Finding Common Ground on the Black Sea
At an ancient city that both Christians and Jews have called home, Ukrainians and Americans are partners, geologists work closely with Russian scholars and different languages unite people.
Sevastopol, Ukraine Macalester Professor Gitta Hammarberg walks into the middle of an anti-NATO demonstration by 100 pensioners and war veterans outside the Crimean government headquarters and engages them in a long conversation about the problems of everyday life in post-Soviet society. The unexpected discussion, in Russian, starts out tense. It ends with invitations for the empathetic Hammarberg to visit the demonstrators homes for tea.
On top of a mountain called "Ancient Bliss" overlooking the Black Sea, Zeb Page 99 is having the time of his life studying rocks with geology Professor Karl Wirth. "It fit my two old loves of traveling and speaking Russian with my new love of geology," Page says. "Its bliss."
At a cafe near the ancient Greek city of Chersonesus, Macalester classics Professor Andy Overman and political science Professor Mark Beissinger of the University of Wisconsin are comparing notes on the meaning of empire: the ancient Greek and Roman empires with which Overman is intimately familiar, and the 20th century Soviet empire which Beissinger has spent his career studying.
Inside the cramped archives at the Chersonesus Museum Preserve, a stones throw from the Black Sea, Rachel Green 98 and Macalester Professor Jim von Geldern consult on their efforts to translate Russian documents. The documents tell of a basilica built over what Overman and his archeological colleagues believe was a Jewish synagogue. "Shes found quite a few significant new details," von Geldern says. "This is a case [for proof of the synagogue] that will be built on details."
These are but a few telling scenes from two weeks of the Macalester Black Sea Project. They took place last August near the old city of Chersonesus and the modern city of Sevastopol. The Black Sea Project, now in its fourth year of digging in search of a 2nd4th century (Common Era) synagogue and Jewish community, added a new twist this year. Using the dig and its location in the historic Crimea region of Ukraine as a focus, the project brought together faculty members and students from several disciplines to study and learn and collaborate. Von Geldern and Overman initiated the idea for the collaboration, and the project obtained a $25,000 grant from the Fund for Mutual Understanding (part of the Rockefeller Foundation) to support the faculty. In all, five Macalester faculty members and Beissinger from Wisconsin, three Macalester students, two other American students, and six other members of the archeological team traveled to Chersonesus, where they worked with their Ukrainian counterpart, Misha Zolotarev, and eight students from Zaporozhye State University.
"This was a great opportunity to do something new," von Geldern says of his work in Ukraine. "Its really a chance to live the liberal arts," Overman adds.
Here is an inside look at two weeks of the Black Sea Project, circa 1997:
Judaism and Angry Communists
Four years ago, the first Black Sea Project group traveled 27 hours from Kiev to Sevastopol in a bus that broke down frequently. This summer, the trip from Odessa to Sevastopol took only nine hours, the air conditioning usually worked and there was only one breakdown. Overman considers that progress.
"Sevastopol itself was closed to Westerners and outsiders until 1-1/2 years ago because it was the headquarters for the Russian Black Sea fleet," he recalled. "We had to give up our passports to police and the KGB followed us. We were the first Americans to visit Balaklava, site of the famous Crimean War battle in 1854. There was a sign that said No Trespassing in Russian. Misha [Zolotarev, chief archeologist at the Chersonesus museum] took the sign and threw it off the cliff into the sea. The Soviet Union is dead, he said."
One of the biggest changes since Overman and the project archeologists began visiting Chersonesus in 1993 is the degree to which Jews and Judaism can be discussed openly. The archeological research focuses on the existence of a Jewish community not a popular subject during Soviet rule. At a conference this August celebrating 170 years of archeology at Chersonesus, Overman and his colleagues presented papers on their findings. The historic Jewish community was discussed for several hours and the Russian and Ukrainian archeologists asked questions. Overman said the difference in atmosphere was a sea change.
"We felt all along this was a unique city and area with an unusual history, culture and political situation," Overman explained as a motivation for wanting to bring colleagues to Sevastopol.
His belief about the interesting mix of politics and history proved correct on the second day of the visit when Hammarberg, who teaches Russian studies at Macalester, found herself in the middle of that demonstration in Simferopol, the capital of the Crimea. The senior citizen protesters were angry that the president of Ukraine was vacationing while, they declared, others were starving. As police officers and other security people watched, the demonstrators described themselves as "honest Communists" who longed for what they considered "the good old days" in the old Soviet Union, Hammarberg said afterward. They blamed the United States and the West for their problems. "They thought I was a journalist and that I could take their message to the West," Hammarberg said. "I told them I was a literature teacher and then they identified with me as a teacher. They liked it that I had learned their language and that I had made their literature my lifes work.
"They were so angry and desperate. It was a little intimidating. I couldnt get out of this circle. I was moved by their complaints."
While the demonstration was not part of Hammarbergs itinerary, it gave her insights she may not have found in the library. "The Crimea is a central part of Russian literature and history, so it was important to experience it," she said. "It is crucial for Jim [von Geldern] and me to be in this environment."
And crucial for students, as well. Back at the dormitory-like building that was home to Macalester students and professors, Mac students gathered most nights with their Ukrainian counterparts from Zaporozhye University to relive the day and to talk about their lives. The conversation was conducted in a combination of Russian, English, French, Spanish and laughter. Over food, refreshments, cards and chess, it was also where much of the cultural exchange took place each day.
"You should have seen their eyes when we invited them to go," von Geldern says of Zeb Page and Rachel Green, two of the Macalester students. For Page, Green and Courtney Kost 98, the journey to the Black Sea was a chance to return to Russia, practice their language skills, meet Ukrainian students and work closely with a faculty member on the dig or other project.
Each day, Page and his faculty mentor, Karl Wirth, set out to explore the geology of a different area. With Hammarbergs translating help, they were able to make arrangements with Ukrainian geologists in Simferopol who guided them throughout the countryside. They took samples, photographed rock formations, pinpointed their exact location with a device that bounces a signal off a satellite and listened intently as their Ukrainian colleagues explained the nature of the geology in the Crimea.
Page and Wirth worked closely in the field, sometimes up to 12 hours a day. Page hopes to write an honors paper on what he and Wirth discover about the chemical content of Crimean volcanic rock.
"The Crimean mountains are situated at the junction between several plates [of the Earth] and have had a very long and
complex history," Wirth said. "By studying the composition of the volcanic rocks, we hope to be able to unravel part of this history. This is a team effort. Zeb knows the language and culture. I can help him understand the geology."
On the eve of his departure, Page was enthusiastic about his experiences. "It was great being in the field," he said. "Getting to know the Ukrainian geologists was terrific. My Russian has improved the last couple weeks. I really enjoyed getting to know the Zap students. I made new friends. I even think the food was OK." (Some of his student and faculty colleagues might disagree about the bland combination of bread, boiled meat, bulgar wheat and tea that was the centerpiece of most dining hall meals.)
Using what youve learned
While Page trekked up mountains and explored seaside caves, Rachel Green spent her second year at Chersonesus in a pottery shed and in the museum archives. A Russian and history
major from Seattle, Green lived in Russia in the fall of 1996 and has had an interest in the area since she was 9 and accompanied her parents on educational trips. In the pottery shed, she and a Zaporozhye student are comparing pictures of handles found in 1995 with the actual pieces. In the archives, she is checking earlier translations of Russian archeological reports for accuracy. It is painstaking work. With the help of another Zaporozhye student, she was able to match photographs taken years ago with a location on a map of the site.
For her part, Green found her experiences fascinating and varied. "This definitely puts a big capstone on my Macalester experience. To put in use what youve learned in class. To see how professors do research, to collaborate. The close relationships with professors and international students are quite something." As if to illustrate her point, Green smoothly shifts gears to translate an interview with a Zaporozhye student who doesnt speak English.
At the dig site, Courtney Kost 98 of Fargo, N.D., spent her two weeks matching soil colors for comparison with other sites, sketching the rocks, recording and storing pottery samples. She worked closely with the projects site director and with the Ukrainian students who are doing much of the digging. A Russian and history major, Kost has lived in St. Petersburg, and decided late last spring to make the trip to Chersonesus.
"My language skills come back at the strangest times," Kost said. "At the market, I wanted the woman to break [Ukrainian money]. She understood me. Its the same with the Zaporozhye students. I speak enough Russian. They speak enough English. We manage. This [experience] confirms that I definitely want to continue studying Russian language and culture."
Translations Trials and Rewards
For nearly three hours one warm Friday afternoon in the un-airconditioned second floor of the archeological museum, Professors Hammarberg and von Geldern, with only 45 minutes to prepare, translated from English to Russian for Overman and three colleagues as they presented their findings on the Black Sea Project. Some 75 archeologists from Ukraine and Russia listened intently. When it was over, Hammarberg and von Geldern were exhausted.
"Ive never done formal translation before," Hammarberg said. "And when its from Russian to English, its 10 times harder." Von Geldern explained that they had to be careful because they didnt want to translate ungrammatically, making the archeologists appear unprofessional. "This is exactly what were here for," von Geldern added. "Were glad to help our colleagues communicate....The translations we did [were] geological, historical, archeological, cultural, business."
"Chit-chat and car negotiations," Hammarberg added with a smile. Her unofficial duties each day included helping Wirth and Page arrange for drivers for their geology excursions.
"The interdisciplinary collaboration was the best thing about the trip," she said. "To be able to set up the geologists. Hanging out with [political scientist] Mark Beissinger I learned a lot from him. I also saw Russia through different peoples eyes."
When they werent on a Crimean mountain, Wirth and Page were examining the geology of the site at Chersonesus. Wirth wants to study the extent of the partially submerged ancient city and the bedrock foundation beneath the dig site for clues to the source of building materials used at the site and the evolution of the coastline. He plans to write a geological section for the archeologists report.
Wirth, who normally does field trips with other geologists, said, "Now Im learning about culture and history. Its a more complete experience rather than just Come and study the rocks. Its interesting to see that others are having cultural experiences, from the meals to riding the buses...Having common experiences will bind us together. You cant really put a value on that."
He plans to collaborate on a paper on Crimean geology with the Ukrainian geologist who was his guide and teacher for more than a week.
Overman and von Geldern hope the two weeks on the Black Sea can serve as a model for future area studies education. "Even in the classics, we have to get out of the classroom and to the site. And you have to be OK with not figuring everything out right away," Overman said.
"Field work," von Geldern added, "is: look at what you have, conjecture what it might be and then go look for confirmation. You fire 10 blanks and on the 11th one youve got it. The Russians are looking for a viable past for themselves: Scythians [an ancient people who lived in what is now Russia and later the Crimea] as proto-Slavs. They are finding a monocultural past. Andy is finding a multicultural past."
Future of the Black Sea Project
That years research found no new startling evidence, but confirmed many of the earlier findings of the archeologists, Overman said. He and his colleagues are convinced, through their digging and an extensive review of the archival evidence, that a Jewish synagogue existed at Chersonesus between the 2nd and 4th centuries Common Era. Among the evidence is a Hebrew inscription, two menorahs and an oil lamp fragment that appears to have a Torah shrine on it. The efforts this summer were intended to pinpoint more precisely dates and locations of activities during the time Jews lived among Greeks and Romans and Christians at Chersonesus and to check and re-check archival records for further clues about life there. When it was suggested that the research is like detective work, like Lt. Colombo solving a crime, Professor Doug Edwards, an archeologist from University of Puget Sound, replied, "But he solves the crimes. We create more mysteries."
"The work in the field and in the archives over the last four years has been extremely rewarding and surprising," Overman said. "We have discovered more and been perplexed by more than we ever could have imagined. We are going to pause this year and make sure we can make sense of all of our finds and get our research out to a broader public."
Overman and the other archeologists from the project will spend the next year writing a popular book on their findings. They also hope to produce a CD-ROM to accompany the book that would contain technical and archeological information, drawings and background. They may dig next summer at Chersonesus, but certainly a small group will return for additional archival research, Overman said. He hopes to expand the projects research to include Jewish history in other parts of Ukraine and Russia. He would also like to continue aspects of the program, including student and faculty exchanges (two Zaporozhye students, Julia Berest and Evgenji Los, are studying at Macalester this fall and Misha Zolotorev will probably come here in the spring) and further collaboration with other programs and departments such as Russian and East European Studies, Classics, Geology and Geography.
Overman sought to capture the spirit of the project in a toast at one of the celebration dinners: "To Chersonesus, this amazing place, for bringing people together as in the past. It is still uniting people from many different nations."
After another farewell dinner, the Macalester students and faculty and the Ukrainian students and archeologists walked outside to watch fireworks from the harbor in downtown Sevastopol. The once-closed city was celebrating. It was Ukrainian independence day.
Text and photos by Doug Stone, Director of College Relations at Macalester. Doug has a special interest in Ukraine. His maternal grandfather was born in Kremenchuk and left for the U.S. in 1911 to avoid persecution against Jews under the czar. His paternal grandmother was born near Odessa and emigrated to America for similar reasons in the early 1900s.