Chersonesos

Archaeologists tossed on the tides of history

The Day of Archaeology this year found me once again working in an archive, far from a dig site — but this time for very different reasons, and with very different questions, than the same day last year. This time, I’m facing the consequences of a geopolitical shift that has left the site where I’ve been working, Chersonesos in Crimea, either in a new country (Russia, in the eyes of most Crimeans and the Russian Federation, and in practical terms) or in occupied territory (in the eyes of Ukraine and the UN). This change happened without violence or destruction in Crimea, and having seen through the eyes of archaeologist friends who work in Syria and Egypt how much worse it could be (see here and here and here, for starters), I’m grateful for that. Chersonesos is also still in good hands, and I’m still working with my collaborators at the National Preserve there on our publication projects. But I have had to come to terms with the reality that it will probably be a very long time before I can go back to the site where I spent most of my summers between 2002 and 2011.

This had naturally led me to think about historical context again: but this time, not archaeology in the historical context of its development as a discipline, but archaeologists in the historical context of recent political history. Most of us are primarily interested in unwrapping the stories of the more distant human past, and it’s tempting to push the modern political context into the background — if not in our daily practice, then at least in our publications. There’s a stark contrast, for example, between the matter-of-fact archaeological publications from Europe of excavations carried out in the 1930s and 1940s and the realities on the ground for archaeologists themselves during that period. In some cases, archaeologists took it on themselves to play an active role in conflicts, as Susan Heuck Allen has recently described in her book Classical Spies, on archaeologists and classicists working with the OSS during WWII in Greece. In other cases, archaeologists were simply at the mercy of the political agendas or military conflicts that took place around them. Some survived and flourished in later, calmer times; some saw their careers disappear; and some disappeared themselves.

For this Day of Archaeology, then, I thought I’d write about archaeology in Crimea at another moment of political tension. I spent the morning of July 11th in the archives of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, looking at correspondence related to the activities of a Russian emigré scholar named Eugene Golomshtok. I was looking at Golomshtok because I’ve been working (much, much too slowly) on a book project with another Russian emigré scholar, Aleksandr Leskov, at the core of which is the publication of material from a joint US-Soviet archaeological expedition to Eski-Kermen that Golomshtok co-directed in the summer of 1933. Dr. Leskov has written up the excavation, materials from which were divided between Penn and St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), and which for various reasons was never published. He has also produced chapters on the early history of the Crimean Scythians and the Taurians, and the project is waiting for me to cover the interactions between these populations and the early Greek colonists in southwest Crimea.

A scene from the joint excavations carried out by Eugene Golomshtok and N. Repnikov at Eski Kermen in the summer of 1933. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

A scene from the joint excavations carried out by Eugene Golomshtok and N. Repnikov at Eski Kermen in the summer of 1933. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

As I approached this project, though, I started to be curious about the modern context as well. How did this US-Soviet collaboration — which mirrored in some ways the US-Ukrainian collaboration between the Institute of Classical Archaeology and the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos — come about? How were those relationships managed at a time of great political tension? And was there any awareness on the part of the US side of the political and historical circumstances under which it took place? 1933, after all, saw not only the run-up to Stalin’s Great Terror, but the final peak of a catastrophic famine — the Holodomor, to Ukrainians — that killed between 2.4 and 7.5 million people in the territory of the Ukrainian SSR. Though it was hard to get reliable news from the Soviet propaganda machine, there had in fact been a very public argument about the presence of a famine in the spring of 1933 between New York Times writer Walter Duranty and Gareth Jones, an aid to David Lloyd George in the UK, who had taken an unauthorized walking tour of the USSR in early 1933 and made a series of statements about the dire nature of the situation to the press.

I had been hoping to find in Golomshtok’s letters in the archives some direct acknowledgement of the famine or of the broader political circumstances surrounding the Crimean expedition in 1933. I didn’t. The closest he ever came to mentioning the famine is the inclusion of a reference to “the food problem” in a letter about the organization of the project. But there’s still a very interesting story here, one that touches on both the history of archaeology in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and the history of the development of prehistoric archaeology — as well as on the rather sad history of Dr. Golomshtok, who emigrated to the US in 1918 at the age of 20, clearly in the wake of the Revolution, and despite a number of publications on both Native American archaeology and the Paleolithic in Southern Russia and Siberia, never managed to find a stable academic position. He was affiliated with the Penn Museum from 1930 to around 1937, but the refusal of the USSR to issue him a visa in 1934 and thereafter clearly made him less of an asset, and the correspondence with the Museum grows increasingly frosty in the late 1930s and early 1940s, especially after the retirement of director Horace Jayne, who had supported him. As far as I can tell, Golomshtok did not publish any more scientific work after the early 40s, and he seems to have died in 1950 at the age of 52.

A view of Cherkez-Kermen from Eski Kermen, looking toward Sevastopol. This could be the picture Repnikov mentioned in his discussion of Golomshtok in his excavation report. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

A view of Cherkez-Kermen from Eski Kermen, looking toward Sevastopol. This could be the picture Repnikov mentioned in his discussion of Golomshtok in his excavation report. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

Where the meat of this story lies, I think, is in the circumstances that led to the initiation of the project in the first place, in the way the excavation unfolded, and in the denial of Golomshtok’s visa in 1934. The first issue has to do with the reframing of prehistoric archaeology in the US and the USSR in the 1930s, and with a massive increase of interest in the Paleolithic and the migrations of human populations. Golomshtok’s own research seems to have been focused on the very early peoples of Siberia and the Americas, and in fact he originally intended to participate in a Paleolithic excavation in Siberia, not an Iron Age and medieval excavation in Crimea. The second and third issues have to do with the political situation in the Soviet Union in 1933 — and here’s where archaeology and politics intersect again. Golomshtok’s report on the excavation suggests that he and Repnikov did not get along: he didn’t think that Repnikov was a good archaeologist. The unexpected denial of Golomshtok’s visa to return to the USSR in the summer of 1934 for a rescue-excavation project at Manych in the Caucasus was the object of much speculation and negotiation on the part of Penn and Golomshtok himself over the next two years. But two hints can be found in Golomshtok’s letters: one, Repnikov seems to have filed a report on the excavation in which he accused Golomshtok of taking photos of the “fortifications of Sevastopol” from the top of Eski Kermen; and two, Golomshtok suggests in a telegram that he’d been denied entry so that he couldn’t comment on the disappearance of many of the people he’d worked with at the various institutes of archaeology. The purges had begun.

A telegram sent to the Penn Museum from Golomshtok in the summer of 1934, after he leaned his visa had been denied. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

A telegram sent to the Penn Museum from Golomshtok in the summer of 1934, after he leaned his visa had been denied. Image courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives.

All of this is a reminder that archaeologists don’t work in a realm of ideas and abstraction: we work in the real world, and are subject to the larger movements of history. The acts of discovery and of telling stories about the past are of fundamental importance in archaeology, but we shouldn’t forget that we tell those stories in the context of our own. The juxtaposition of the banal and the dramatic in these archives is a striking demonstration of this. In between the dry excavation budgets, publication agreements, and disputes over the shipping of books exchanged between Penn and partners in the USSR in this archive is the story of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. Most of us hope to live in less interesting times, but as my colleagues and I were forcibly reminded by the change in Crimea’s status, it’s not usually up to us.