Category Archives: Medieval Sites

Breaking ground: medieval Arpa


We have started excavations within the medieval (AD 12-15th c) settlement at Arpa, located in the current village of Areni.  Our 2016 excavation program consists of a number of test trenches located through the preserved areas of the settlement, which is itself being dug into by the contemporary Areni village cemetery.  This adds an urgency to our explorations, as every week new areas of the site are being reserved, cleared and dug for gravesites. At the same time, the active digging in the settlement (which extends along a broad slope to the south of the village, beyond the reconstructed 14th c Sb. Astvatsatsin church) provides us with additional data about the geological and archaeological strata of the site beyond our own investigations.  For instance, a recent grave digging brought to light this fragment of a medieval stamp-decorated redware jar or karas (here’s an image of a complete one in the national museum).


Vayots Dzor Silk Road Survey: Online Mapform Database

The in-process, online Map Database of surveyed sites and images recorded so far by the MASC: Vayots Dzor Silk Road Survey (VDSRS) is available here!  This map is an interactive presentation of some of our site data, including the names and locations of sites of different periods in the Vayots Dzor region.  The map database is a working analytical work in progress, so continue to check in as we add more data (including photos), and expand the site/monuments list using input from collaborators in Armenia and abroad.


The VDSRS map is built on a platform produced by Harvard WorldMap, a system conducive to collaborative and open source map databasing developed by the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard University.  

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.