but actually present in Metaponto 2,000 years before Columbus.

Box made of silver
Reliquary casket in engraved silver, 550 A.D.

ICA’s work at Metaponto is ongoing, and its discoveries at Metaponto made ICA uniquely qualified to assist in excavations at Chersonesos.

Chersonesos is where Slavic archaeology began, and excavations at the ancient city site have been underway for almost two centuries. But among Chersonesos’s distinguishing features is that its chora is one of the best-preserved monuments of its kind in the world, and a grid of ancient roads and the ruins of about 140 rural estates exist to this day. No other area is quite so suited to ICA’s work.

As ICA brings the full range of archaeology to the chora of Chersonesos, Chersonesos brings a new focus to ICA. The need to not just excavate but also preserve and develop the site encouraged ICA to evolve from an organization focused on rural archaeology to one geared toward public archaeology as well.

“Public archaeology is a branch of archaeology where you try to combine the interests of all parties, scholars and the local community, the government and the tourism sector,” says Glenn Mack, Ukraine project director at ICA. “You try to bring them all together to reach an agreement for the common good. And the common good is to preserve these monuments, these areas of ancient civilization, and make them physically and intellectually accessible.”

Area of columns and mosaic floor tile at Chersonesos
The 1935 Basilica, named for the year that its excavation began, has become a symbol of Chersonesos.

ICA is fortunate that generous backing from PHI makes this work possible. ICA will continue to partner with the Preserve and the Ukrainian and Crimean governments to develop Chersonesos into a site that will draw tourists and scholars from all over the world. And a first step in generating interest in the site is making the site’s history and findings available.

To that end, ICA and the National Preserve of Chersonesos published the book “Crimean Chersonesos: City, Chora, Museum, and Environs” last fall. The book marks the first time since 1913 that anything extensive has been written in English about the site. And it’s a stunning publication, featuring hundreds of color photographs and architectural reconstructions of the site. It’s a first introduction of the site to the world, and represents the kind of vision that ICA brings to the field of archaeology.

“Excavation and study, yes, we do both every summer,” says Mack. “But the publications and the building of a laboratory at the museum and undertaking an archaeological park represent a significant long-term plan. Most archaeologists wouldn’t commit themselves to such a degree.”

But once upon a time, most archaeologists wouldn’t bother studying the territory outside the city. ICA has a 30-year history of expanding the scope of archaeological investigation.

“What ICA has done is change the approach to archaeology in a broad sense,” says Carter. “Archaeology is no longer just pots and walls.”


Vivé Griffith

Photos: Christopher Williams from
“Crimean Chersonesos: City, Chora, Museum, and Environs”

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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