A Maiden’s Golden Burial from Berezan, the Island of Achilles

By: Yuri G. Vinogradov

Originally Published in 1994

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A thanks-offering to Achilles Pontarkhos.

O round booty in its glorious support of the gods,

0 island washed round by the sea, rejoicing in waves,

Your ground was allotted from above to the offspring and kin of Thetis,

TO the Aiakid, Achilles, who is the equal of the immortal gods.

101 Achilles, accept the offering, and be gracious,

Heeding the muse from our pen. 

Thus the island of Berezan and its legendary ruler, Achilles, are glorified in this hymn inscribed on marble that was recently found on the island (Shelov-Kovedyayev 1990). The hymn dates to the 1st century A.D. at which time Berezan was indeed an island. Apparently, Berezan separated from the continent only after the onset of the Christian era (see Strabo 7.3.17, 19). It was still a peninsula when, according to Eusehius, Greek Ionians from Miletus arrived there in 647 B.C. to found their colony. Joined to the present-day Ukrainian mainland at the cape of Adzhiask, the peninsula provided a protected, comfortable haven from the constantly blowing southwesters (Bernhard and Sztetyllo 1976). Recent archaeological research shows that the western shore of the island has eroded 1.5 to 2 meters a century as a result of wave abrasion (Fig. 1). Thus, over the course of the 26 centuries following the great Greek col­onization, the sea has swallowed up at least 50 meters from that side of the land, first from the peninsula and then from the island.

At present, Berezan is a flat, unwooded, uninhabited plateau (Fig. 2), with a general area of around 30 hectares. The ancient settlement is located in the north­ern half of the island, with a maximum area of 8 to 10 hectares; in the northeastern low-lying area, there was and is a comfortable harbor; and in the western part is the Greek necropolis (Fig. 3).

The colony the Greeks founded here was the first on the northern Pontic shore. A recently published archaic graffito from Berezan (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum xxxvi.693) leaves no doubt that the Milesian colonists named the peninsula, as well as their settlement there, Borysthenes, which was the ancient, pre-Greek name of the mighty Dniepr River. After two generations or so, these settlers made a Festlandssprung (“jump to the mainland”) and founded the future capital of their new state 40 kilometers to the north of the juncture of the Bug and Dniepr Rivers. This, too, they called Borys­thenes. After the middle of the 6th century B.C., they renamed their capital Olbia, “the happy prospering one” (see Leypunskaya, this issue).

The great Greek hero Achilles was worshipped on Berezan from the moment of its founding. However, the island became the real cult center of this deity during the Imperial era, when Olbia lost its protectorate over the primary Pontic sanctuary of Achilles on Leuke Island. It was at this point that the deity received the new epithet “Pontarches,” or “Ruler of the Pontes.” During the first centuries of the Christian era, the Olbian magistrates— the archontes, the strategoi, the agoranornoi, the priests—put up inscribed stone dedications of gratitude to Achilles Pontarches for the successful completion of their terms in office. Of the 50 or so similar votives that have survived from various corners of the Olbian state, one quarter come from Bere­zan. This concentration speaks elo­quently about the island’s role as a leading religious center.

The settlement on the island also functioned as a way station during the Middle Ages, when the trade route “from the Varangians to the Greeks” extended through Berezan. Witness to this is a Runic inscription on the only monumen­tal gravestone in the entire area: “These borders were created by this mound according to Karl, for his partner.” The island was inhabited by Slays at the time. During the Turkish period, the island was called Bürü-üsen-ada (“the island of the Wolf River”); in this name we again find an echo of the pre-Greek liydronym, Borysthenes.


Excavations on Berezan have been going on for over 100 years. At the present time, a comprehensive study of the ancient burial ground is under way (Fig. 4). As a result of both old and new work, a total of around 750 burials have been uncovered, dating to the 6th-5th centuries B.C. The oldest burials, of the 7th and early 6th centuries B.C., were at the very edge of the shore and have been swallowed up by the sea (Treister and Vinogradov 1993).

The most recent excavations in the necropolis have led to a classification of the burials into three main types (Fig. 5). The first type is the most common: inhumations deposited in gravel, in an above-subsoil layer of sand, or in the yellow or gray clay layers above these. The skele­ tons were laid out in either an extended or a contracted position and were variously oriented, although in most cases their heads were pointing toward the northeast in accordance with Greek ritual. The second type of burial is much less common: child burials in amphoras (storage jars) or in special burial urns, which were also variously oriented. The bones in the amphoras were poorly pre­served. and there were no grave goods. Burials of the third type are also scarce: crema­tions in which the bodies were fired on burning platforms where we find the remains of bones and broken burial goods mixed in with ashes and charcoal. We should note, too, the discovery of a burial with the burned remains in a spe­cial pit, the walls of which were covered by charred clay. A similar ritual is seen in the burials of the Thracian Halstaat of the 5th cen­tury B.C.

Work on the necropolis has also resulted in the discovery of a whole series of historically impor­tant burials. These consist of the remains of those who died violent deaths in the late 6th and early 5th century B.C.; among them are men, women, and even children, usually killed by the arrows of the enemy, the so-called barbarians. One such skeleton lay prone on his stomach, frozen in position. Although he was shot in the spine, he was attempting to pull the arrow out with his left hand when another arrow pierced his breast, killing him. In the skeleton of Burial 162, an iron spearhead or dart-tip was embedded in the right eye. The body in Burial 148 had been decapitated and the head buried a meter away from the skeleton, with a bronze arrowhead sticking out of the neck vertebrae. Similar burials, together with writ­ten sources (Vinogradov 1991:499-510), are vivid evi­dence of the destabilized ethno- and military-political situation of the north Poetic region of the time. Various bands of nomadic Scythians had left the service of the Scythian rulers and were terrorizing Greek polei, among them Olbia (Vinogradov 1980; Vinogradov, Domanaskij, and Marcenko 1990).

The burial inventories of the interments in the Berezan necropolis are relatively uniform and altogether not very rich. In the graves, the standard inventory con­sisted of various types of amphoras; light-colored and grayware pitchers and oinochoai (wine jars); black-glazed and black- and red-figured goblets; Ionian and Attic lekythoi (small, handled bottles); ring-like askoi (small flat bottles); small Chian pitchers; Corinthian ayballoi (small round bottles); Ionian flasks; and figured pottery made of Egyptian faience. Another type of inventory contained spindle whorls, metal needles, iron knives, whetstones, paste and bronze beads, bronze and iron bracelets, bronze, lead, and less often silver rings, earrings, pen­dants worn on the temples, and bronze coins cast in the form of dolphins, singly and in groups. Weaponry other than individual arrows was almost absent. In burials of people of poorer means, large fragments of amphoras and pitchers were deposited, supposedly as substitutes for whole vessels. Finds of sacrificial food, in the form of remains of animal bones, were not uncommon.


The standard, relatively poor inventory of the Berezan graves is in striking contrast to the wealth of the many contemporary burials in the necropolis of Olbia (Slcudnova1988). Stills, two exceptional Berezan burials were pro­vided with various articles made of precious metals. One of them, No. 371, was uncovered by Skadovskiy at the beinning of the century. Judging by the unusual con­struction of the grave, the original funerary ritual, and the selection of inventory, the deceased was not Greek but barbarian, by all evidence a Scythian warrior. The tomb consisted of a wooden frame, 3.28 by 1.86 meters, smeared with clay on the outside and along the bottom, covered on the floor with a white-yellow powder, filled to the top with ashes, and covered with wooden beams. The skeleton lay in an extended position, with its head to the east. Aside from a few simple pots, the deceased was accompanied on his final journey by an iron sword and dagger and a wooden quiver with 120 arrows. The deceased’s clothing was richly decorated with gold plaques, buttons of gold, and strands of gold and car­nelian beads. Two gold plaques with imprinted orna­mentation were sewn on the tips of the belt. On the skull rested a gold headdress, and near it lay a gold earring. an earthen mound sunk into the yellow clay layer not far below the surface, there was buried a girl, seven to eight years old. She was laid out according to the most popular Greek custom, with her head pointing to the northeast; later, her skull rolled away to the left (Fig. 6a, b). Her relatives sent her off to the kingdom of Hades with gen­erous funerary gifts, among them ornaments of gold and silver. On the child’s neck hung a gold pendant in the form of a crescent, with a ring through the upper edge and looped decorations at the tips (Fig. 7). Similar kinds of ornaments were being made by Greek jewelers by at least the 7th century B.C. The Berezan pendant is most likely an Ionian import, and should be dated on stylistic grounds to the second half of the 6th century B.C.

Most of the gold and silver ornaments in the burial were concentrated near the left hand of the girl: a ribbed gold bead made in the early 5th century B.C., a small gold ring (Fig. 7), four silver rings of various sizes (Fig. 8), beads of paste (Fig. 9), and on the wrist a bronze bracelet. A similar bracelet was also on the right wrist, next to which lay a mate to the above-mentioned gold bead and a small silver ring (Fig. 9). On the left side of the chest were a glass bead and a silver pendant in the shape of a grape cluster with a gold ring (Fig. 9). On the left temple lay a silver pendant in the form of a crescent and an elongated spiral with connecting pieces at the ends (Fig. 9). The latter is of special interest, since simi­lar objects came not only from Ephesus, but we had the impression, based on many years. of excavation in the Berezan necropolis, that this nomad’s rich burial was altogether unique in its abundance of pre­cious decorations, these being completely absent in the Greek burials. However, the 1984 digging season revealed Burial 98, which forced us to revise our ideas. In Berezan itself, then from Olbia, and later, in a developed and modified form, from the Bosporus area. Accordingly, they were grouped as a separate type, classified as “South Russian.”

The few pieces of pottery placed in the grave included grayware oinochoai, a small goblet, and two black-figured Attic lekythoi of the Haimon Group. One of the lekythoi has a representation of a palette, the other, a driver in a war chariot (Fig. 10). These vessels date the burial to 470-460 B.. (Boardman 1977; Gorbunova 1983). A striking feature is that the necks of both lekythoi were deliberately broken off. A similar symbolic ritual, seen in miniature vessels with the upper part purposely broken off or the whole vessel broken and spread around the deceased, was carried out many times in the Berezan and Olbian necropolises.

In the 5th century B.C., after the union of the centers of Berezan and Olbia into a single polis in the latter part of the 6th century B.C., Borysthenes assumed the func­tion and status of an emporium for a single Olbian state. The discovery in 1984 of the richly furnished Burial 98 provides a moving witness to parental love and sorrow, but also serves as witness to the prosperity of the estab­lished elite, living still in old Borysthenes.


The author is most grateful to his friend and colleague Dr. Yaroslav V. Domanskiy for his kind permission to publish this information and for his friendship and help while working on the material.

Cite This Article

Vinogradov, Yuri G.. "A Maiden’s Golden Burial from Berezan, the Island of Achilles." Expedition Magazine 36, no. 2-3 (July, 1994): -. Accessed June 19, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/a-maidens-golden-burial-from-berezan-the-island-of-achilles/

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