Monthly Archives: August 2013

Finishing at Upper Ambroyi: a case study in excavating a dynamic landscape

In the last few days, we concluded exploratory excavations in the test unit at the mountain slope site of Ambroyi Village.  These excavations were incredibly illuminating, providing us with information both about late medieval Armenian material culture as well as the processes that affect medieval sites in Armenia (which in archaeology is included under the term taphonomy).  That is, Ambroyi Village provided us with the opportunity to explore some of the issues involved in detecting and researching medieval sites as well as archaeological remains of other periods in the Kasakh valley.


Image:  Co-Director T. Vorderstrasse in the test unit at Upper Ambroyi

As mentioned in our previous post that the identification of the Ambroyi village site proceeded from 1) the historical designation of a site known as Ambroyi from ethnographic accounts and observed by a 1980s survey and 2) from our team’s own interviews with the inhabitants of Arai-Bazarjugh village about the location of a ruined place known as Ambroyi.  Over the last 3 days in the western Kasakh valley we have learned a few significant things about the physical and cultural landscape (the combination of land, ways people use land, and things that people say/think about the land around them).  One is that the name ‘Ambroyi’ is used by local people to refer to a general topography of ruined, abandoned, near-forgotten and hard-to-find places south of the current village of Arai-Bazarjugh. Another significant aspect of the Kasakh landscape is the impact of Soviet era amelioration practices, which were undertaken in the late 1970’s in order to maximize the agricultural production of Aragatsotn and other regions.  One of the methods of Soviet amelioration in the Kasakh valley was that bulldozers were used to flatten broad areas of the hillsides to open them up for agriculture. This means that any ‘obstructions’ on the hill slopes (including medieval architecture) was pushed to the side and deposited in a pile, leaving flat land for planting.


Image:  The results of Soviet-era Amelioration as seen from the Upper Ambroyi test unit.  Note how the field to the right has been created by the removal of stones and surface debris (i.e. archaeological remains!) to the foot of the hill to the left.  

We are still in the process of understanding the amelioration processes that affected the hill slope site of Ambroyi.  This site is located midway up a broad slope of Mt. Aragats, fed by several natural springs.  Amelioration carved the slope both into surfaces for agriculture, and also into broad terraced avenues in order to enable agricultural equipment to access the fields, slopes, and water sources above. We had to take these taphonomic processes into account both in the assessment of Ambroyi village before excavation and during our analysis of the excavated contexts.

Our excavations were located within an apparent room block of the remaining ruined village, which was surrounded and intruded by relocated sediments.   Our excavated contexts consisted of layers of mixed fill and large stones, which had been tumbled over the nearby standing wall of the medieval village.  Preliminary appraisal indicates that these soils contain a mixture of late medieval, early modern and contemporary materials.


Image:  F. Babayan and the completed test unit at Upper Ambroyi 

The fills in the Upper Ambroyi unit rested on a surface which provided some insights into the history of the site—which will be discussed in more detail in our upcoming publications! After reaching this surface we decided to close the unit, and move to investigate context that had been less intensely impacted by amelioration practices.

At this point the landscape-scale aspect of the Ambroyi term came into play.   That is, we decided to continue explorations at the lower settlement context which we had originally designated as Ambroyi based on survey and remote sensing techniques. It quickly became apparent that some inhabitants of Arai-Bazarjugh village also refer to this set of surface remains—which include a number of khatchkar (cross-stone) fragments and gravestones—as Ambroyi village.  So, rather than a specific place known as Ambroyi existing, we realized that the name Ambroyi was used in the Arai village to refer both the ruins on the slope of Aragats (which we call Verin or Upper Ambroyi) as well as this lower series of ruined structures.  Having identified wall architecture in the southeastern section of the surface remain area, we decided to use the name Hin Bazarjugh (Old Bazarjugh) for this lower section of the Ambroyi ruined landscape.   We laid out a second test unit, and began excavations, again with the help of our amazing local excavation team.


Image: The village of Hin Bazarjugh, awaiting excavation

All images courtesy of the author.


Excavations Begin

In archaeology, things never quite go precisely as one expects, no matter how much one plans. That was certainly the case here – we had expected to start digging the village at the foot of Aragats, which seemed to be 12th/13th century, on Monday. This was a site that we could see on and had been informed was called Ambroyi. It was this site that we had selected because it fits into our research plan of documenting the medieval pottery in Armenia and because of its probable relationship to other sites in the area, most notably the nearby caravanserai, whose pottery its surface materials closely resemble.


Arai  Caravanserai, excavated by Kate Franklin in 2011

However, when our collaborator Frina Babayan visited this site, she consulted with the site’s passport (which each site in Armenia has) and determined that the site we had selected was not the site of Ambroyi as described in the passport. We had selected the site on the basis of its material culture and suitability for our research design, but she felt that we needed to investigate and find the site that was known as Ambroyi according to the Armenian Cultural Management passport system, even though it was not the site we had selected and had a different assigned date according to the 1989 passport description (16th-18th centuries).

It was then that we started to look in earnest for where the recorded site of Ambroyi was located. Thanks to the help of the local Arai village inhabitants, we found  a second site located further up on the shoulder of Mt. Aragats. At the initial village site we could see the outlines of walls and stones on the ground, and there was even more preserved here. This was not surprising, given that it was said to date to the early modern period. Frina decided that this was where we should excavate rather than the site that we had initially selected, and we agreed, with the aim to expand our potential material sequence to encompass the Early Modern period in Armenia, which is little studied and historically very important.


After the site was cleaned on Monday and the vegetation removed, we returned to start excavating on Tuesday, in a room of one of the structures we could see on the suface. Basically, we spent Tuesday removing the top soil and coming down on wall collapse. On Wednesday, we removed the wall collapse and found fill and the pottery throughout seems to be consistent the early modern date. It is our hope that we will come down on secure early modern contexts and then onto material from the medieval period, thus establishing a clear sequence of occupation at this village site. If we do not find medieval material here, this has implications for our understanding of how settlement in the region changed through the last millennium.

Beginning our work in the Kasakh Valley

After arriving in Armenia on Saturday, we began to investigate monuments in the Kasakh Valley, Armenia. We first went to the village of Luysagyugh, to a ruined church that is said to date the 4th-6th centuries AD. The church, known as Mkheyi Vank, sits above the modern village looking out over the entrance to the small valley in which it sits. We walked around the monument, and it soon became clear that there were two phases of architecture present: the original three-aisled basilica church and then a church with a central dome plan. The doorway as it currently exists does not line up with the semicircular apses at the back of the church, clearly showing that it was constructed during the later phase. Around the site one can see remains of other buildings beneath the surface. Image

After walking around the monument and writing down our observations, we then proceeded up the valley on the road that snaked around the mountains and eventually went above the tree line. We were trying to determine why the road did not simply follow the creek along the valley floor, but when we descended back down the mountain and decided to talk along this, it soon became evident. The valley floor is very narrow and now covered in thick vegetation, making walking along it difficult


We then proceeded to the Ambroyi Village, the site of our excavations this year. Walking around the village site, we found room blocks clearly visible and pottery of a 12th-13th century date. We are planning to start marking out our squares and begin work tomorrow.Image

Then we went to the village of Mravyan/Yeghipatrush, which has a church from the 12th/13th centuries and the remains of another, which has been dated to the 5th century, in the middle of a graveyard. The site is interesting because it has a number of standing (or remains of standing) architecture from a number of the centuries of the medieval period.


Geography and History of the Kasakh Valley: an Introduction

The base of operations for the MASC project is the Kasakh River Valley, located in the northwestern highlands of the Republic of Armenia.  Situated in the center of the Caucasus region, the contemporary Republic of Armenia shares borders with Turkey, Iran, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.


Map: The contemporary Caucasus.  (Source: Wiki Commons)

The geography of Armenia is highly varied, ranging from the arid (though fertile) valley of the Arax river, to the broad and sunny Shirak plain, to the deeply forested mountains of northeastern Tavush.  The Kasakh valley is part of Aragatsotn Province (called Marz in Armenian).  Aragatsotn Marz is named for its primary landmark, the broad and looming volcanic peak of Mt. Aragats, the highest mountain in the country.


Mt. Aragats, viewed from the Pambak foothills to the north

The capital of Aragatsotn is Ashtarak, which is an ancient city straddling the Kasakh River where it emerges from the mountains into the broad plain between Aragats and Ararat mountains. A late medieval bridge in Ashtarak marks the point where medieval highways left the valley and took to the highlands.  From Ashtarak these medieval roads passed up through the broad saddle between Aragats and Mt. Arailer, before emerging  into the highland air of the valley of the Kasakh.  The elevation of the Kasakh valley cimbs 800 meters between Ashtarak and the equally-ancient town of Aparan, which is located at the top of the valley.  For this reason, the climate is quite different from one end to the other—the locals will relate that farmers in the south end of the valley enjoy two weeks more of summer than those in the north!    The southern Kasakh, around the villages of Ushi, Hovhannevank and Saghmosavank (named for their medieval monasteries) are crammed with fruit orchards, which in summer produce cherries, pears, apricots, and apples of impossible sweetness.


Cherries from Hovhannavank

Moving into the northern part of the Kasakh valley, the fields are full of grain, and of winter fodder for the herds of sheep and cattle which spend their summers on the flanks of Aragats and the easterly Tsaghkunyats range.  Herds maintained by the valley villages share space with the animals kept by semi-nomadic Yezidi kurds, who camp on the mountain slopes all summer as well, returning to their villages when the meters of snow fall in the winter.


Yezidi horses pastured in summer on the Tshaghkunyats, with the Kasakh Valley to the southwest

Throughout the medieval period, the Kasakh valley was part of an Armenian administrative region called Nig-Aparan.  During much of the early medieval period (second half of the first millennium AD) this region was ruled by a family of highland princes called the Bagratids.  These princes, of the House of Bagratuni, were quite important players in Armenian medieval history: they were favored vassals to both Byzantium and Persia, and kings of Armenia in their own right starting with Ashot I Bagratuni, who  was recognized as king by both Caliph al-Mu’tamid and emperor Basil I in AD 885.  Many of the strong fortresses and castles in Aragatsotn date to this period of Bagratid power in the region.


The Bagratid-era fortress at Anberd

During the 11th century, Nig Aparan and surrounding Armenia were conquered and administered under the Great Seljuk Empire, centered in Iran.  Though Armenian historical sources describe this as a dark time of destruction and vagabondage in the highlands, there are also suggestions that many local farmers continued to work lands granted to them by their Muslim rulers.In the late 12th c AD, Nig-Aparan was reconquered by the generals Ivane and Zakare Zakaryan, who were vassals of Queen Tamar of Georgia, herself a member of a northern branch of the Bagratids.   The Zakaryans appointed their own vassal lords to rule the provinces they had conquered from the Seljuqs, choosing men who had fought with them in battle as well as merchants from the highland cities who could afford to buy castles, lands, and titles. One of these was Vache Vachutyan, whose family ruled the Kasakh valley under the Zakarids and then, after AD 1236, under the Mongol Ilkhanids.

The late medieval period is very visible archaeologically, because the Zakaryans and the Vachutyans were avid builders, reconstructing and expanding monasteries from previous centuries and building new churches.  These churches are dedicated to the memory of their builders: for instance, at Harich Vank in eastern Shirak you can see the Zakaryan brothers carved into the wall of the church they built.


Images:  The Zakaryan brothers on the wall at Harich Vank, the Vachutyan-restored monastery at Hovhannavank, overlooking the Kasakh River

At Hovhannevank, Tegher, and Astvatsnkal inscriptions ask the congregation to remember Vache Vachutyan, his wife Mamakhatun, and their son Kurd and daughter-in-law Xorishah.

The focus of the early work of the MASC project is the daily lives of the people who lived in the Kasakh valley during the time of the Vachutyans:  the people who worked to build their churches (and then prayed in the ­gavits of those buildings) and who made the pots and bowls that were used to serve travelers at the road-inn or caravanserai the Vachutyans built on the medieval highway passing through the valley.  We are interested in what crops they grew and what herds they raised and tended, as well as what their houses—hearths, courtyards, sleeping places—looked like. Finding out more about these things will allow us to imagine more about life during a historically dynamic time in a fascinating landscape.


Arailer mountain from a wheat field in the Kasakh valley (photo by R. Hovsepyan)


*All photos by the Author unless stated otherwise*