Tanais occupies a special place among the ancient cities on the northern coast of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It is remarkable that the city, which area never exceeded 15 hectares and population only reached 5 thousand, existed continuously for 550 years (from the beginning of the 3rd century BC to the middle of the 3rd century AD) in such a dangerous region.
Tanais was located on the migration route of successive waves of nomads coming from the East. The importance of this small city in the political, economic, and cultural life of the peoples and tribes of Eastern Europe cannot be overstated.
The location of Tanais far from other Greek cities, at the meeting point of ancient civilization and the steppe tribes, determined its role as a great center of trade and an important cultural factor. Probably for this reason Tanais was also an important intelligence point – both for the Bosporan Kingdom and, in the first centuries AD, for the Roman Empire.
A closer study of the history of Tanais would allow us to better understand the history of Greek colonization, the history of Bospor, Rome and the tribes – Scythians, Meotians, Sarmatians.
Who and when founded the city – we do not know. Based on archaeological sources we can conclude that Tanais was founded between 290 and 260 BC. Unfortunately, there are no written sources that can help us determine its origins. The only information about Tanais, concerning the Hellenistic period, comes from Strabon, but it is very general. It states that at the end of the first century Bosporus king Polemon ravaged the city. Tanais flourished again at the end of the first century AD. Great building works were carried out then, rebuilding and strengthening the Hellenistic fortifications. The next destruction of Tanais occurred in the middle of the third century AD and was the result of an invasion attributed to the Sarmatians or Goths. The last phase of the settlement, which took place between the second half of the 4th and the first half of the 5th century, is connected with the Goths. After the Goths left the town, the traces of their presence were left only by the next nomads – connected with the Khazar kaganate. The most recent history of Tanais begins in the early 19th century, when the surrounding lands come under the rule of Cossacks. At the same time, an ancient city is correctly located.
The first serious archaeological works are in the middle of the 19th century. The results of the research did not satisfy the tsarist authorities and excavations of the city were stopped until the mid-20th century. Since 1955, archaeological work has been carried out continuously by the Moscow Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences; initially the work was directed by Dmitri Shelov, and since 1993 by Tatiana Arsenieva. Since the 1990s German (Deutsches Archaeologisches Institut Berlin) and Polish (University of Warsaw) archaeologists have also been involved in the work. In 1961, a museum was established which now covers not only the town’s area, but also the adjacent protective zone with the remains of rural buildings and vast necropolis areas.
Tanais (in the literature we also hear the term “Nevyvigovsk settlement”) is located on the high bank of the Dead Don River – one of the mouths of the Don River, in the modern village of Nevyvigovka. In ancient times Tanais was probably located on the seashore, but today the Sea of Azov is 9 km away. In the middle of the 19th century a railroad line was built between Rostov and Taganrog, which destroyed the lower part of the town.
Excavations of the 19th century have not uncovered the Hellenistic Tanais. Judging by the few descriptions and preserved historical material, mainly layers connected with the later history of the city were studied: with the Gothic settlement and the first centuries AD. It was not until Szelow’s works excavated the remains of the period of the town’s first prosperity, dated between the second half of the 3rd century BC and the end of the 1st century BC. It turned out that the city was then divided into two parts: the so-called Western Tanais (which was never rebuilt after Polemon’s invasion) and the Eastern Tanais, also sometimes called the Acropolis. Western Tanais, which has been the object of our expedition’s work since 1996, was presented by Szelow as a suburb inhabited by tribal people. This part of the town, with curved, narrow streets, was surrounded by a not very solid defensive wall, protecting residential quarters composed of buildings arranged on an irregular plan. A typical dwelling consisted of several rooms located around a courtyard. In the rooms and in the courtyards there are numerous storage pits. Eastern Tanais, probably inhabited by the Greeks, looked completely different. A solid defensive wall, fortified with towers, built according to the best Greek principles, surrounded residential quarters, cut through by a regular grid of streets. The houses were also built according to a regular plan, with rooms facing a cobbled courtyard, in the middle of which there was a cistern. All houses had cellars, which served primarily as storage rooms for amphorae.
In the first centuries A.D., when only the eastern part was rebuilt, the urban plan was left without any major changes. The defensive walls were rebuilt and significantly strengthened, and a defensive ditch was carved around the city. Very few remnants of the Gothic settlement have survived to the present day. The housing was very reminiscent of the early houses of Western Tanais: curved walls of small houses facing crooked, narrow streets. The agricultural base, a source of food for the town’s population, was probably also associated with ancient Tanais. Unfortunately, we do not know much about it. It seems that the settlement stretched along a narrow strip along the Don; this area is now occupied by the village of Nesvigovka.