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Byzantium and the Kipchaks: Material and Military Contacts

Warren Woodfin, Queens College, City University of New York, Summer Fellow 2013

My summer fellowship was devoted to investigating the history of political, trade, and military ties between Byzantium and its thirteenth-century successor states with the steppe nomads, variously known as Cumans, Kipchaks, or Polovtsy. This research provides a historical underpinning for the interpretation of objects of Byzantine manufacture found in the grave of a Kipchak “prince” at the Chungul Kurgan in the Azov Steppe of Ukraine. In the course of my summer research, I engaged with the issues of ethnographic description in Byzantine literature. Despite the received wisdom that Byzantine ethnographic descriptions tend to be highly dependent on inherited topoi from Herodotus and other classical sources, I found Niketas Choniates’s and others’ accounts of the Kipchak nomads to be more congruent with archaeological findings than they are with ancient descriptions of the Scythians. I was also able to make good use of the Dumbarton Oaks Seals Collection and its associated resources to flesh out the picture of the Byzantine presence in the northern Black Sea region. Because seal finds from the area are skewed toward officials of high rank, I would suggest that the Byzantines administered ports such as Sogdaia (Sudak) in a way that ceded local control to the Kipchaks. The collation of archaeological data with the historical sources has not only helped pinpoint the possible routes by which Byzantine and Near Eastern goods might have traveled to the Azov Steppe but has also allowed for greater certainty in dating the burial to the second or third decade of the thirteenth century.