New discoveries in Georgia.
Archaeological surveys on the Javakheti Plateau in the Georgian Caucasus
The mission of I S M E O — The International Association for Mediterranean and Oriental Studies, with the co-financing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and directed by Prof. Paolo Biagi, studies the area of Mount Chikiani.
For the column Let’s talk about Archaeology, Prof. Paolo Biagi updates us on the ongoing research and on the latest discoveries in 2021.
The research area
During August 2021, a new archaeological fieldwork season was carried out on the Javakheti Plateau in the Georgian Caucasus. The research covered that territory that extends north-east of Mt. Chikiani (2417 m), along the northern slopes of which many groups of obsidian extraction pits have been discovered, whose chronological attribution is most probably to be traced back to Bronze Age mining activities (Biagi et al., 2017). Other information relating to the manufacture of obsidian tools, among which are bifacial arrowheads and spearheads, which also provide some relative chronological indications, have been discovered a few kilometers north-east of the same volcano, where an important obsidian knapping workshop was discovered and mapped three years before.
In the summer of 2021, surveys were extended to that part of the plateau that stretches between Mt. Chikiani, the village of Trialeti, and the southern shore of the Tsalka Reservoir. We know that the entire territory in question is rich in archaeological sites, kurgans in particular, which were published in 1940s when the Tsalka basin was dammed, many Bronze Age and later settlements and tombs were excavated, and later submerged (Kuftin, 1941).
The 2021 surveys
The 2021 surveys were carried out in collaboration with the I. Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University. They were co-directed by Professor V. Licheli. They covered a territory that extends for about 10 kms north-east of Mt. Chikiani. The surveys conducted in previous years, together with the careful observation of the satellite images, had revealed the presence of high-altitude villages with various types of complex stone structures, which had never been reported before. Following the analysis of the satellite images, the fieldwork was conducted to check the characteristics of the aforementioned buildings on the ground, proceed with their preliminary mapping thanks to the use of a drone, and check for the presence of knapped obsidian artefacts throughout the entire surveyed area.
This method, together with the ground survey conducted by four people, proved useful. This procedure led to the discovery not only of the villages already identified thanks to satellite images, but also of isolated structures with stone walls and one hearth in the centre, which are strictly connected to schist stone extraction pits. Workshops for the manufacture of obsidian tools, with knapped artefacts and basalt/andesite hammerstones, were also discovered more than 8 km away from the obsidian supply sources of Mt. Chikiani. It should also be emphasised that some of the small kurgans recovered during the surveys are literally covered with dozens of knapped obsidian artefacts. These discoveries raise very important still unanswered questions regarding the use of obsidian for non-functional activities, a topic of which we still known very little.
It was also possible to observe that knapped obsidian artefacts are present also on the surface of all the surveyed villages, and that they are most probably to be traced back to slightly different periods of anthropisation of the plateau. This fact is suggested according to the characteristics of visibility and vegetation cover of the stone structures.
The data gathered during the 2021 season show that the high-altitude villages with stone structures discovered on the Javakheti Plateau are present also in the mountains of Georgia. Most likely They were not inhabited throughout the year, because of the extreme winter conditions at these altitudes. The sites are most likely to be attributed to different moments of development of the Bronze Age Kura-Araxes Culture whose distribution covered also the Georgian Caucasus (Biagi and Nisbet, 2023). The same type of villages had already been reported in neighbouring Armenia, where surveys have been more intensively conducted (Reinhold, 2019).
There is no doubt that the Javakheti Plateau still hides many important sites and that the presence of mining activities, the exploitation of obsidian sources and stone-walled villages, make the entire region very important for the study of the protohistory of the Caucasus.
The 2021 fieldwork season was carried out in collaboration with Professor V. Licheli of the I. Javakhishvili State University in Tbilisi, thanks to financial support of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MAECI) and the ISMEO (Rome). Dr. M. Ferrandi, from the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, and two students from the Tbilisi State University took part in the research season.
Biagi P., Nisbet R. and Gratuze B. 2017. Obsidian mines and their characterization: New aspects of the exploitation of the obsidian sources of Mt. Chikiani (Koyun Dağ) in the Lesser Caucasus of Georgia. The Quarry 12: 2-24.
Biagi P. and Nisbet R. 2023. Mining knappable stone resources during the Bronze Age: Some examples from the Caucasus (Georgia) and Sindh (Pakistan). Volume in Honour of V. Dergachev. Stratum Plus 2023 (2) (in press).
Kuftin B.A. 1941. Archaeological Excavations in Trialeti I. An Attempt to periodize the Archaeological Material. USSR Georgian Academy of Sciences, Tbilisi 1941 (in Georgian and Russian).
Reinhold S. 2019. Transforming the Horizon – Early Mounds and Monumentalised Landscapes in the North Caucasus and Their Social Context. In: N. Lanieri, G. Palumbi e S. Müller Celka (eds) Constructing Kurgans. Burial Mounds and Funerary Customs in the Caucasus and Eastern Anatolia During the Bronze and Iron Age. SANEM 4: 21-40.