Writing about travelling to Crimea to work at an excavation site and not mentioning anything about the excavations per se would be a terrible injustice as the dig was historically interesting, archaeologically exciting and simple fun.
It was 2011 and I just moved to Poland after a decade of travelling & living around Europe. I wanted to stay close to archaeology, so I applied for Underwater Archaeology programme at the University of Warsaw as the course brought two of my passions together.
The underwater training work was to take place in Crimea and I received an invitation to join the excavations in Balaklava, once my underwater training was done.
I loved the idea at once.
The fun of diggin’
I joined the expedition in Balaklava, which had been operating in Crimea since 2009. The aim of the expedition was to identify the plan of a building simply called Building “A” as well as to define the extent of the Roman fort.
Balaklava came to be of archaeological importance in 1996 when a group of construction workers discovered remains of a structure, which after examination turned out to be a temple of Jupiter Dolichenus.
Thanks to a number of antique relics such as fragments of sculptures, reliefs and altars, not only we know the god to whom the temple was dedicated but also other gods that were worshiped at the place.
Jupiter Dolichenus? Who’s that?
When the Roman Empire was conquering a big part of the known world, the army would encounter a lot of new deities on its way. Gods such as Jupiter Dolichenus were Roman re-inventions of foreign figures in order to give their cults legitimacy and to distinguish them from the cults of the traditional Roman gods.
Jupiter Dolichenus comes from Doliche, a city in the Kingdom of Commagene, which was an ancient Armenian kingdom of the Hellenistic period and it is located in modern Turkey. Although the contemporary scholastic issues make Jupiter Dolichenus difficult to assess, the god was perceived by Romans as of Syrian-origin.
This didn’t have much to do with reality but ancient Romans didn’t mind. It fulfilled their need of re-inventing borrowed gods to fit them into the Roman mainstream. With a little twist as the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus was a mystery religion whose customs and rituals were restricted only to the initiates.
Good things come to those who wait: Building A
I couldn’t resist myself just above – sorry! Having studied ancient mystery cults, I always get overexcited whenever the subject is near. However, working in Balaklava, I developed a new passion for something that I didn’t think of much before – the Roman army.
We worked on the site of barracks, so the military subject was often breached upon and hearing all the cool stories was opening my mind more and more.
Previous archaeological findings at the site established the earliest trace of human presence as a thin layer of burning dated to the 1st c. AD, and the demise of the Roman fort is attributed to the decline of the Severan dynasty in the 3rd c. AD. During that time, the buildings had been repeatedly remodeled with old constructions being torn down and new buildings being raised.
A real breakthrough in the investigation happened in 2013, sending Ukrainian and Polish scholars ablaze.
Shaking up the known history
The works were going swiftly throughout the season and we managed to uncover so much of the structure that we were finally able to identify what we were dealing with.
What we thought were common barracks or quarters of one of the centurions (officers), turned out to be a praetorium, which is a property belonging to a Roman garrison commander.
Suddenly, our little dig turned into a site of major importance as it challenged the previously help concept that the quarters of the Roman army commander in Tauris (the ancient name of Crimea) were located in the very well preserved citadel of Chersonesus in nearby Sevastopol.
Instead, our forlorn and damaged by various building constructions site revealed to hold the heart of the Roman Empire at one of its farthest, eastern ends.
With this piece of hot news, we had a lot of visitors, excursions and TV interviews. People walked, people listened, people nodded. And then people forgot.
This amazing discovery of 2013 was the last we had done at the site in Balaklava as half a year later, political circumstances pushed us out of Crimea.
I always wonder: how many surprises are still waiting to be discovered in Balaklava?