A Warrior’s Burial from the Asiatic Bosporous in the Augustan Age

By: Aleksey A. Malyshev and Michail J. Treister

Originally Published in 1994

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In antiquity, a significant part of the northern Black Sea coast belonged to the Bosporan state, with its capital in Pantikapaion (modern Kerch). From the formation of the state (5th century B.C.) to late antiquity (3rd-4th century A.D.), the Cimmerian Bosporus constituted a major link in the complex ethnopolitical system that formed in the region.

Long-lasting and complex interactions with the tribes surrounding the Bosporus realm fostered significant individuality in the development of this little enclave of ancient Greek civilization. On the European II side lived the Scythians and the Taurians (Fig. 1). On the Asiatic side (modern Taman peninsula) were the Maeotians (Strabo xi.2.4) , numerous tribes living around Lake Maeotis (the modern Sea of Azov). Nomadic tribes of Iranian-speaking herders—the Scythians and in later times the Sarmatians—inhabited the north Caucasus steppes (Xenophon ii.1.lO; Herodotus. iv.11-12, 21).

Judging by the long history of study on the subject, the relationships between city-state and tribe, and among the tribes themselves, form a seemingly inexhaustible topic of research. Decades have been spent analyzing the written evidence. Now, archaeological evidence is providing a significant new stimulus to this field of study. The warrior’s burial reported here shows how this new evidence can be used to further our understanding of the world of the Bosporus in the Augustan Age.


In 1991, the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences conducted a salvage excavation near Tsemdolina, a suburb of the port of Novorossiysk on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus (Fig. 1). The site was a burial ground of the Roman period, situated not far from a defensive structure that was destroyed by fire in the mid­dle to second half of the 1st century A.D. Almost all of the burials studied date to between the 1st and 3rd cen­turies A.D. They are generally uniform in orientation, inventory, and type of burial structure; however, a few stand out from the rest. Burial 9, distinguished by the richness and individuality of its inventory, is one of these (Fig. 2). Burial 9 was discovered not far from the bank of the Themes River. As in the rest of the burials, its mound was missing. Unfortunately, part of the structure was damaged as a result of sinking the excavation trench, but this also led to the discovery of our tomb. The burial had been placed in a specially dug side niche, or alcove. The alcove’s entrance pit lay 20 centimeters above the bottom of the burial chamber. Under a stone pile in this upper level lay two horse skeletons with harnesses that had the iron bits and circular cheek- pieces typical of the period. The reins were decorated with large beads made of coral sprigs, Bard, and chalcedony, and bronze buttons with silvery plating. Two gilded metal discs were attached to the chest straps of one of the skeletons, that of a 10-year-old stallion. Evidently, the discs were the central medal­lions of bronze basins. On the front of the discs are representations associated with the Dionysiac cult, exe­cuted in a coin-like technique (Fig. 3).

In addition to the horse skeletons, the skeleton of a particularly large horned bovine and the bones of a sheep were found in the entrance pit. The deceased was a man 29 to 30 years old and, judging by his grave goods, a warrior. He lay on his back, head pointing south-southeast. Next to the warrior’s right hip lay a short iron sword with a guard at the hilt and a ring pommel (Fig. 4). Similar swords first appeared in the 2nd century B.C. and had a particularly wide distri­bution in the east European steppes beginning in the 1st century B.C. Also near the body were 19 three-bladed iron arrowheads with short shafts, known in the Kuban area from the end of the 2nd century B.C.

On a finger of the warrior’s right hand was a gold ring with a mounted garnet. The garnet is carved with a representation of Tyche-Fortuna (Fortune) carrying a horn of plenty (Fig. 5). The design and technique of mounting (hollow and protruding, usually filled with a sulfite mass), the convex face of the stone, and the repre­sentation itself allow us to date the ring to the 1st cen­tury B.C., the late Hellenistic-early Roman (Augustan) period (Higgins 1980:170, Pls. 53c). The sketchily exe­cuted image and the working of the garnet are typical of the products of Bosporan stonecutters.

The pile of beads discovered close to the elbow of the right arm is of great interest. Typical of necklaces of the Roman period, the beads are varied in nature—lobe­like beads of glass paste, chalcedony, and sand; spherical beads, somewhat pinched at the sides, of chalcedony and sard; and a disclike amber bead. Along with them, how­ever, were beads of blue glass with mosaic-like eyelets, which are- usually dated no later than the beginning of the 4th century B.C. (Alekseyeva 1975:65, 113, Pls. 16.32, 15.6).

The grave goods that lay behind the warrior’s head and at his feet also attest to his wealth and status. The bronze vessels are of particular interest; they include a three-footed Patera (dish; Fig. 6), a ladle (Fig. 7), and an oinochoe (wine jug) with a handle deco­rated with sculptural representa­tions (Fig. 8). This assemblage is reasonably standard and resem­bles similar groups elsewhere; particularly widespread are com­binations of paterae and pitchers or jugs. The bulk of such finds are concentrated along the old “amber trail” in the central Danube area and in the territory of Poland. We have, thus, every reason to suppose that, like the finds from certain Celtic burials, those from Tsemdolina represent a set of vessels for wine or for hand-washing (Pautreau et al. 1991:277-78, Pls. 44, 2-4).


The dating of the burial to the Augustan period (around the beginning of the first 1st century A,D.) is fairly secure. Paterae of the same type (Huber 1972:39 f, P1. 3.1a-b)) with analogous decoration (a support of three low projections and a supplemental ring handle opposite the main handle) come from complexes of this date.

On the other hand, we could not find direct analo­gies to the Tsemdolina ladle. The long flat handle decorated with a punctate design in the shape of palmettes and ending in an oval ring distinguishes it from the Gaedekker type or the creations of the workshops of Lucius Ancius Epaphroditus and Publius Cipius Poly­bius. Circular protrusions near the base of the handle, imitating volute-like scrolls, suggest a date in the 1st century B.C.

During the Augustan era, bronze oinochoai like ours were made not only in Campania, but also in the eastern workshops (Kunow 1983): a large number of bronze Dino- chain were discovered in the northern Caucasus (Shelov 1983). Signs of wear are almost completely absent from the oinochoe handle as well as from the paters, which may indicate that the period during which they were in use was short. The burial’s date is supported not only by the set of bronze vessels but also by a whole series of imports found in the corner of the tomb pit, behind the head of the deceased. These included two glass cups (Fig. 9a, b) and a ceramic unguentarium (oint­ment bottle) (Fig. lO). The cups—a skyphos (a deep cup with two horizontal handles at the rim) of translucent glass (Fig. 9a) and a hemispherical bowl of brown glass (Fig. 9b)—have analogues datable to the second half of the 1st century B.C. or beginning of the 1st century A.D. cups with vertical handles) are typical of the burial com­plexes of the Kuban area. They are also found in the rich burials of the nomadic elite of the Zubovsko-Vozdvi­zhenskaya group in the Trans-Kuban area, and in the earth graves of the Maeotians on the right bank of the Kuban River. Such vessels are quite rare among the archaeological remains of the Don River area and the central part of the northern Caucasus, as well as in the necropolises of the Bosporan cities. Ceramic unguentaria with avoid bodies and barely articulated bases appear at ancient sites in the second half of the 1st century B.C. (Ander­son-Stojanovie, 1987:110-13, fig. 1f).

The burial inventory also included a bronze mirror in the shape of a flat unadorned disc. Such mirrors are one of the most widespread items in the nomadic world of the eastern European steppes from the 4th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D.; within this period, only the dimensions vary some­what. The bulk of the north Caucasian mirrors, which are similar to the Tsemdolina ones both in form and size, come from 2nd to 1st century B.C. sites. However, analy­ses of the Burial 9 mirror have shown that it was made of bronze with a high tin content (26 percent tin and 10 percent lead). Mirrors made of this bronze alloy were widespread in eastern Europe at the beginning of the 1st century A.D., influenced by mirrors from Khanate China.

Spectral and metallographic analysis of the metal finds performed by I. G. Ravich, the senior research associate of the VNTIR, yielded an exact date for the bur­ial. The metal discs decorating the horse harness were made of brass, which points not only to the western European origin of these objects but also to a date no earlier than the 1st century A.D.


The elite status of the warrior in Burial 9 is supported not only by the rich inventory of the burial as a whole, but also by circumstantial evidence for cultural and reli­gious practices. For example, close to the elbow joint of the left arm lay fragments of an iron chain, which is usu­ally associated with a cult of the domestic hearth. Chains of this type were most prevalent in 2nd to 1st century B.C. burial complexes of the central Cis-Caucasus area, where they were usually fitted into small pots. The com­plex of representations associated with this cult, accord­ing to many researchers, had its beginning in the very early history of the northern Caucasus, during the period of the Koban culture. (The Koban culture was famous for its distinctive creations of bronze.) We find less evi­dence for this cult in the burial ritual of peoples of the Kuban region. The cult of the domestic hearth, evi­denced in chains and hearth bases, appears in the burial of an elite Maeotian woman within the principle burial of the 4th century B.C. Kurdzhipskiy kurgan (tumulus) (Galanina 1980). Echoes of the custom appear in the burials of the Zubovsko-Vozdvizhenskaya group, known primarily in the Trans-Kuban area.

A whetstone and a shark tooth were found on the warrior’s belt. These most likely also have cultural-religious associations. In the Kurdzhipskiy burial men­tioned above, a necklace of fossilized shark teeth had been placed in a coffer together with other amulets (Galanina 1980: no. 54). The whetstone from Burial 9 is in the shape of a pencil, 10 centimeters long, with a gilded cap (Fig. 11). Its size allowed it to be used only for sharpening small items such as arrowheads. Numerous analogous finds indicate that belts with entire sets of apparently unused whetstones had a distinct symbolic meaning within burial assemblages. Clearly, the belt in itself played an important role in the life of the ancients: tied to it were not only essential items of everyday life, but also protective amulets which guarded health and strength, pointing to the eminence and power of their owner.

Some objects dating to a much earlier period than the interment itself stand out among the grave goods in Burial 9. In addition to the above-mentioned necklace beads, we note a gold fibula (pin) with a rhomboid catch-plate decorated with sard inlay, filigree, and granulation (Fig. 12). According to A. K. Ambroz, the rhombi shape with curls on the ends recalls an ancient agricul­tural symbol of fertility. This motif was widely applied in antiquity in the making of fibulae (Ambroz 1966:31). Depending on current trends and the technical accomplishment of the master-craftsmen, only the decoration underwent changes from period to period. Fibulae, simi­lar in technique of manufacture, are known from finds in the Crimea and the Kuban areas (e.g., a nomad’s burial in the Verkhniy farmstead [Leskov and Lapushnian 1987:130, no. 154, fig. xxxvi]); both complexes are dated to the 2nd century B.C. Judging by the distribution of the finds and the technique of manufacture, our fibula was made in a Bosporan workshop.

In the inventory and the reconstructed ritual of Burial 9, we see a picture of the Asiatic Bosporus at the beginning of the 1st century A.D. reflected as if in a drop of water. How is this expressed? Let us begin with the fact that the burial was situated in territory that either belonged to the Bosporan Kingdom at the time or bor­dered it. The burial was placed along a road that led to a pleasant harbor and, possibly, represented one of the sec­tions of the Maeotian-Colchidian land route connecting the northwest Caucasus with the Trans-Caucasian region and with districts of Asia Minor. Fifty-five per­cent of the items found are imports of varying dates; some were obviously made in the workshops of Bosporan cities. In addition to the objects already mentioned, there was a pottery pitcher on a ring base, covered with a thin slip (Fig. 13). This item was obviously made in the work­shops of the Bosporus for sale to the local population, among which grayware had long been popular. There was also a bottle made of billon (an alloy of gold and sil­ver, or silver and copper, usually used for coinage). These findings point to the long-lasting contacts of the native population, to which the deceased belonged, with the ancient Greek world, primarily that of the Bosporus.

The interpretation of the burial depends on the answers to two questions. First, what was the cultural-ethnic affiliation of the warrior buried here? On the one hand, the burial’s form (a large rectangular-shaped pit with an alcove) and inventory (a grayware pitcher, a selection of weaponry, and imported bronze objects) sug­gest a connection with the burials of the Kuban area, which are usually combined with the previously men­tioned Zubovsko-Vozdvizhenskaya group (Gushchina and Zasetskaya 1989). These burials are associated with the Siralcians, Sarmatian tribes who appeared in the northern Caucasus in the late 4th—early 3rd century B.C.. Judging by the archaeological data and written sources, the Sirakians controlled a significant area, including today’s Kuban region and the central part of the north­ern Caucasus, until the middle of the 1st century B.C. Distinctly Sarmatian elements were absorbed into the material culture of the Asiatic Bosporus from the 2nd century B.C. on. Sarmatian military detachments are known to have participated in armed conflicts over the control of the Bosporus. Strabo, in particular, reports on the role of the Aspurgians, who were, according to most researchers, a military troop (Strabo xi.2.l1; Rostovtzeff 1919) engaged in the consolidation of the Sarmatian dynasty on the Bosporan throne. Detachments of Aspurgians were formed from the scions of the leading families of tribes who lived in the Kuban region and who left, apparently, the burials of the Zubovsko-Vozzhenskaya group.

On the other hand, some aspects of the Tsemdolina burial ritual are not characteristic of proper Sarmatian burials. For one thing, the orientation of the interred is characteristic of Macotian burials. In addition, Sarmatian burials do not typically have riding horses placed in the entrance pit. This practice associates the Tserndolina complex with the Maeotian tradition, which had its beginning in the Archaic period. In our opinion, it shows that the warrior buried here was affiliated with a notable clan that observed ancient Maeotian custom. Burial 9 may be taken, then, as evidence of the process of Sarina­tization of Maeotian tribes in the Hellenistic period. During this time the formation of the Maeotian­Sarmatian nobility took place through the merging of the local Maeotian elite with the representatives of the notable clans of the Sarmatian-Sirakians. An analogous process took place in the Asiatic Bosporus, a process that surely was made easier by the circumstance that a significant part of the population of the cities and their environs consisted of Maeotians. One of the notable examples of this phenomenon is the Hellenistic necropolis, which is located not far from Raevskoye Fort, one of the larger forts on the Asiatic Bosporus, excavated by A.V. Dmi­triev.

The second question is no less important. How did the complex of imported objects come to be included in an elite Sarmatian burial? These imports include a group of objects of clearly Bosporan workmanship, as men­tioned above. There is every reason to suppose that the bronze set was received as booty or as a gift for loyalty or for service in military conflicts on Bosporan territory. It is also known that the representatives of the local nobil­ity used the political situations arising around the Bosporus for their own enrichment, supporting first one side, then the other, depending on which was more advantageous. Furthermore, the vessels could have been taken in one of the military raids on the Asia Minor cities, and could then have been brought over together with glass bowls plainly of eastern Mediterranean origin. One of the Sarmatian burials from the second half of the 1st century B.C. discovered near the Zubovskoy farm­stead contained a silver phiale (a flat, handleless libation bowl, with a raised central navel) and a 5th-4th century B.C. bowl decorated with a representation of a snake and a Greek dedicatory inscription, “I belong to Apollo the Leader, who is in Phasis,” (Gushchina and Zasetskaya 1989:115). Such items were probably obtained as the result of a military raid.

Thus we have solved our puzzle. The warrior in Burial 9 appears to be of Maeotian background, living (and dying) at a time when the Maeotian elite were merging with members of the notable clans of Sar­matian-Sirakians. Buried with him is evidence of the wider world around him—that of the Bosporan city-states and their Greek motherland and of Asia Minor. To the written record, we have added an archaeological reflection of life on the northern side of the Black Sea as it moved into the Roman Period.

Cite This Article

Malyshev, Aleksey A. and Treister, Michail J.. "A Warrior’s Burial from the Asiatic Bosporous in the Augustan Age." Expedition Magazine 36, no. 2-3 (July, 1994): -. Accessed February 29, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/a-warriors-burial-from-the-asiatic-bosporous-in-the-augustan-age/

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