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Amphora Code

On August 21, Sergey Yuryevich Monakhov, Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage, Chair of the Department of Ancient World History, the Institute of History and International Relations, SSU, turned 70 years old.

On this day, the eyes of the international scientific community were turned to him, because Monakhov's huge legacy in the field of studying antique ceramic containers impresses colleagues from various countries. He is one of the most frequently cited authors in antiquarian and Scythological studies. He is the main expert on ancient amphora containers, the author of authoritative monographs, without which no researcher of antiquity can do today.

Outstanding, original, real, indefatigable, attractive, imposing, imposing, obsessed, selfless, amazing, efficient, amazing – such epithets were awarded by his friends and colleagues in their congratulations and works published in honor of the hero of the day. Not only compatriots, but also Greeks, Bulgarians, Romanians, French, Danes, Americans paid tribute to the scientist from Saratov University.

Admiring his "enchanting and at the same time fundamental" series of monographs of recent years, published in collaboration with a small but highly qualified group of students and like-minded people, the authors of congratulatory appeals compared Monakhov with a Renaissance painter who leads students in his workshop.

Before the meeting with Sergey Yurievich, I listened to two of his lectures in the video project "Open Archaeology". They were very impressed, I even wanted to master a new specialty. But the questions remained…


– Sergey Yurievich, ancient Greece, amphorae and... Saratov University. How did it happen that our university became the center of attraction for the attention of specialists in amphorology? In general, is there an archaeological museum with its expedition finds at any university?

– First, a few words about the importance of ancient Greek amphorae for classical archaeology. Mostly those who are interested in history are familiar with luxurious examples of antique painted ceramics. Specialists have always dealt with this material more than with amphorae. The ostrodon amphorae intended for the transportation of goods in ships by sea have never been painted and have not made such an aesthetic impression. But it turned out that they can give more accurate and specific information than painted ceramics.

Amphorae turned out to be the most reliable chrono-indicator for monuments of the ancient era, allowing not only to establish the exact date of the monument, but also to reconstruct the dynamics of the arrival of goods in the ancient cities of the Black Sea region for thousands of years. It is simply impossible to overestimate the informative possibilities of the amphoric material. It took several decades for antiquity to understand this. Now this is a very popular direction.

Today, a number of research centers and laboratories are engaged in it – we maintain close contact with such centers in France, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Canada, the USA, etc. Somehow it so happened that for 50 years, thanks to my and now living teacher Vladimir Ivanovich Katz, probably, somewhere for me and my students, a center for the study of ceramic containers recognized by world archaeology has developed in Saratov. A few specialists in Moscow and Crimea are engaged in this direction in our country. Although recently the appearance of talented young people has been pleasing. During the year, my students and I give novice researchers up to two hundred consultations on this issue, since there is an Internet connection.

To popularize archeology, we managed to create not only an institute at the university 14 years ago, but also a museum of archeology within its framework. There are few such museums in universities – there are in Moscow State University, in Rostov State University and in two or three more. Our museum is small, educational, but shows only the originals – the results of excavations for many decades. And not only mine, the archeology of the Volga region is quite fully represented here. The museum is popular. This is undoubtedly a useful thing, and the museum has become quite popular. At the beginning of the school year, we conduct several dozen excursions, which, in addition to the exposition, continue in the cinema hall with watching educational films.


– When did you realize that ancient ceramic tableware is worth dedicating your life to?

– Before entering the university, as a schoolboy, I read a lot of popular literature and dreamed of devoting my life to the archaeology of the Slavs. But I did not have to deal with Ancient Russian, Slavic archaeology for a very simple reason – there was not a single specialist in this scientific field at the Faculty of History at that time. And when I met a unique teacher and scholar of antiquities Vladimir Ivanovich Katz, who became my mentor and friend for many years, I refocused on the ancient era.

In 1970, after the first year, on his recommendation, I went to the Tarkhankut archaeological expedition, organized then by the Leningrad Branch of the Institute of Archaeology of the USSR Academy of Sciences - to the North–Western Crimea. Alexander Nikolaevich Shcheglov, the archaeologist and antiquarian who created this expedition, became my second teacher, and I plunged even deeper into Antiquity. At the same time, Joseph Benyaminovich Brashinsky worked in Leningrad, he was one of the founders of amphorology, but he passed away early. It so happened that there were no successors of his work in the city on the Neva, but I continued to study the amphorae of the Northern Black Sea region, began to develop this direction, and for more than 50 years I have been working in expeditions and museums.

While still a student, I became convinced that the study of amphora containers is one of the most promising scientific directions in ancient archaeological source studies.


– Why was it interesting then and now?

– It is very important for archaeology to determine the time of a structure or burial discovered during excavations. Ceramics is the most accurate chrono-indicator, that is, reliably determines the time when this vessel is made. Of all the ceramic vessels, and there are a great many of them, amphorae are just the most accurate. They were produced in several hundred Greek policies in Hellas. Fragments of amphorae account for up to 90 percent of all archaeological finds, which makes it possible to use statistical methods to determine the dynamics of trade relations of the ancient world. Moreover, in narrow periods of time – chronological sections, say, in the 330s BC, etc. Well, isn't it tempting to reconstruct the economic life of an ancient society that has not received any coverage in other sources? If written documents have been preserved, they were written about the war or politics. But amphorae were found in the Middle Ages, but no one was interested in them. It was only in the first half of the nineteenth century that attention began to be paid to the stamps on the handles of amphorae, which allow objects to be dated. They began to collect them. Over time, a specific discipline appeared in archaeology – ceramic epigraphy.

And only in the twentieth century, thanks to the efforts of two scientists: the American Virginia Grace, with whom I was in correspondence, and our compatriot Boris Nikolaevich Grakov, the foundations of a new direction were laid, the obvious idea began to be introduced into the scientific community that amphoric material is the most reliable chronological indicator for burial, shipwreck, settlement life, and so on.

What is paleoeconomical reconstruction? Statistics, knowledge about the centers of amphora production, about chronology. On this basis, we can establish a statistically confirmed fact that, for example, the Greek polis of Heraclea of Pontus on the southern shore of the Black Sea imported most of its products here, to the Black Sea region, wine, olive oil and other things for some period of time. And after ten or 20 years, its import for some reason came to naught, and Heraclea was replaced by Phasos, Sinope or some other centers. It is equally important to use amphoric material to accurately determine the time of such world-famous royal burials as the Solokha mound, Chertomlyk, or Alexandropol, where the great kings of Scythia rested. These mounds were excavated 100-150 years ago, and until recently there was an endless discussion, but they could not establish the exact time of the burials. It was thanks to the amphoric shards that we managed to do this – we were able to accurately date the monuments.

– In recent years, you have devoted a lot of time and effort to writing major scientific monographs-catalogues introducing amphorae from the country's museum repositories into scientific circulation. What is the specificity of the Russian collection of antique ceramics?

– I have visited all the museums of Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, and the same Greece, where there are antique collections. A huge amount of material has accumulated – a card file of amphorae of dozens of centers. The card file served as the basis for many books, for example, in the late 1990s a monograph on ceramic packaging complexes was published, and in 2003 - on the typology of amphorae of dozens of production centers.

Having developed typologies, having collected complexes, I realized a few years ago that it was necessary to publish the amphoric collections of such major museums as the Hermitage, the Pushkin Museum, the Chersonese, Krasnodar, Kerch museums. Before that, amphora collections had never been published in world literature, only collections of stamps, since they are easy and convenient to work with, they are small. But huge, sometimes more than a meter high, insanely dirty amphorae from basements that need to be measured, drawn... no one was particularly attracted.

A team of my students and co-authors started these works in 2015. We started from the Crimea, where about 500 amphorae were processed. To find, dig up, glue, plaster, process – sometimes it takes a week for one amphora. But we realize that this is an invaluable cultural heritage, and it is very motivating.

Here in front of me are these beautifully published (of course, thanks to grants) albums – collective monographs dedicated to collections of ceramic containers. This year we will publish another volume of 45-50 printed sheets. This is a source that will be used for many decades, and maybe centuries. We are introducing into scientific circulation a source that is invaluable. Of course, something will be clarified, you can and should argue, including with me. I often argue with myself. I have several articles that surprise everyone by the fact that I start them with the fact that "... I wrote something twenty years ago, but new materials appeared that forced me to move away from the previous point of view ..." In science, this is a normal phenomenon. It is never done by one person.

And as for the specifics of the Russian collection of antique ceramics, it is the richest in comparison even with Greece and Turkey. The fact is that the barbarians who lived around the Greek colonies quickly established mutually beneficial trade relations with the Greeks. They offered them bread and other agricultural products. What could the Greeks offer? Of course, wine. The same Scythians and Meots quickly fell in love with wine. In some Scythian mounds we find hundreds of amphorae. While they were building a grave for the king, they used all this and threw it right there. And now this is invaluable material for us. It allows you to sell many complexes.


– Surely among the thousands of artifacts discovered by you in the expeditions, there are very special, unique, marked by the intrigue of scientific investigation. Name them?

– There is a unique amphora in the Chersonesos Museum, I published it forty years ago, it was released in the first half of the third century BC, and found in a grave of the third century AD! Where has she been for five hundred years? The brand on it in translation means – state. I have met several more such brands, but the amphora is the only one. What does this mean? Perhaps this amphora was made as a reference. But even if it is a reference sample, where has it been for five hundred years? The simplest conclusion is that it was in the chamber of weights and measures, where it was stored as a standard. But for half a millennium? Riddle.

Or, for example, amphorae of absolutely amazing shape, which have no analogies and there is no stigma on them. We don't know much else!


– As you yourself claim, the stamps on the amphorae enable the historian to understand and evaluate the economic processes of the ancient world. Is it difficult to unravel the code of the amphora, to reconstruct not only its everyday, but also its subject history?

– Sometimes a brand is one name, sometimes two, and even with patronymics. Aristagoras is the son of Demosthenes, for example. And sometimes the name of the official who controlled the amphora production and collected taxes is added, there is also the name of the manufacturer, the owner of the workshop, and even the ethnicon – the name of the policy. It is not so easy to establish where the packaging was made. Sometimes it takes decades. We have a whole section: "Amphorae of unidentified production centers".


– What other scientific tasks remain unsolved, given the huge amount of information that you and your colleagues have already managed to accumulate? What would you like to know and what has not yet been explained?

– Hundreds of archaeological trips and 52 years of expeditions, of course, have become the basis of a huge amount of information. The geography is indicated by the title of the volume that was given to me for the anniversary: "From the Caucasus to the Danube". For more than half a century of archaeological research, I have purposefully worked in more than one region. He started in the western Crimea, where he dug for more than twenty years, and then took his expedition to the island of Berezan at the mouth of the Dnieper, where there was the earliest Greek colony. Then I became interested in the ancient states of the Northern Black Sea region – Panticapaeum, Phanagoria. I specially traveled by myself and took an expedition with me to experience the material in each microregion. In Crimea, where I started, there was a magnificent monument, but this settlement and necropolis of a very narrow chronological range – the fourth century BC and the very beginning of the third century BC. Therefore, they switched to other territories. At the mouth of the Don, he worked at the Elizabethan settlement.

The Kuban has become our haven for the last fifteen years, I annually lead an archaeological expedition on the shore of the Taman Bay. This is such an archaeological Eldorado! There are settlements, hillforts, and necropolises literally crammed with antique ceramics. Of course, I am not alone, I always have a group with me, the core of which is my students, many of whom are already candidates of sciences. And the main backbone is the students who begin their academic archaeological practice after the first year. And, of course, the so-called "old men" who are in their last year or have graduated from university quite a long time ago, but continue to travel with me. For example, Vladimir Borisovich Ustyantsev – for fifteen years in a row, being a professor, was not averse to standing on a shovel.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of questions. For example, it is not clear to me why the so-called regional types of amphorae appeared in Hellas, especially in the fourth century BC. We know the Phasian, Mendean amphorae, they have a peculiar shape, it has changed over time. And now there are more and more facts that say that the same type of amphorae was produced not in one, but in two or even three centers. That is, does this mean that there was some kind of dependence of one policy on another? So far we have no materials on this topic. It's a mystery. But, of course, it will be solved, because more and more materials appear over time. I assumed and wrote about the fact that such regional schemes existed twenty-five years ago, but then I had little data, now they have appeared.

We know the shapes of amphorae from more than fifty centers, but we have hundreds of other types of amphorae whose origin we still do not know. This is one of the difficult tasks that needs to be solved. Of course, it's luck when they find a pottery kiln that died during firing. Like, for example, in Chersonesos, or on Phasos, but such finds are extremely rare, once in a generation.


– Once a friend of mine did not become an archaeologist just because someone told him: everything has been excavated and found for a long time! What then remains for your students? What qualities should a young scientist possess who has decided to devote himself to the archaeology of the Ancient World?

– Diligence. To write an article, you need to spend a lot of effort on excavations, on processing the material, on its interpretation.

And about the fact that everything has been excavated and found, I will never agree. Fantastic discoveries in archaeology occur almost every year. We can't see through the ground. And even modern instrumentation – magnetic exploration, electrical exploration, aerial exploration and other technical means – they also do not reveal to us all the secrets of history. But there are days... For example, six years ago, a fundamental discovery took place on the Kerch Peninsula during the construction of a new highway – a gate was excavated through which travelers entered the territory of the Bosporan Kingdom from the rest of the Crimean Peninsula. This is a unique find – a luxurious stone gate made of blocks. So there is a lot of work ahead for archaeologists (I hope that I also have).


P.S. After that, it remains only to quote the friends of S.Yu. Monakhov, the authors of the collection of scientific articles "From the Caucasus to the Danube" dedicated to the hero of the day:

... May the amphorae on ancient monuments not be transferred, may countless museum funds be replenished with them, may there be new students who will be able to pick up and continue the work to which he devoted his whole life!


Questions were asked by Tamara Korneva, photo by Victoria Viktorova