Phanagoria: findings and results of 2014
23 December 2014
An ancient bronze naval ram found in the submerged part of Phanagoria, the largest Greek colony on the Taman peninsula, was named the year’s most compelling discovery in Russia by the respected Science and Life magazine.The bronze ram that was found in Phanagoria during the 10th archaeological season in 2014, used to be a part of a bireme, an ancient oared warship with two decks of oars. The latter was in the army of Mithradates VI, the king of Pontus from 119 to 63 BC who was the most powerful king in Anatolia during the 1st century BC. Often called Rome's greatest enemy, he fought three wars against the Roman republic.
The discovery has shed light on the history of anti-Mithradates protests in Phanagoria that led to the king’s ouster. The bireme found in 2012, has long believed to be an ancient Byzantine merchant vessel. However, the one-meter long ram unearthed in 2014 dismissed the previous version and proved that the ship was a warship used by Mithradates’s army to quell the protests. The vessel was later burned by the protesters in 63 BC.
Science and Life magazine named the ram Russia’s biggest archaeological find in 2014. The naval warfare is now being restored and will further be displayed at the Phanagoria state museum that is to be built near the archaeological site in southern Russia.
Historical narratives of Phanagoria
The Roman historian Appian and the Greek historian Plutarch mentioned a citywide uprising in Phanagoria in 63 BC that culminated with the incineration of a huge public building and murder of Mithradates’s children and a wife, Hypsikratia. However, there was no material proof of these events until 2006.
In 2006, scientists involved in the Phanagorian archeological expedition, found a marble gravestone inscribed with an epitaph to "Hypsikrates, wife of Mithradates VI." In his essays Plutarch referred to Hypsikratia as a woman "who on all occasions showed the spirit of a man and desperate courage; and accordingly the king Mithradates VI used to call her Hypsikrates [the male form of Hypsikratia]." The Archaeological Institute of America named this find one of the ten most exciting discoveries in 2009.
Thus the ship’s ram continues a series of new discoveries that uncover the history of the Phanagoria uprising while seamlessly matching the historical narratives.
Scientists started to explore Phanagoria in the 18th century, when it became an essential part of the Russian Empire. The exploration’s active phase, however, began just several years ago, which means archaeologists and historians are almost certain to find more artifacts and information related to Phanagoria, an area that has been something of a bridge between the East and the West for 1,500 years.
Volnoe Delo Foundation, one of Russia’s biggest privately-held charity funds, run by businessman and industrialist Oleg Deripaska, has supported research activities in the 2550-year-old city of Phanagoria since 2004. The Foundation has allocated over $10 million to Phanagoria fieldwork over the past 10 years. Now Phanagoria is one of the best equipped archeological expeditions in Russia, with its own scientific and cultural center, up-to-date equipment for above-ground and underwater excavation and diverse team of specialists involved in the fieldwork.
Among the recent discoveries made in Phanagoria are remains of a palace of Mithradates VI dated the 1st century BC, an ancient tomb with a stepped ceiling, the oldest temple unearthed on the Russian territory dating back to the 5th century BC and a number of submerged objects, e.g., the ancient city’s streets covered with sand, Phanagoria’s port structures, and ship debris.
The excavations cover several areas, including the 2,500-square-metre acropolis at the centre of the ancient city, the eastern necropolis, an ancient cemetery that served as a burial place from the very founding of the city, and a submerged part of the city.
What makes the expedition unique is the mix of diversified specialists working together. Apart from archeologists and historians, there are anthropologists, soil scientists, paleozoologists, numismatists and other researchers. A complex approach to the study of Phanagoria’s cultural relics helps to restore the residents’ way of living, religious beliefs, economic cooperation, as well as their roles in military conflicts.