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Geomorphology and geoarchaeology of Black Sea coasts

The results of ANR, IUF, Labex OT‑Med and A*MIDEX research projects
A. Baralis, A. Bivolaru, N. Marriner, C. Morhange, A. V. Porotov and V. N. Zin’ko
p. 11-14
Géomorphologie et géoarchéologie des littoraux en mer Noire [fr]

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The editors warmly thank the reviewers who suggestions have helped to improve the scientific quality of this special issue, particularly E. Anthony, G. Arnaud Fassetta, G. Bony, R. Cheddadi, C. Cordoba, B. Devillers, M. Djamali, L. Duţu, J.-P. Goiran, D. Kaniewski, P. Penstch M. Vacchi, V. Ollivier and all those who preferred to remain anonymous.
C. Morhange thanks J. Guiot (Cnrs - CEREGE - Labex OT Med) for his support.
The review thanks the Musée du Louvre (department of the Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiques) for its financial participation in the realization of this number

1Situated between Europe, the Caucasus and Anatolia, the Black Sea has a length of about 1,150 km from west to east and a width of 600 km from north to south. These dimensions yield a total area of around 410,000 km². In a geomorphological sense, the Black Sea is a relatively new entity in that its formation took place at the end of the Würmian glaciation, when rising sea levels connected the basin to the world ocean. This event, which has attracted significant research interest, is currently the subject of intense debate particularly with regards to its chronology (SOULET et al., 2011).

Localisation of studied sites

Localisation of studied sites

Crédit : P. Pentsch.

2The Black Sea constituted an interface open to the north and the Azov Sea via the Strait of Kertch (Cimmerian Bosphorus), and to the south-west and the Mediterranean through the Bosphorus of Thrace and the Marmara Sea. It is via this southern route that Neolithic technology reached the Balkans before penetrating westwards into Europe.

3The aim of this special issue of Méditerranée is to provide an overview of geoarchaeological results obtained within the framework of current ongoing research projects in the Black and Azov Seas. Since the end of the 18th century, the Pontic area has, in effect, long been an area of reference for this vast disciplinary field. Paradoxically, however, the Black Sea is today considered to be a “sleeping beauty” in comparison to the novel research that has flourished in the Mediterranean during the past 50 years. How can this apparent disparity be explained?

  • Concerning coastal geomorphology, research in the Black Sea has suffered from its Caspian neighbour (ANDRUSOV, 1888; RYCHAGOV, 1997; NADERI BENI et al., 2014) where significant sea-level oscillations were identified early on and polarized research, scientific debate and publications. Scientists working in the Black Sea sought to transpose the “hyper-mobile” model of the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea context leading to fanciful sea-level curves that long polluted and hindered thinking between the geosciences and archaeological sciences (PIRAZZOLI, 1991 et BALABANOV, 2007). Recent research has demonstrated that the Pontic sea level has been stable during the past 5000 years at least (POROTOV, 2007; BRÜCKNER et al., 2010; FOUACHE et al., 2012).

  • Neo-catastrophic research investigating the myth of the flood around 7000 years BP, when Mediterranean waters spilled into the Back Sea basin (ROSS et al., 1970; RYAN et al., 1997 and many others since), has polarized research efforts to the detriment of less mediatized multidisciplinary research (YANKO-HOMBACH et al., 2007).

  • The scientific disinterest for the northern coast of Anatolia appears particularly acute nowadays, in terms of the geomorphological and geoarchaeological literature. This is somewhat paradoxical in view of the major historical role played by the Black Sea during the Ottoman period. Only a few projects, such as the Sinop Regional Archaeological Project and the Black Sea Trade Project have applied a multidisciplinary approach with tangible results (DOONAN, 2014). The number of active archaeological excavations is low and is mostly restricted to urban contexts, such as Teios (ATASOY, YILDIRIM, 2015).

  • Finally, we can also emphasize the overly conservative approach of the humanities that have long used placed names and historical sources, such as for the Danube. For instance, the iconic publication of ŞTEFÃNESCU (1981) reconstructs changes in the geomorphology of the Danubian mouths using place names, texts and ancient maps. Fortunately, the work of the teams of N. Panin (article in this issue) and A. Vespremeanu-Stroe have rectified these interpretations (GIOSAN et al., 2006; VESPREMEANU-STROE et al., 2013, in press.).

4Nonetheless, in recent years, a number of international research projects looked to build a new multidisciplinary research dynamic, particularly on the western seaboard of the Black Sea.

  • This is the case, for example, of the “Pont-Euxin” project dedicated to the geoarchaeology of the Greek cities of the western Black Sea, funded by the French National Research Agency (2009-2013) and the Foreign Ministry. Its scientific goal was the application of a new scientific method based on spatial occupation networks. Within a multidisciplinary setting, the aim was to study environmental changes by marrying archaeology with complementary disciplines such as geomorphology, sedimentology and palynology. Two ancient harbours provided the focus for the project: Orgame (BARALIS and LUNGU, 2015; BONY et al., 2015) and Apollonia Pontica (BARALIS et PANAYOTOVA, 2016a and 2016b).

  • The IUF Black Sea project (2011-2016), headed by C. Morhange, focused on Holocene environmental changes and the evolution of archaeological sites (ANTHONY et al., 2014; MORHANGE et al., 2015). Present archaeological studies cannot be conceived without the active support of a palaeo-environmental team covering a wide range of disciplines. Several coring campaigns, associated with surface samples, have given rise to several studies: 1- palynological in order to probe the evolution of vegetation, such as on the Taman peninsula (KANIEWSKI et al., 2015; KANIEWSKI et al., this volume); 2- geomorphological and bio-sedimentological analyses to reconstruct coastal changes and the sedimentary filling of bays and lagoons, the identification of sedimentary crises and the location of former harbour areas, such as Orgame (BONY, 2013; BONY et al., 2015), Alepou (FLAUX et al., this volume) or on the Taman peninsula (GIAIME et al., 2016). Since 2015, this project is supported by the international network of A*MIDEX investigating the geoarchaeology of Black Sea and Mediterranean deltas. Based on a similar approach, a Franco-Romanian team is studying the evolution of ​​the Danube Delta following the discovery of the oldest human settlements in the delta area (Eneolithic/Chalcolithic). This work has shed new light on the stages of evolution of this region between 5500 and 4000 BC. The rapid rise of the lagoon level, under the effect of sea level rise, led to the partial flooding of many sites and their abandonment around 4500 BC (CAROZZA et al., 2013). This research invites further debate regarding the long-term vulnerability of coastal areas (MARRINER et al., 2015).

5The present special issue comprises 11 articles investigating coastal changes and human occupation. The papers present the major findings from the above projects and are grouped in two parts:

Methodology and contexts

6The first article uses archaeological indicators to reconstruct relative sea-level changes. In Bulgaria, P. PEEV (this issue) concludes that the rise in sea level during the past ca. 3000 years is in the order of 4 to 5 m, but that there is an exceptional research potential for future archaeological work in coastal Bulgaria. The second paper by C. CORDOVA presents a synthesis on the Holocene evolution of vegetation in southern Crimeria. This area is unique in that Mediterranean taxa are present in spite of the area’s relatively high latitude and its marked geographical isolation. Landscape development involves a series of processes that have interacted at different scales over thousands of years, and is called the “mediterraneanisation” of the physical and cultural life of Crimea. The third article, written by N. PANIN and colleagues, presents a state-of-the-art of the Holocene morphogenesis of the Danube delta. The delta is formed of clastic deposits up to 400 m thick that have accumulated during the late Pleistocene the Holocene. The authors highlight several important morphogenetic phases including: (1) the formation of the Letea-Caraorman sand barier around 11700-7500 years BP; (2) the delta of St. George I around 9000-7200 years BP; (3) the delta of Sulina around 7200-2000 years BP; (4) the deltas of St. George II and of Kilia during the past 2500 years; and (5) the deltas of Cosna and Sinoie around 3500-1500 years BP.

Case studies

Site scale (4 studies)

7The first article, by C. FLAUX and colleagues, is devoted to the recent and unprecedented discovery of a palafit site dating to the beginning of the Bronze Age in the ancient lagoon of Alepou (Sozopol, Bulgaria), within the context of the Franco-Bulgarian mission Apollonia Pontica (ed. A. BARALIS, K. PANAYOTOVA). The authors used a multidisciplinary approach to reconstruct the evolution of the site. The site of Alepou provides important new data for the Bulgarian coast, complementing the series of submerged proto-historic sites already known from the area. Furthermore, it sheds new light on the economic strategies of coastal societies during the early Bronze Age. This study demonstrates that the lagoon shores were occupied not only for their maritime resources but also because the environmental context provided a safe anchorage. By comparison, the site of Provadia-Solnitsata in northeast Bulgaria, presented by V. NIKOLOV, is one of the first proto-historic cities of Europe, dated to 4700-4200 BC. Its development is directly linked to the exploitation of salt resources. A third study looks at the coastal geomorphology of the Kerkinitis region (northwestern Crimea), characterized by the presence of many estuaries (locally known as limans), resulting from the Holocene marine transgression of valley bottoms. These estuaries were used as natural coastal shelters until the Classical period (V. KUTAIZOV and T. SMEKALOVA, this volume). The fourth paper analyzes fluvial dynamics and landscape changes since the Bronze Age in the Sambek valley, northeast of the Azov Sea, near the Don delta. This study, by Mr. SCHLÖFFEL and colleagues, demonstrates that the early Holocene geomorphology of the Sambek valley was characterized by a meandering system. From the mid-Holocene to the 1960s, exogenous sedimentary accumulations played an important morphogenetic role. However, since the construction of numerous dams upstream during the Soviet era, the river system has significantly changed.

Regional scale (3 studies)

8The first article of this section, by G. GARBUZOV, attempts to quantify the arable land of the Kingdom of Bosphorus, which played an important role in 4th century BC trade and was one of the largest producers of marketable grain. Intense cereal production nonetheless presupposes the existence of a structured agricultural system. Fertile soils played an important role in the establishment and development of this economic model. In this perspective, the article proposes a method to estimate the maximum potential arable land. Furthermore, based on archaeological data, some assumptions can be made about the intensity of use of arable land. For the 4th century BC, the results suggest that fertile soils were sufficiently abundant in the Kingdom of Bosphorus to support the production of large quantities of marketable grain. A second study (D. KANIEWSKI and colleagues, this volume) describes the first evidence for the cultivation of cereals and anthropogenic fires on the Taman Peninsula, southern Russia, as early as 7000 years before the present. This palynological study suggests that the Caucasian corridor served as one of the routes for the diffusion of agricultural practices to the steppes of Eurasia. The third article, by V. LICHELI, discusses the challenges of locating the ancient city of Phasis (Georgia), which was a major Ionian settlement on the coastline of Colchis, in the eastern Black Sea. Based on historical, geomorphological and archaeological data, it seems probable that the site is located in a sedimented area of Sagvichio, near the current Rioni river.

At the Black Sea scale

9A catalogue of potential shelters and ancient ports identified by A. GRAAUW. He shows that at least 300 shelters were needed for safe navigation in the Black and Azov Seas. The paper concludes that many ancient harbours are probably yet to be discovered in the Ukraine and southern Russia.

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List of illustrations

Title Localisation of studied sites
Credits Crédit : P. Pentsch.
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Bibliographical reference

A. Baralis, A. Bivolaru, N. Marriner, C. Morhange, A. V. Porotov and V. N. Zin’ko, « Geomorphology and geoarchaeology of Black Sea coasts », Méditerranée, 126 | 2016, 11-14.

Electronic reference

A. Baralis, A. Bivolaru, N. Marriner, C. Morhange, A. V. Porotov and V. N. Zin’ko, « Geomorphology and geoarchaeology of Black Sea coasts », Méditerranée [Online], 126 | 2016, Online since 01 June 2016, connection on 22 April 2018. URL :

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