Olbian–Scythian Trade: Exchange Issues in the Sixth to Fourth Centuries bc
Olbian–Scythian Trade: Exchange Issues in the Sixth to Fourth Centuries bc
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on the trade between the Greek and the Scythian worlds on the north coast of the Black Sea. The majority of previous articles and topics on this subject tended to revolve around the issue of the significance for the Scythian society of exchange with Greek cities, ignoring the significance of such exchange and trade for the Greek cities particularly for Olbia. Furthermore, little work has been devoted to the change of such significance for Olbia over time. Hence, this chapter sheds a new and fresh look at the Olbian-Scythian relationships, their beginnings and their developments. Exchange relationships between Olbia and Scythia began in the early sixth century BC and persisted through the fifth and the fourth centuries BC. These trade exchanges resulted in significant economic development and a great deal of exchanges were made during the fourth century. This slowly waned towards the end of the fourth century. The diminished trade exchanges between Olbia and Scythia were caused by a number of complex factors. Although Olbia's economical and market development depended on trade exchanges, its whole economy was not truly defined by the city's exchange, rather it was based on agriculture.
TRADE BETWEEN THE GREEK AND SCYTHIAN worlds on the north coast of the Black Sea has attracted substantial scholarly attention over many years. The topic tends to be treated under disparate heads for example, the date of the first contacts and their periodization thereafter on the routes by which Greek goods were distributed, with or without particular focus on specific production centres, as well as the character, scale, and terminology of economic interactions between the Greek and Scythian worlds at various stages of their history, and much else besides. However, among all these studies, and particularly with regard to Olbian–Scythian exchange, work on trade routes predominates and is particularly concerned to establish the scale of trade, in so far as our evidence permits.1
By and large, these studies are directed towards the larger issue of the significance for Scythian society of exchange with Greek cities. Much less attention has been devoted to the significance of such exchange for the Greek cities, notably for Olbia. Meanwhile only a very little work has been devoted to the change of such significance for Olbia across time. However, new evidence and especially the reinterpretation of the data, together with the review of some cherished viewpoints, demand a fresh look at Olbian-Scythian relationships, not least their beginnings and the subsequent stages of their development. The present chapter is designed to satisfy these demands with regard to economic exchanges.
The early period of the penetration of Greek goods into the Black Sea steppe and wooded steppe is from the seventh to the beginning of the sixth century BC. From this period we have a fairly limited quantity of items, which come from Nemirov region (southern Bug), and the wooded steppe regions of Kiev-Cherkassk, Vorskla, Posul’skiy, and northern (p.122) Donetsk, as well as from the Crimean steppe.2 Single items give the earliest date, 675–650 bc,3 while a few more give 650-600 BC.4 For the seventh century it is evidently premature to talk in terms of Olbian–Scythian trade. These few finds can hardly be taken to indicate established classical– barbarian relationships: at most they are indications of ‘exploratory’ activities of individual traders and occasional happenstance. The Greek cities of the north Black Sea at this time did not yet constitute self-standing economic units; in large part they did not exist at all. On the lower Bug and its environs we can talk rather of a settlement on the island of Berezan, which played a definite part in the penetration of early Greek pottery to different parts of the region, in the broadest sense of the term. In that regard we should note Domanskiy’s conception of the existence, indeed already in the sixth century, of a trade route from Berezan up the lower Bug as far as the region of Nemirov:5 clearly, such a route could be taken still earlier.
Even in the period c.600–550 we cannot really talk about Greek– Scythian trade in terms of a substantial exchange of goods, although for that period we have a more significant amount of East Greek fineware, as well as amphorae, found in the regions already identified as places to which small quantities had penetrated in the previous century.6 However, there is a quite different viewpoint which is not to be passed by in silence. For some believe that the Greek communities traded with the Scythians not only as entrepôts for goods produced in the Aegean world but also as production centres which dealt in their own locally made artefacts by c.550. Of prime importance here is the production of metalware and glassware at Yagorlyk, where the workshops do indeed date to c. 600–550.7 Not that there is complete consistency in dating among scholars. For instance, Ostroverkhov, writing about only a single workshop, dates it to c.550–5258 and the whole settlement simply to the sixth century.9 On that view, therefore, a Greek–Scythian market (i.e. an Olbian–Scythian market) (p.123) was already in place by 550, founded upon these products.10 However, two considerations seem to have been neglected in all this.
First, the amount of output which could have been achieved by the Yagorlyk workshops, which were seasonal,11 could hardly have been enough to have had an impact not only on the settlements in their immediate vicinity but also on exchange with the pastoralists. Although it is proposed that the settlement at Yagorlyk occupied some 1500 X 400 m,12 that is in fact the area from which all finds were gathered, which is not at all the same thing. As for the quantity of workshops, then we can only be sure of one.13 Even if there were several more, then the seasonal nature of their activities is hardly consistent with significant amounts of production, such as would suffice for an extensive trade with areas of Scythia. Clearly, we shall only make certain progress in these matters through further study of the site and concomitant statistical data.
Secondly, local production on the lower Bug in this period was directed to another purpose, the fundamental needs of the developing Olbian economy14 Of course, that is not to exclude the possible exchange of part of the production of Yagorlyk’s workshops with the Scythian world. But at the same time we should not imagine that all that production was destined for the Scythian market. Accordingly, it remains premature to suppose that Olbian–Scythian exchange was already well developed by the middle of the sixth century.
Towards 550–525 the community at Olbia, which had already been functioning for some time, took a substantial further step in its development, as a civic core surrounded by an economic and religious micro-region for which it was the principal focus.15 But, for all that, Olbia’s economic relations with the Scythian world were still conducted on the basis of a limited quantity of exchanged goods: in this Olbia was an entrepôt and this exchange had no overwhelming importance for the Olbians, or indeed the Scythian economy. The goods traded to the Scythians were largely imported from the Aegean world as valuable rarities for the population of the Black Sea—fine tablewares, metalware, fine weaponry, mirrors, jewellery, and wine in amphorae.16 Unfortunately (p.124) Scythian specialists tend to vagueness on items of 550–500 BC, preferring to date a whole group to ‘sixth–fifth centuries BC’, all in small quantities. For 550–500 the goods imported into Scythia can be counted in some hundreds in the wooded steppe on the west bank of the Dnieper,17 while on the east bank items are numbered in their tens;18 in the steppe itself there are fewer: Gavrilyuk suggests thirty-three Greek finds in the steppe in this period.19 Despite the fact that amphorae and other items are found both on the steppe and in the wooded steppe, nevertheless for the sixth century we cannot suppose much more than the beginnings of trade between Greeks and Scythians—principally in wine but also in other goods, probably including salt. Some scholars used to imagine also a grain trade at this time, especially with the inhabitants of the wooded steppe,20 but the revisionist work of Shcheglov21 convincingly shows that this is to misapply a situation of a later period (on which more below); to extrapolate for the later sixth century circumstances which did not pre-date Herodotus is unwarranted.
Towards the end of the sixth century there was significant change. There was substantial movement among the Scythians, on the steppe and in the wooded steppe: ‘North Pontic Scythia’ took shape as a state formation, embracing different ethno-cultural groupings under the leadership of pastoralists.22 However, this was still not the powerful entity familiar in later archaeology. At the same time, also towards c. 500, Greek communities of the region (especially Olbia) were also better developed in their organization, though much was yet to come. Accordingly, from c.500, relations between the Scythian and Greek worlds also became more organized, with both Greek and Scythian communities taking a significant interest in the exchange.
The pastoralists were certainly eager for imported goods. Since nomads were already by c.500 exploiting the economic potential of the steppe regions, they could offer to Greek communities the products of their herds in exchange for the goods they sought.23 This was not only a peaceful relationship but a fast-developing, dynamic one. Even so these (p.125) general changes in Greek–Scythian relations are not well marked in the archaeology of the lower Bug region in particular. They become clearer a little later, by c.470, when the local situation changed markedly: it was at this time that the Olbian chora was reduced in size.24 This is not the place to consider the much-discussed causes of that reaction and the hypothesis of a ‘Scythian protectorate’.25 It will suffice to observe that this change was more than simply the consequence of pastoralist pressure.
Be that as it may, the loss of civic territory no doubt left the people of Olbia in need of additional sources of food and raw materials. At the same time, the Scythians retained their desire for imported Greek goods, especially in view of their inability to use kilns or to hope to produce wine. It is at this stage that we find a sharp rise in the scale of exchange and the geographical extent of dealings with Scythians. Consequently, Greek-Scythian trade becomes so busy that from the first half of the fifth century we can regard it as a key factor in the subsequent economic development of Olbia, albeit still not the main factor, which continued to be its agricultural base.
Meanwhile, we must observe that the goods exchanged in the fifth and fourth centuries were far more varied than scholars used to suppose, when the sole emphasis was placed on grain, grown in the wooded steppe and sold to Olbia by pastoralist intermediaries. Indeed, it was further imagined that Olbian merchants sold on this grain into the Aegean world.26 However, as we have noted, Shcheglov’s revisionist study of Herodotus and recent archaeology, taking into account the specifics of the pastoral economy, lead to the firm conclusion that the pastoralists traded for imported goods not in grain but in the produce of their herds, hunting, and probably slaves.27 For to trade in grain—even as intermediaries—was alien to pastoral society and economy. Moreover, the settlement sites of the wooded steppe show no trace of wholegrain wheat, such as was specially suited to storage and export.28 Accordingly, the notion of a busy trade in grain from the north into Olbia lacks a basis in the evidence. Of course, that is not to say (especially in view of the reduced chora) that Olbia received no grain at all from the wooded steppe region, (p.126) but such as was obtained from there was most probably consumed locally in Olbia itself, when grain was in short supply.
It is possible that locally made Olbian bronzework played a particular role in the city’s exchange with the Scythian world. Many scholars have supposed that Scythians even placed orders in Olbia for particular items.29 A variety of artefacts are at issue, but especially mirrors of the so-called ‘Olbian type’ and cruciform bridle decorations. These have often been considered not only for their origins but also to establish the extent of their distribution. However, the issue of origin cannot be regarded as settled: while some scholars consider them to be Olbian,30 others take them to have been made by Scythians on the west bank of the Dnieper in the wooded steppe, particularly in the Carpathian–Danubian area, Transylvania, and Pannonia.31 In any event, their production can scarcely be dated earlier than c.550 BC. So far the earliest mirrors discovered are dated 550–525 by their context in semi-dugout dwellings on Berezan.32 Meanwhile, the most notable developments in Olbian bronzeworking are located no earlier that c.500.33 It is believed that such mirrors ceased to circulate among Scythians around 500,34 while from c.450–400 Olbian artefacts with some sign of the Scythian animal style become isolated and rare discoveries.35 We may conclude that the production of bronze mirrors and other bronzework with animal style was short lived and began no earlier than the very end of the sixth century, most probably c.500 until perhaps c.470. It seems that part of this bronzework was destined for trade with Scythians, who might welcome animal-style designs.
Grakov long since posited a trade route from Olbia to the east on the basis of Herodotus and the distribution pattern of so-called ‘Olbian’ mirrors.36 It is true that Grakov notes the absence from Herodotus’ text of indications that Olbia’s relations with Scythians were particularly commercial.37 However, there is scholarly unanimity that there was such a route and that it was a trade route, or caravan route. This passed from Olbia across the Don along the Volga by the southern foothills of the Urals as far as Orsk. And from this principal route branched other routes, to north and south.38 It was known to Greeks even before colonization, from 700 BC or so, as is indicated by the mention of particular peoples, especially the Issedones, dwelling east of the Urals.39 Moreover, archaeology shows that this route had functioned still earlier.40 Grakov took the view that it remained important into the fourth century BC,41 while finds of Olbian coins along the Volga42 may indicate that it thrived still late: possibly serving not only commercial but also ideological purposes.43 B that as it may, the very existence of this route is substantial testimony to the external trading activities of the population of Olbia in the fifth cen tury, though of course we should in no way assume that the Olbian mer chants penetrated into these far-distant regions. It is entirely possible tha bronze mirrors, for example (or paterae, as they have also been taken to be),44 and cruciform bridle decorations were special and valuable enoug to be passed from one people to the next on the route eastwards.
(p.128) As for the Olbian economy itself, many scholars believe that the fifth century saw it develop into one centred entirely on the mediation of trad instead of agriculture, as a consequence of Scythian expansion Marchenko has written of a deliberate elimination by the Schythian elite of the Olbian periphery in order to assure Scythian monopoly in grai: trade.45 Vinogradov claimed that the Olbian economy of the fifth century underwent a change of focus from agriculture and stock-raising to tran-sit trade in goods received from Scythians and passed on to the Aegea: world and also to craft production.46 However, both these views under estimate the scale and potential for agriculture and stock-raising in the civic territory which Olbia retained,47 while they also overestimate the role of the market as a separate concern or force in Scythian exchange. I was important to Scythians to obtain by whatever means the good bought by Greeks, for a range of reasons and purposes (luxuries, wine, weaponry, etc.), but they were not concerned to sell goods of their own in order to amass resources. Scythian trade is not a clear mark of importance of profit in pastoralist society, but played a secondary role in the process of their exchange. Moreover, as noted above, the importance accorded to grain in this model is simply not convincing. Instead attention should be centred upon the goods which clearly did come from the Scythians beyond pastoral products, mineral resources and slaves.48 However, this exchange notwithstanding, the economy of Olbia continued through the fifth century to be based upon agriculture.
(p.129) During both the fifth and fourth centuries Olbia’s economic relations continued to entail both pastoralist and settled peoples of the steppe and wooded steppe. However, in the course of these years there was important change in relationships between these peoples and the Greek cities, not least Olbia. First, with regard to Greek trade with the wooded steppe in the fifth century, objects from the Greek world are now found on both sides of the Dnieper, in settlements and burials, and in substantially greater quantities. However, most of these were discovered a century or so ago,49 with some recent additions50 which have not affected the larger picture in any radical sense. Archaeology here gives the impression that in the fifth century agricultural settlements of the wooded steppe were almost always (albeit in small quantities) kept supplied with wine and finewares. This is especially marked for the first half of the fifth century as, for example, at Bel’sk where the quantity of imported wares rises at that time,51 including banded Ionian ware, amphorae from Samos, Chios, Lesbos, and elsewhere, as well as fine Attic pottery. Contemporary burials show the same broad situation, though the range of artefacts is more extensive, as might be expected, including metalware, jewellery, decorated weaponry, and so on, with some precious metal, bronze artefacts, and mirrors.52 These are luxury goods, often unique items, as is entirely commensurate with their significance. This is not the place to repeat detailed descriptions of particular items, but it is worth stressing the general point that goods of high quality and high value penetrated into the wooded steppe, perhaps even specifically intended for deposition in burials.
However, scholars have drawn attention to variation in quantity and quality among the finds from different locations in the wooded steppe. Accordingly, it is usually considered that the Kiev-Cherkassk group on the west of the Dnieper received a larger number of imported objects than the Vorskla area on the other side of the river. In this context the region of Kievshina requires particular attention, for there were so many imported objects here that scholars can even write of ‘mass imports’,53 though that is surely an overstatement of the reality, for, even including the most recent discoveries, the number of artefacts involved is quite limited.54 The Greek pottery even on settlement sites, where one might have (p.130) expected a variety of fragments, constitutes only a small part of the pottery assemblage as a whole, though detailed statistics have not been published.
On the steppe the fifth-century picture looks rather different. Here we have principally grave-goods: forms of settlement are much less common or significant.55 In recent years the number of excavated burials has increased five-fold, at least, so that now we know some hundreds. We await an integrated conspectus of all the burials of Scythia, including especially these recent studies, which have been published case by case in a variety of places.
It is clear enough, however, that about a third of all these burials are to be dated to the period 500–450 BC. Meanwhile, we may be sure enough that more of these contained imports than studies can show, for the simple reason that a substantial proportion of them have been destroyed and robbed. Of course, the robbers have taken the most valuable objects, primarily Greek imports. In addition, scholars date some seventy burial mounds to the fifth century, many probably being raised around 450. With all that in view, the first half of the fifth century can be taken to have seen an increase in exchange with the Scythians of the steppe.
In the light of recent work we can therefore take the Scythian steppe to have received and retained far more Greek imports than could once have been safely imagined. It is not simply a matter of the raw number of Greek artefacts that have been excavated or can be posited. For we must also take account of the fact that these are burial contexts: they represent a selection of goods from the Greek world which were by their nature not necessarily items of mass exchange—gold, silver, and bronze jewellery, metal utensils, weapons and other militaria, wine in amphorae, black-glazed vessels, etc. We can only wonder whether ongoing research will provide a still greater number of imported items from the steppe and so erode the difference in scale of imports between the steppe and wooded steppe in this regard. However, in the period 450–400 BC the quantity of imports in the steppe and wooded steppe declines at much the same rate, for reasons which are not at all clear. Pehaps we should seek an explanation in terms of the expansion of the Olbian economy: towards the end of the fifth century an extensive civic territory is created, from which there is intensive exchange with Olbia proper, where craft production increases. It is held that the city shifted its primary interest towards the other (p.131) communities of the Black Sea coast. On such a view, the exchanges with Scythians lost much of their importance for the Olbian economy.
Be that as it may, the import of Greek goods increases once more from the fourth century, in both steppe and wooded steppe. This too is a time of great expansion in the Olbian economy, in every respect, including trading activity.
For this period, key locations on the trade routes between Olbia, the pastoralists, and the wooded steppe, mediating exchange, were Kamenskoye and Kapulovskoye settlements. Kamenskoye in particular saw the passage of wine up the Dnieper to the Scythians, as well as pottery and other goods, not least luxury items.56
In the wooded steppe goods from the Greek world are found, as had earlier been the case, in greater quantity on the west bank of the Dnieper than to its east. However, by comparison with the preceding period there is some reduction in the overall amount of imports in the wooded steppe. Even so, we can observe a rise in their quantity on the agricultural settlements, largely in the form of amphorae but including also red-figure and black-glaze wares, weaponry, armour, and other metal artefacts. However, the available statistics on amphorae and tableware (respectively 434 and 80 examples on the west bank of the Dnieper) show the relatively small number of imports at issue.57
Greek imports are found also in the burial mounds of the wooded steppe, on both sides of the Dnieper as far north as the latitude and environs of Kiev (Borispol mounds, Steblevskiy cemetery (c.400–350), Rhzhanovka, and the mounds of the Kharkov region).
Meanwhile on the steppe the quantity of imports increases substantially. It is true that recent years have seen intensive and extensive study of the steppe, much more than previously. Certainly, the number of known imports has recently increased greatly, not only from the great mounds but also less remarkable items, perhaps, from humbler burial contexts; we may wonder whether that has skewed our picture. However, in any event, the demography of ancient Scythia seems to have been a factor in this apparent change: the steppe became more densely inhabited.58
We may gain from a closer attention to chronology, not least with regard to the burial mounds of the fourth century. The overwhelming majority of the wealthy burial mounds date to the second half of the (p.132) fourth century BC and to not much later than 325, so that 350–325 looks like a peak period of such exceptional mounds, rich in Greek imports: Solokha (two burials, 400–380s), Berdyansk (370s), Tolstaya (350–330), Gaymanova (mid-330s), Oguz (350–325), and Melitopol (340–330), while Chertomlyk has a very slightly later date, perhaps c.325.59 The range of Greek imports, whether from such wealthy burials or their humbler counterparts, indicate much the same date: the amphorae of Thasos, Heraclea, and Sinope, black-glazed ware (especially moulded-rim canthari), silver kylixes, gold jewellery, and so on.
Therefore, it is clear enough that Greek–Scythian (especially Olbian– Scythian) exchange had a complex history and significance. If in the fifth century the purpose of Olbian trade with the Scythians was the provision of supplementary goods (the products of pastoralism and perhaps also the crops raised in the wooded steppe, together with minerals and raw materials for crafts) to meet a shortage at Olbia, then the fourth-century situation was markedly different, for the settlements in the Olbian chora could not meet those needs; even in that case the shortage would not have been sufficiently pressing to account for the surge in Greek imports among the Scythians.
As we have seen, there was a distinct reduction in imports from the end of the fourth century. Even in the mounds of the southern Bug, very near to Olbia itself, there seems to be nothing imported after c.325 BC.60 Towards c. 300 there is a little on the lower Dnieper. However, towards about 250 active economic contacts between Olbia and the Scythian world come to an end. That ending is usually and reasonably linked with political, economic, and social changes on the steppe.61 As for Olbia’s sphere of influence, we may also explain its decline in terms of the Olbian economy itself. If it can be agreed that the reduction of Scythian–Olbian exchange fell in a period where Olbia was still flourishing and had yet to experience its crisis, then we can only wonder whether Olbia had simply lost its taste for the goods of the barbarians. At any rate, changes in Scythia itself contributed to such a development.
Meanwhile, there remains the enormous question as to the involvements and interactions of the Bosporus and Chersonesus, as well as Olbia, in Scythian–Greek exchange of the fifth and fourth centuries. For the fifth century it is generally agreed that Olbia played the main role in (p.133) such exchanges. The Bosporus’ trading activities were much less significant at that time, with the possible exception of trade in weaponry.62 Of course, it is wholly unrealistic to imagine that these Greek communities had sharply distinguished spheres of influence, or to develop some notion of their economic competition. Any sense of that would have been an idiosyncratic and private matter. Accordingly, we cannot sensibly suppose that, for example, the extension of Bosporan trade caused a reduction in Olbian trade. Rather these cities and states were engaged in exchange activities which proceeded largely in parallel. Accordingly, since we know that in the fourth century the Bosporus was an important supplier of grain to Attica, it would be likely enough that expensive imports would find their way into Scythia via the Bosporan market. As for Chersonesus, it suffices to note the Chersonetan amphorae that found their way into steppe burials in the second half of the fourth century. Evidently, Chersonesus had its own contribution to make to exchange between Scythians and Greeks to the north of the Black Sea.
By way of conclusion, we have seen that exchange relationships between Olbia and the Scythians, which had their beginnings in the sixth century BC, had persisted through the fifth and fourth centuries. The fourth saw the greatest scale of this exchange, as evidenced by archaeology on the steppe and, to an extent, also on the wooded steppe. It was only around the end of the fourth century that this exchange began to reduce significantly. The causes of these changes and continuities were no doubt complex. For Olbia the sphere of its exchange activities had been a major factor underpinning the development of its economy and its market. But, for all that, the city’s exchange was far from defining its whole economy: that continued to be based on agriculture.