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November 25, 1997, Tuesday
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Archeologists Unearth Treasure Buried by the Cold War


By MICHAEL SPECTER

POMPEII, the decrepit, graffiti-scarred heap at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, is probably the world's most famous archeological village. Frozen forever by a volcanic eruption 2,000 years ago, it has long served as ancient history's Disneyland.

But Pompeii provides a lucky snapshot in the life of a stately Roman town. Chersonesos, covering the edge of this Crimean city, presents grander possibilities: 2,500 years ago, this was the Greek world's most northern colony. It was here, along the Black Sea coast, that ''civilized'' colonists first encountered Scythians, the nomadic ''barbarians'' from Central Asia.


Spread across hundreds of urban and rural acres, Chersonesos (it is from the Greek word for ''peninsula'' and pronounced CHER so NEE sus) is the most important classical site on the Black Sea. Scythian tombs and Roman fortresses lie under the rolling hills nearby. Chersonesos was the Byzantine world's largest trading outpost on the Black Sea until 1399, when it was sacked by the Mongols, and this was the port through which Christianity entered Russia. That's not all. Here, from the earthen redoubts of Balaclava, one can gaze through the mists upon Tennyson's ''valley of death,'' where in October 1854 the British cavalry was savaged by the Russian Army in an infamous act of military folly during the Crimean War. Since then, the battle has been called ''The ''Charge of the Light Brigade.''

''The historical significance of this area and this site is really hard to exaggerate,'' said Dr. Joseph Coleman Carter, a professor of classics at the University of Texas and the director of its Institute of Classical Archeology. Dr. Carter has spent much of his career explaining the migratory and rural land use patterns of the ancient Greeks.

But until 1992, he was never able to range as widely as the Greeks had themselves. Chersonesos was closed to foreigners because it was near the headquarters of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet and its nuclear submarine base in Sevastopol. Although the more urban part of the site was famous even during the time of the Czars, when much money was spent to excavate here, photographs and maps were almost impossible to get Sevastopol. Although the more urban part of the site was famous even during the time of the Czars, when much money was spent to excavate here, photographs and maps were almost impossible to get. When the city was opened in 1992, Dr. Carter was the first Western archeologist invited to work here by his Ukrainian colleagues. One of his goals is to ''make the Greek world one again'' by linking its ancient colonies.

Working with Ukrainian archeologists to excavate the sites, Mr. Carter has a grand vision of turning Chersonesos into one of the world's great archeological preserves, a park filled with treasures like ancient farmhouses and forts and granaries that would explain how civilization evolved here. From his base on the Crimean coast, one of the most attractive stretches of vacation land in the former Soviet Union, he dreams of an archeological paradise for tourists.

''There is no place on earth like Chersonesos,'' he said during a recent visit to the site. ''It is the Russian Pompeii. Greeks, Romans and Byzantine all had their day. Every great epoch built its way of life on this soil. There are forts, mints and farmhouses. If we could restore what is here and present that to people, it would be remarkable.''

It would also require millions of dollars and the resolution of several political disputes, most importantly one between those who wish to preserve the site and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which says it owns most of this priceless land. Church officials object to its pagan monuments on religious grounds.

The battle for Chersonesos has already been joined. There are 30,000 acres on the Crimean Peninsula. Of those, 1,000 are protected by law from development. In 1996, Chersonesos became the only national preserve in Ukraine, which means that cultural authorities regulate its development in this extremely popular coastal region. But late this summer, church officials in a helicopter entered the site, deposited a roof on a baptistery and asserted that the whole land was theirs. Church officials are not shy about stating that they want pagan monuments -- and there are hardly any other kind here -- destroyed. They have even referred to the director of the preserve as a devil.

So far, the Culture Ministry has sided strongly with the archeologists. So have many others in Ukraine and throughout the world. But it would cost millions of dollars to produce a park on the scale envisioned by those involved in the preservation here. The church, which has been a staunch opponent, is powerful, and so is the temptation to bring in revenues through vast and ruinous private development. It is partly for that reason that the ancient city and territory have for the past two years appeared on the World Monument Fund's watch list of the hundred most-endangered cultural sites.

The World Bank and other agencies interested in preserving culturally significant sites have begun to consider financing the project here. The idea of the park has already found the support of the Seymour Kress Foundation, which has a long history of supporting archeological preservation.

For Dr. Carter, this work -- even its scale -- is nothing new. Before turning his attention to the northern boundaries of Greek civilization, he spent more than two decades exploring and documenting the rural archeology of a vast Greek colony in Metaponto, a town in southern Italy. To uncover all that is here would take at least that long, he said.

Because Chersonesos is considered the best-preserved Greek colonial territory, no site in this part of the world could make a more vivid contribution to understanding the rural roots of ancient civilizations. Dr. Carter and his Ukrainian and Russian colleagues hope to develop a series of sites that would represent the life of the territory from its earliest inhabitants -- the oldest artifact found dates from the sixth century B.C. -- through the Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras. Each aspect of life here would be illustrated by a different monument or rural site.

The farmlands are in many ways what interest the archeologists most. And by linking them to those in southern Italy, Dr. Carter and other archeologists hope to be able to learn more about the history of the colonies and of land distribution.

''From the eighth century B.C., the Greeks were looking for land beyond Athens that could sustain them,'' Dr. Carter said. ''By then the city was overpopulated and expansion was essential. People assume mistakenly that those who lived in the country were economically and socially inferior to those in the Greek cities. It wasn't true at all.''

Ancient Greece was the definitively urban society. The rich cultural heritage in Metaponto demonstrated convincingly for the first time, however, that rural life was just as important to the Greeks. There was almost no such thing as an intact rural heritage near Athens. But in Metaponto, and in Chersonesos, farm divisions have been so perfectly preserved over thousands of years that ancient fence lines still appear clearly in aerial photographs of the region. And this was the bread basket of the ancient Greek world. The soil around Athens was notoriously rocky and poor; here it is rich and fertile. By the third century B.C., it had become the major source of grain for Athens.

''The division of the countryside was really the basic division of Greek society,'' said Galina Nikolaenko, deputy director of the archeological museum here and the director of the dig in the agricultural territory. ''That was really the core of democracy. And this we never really realized until now.''

Many farmhouses were the sites of family cults. There might have been a single piece of sculpture in the house to be used in rural sacrificial rites. A mint, which may have served the city as well as the rural suburbs, has been discovered dating from the fourth century B.C., a time when the city probably had 10,000 to 20,000 residents.

The site here overlooks the valley that is best entry into the area, and it was always a place of military significance.

The Greeks used it as a fortress against the Scythians. Then the Romans built a fort here to repel the Goths and, more than 1,000 years later, so did the Byzantine against the Huns. (It was also the place where the light brigade was so famously destroyed.) This summer, the team of archeologists, some from Texas and the rest Russian and Ukrainian, found evidence of an extensive village dating to the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries B.C. on a hilltop not far from where the Battle of the Light Brigade was fought.

When digging, the team often had to sift through a mixture of artifacts that ranged from 2,500-year-old items to those from this century, like leather holsters and bullets from the World War II siege here that killed 150,000 Russian and German soldiers.

''If we could only do the research we need to do,'' said Leonid Marchenko, the energetic director of the local museum, ''we will find a history we cannot yet even imagine. It's been here for thousands of years. It's all in one place. We just need to let it out.''


Correction: December 5, 1997, Friday

An article in Science Times on Nov. 25 about new work at Chersonesos, an archeological site in Crimea, misidentified a foundation involved in efforts to establish a park there. It is the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, not Seymour Kress.


Organizations mentioned in this article:

Related Terms:
Archeology and Anthropology; Greek Civilization; Byzantine Civilization


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