Phanagoria: The Site Where History and Archaeology Meet

PhangoriaArchaeologists and historians occasionally have a healthy disrespect for each other’s disciplines. Archaeologists interpret what they dig from the ground, whereas historians interpret what they read in old manuscripts. In an honest article from Jan Vansina, writing in History of Africa in 1995, the respected historian states, “most historians are simply not interested in the results of archaeology”. The same could probably be written for archaeologists about history. And yet, there is a site at Phanagoria in Russia where the two disciplines really are siblings and, like most healthy family relationships, they definitely bring out the best in each other. Let me explain.

Phanagoria is a superlative site on the Taman peninsula, a hunk of land jutting into the Black Sea. Built by the seafaring Greeks at around 543 BC, it was named for one of its founders, Phanagoras. During the fifth century BC, the town thrived on trade with neighbouring Scythians and Sindi and, by the first century BC, it had grown to become the main centre of the Bosporan Kingdom.

Such success attracts covetous eyes and Mithridates VI, King of Pontus on the southern shores of the Black Sea, was steadily expanding his territory northwards. Eventually, this included Phanagoria and it was here that Mithridates reputedly built his palace.

Such expansion of territory in the first century AD naturally attracted the attention of the reigning superpower of the day and, almost inevitably, Rome decided that the upstart Mithridates should be brought to heel, so initiating the Mithridatic Wars.

Phanagoria was not so enamoured of its new ruler that it was not above siding with the Romans and, at around 63 AD, the inhabitants of the city rebelled. Mithridates himself was not at home but his children were. Appian, a contemporary historian originally from Alexander in Egypt, takes up the story:

“Although the citadel was already held by Artaphernes and other sons of Mithridates, the inhabitants piled wood around it and set it on fire, in consequence of which Artaphernes, Darius, Xerxes, and Oxathres, sons, and Eupatra, a daughter, of Mithridates, in fear of the fire, surrendered themselves and were led into captivity.”

A heady tale but could it be true? Historians might side with the written word but archaeologists need something they can physically touch. In 2011, they got just that. Excavators uncovered a large building in the centre of the city, located at the acropolis. It had been gutted by fire. The discarded coins that littered the floor put the date for the conflagration around the middle of the first century AD. Was this Mithridates’ palace, burnt down by the rebels to capture his children? The evidence seemed good.

But archaeologists (and historians) are cautious folk. The find might have corroborated some of Appian’s story but was it enough to prove conclusively that this was Mithridates’ palace? What the excavators dreamt of was a find with Mithridates’ name inscribed across it. They got it.

Much of Phanagoria now lies underwater and it was the submerged excavation team that hit gold. Or rather stone. A marble tombstone bore the inscription “Hypsikrates, Wife of King Mithridates Eupator Dionysos, Farewell”. But before the archaeologists broke out the champagne and coincidentally invited the Russian president to visit (Vladimir Putin was an enthusiastic visitor, actually scuba-diving the site and taking home a jar as a souvenir), there was a problem. Mithridates had many wives (the first was his sister with whom he bore six children) but the woman he married in 63 AD, just prior to the insurrection, was called Hypsicratea. Hypsikrates, the inscription on the tombstone, was the masculine form of the name. So what was going on? To the historians relief, Plutarch – the Roman biographer of Pompey who fought for the Romans in the Mithridatic Wars – comes to the rescue. He tells us that Mithridates wife:

“…who on all occasions showed the spirit of a man and desperate courage; and accordingly the king used to call her Hypsikrates”.

So Hypsikrates was Mithridates’ nickname for a beloved and apparently formidable wife. And if she lived (and died) in Phanagoria, so presumably did he. Appian and Plutarch, much to the historians’ relief, had been proved right through archaeological excavation. History and archaeology, working together as two siblings should. Cue the champagne.

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