Can a Crimean World Heritage Site Survive the Region’s Latest Political Unrest?
Last June Professor Joseph Carter had reason to celebrate. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had named the ancient city of Chersonesos—a place where he had dedicated more than two decades of his career—a World Heritage Site.
It’s not easy to earn UNESCO World Heritage status. For Carter, it required persistence, money and a bit of good fortune—including the end of the Cold War—to bring world recognition to this Crimean city, founded by Greek colonists in the fifth century B.C.
With world recognition came the prospect that the site could one day become an archeological park, a rare opportunity for tourists from around the world to explore the interconnections of an ancient city with its rural environment.
On March 1, that prospect dimmed as Russian forces seized the Crimean peninsula and the chill of Cold War once again fell over the peninsula and its ancient treasures.
A Waiting Game
This isn’t the first time frosty East-West relations blocked a path in Carter’s research. He’s been studying ancient Greek colonial farm life since the early 1970s at Metaponto, in Italy, carving out a niche in classical archaeology by excavating rural sites, learning more about “ordinary people” in the ancient world, such as farmers, and how their rural settlements—known in Greek as the “chora”—interacted with their urban centers.
Although research at Metaponto has yielded rich discoveries, Carter knew of another site at the tip of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula that was an even better preserved example of Greek colonial life and succeeding Roman and Byzantine cultures.
“I learned about Chersonesos very early, when searching for parallel cases of ancient Greek land division, which was also an important aspect of the chora of Metaponto,” says Carter, who is also director of UT Austin’s Institute of Classical Archaeology (ICA) in the College of Liberal Arts. “Metaponto led quite naturally to Chersonesos, but I had to wait 20 years for the Cold War to end to travel there.”
Chersonesos was located within one of the most secret zones on earth, near the Soviet naval installation at Sevastopol. Although the Cold War had ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sevastopol remained a closed city until the end of 1995. Carter knew he would have to be persistent and a bit lucky to get his foot in the door.
Then, at a 1992 conference in Metaponto, Carter met a Russian scholar who was impressed with the ICA’s work in Italy. This scholar had influence with the Ukrainian and Russian governments, and two weeks later Carter received permission from the foreign minister and the commandant of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol to visit Chersonesos. What he found was a treasure.
“The shroud of secrecy actually helped to preserve the site,” Carter says. “Because the area was closed, it was also off-limits to developers.”
The site’s condition is remarkable, given its long and turbulent history—countless raids by various tribes, occupation by two empires (Roman and Mongol) and three major wars beginning with the Crimean War of the 1850s. During World War I and the Russian Revolution, control of the area changed hands six times. According to Carter, the Crimean War and World War II in particular left “huge scars.”
“We found a lot of ammunition, some unexploded, on our site in the chora known as ‘no name hill,’” he says.
UT First Foreign Team
Led by the ICA, UT Austin researchers formed the first American and foreign team given access to the site (or any site in the former Soviet Union), working in collaboration with the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos. They developed an international team including Ukrainians, Russians, Americans and Europeans that focused on the excavation and conservation of farmhouse sites.
In 1997 the first results were reported in the New York Times. Two weeks after the article appeared, Carter received a call from David Packard, head of the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI) in Los Altos, Calif.
“He asked me how much money it would take to realize my dreams for Chersonesos,” Carter says. In the 12 years that would follow, PHI would contribute more than $12 million to the project, including the construction of a laboratory at the site. PHI has also contributed more than $12 million for ICA research at the Metaponto site, bringing PHI’s total contribution to more than $25 million and representing the largest grant ever received by the College of Liberal Arts.
“I look back on those early years with great nostalgia. I know we had some phenomenal good luck interesting someone like David Packard who is committed to the humanities and preservation of our cultural heritage,” he says. “I was lucky that I never had to beg for money. Even my favorite Latin teacher, Lois Larson, asked me at the time, ‘how much do you need?’ She sent me $500 every year.”
In those early days, Carter knew it would be important to pursue a nomination to UNESCO’s World Heritage list to help protect the site from possible damage by developers or, more likely, from the Russian Orthodox Church and an archbishop who advocated for the destruction of “pagan” artifacts at the site. A facsimile baptistry had also been lowered— by a huge unmarked helicopter—onto the foundations of an ancient basilica at Chersonesos.
“We don’t know for sure who was responsible for lowering the ugly structure onto the 6th century AD foundations,” Carter says. “It looked like a refreshments kiosk.”
Other obstacles included the UNESCO requirements themselves, which Carter describes as “numerous, onerous and very precise.” He says the Packard support was crucial in enabling the team to conduct the enormous amount of work necessary to excavate and conserve both city and rural sites.
Jessica Trelogan, an ICA research associate, recalls the enormous amount of work that lay ahead for the early members of the team. She first visited the site in 1996 as a graduate student in classical archaeology, “fell in love with the place,” and began to learn Russian.
“It was magical and untouched,” she says, noting that few tools or maps were available to those who explored the site in earlier years.
“Those who were previously on the site used butcher knives and homemade brooms for excavation. So we had to fly in our own tools—picks, shovels, even wheelbarrows,” says Trelogan, who played an important early role in teaching the Ukrainians modern excavation, recording and conservation techniques.
Mapping a formerly secret site was a challenge that intrigued Trelogan, so much so that she switched her academic focus from classical archaeology to geography, specifically the study of geographical information science (GIS) and remote sensing.
“Few places on Earth have such a long and vital history. We can only hope that the new masters of Crimea will respect it.”Joseph Carter
“In those early years we had such a challenge getting images because of the secret naval base. I was no doubt being watched by the authorities because I kept asking for maps,” she says. “We also had problems using GPS because the Russians, who were in control of the port area, deliberately gave us skewed GPS points. It was a bit of a goose chase.”
In 1998, Trelogan wrote the first of two successful grants to NASA to fund the production of site images from air and space.
“Remember, this was pre-Google Earth,” she says, noting that some of the best aerial views provided by NASA were declassified satellite photos from the 1960s. “These images were amazingly detailed, created in stereo pairs to show topographic highlights. They gave us a valuable look at the site that predates some of the later development that occurred in the area.”
Like Trelogan, Adam Rabinowitz also saw his academic career take an unexpected turn at the site. He went from being a student at the University of Michigan in 2000 to Carter’s field director at Chersonesos in 2002.
“I’d been doing my dissertation work in Italy, but the field there was very crowded. Chersonesos was attractive because it was more open, with a lot of material that hadn’t been studied and was not available in the West,” says Rabinowitz, an assistant professor of classics at UT Austin and assistant director of the ICA. “I had to shift my geographical focus as well as cultural focus, and quickly learn more about the Byzantine world and how to speak passable Russian.”
He says the close personal relationships formed between the ICA team and the Ukrainians were vital to the project’s success.
“That’s why they had us there so long. It was a collaborative environment,” he says. “They were experts in navigating the local situation and the politics, and we brought equipment and archeological expertise. The World Heritage Site designation happened because together we put Chersonesos on a global stage.”
At the site, Rabinowitz delved into aspects of Byzantine culture that had previously received little attention from scholars.
“Much of past research by Byzantine scholars centers on basilicas—they are often all that remain to be studied since much of the Byzantine world is buried under modern cities,” Rabinowitz says. “Chersonesos offers a unique opportunity to study 12th and 13th century Byzantine residential life, where people lived and even worshiped at the block level. The data set we are producing will be seminal for this period and culture.”
A Place in World History
When excavation ended in 2006, the team turned its focus to the heritage designation and preparing the site for visitors. An international exchange was set up with UT Austin’s Harry Ransom Center to assist archivists in Ukraine with the care of document collections. Students from UT’s Landscape Architecture program also assisted in developing plans for an archeological park.
In 2010, Ukraine’s minister of culture contacted Carter, and at a subsequent meeting in New York City they struck a deal: ICA would try to persuade PHI to finance the world’s first archaeological park of the ancient chora, and the ministry would obtain the legal deed to the land from the city of Sevastopol. The current director of the preserve (who is a former mayor of Sevastopol) secured the deed, but the park remains to be built.
At the celebration of the UNESCO nomination in Sevastopol in September 2013, the European Union expressed interest in working with the ICA to make the park a reality. With the recent Russian takeover of Crimea, that has become a remote possibility.
“The world heritage site designation happened because ICA and PHI gave the preserve the means and expertise, and made it known worldwide,” Carter says. “We thought that it would save the preserve and protect it from future incursions.”
He says Chersonesos commands respect because of its significance in world history as the birthplace of democracy in that region and of Christianity in the Slavic world.
“Few places on Earth have such a long and vital history. We can only hope that the new masters of Crimea will respect it,” Carter concludes. “The major threat now is a takeover of the site by the Russian Orthodox Church, with which Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be very cozy. That would surely result in the loss of World Heritage status, and a loss to the rest of the world.”