Skip to Main Content Skip to Footer Toggle Navigation Menu

Black Sea Project

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. “It’s 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 stone’s 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. “She’s 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 2nd–4th 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. “It’s 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.

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 life’s work.

“They were so angry and desperate. It was a little intimidating. I couldn’t get out of this circle. I was moved by their complaints.”

While the demonstration was not part of Hammarberg’s 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.

Rocky Relationships

“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 Hammarberg’s 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.

On the trip up the mountain, Page and Wirth stopped so often to examine rocks that their guide was concerned they wouldn’t make it down before dark. “I was blown away by how quickly our relationship developed with the Ukrainians,” Page said. That relationship with the Ukrainian geologists began quickly en route to the mountain. As Page joked in the van, “There are three languages being spoken here: Englishsky, Russiansky and geologsky.”

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 you’ve 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.

“The reason I wanted Rachel to come to Russia is because she wants to go to grad school,” von Geldern explained. “To do that you have to work in archives, and she’s doing great work here.”

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 you’ve 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 doesn’t 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 project’s 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. It’s 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.”

Translation’s 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.

“I’ve never done formal translation before,” Hammarberg said. “And when it’s from Russian to English, it’s 10 times harder.” Von Geldern explained that they had to be careful because they didn’t want to translate ungrammatically, making the archeologists appear unprofessional. “This is exactly what we’re here for,” von Geldern added. “We’re 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 people’s eyes.”

When they weren’t 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 I’m learning about culture and history. It’s a more complete experience rather than just ‘Come and study the rocks.’ It’s interesting to see that others are having cultural experiences, from the meals to riding the buses…Having common experiences will bind us together. You can’t 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 you’ve 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 year’s 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.”

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 project’s 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.

Macalester Black Sea Project

Where: at the tip of the Crimean peninsula on the north shore of the Black Sea
1997 Participants
: 26 total; five Macalester faculty; three Mac students; a professor from University of Wisconsin; two other U.S. students; two faculty from University of Puget Sound; four other project members; director of archeology at Chersonesus Museum Preserve; eight students from Zaporozhye State University
: to find evidence of a 2nd–4th century Common Era Jewish synagogue and community
Other key goals
: to break down cultural barriers; stimulate faculty and faculty-student collaboration

Sponsors: Macalester College; University of Puget Sound; Fund for Mutual Understanding; private donors