August used to be the silly season: a time for "the emergence of frivolous news stories".
This year, according to Patrick Barkham of the UK's Guardian newspaper, Russia's Vladimir Putin has been providing some of the silliness, citing pictures of Putin "looting undersea pottery" as classic silly story fodder.
Many of the articles implied that there was something perhaps not quite authentic in the tale of the Russian politician diving in the shallow waters covering the site and just happening to find two large pieces of Greek amphorae. Xinhua titled its coverage "Putin 'discovers' Greek urns on scuba dive", while the NY Times described the scene as a "stage-managed dive" in which "lo and behold, the camera pulls back to reveal two Greek urns poking out at photographically appealing angles". And on Facebook, international archaeologists debated whether the vessels looked like they were previously cleaned.
But contrary to most of the coverage this visit got, this isn't (just) Putin acting his role of the masculine hero (again): according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, Putin was in fact visiting
to publicize archeological restoration work on the submerged part of the ancient Greek city of Phanagoria.
Phanagoria was described by Archaeology magazine in 2009 as "an ancient Greek city on the Black Sea that was home to Mithradates VI", "king of Pontus from 119 to 63 B.C.". Here, they note, archaeologist Vladimir Kuznetsov of the Russian Academy of Sciences has been working for 40 years.
While the images that attracted the international media show Putin trudging up the beach, two ceramic vessels dangling from his hands, other photos show Kuznetsov and Putin, soberly dressed, examining a different vessel on the part of the site located on land.
Now, I hate to throw ice water on a good silly season story.
But take a closer look here: this story has a serious underside that illuminates Russia's network of influence and political power, and illustrates how archaeology, far from being either the Indiana Jones treasure hunt the media latched on to, or a detached pursuit of academic knowledge, is always available to be recruited for nationalist ends.
RIA Novosti gives the most context for the visit to the site. Phanagoria is slated for investment as a potential tourist attraction, and Putin, among other things, promoted the idea of building a museum there. The government funding involved is substantial: the equivalent of $3.5 billion from 2012 to 2018, in hope of quadrupling the number of visitors.
Yes, that was $3.5 billion (100 billion rubles): raised, RIA Novosti says, from a bond measure. No wonder the head archaeologist is quoted as saying
"By scale and value, this monument can be compared to a rich oil deposit. Archeology is not measured in money but Phanagoria's 'capitalization' is simply astronomical."
The article notes that the archaeological project itself is "funded by the Russian Geographical Society, led by Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu and closely linked to the ruling United Russia party".
The work at Phanagoria is also supported by a Russian nonprofit, Volnoe Delo. The Moscow News quoted Volnoe Delo's director, Tamara Rumyantseva, as saying “We have been funding this project for many years because we believe this is of a high cultural and tourist value for Kuban and Russia.”
Volnoe Delo was founded by Oleg Deripaska, described as Russia's "aluminum king" in a Frontline profile:
Russia's youngest billionaire at age 35. Deripaska accumulated a business empire through a series of ruthless and elaborate, though technically legal, takeover raids.
This profile, written in 2003, noted his political connections to the "center-right, ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Russia". A more recent profile in the Guardian described his political affiliation then:
Deripaska is also close to Vladimir Putin. At home Deripaska has keenly obeyed the key rule of the authoritarian Putin era: don't meddle in politics.
By June of 2009, Deripaska had become a target for Putin, who scolded him during a public tour of a factory, an incident The Telegraph characterized as part of a campaign by Putin to distance himself from the super-wealthy in Russia.
When archaeology matters in politics, in most places in the world it is for one of two reasons: money and nationalism. Increasingly, these are intertwined.
First, archaeological sites, promoted properly, are seen as potential tourist draws, critical sources of income. The Christian Science Monitor quotes Putin as saying "Mankind will be interested to learn that we have such riches... I believe people will come from all over the world."
Nationalist politics puts a special spin on the sheer desire for tourist income. The director of Volnoe Delo said its support for Phanagoria reflects "Deripaska’s belief that Russia’s heritage should be better known". This same sentiment is evident in Putin's quote: "we have such riches".
Who's the "we" here? In what way is an ancient Greek colony on the Black Sea "Russia's heritage"?
An emphasis on Greek sites as Russian heritage is an old theme. The earliest sites recognized as Russian cultural heritage were identified in 1805, and included Greek archaeological sites on what was then newly conquered Russian territory on the Black Sea. Physical appropriation of the landscape was followed by appropriation of history, figured as heritage that rooted Russia in a Classic past. Irina Tunkina writes that "it became possible for the educated class of Russian society to familiarize itself with ancient sites not only in the Mediterranean but also in Southern Russia".
During the Soviet period, the same Classical Greek sites were, Gotcha R. Tsetskhladhze has argued, subject to reinterpretation as temporary and without enduring influence on Russian history: "a denial of significant Greek influences" in favor of in situ development of Russian culture.
So what has changed since 1995, when Tsetshladzhe's study was published, to make post-Soviet Russia, like early 19th century Russia, want to claim a Classical Greek past?
Archaeological sites recognized as World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, or simply included in lists by publications like Archaeology (which included Phanagoria in its top 10 new finds list in 2009) can serve as a kind of mark of distinction in the international arena.
Such sites can be used to give relatively modern nations an aura of long term stability. Their promotion as "heritage" implies the idea of inheritance. Sites to be promoted as heritage are selected to emphasize certain parts of history, and obscure others.
One of the motivations in the 1800s for marking these early Greek trading sites as specifically Russian cultural heritage was clearly the desire to affiliate Russia with Europe, and all that implied at the time in terms of cultural development and progress. Are we seeing a renewal of this strand of Russian nationalism today?