At the beginning of the 3rd century BC in the estuary of the River Tanais (the Don) the city of Tanais was founded by Greeks from the Bosporan Kingdom. At the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 2nd century BC it grew from a small emporion into a large and flourishing city, which till the mid-5th century AD served as a major centre for commodity exchange between representatives of Classical civilization and the inhabitants of the steppe. Goods, mainly wine in amphorae, household items and jewellery, were brought there from various manufacturing centres of the Pontic and Eastern Mediterranean regions.
The history of the city is being pieced together mostly on the basis of archaeological research. The first excavations were conducted here in 1853 by Professor P.M. Leontiev of Moscow University. Since 1955 excavation work has been carried out at the site each year by expedition teams from the Institute of Archaeology.
The central part of the city consists of a large, roughly square citadel measuring 240 by 250 m, which stands on a high terrace on the shore of the Don delta and is protected on three sides by moats. As early as the mid-3rd century BC the first stone buildings appeared here, but the main elements of the city’s lay-out were established by the end of the 3rd — beginning of the 2nd century BC. At that time the foundations were laid for the defensive walls enclosing the citadel. The entrance to it was provided by four gates located on four sides of the defences. The straight streets of the citadel were paved with stone and broken pottery. They divided the area into blocks of residential houses. In the southern part of the citadel a square was laid out. Most buildings of the early period were dismantled when the city was re-designed in the first centuries AD. At the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 2nd century BC, the territory west of the central part of Tanais was developed intensively and the so-called Upper City took shape. The Lower City located on the river bank and presumably near the port is likely to have appeared at the same time. The double line of defences that surrounded the citadel itself and the territory beyond it assumed its definitive form. As a result the districts of the town stretched along the river banks over a distance of 600–700 m.
The Tanais necropolis containing both burial mounds and underground graves was laid out on the north, east and west sides of the residential districts. Burials linked with the city are found within a radius of more than 1.5 km. Over 2,000 burials have already been excavated.
During its “life-time” Tanais underwent at least three major disasters. At the end of the 1st century BC it was destroyed for “insubordination” by the Bosporan king, Polemon. Recent excavations have revealed traces of another rout, which befell Tanais in the mid-2nd century AD and was presumably linked with the penetration from the East to the lower reaches of the Don by fighting formations of nomads, representatives of Late Sarmatian culture. It was precisely from that time onwards that there are tangible signs of the presence of the steppe population in the town. In the mid-3rd century AD Tanais and all the surrounding settlements were again destroyed and burnt down. Dozens of complexes have been discovered which were wiped out by a terrible conflagration and contained a large quantity of coins, amphorae, table-ware and household utensils. The city remained in ruins until the middle of the 4th century. After that it was rebuilt but never again on the previous grand scale. The reason for the final abandonment of Tanais in the middle of the 5th century AD is not yet clear. It is likely that against a background of total desolation of the region, the city was no longer able to play its key role — that of the main centre for trading and economic links in the steppes of the lower Don. Gradually life in the city went into decline. Situated as it was on the very edge of the Classical world, Tanais fell victim to neglect and was forgotten for many centuries.
In recent years the fortification system in the central part of Tanais has been investigated, along with the districts of the Upper and Lower Cities adjacent to it. Well-preserved streets, complexes incorporating both living space and outbuildings used for work were found in the city, the upper outline of the southern defensive wall and the south city gate were uncovered. A road of the 1st–3rd centuries AD led up to the gates from the inside: it was paved with large flat slabs of stone and had a pavement up to 1.5 m wide on each side of it, while the thoroughfare between them was 3.5 m wide. It could have been used for delivering goods by cart from the port. Beyond the city walls the road had probably passed along the edge of the upper terrace of the main bank towards the port installations of the Lower City. It is possible that in the next few years we shall be able to determine with a good deal of confidence the place where the ancient port had been. Near the west gate of the citadel the eastern section of the northern defensive wall of the Western District has been cleared. The wall joined the corner of the tower that protected the main entrance into the Citadel from the South. As a result of the discovery of a separate entrance into the Western District, it has emerged that at least until the end of the 1st century BC the citadel and the western part of the city had been separated by a fairly thick wall, through which there had been no openings.
Since 2006 intensive excavations have been going on in the necropolis located immediately next to the city. Here more than 400 burials dating from the 2nd century BC through the 6th century AD have been found. Of particular interest are the rich burial complexes of the 2nd–3rd centuries AD which have provided a basis of a new kind for analysing the complex question as to how best to investigate the ethnic and cultural-historical character of the ruling élite of Tanais.
T.M. Arsenieva and S.M. Ilyashenko