The Archaeology Of The Danube Delta

The Danube Delta is not only an oasis at the crossroads of the great bird migration and nesting routes. By its structural nature, the Danube Delta has always generated a varied range of resources and an inexhaustible reserve of natural wealth, which have signified for the people of these places a secure living and continual prosperity. For this reason, as soon as even the most isolated and far-flung sandbanks formed and consolidated, the natives of the region built homesteads on the new land, leaving as a testament to their habitation those remains that we today name archaeological sources. Such evidence has been discovered on the Chilia Veche continental sandbank, as well as on the enigmatic strip of land with the same origin – the Stipoc sandbank. The respective sources prove to us that this land has been continuously inhabited since the late Stone Age, i.e. since the "great catastrophe", when at the mouths of the river formed the great gulf in which the Danube Delta was to grow over time. Here, on the continental sandbank now named Chilia, systematic research undertaken by our colleague I. Vasiliu has uncovered no fewer than one hundred and fifteen tombs, which can be inscribed within the last wave of Indo-European westward migration. Their discoverer catalogues them as early Bronze Age (late Third-Millennium, early Second-Millennium B.C.). These are graves displaying ritual inhumation, with the deceased laid in deep pits, in the foetal position, covered with a layer of red ochre, and sometime accompanied by objects, usually pottery. These were the first incursions from the North-Pontic steppe of a culture of nomadic shepherds, named Yamnaya. They were followed by further wave of pastors, who certainly crossed the fluvial-maritime sandbanks of Letea and Caraorman, only for us to find them settled, in the following phase of the Bronze Age, on the south bank of the St George Arm, on those summits of the Dobrudja horst of Murighiol. We have named them the Bugeac Culture, after the north-Danube plain where they were first discovered and have been better researched. Natural wealth and geographical position gave this region of the Mouth of the Danube a place of global importance in the circulation of goods and artefacts of Mediterranean civilisation. In terms of international relations, it came to play a strategic role of the first order. Thanks to its natural endowments, the Danube Delta became a gateway and a bridge between the civilisation of the Mediterranean world and the land "beneath Ursa Major", with its long nights and hard frosts. It was here that the great sea routes intersected with those on dry land, and the Ister was an open, sure and easy gate. Its arms were now seven now five in number: Hieron Stoma (Holy Mouth), then Naracustoma (Narrow Mouth, which we have identified as the Împuţita Distributary), followed by Calonstoma (Fair Mouth – now the Sulina Arm), the Pseudostoma (False Mouth), Borion Stoma to the north, Psilon Stoma (Bare Mouth, identified as a marshy arm that ended in a large pond), and Tigiola. They were all enveloped in enigmas and legends, and quickly became renowned throughout the ancient world. We are told by Timogetos and Apollonius Rhodius that it was along the Fair Mouth that the Colchians of Absirtos sailed in search of the Argonauts. The enigmatic island of Peuce, evergreen because of its pine forests (whence its name) has given rise to numerous theories. It was somewhere on its banks that the Ister boasted the courageous Amazons dwell (Aeschylus in Niobe). However, we know for certain that the wounded Philip of Macedon returned from the plain at the Mouths of the Danube, his army having been slaughtered. Zapyrion, governor of Thrace, together with thirty thousand of his men, were slain to the last man somewhere in the Pools of the Delta, paying the price, as we are told by Trogus Pomeius, for rashly waging war against a nation that had done him no ill. Nor did Alexander the Great dare to venture too far into the heart of the Delta, preferring merely a show of force and then a retreat covered by a treaty. He very well knew that, for Greece, as Demosthenes (384-322 B.C.) relates, it was upon trade with the Euxine Sea and the realms of the Danube Mouths that the granaries of Athens and many other Mediterranean cities depended. Of these goods, fish from the Danube Delta was to remain for Histria the most lucrative in the commerce it carried on with the cities to the south, while pine from the Delta islands was exported as torch-wood, until its disappearance. These historical sources, as well as many others not mentioned here, are confirmed by archaeological research undertaken on the fluvial-maritime sandbanks of Caraorman and Letea, and by chance discoveries brought to the surface by dredgers or by sea waves following sudden storms. On the Caraorman sandbank, artefacts from the ancient Gaeto-Dacian civilisation have been brought to light, in the same archaeological context as elements of Greek origin, dating from the late Fifth Century B.C. The "Two Oaks" barrows at the south-eastern extremity of the Caraorman sandbank, as well as the traces of Roman structures near the village or on the bank of the Erenciuc channel or at Somova all await the intervention of archaeologists, in order to bring to light that which the forest and dunes have concealed and protected for thousands of years. While on the Chilia continental sandbank the sources go back to the great Indo-European migration, and those on the Caraorman speak of the "sea waggoners" and the flourishing of commerce, the archaeological remains of the Letea sandbank date from the turbulent times of the early Middle Ages. They are evidence of habitation of the point that today bears the name "Roman's Garden", as well as at "Cîrlan's Pasture" (four kilometres from the settlement of C. A. Rosetti) and "Trişcă's Pasture" (three kilometres from the village of Cardon). Likewise, there are also former small settlements at "Priest's Sheepfold Pasture", "Red Pasture" and "Homer's Garden". On the other hand, at the northern extremity of the Letea sandbank, where the "Great Hashmak" terminates" and the "Mad Gjöl [abyss]" depression opens, there can be found abundant remains of a late Byzantine settlement. Here, we are of course dealing with one of the port settlements that have not ceased to capture the attention of researchers of the Middle Ages, be it a case of an unknown archaeological site, be it even Licostomo, the famed Genoese fort sited on one of the Danube islands. Unfortunately for us, the sources regarding the organisation of old Licostomo are far from having been exhausted. A synoptic picture of Licostomo has been offered by many scholars of Romanian mediaeval studies (Octavian Iliescu and M. M. Alexandrescu-Dresca-Bulgaru), but the notary acts to be found in the archives in Genoa might still bring surprises to light. We have more data and information about Old and also New Chilia (Kili Selo), known as a target for Ottoman occupation. In 1479, Stephen the Great ordered, for the defence of Moldavia, that a new and powerful fort be built on a non-flooding sandbank, situated between the Sulina and Chilia Arms. Eight hundred masons and sixteen thousand labourers worked on the construction. However, the ambitions of the Ottoman Porte in the Danube Delta were so great that Bayazid II concentrated all his forces in order to conquer the place. His interest in exploiting the region was obvious from the fact that, after his victory in 1484, he did not leave Isaccea until he had established in writing a statute with regulations for administering the resources of the Danube Delta. At the same time, he ordered that the emir (a functionary who collected taxes) should record all the shops and everything that might be available for hire. From the Dobrudja port and building regulations it results that even after the Ottoman conquest the Danube maintained its importance as a link with the territory on the left bank of the river, traversed by the old trade routes into Hungary, Poland and other countries of Central Europe. The Black Sea, already a "Turkish lake", continued to know significant traffic, through the transportation links between Caffa, Trebizond and Istanbul, as well as the Danube ports. From the laws of the time (Kanunname), it results that port and transit taxes were levied not only on ships but also on various goods. Both at Kara Harman and at Hîrşova, transit taxes were calculated in relation to the value of the goods at the price of the day: an asper for two sheep; an asper per dry measure for cereals; an asper per bison, sheep and pig passing through the port of Kara Harman to graze on the Delta sandbanks… and the list goes on in detail for every item that might provide an income to the state treasury. The greatest income came from fish, with the Ottoman tax collectors taking a quarter of all the fish caught in the Danube. Providing Istanbul with strictly necessary produce was a major concern for the Ottoman government, not to mention the profits that could be made from the transit of ships and goods. Ottoman legislation was not to be replaced until the Nineteenth Century, through the treaties of the major European powers and, above all, that co-ordinated by the European Danube Commission, set up after the Paris Peace Conference of 1856. The Commission was to bring unprecedented prosperity to Sulina in particular. The early Twentieth Century was a heyday for the region, a time of peace and prosperity created by Mother Nature and the waters of the Danube Delta.

by Gavrilă Simion