MASC 2015: Down the Silk Road to Vayots Dzor!


A quick update! MASC members are returning to the field this summer, to continue archaeological research of the late medieval Armenian landscape. With generous support from the American Research Institute of the South Caucasus, K. Franklin and A. Babjanyan will head to Vayots Dzor Marz to begin a project focused on the recording, preservation and research of monuments and sites tied to the medieval Silk Road.  We are so excited to be sharing this upcoming research- stay tuned!


Just the pits: storage and production contexts at Ambroyi

Continuing excavations in this year’s second and third excavation units (HB3 and HB4, respectively) revealed interesting insights into life in this part of Ambroyi medieval village. A major observation involved the use of space for production and other activities within the village: we have found that in addition to shaping the yellow bedrock of the Kasakh Valley into living floors, the medieval inhabitants dug into the bedrock to construct pits for storage and for the construction of ovens.


Photo: A storage pit in HB4 mid-excavation. 

Our excavations in these northern trenches revealed more thick field stone walls, resting on floors carved from bedrock and, in the case of Unit HB3, paved in thick cobbles.  The dynamism of human utilization of the geological landscape is ably illustrated by the multiple levels at which medieval people were living: not only on the medieval ground surface, but exploiting the insulating, cooling, architectural and preservative capacities of the clay strata.


Photo: The MASC 2014 team excavating Unit HB4, with HB3 in the background. 

Units HB3 and HB4 (pictured together above) represent western and eastern excavated sections of a single large ‘activity area’ enclosed by the thick masonry walls we have come to associate with village architecture at Ambroyi. The large expanse of bedrock flooring in HB4 was found to contain a number of pits and ‘work stations’ for the processing of *something*– perhaps grain flour for baking. While some of the pits in HB4 were associated with small ovens which will be discussed later, the southeast corner of the trench contained a large, bell shaped pit carved from bedrock and a tall (approx. 1m) tonir style oven, complete with a flue (ak in Armenian) dug under the floor.


Photo: Bell shaped pit (top) and oven with flue.  

The photo above shows how the bedrock floor inside the tonir oven has been baked red-orange from repeated use. Just on the other side of our 1m baulk, excavations bottomed out quicklu on a paved floor abutting the wall.  Directly in the center of this floor, we encountered a phenomenon that many archaeologists both dream of and dread: a context where the soils dislodged from off the stone cobbles fall down, indicating an empty space below the floor. This empty space proved to be another bell-shaped pit, covered in a stone lid which fitted nicely into the surrounding flagstone floor.


Photo: HB3 photographed from the north: the mouth of the bell shaped pit is just visible beneath its slightly-askew lid. 

Other pits at Ambroyi were contained within rooms filled by collapse or slow time– these pits were found filled with soft soil and the occasional artifact.  The bell shaped pit in HB3 has been largely preserved both by its bedrock walls and by the lid covering it; the pit was therefore mostly empty, except for 50cm of icy cold water which had seeped in thanks to a rising water table!


Photo: The romance of archaeology– bailing out a medieval storage pit.

Storage pits and pit-ovens are interesting for a myriad of reasons.  They provide numerous data about technology in the medieval period– of cooking and eating, of preservation, firing pottery, and construction, to name but a few aspects. Also, pits are interesting because of their preserved contents: complete or near-complete (if broken) vessels buried in soft fill soils, lost tools and ornaments, and the soils themselves, layers of ashy or organic soils (think garbage) that are better preserved from the decomposition that can happen in exposed, mixed fills. As beautiful as glazed pottery or architecture might be, pits can be one of the better parts of archaeology!


Photo: Another sunny, friendly afternoon in the Kasakh Valley

All photographs taken by the author. 

Continuing excavations at Hin Bazarjugh: More Walls, and Part of a Floor

A few weeks into the excavation season found us settling into the rhythm of excavation.  That meant not just getting over jet jag, but getting settled into life in Arai Village– though since this primarily meant adjusting to two home-cooked Armenian meals a day, it was hardly a burden!DSCN1611

Photo: Armenian coffee and roasted, stewed summer vegetables on the stove

As we entered the second week of excavation at Hin Bazarjugh we discovered that, according to our research design, we were opening an interior space on the ‘other side of the wall’ from the area excavated last year. Interestingly, as we traced that wall north within this ears excavations, we discovered that it intersected with a second wall of considerable thickness: this long wall may be part of a much larger and solidly-built structure which we will continue to investigate.


Photo: Excavation unit HB2, showing intersecting walls and a section down to the bedrock floor. 

The first step in these continued explorations consisted of sectioning the area of trench HB2: this means cutting down through the sediments along an arbitrary designation, preserving the soils on the other side of the line. What this enabled us to do was find out that the medieval built space within HB2 consists of a room with a floor of carved bedrock and cobblestones, filled with a thick deposit of soil from a singular collapse event. We will continue to dig through this large deposit to uncover the entirety of this interior space within the excavation unit.


Photo:  A little help from the neighbors: Anahit tries her hand at excavation in the upper levels of HB3. 

In the meantime, we started another excavation to the northeast of HB2. Another 5×5 trench, this excavation will probe what contexts are to be found on the other side of the large wall uncovered in HB2; it is possible to see how this wall continues to the east, as it creates a linear hill in the grassy field. Almost immediately, excavations in this trench (HB3) exposed linear walls running perpendicular to the wall already exposed in HB2.
Further excavations will (hopefully) demonstrate more about the relationship of these architectural fragments to each other, and more about life in the medieval village of Bazarjugh.


Photo: Sunset over Mt. Aragats, viewed from the highway outside Arai. 

All photos taken by the author. 

We’ve returned to the field!

This year the MASC project once again returned to Armenia and to Ambroyi where we planned to continue to excavate at the village of Hin Bazarjugh. The work this year is being conducted with the assistance of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and the American Research Institute in the South Caucasus (ARISC, see


Since we want to continue looking at the village and better understand it, we decided we needed to open up more trenches. We deliberately decided to open a 5 x 5 meter trench approximately one meter from the trench of last year. Among other things, we hoped to find the continuation of the wall we found last year. This work will also continue to inform us about the shape and materiality of the medieval Armenian village.


Site of last year’s excavation

Almost as soon as we opened the trench, we started coming down on walls, which we could already see on the surface. This included part of the wall that we had found last year in addition to a large and substantial wall. In addition, we started finding quite a lot of wall collapse, which we have been removing. The archaeological material such as pottery that we have been finding looks very similar to what we found last year.


New trench with continuation of wall we found last year in foreground.

We are very much looking forward to continuing this year to expand our excavations and explorations at Hin Bazarjugh and its immediate vicinity! Stay tuned for the next few weeks to see our various discoveries as they unfold!


Back to the Field! 2014

After a long winter of writing and research in Chicago and Yerevan, the MASC Project is heading back to the Kasakh Valley this summer!  We are delighted to have received support for continued excavations at Hin Bazarjugh, as well as for survey on the mountain slopes around the village, and further excavations of contemporary medieval archaeology in the Kasakh Valley.  We will be posting updates on plans, news, and discoveries, so stay tuned!



The 2013 excavations during a sudden summer storm, with Arai Ler in the background.

We’re in Press!

A few months back from the field, the first print news of our work at Ambroyi and Hin Bazarjugh appeared. We prepared a small, light piece for the circular News and Notes and the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.  The piece is basically an introduction to the project and a small glimpse at our finds from the 2013 summer– old news if you’ve been following us here, but we’re still excited. More, detailed publications are in the works!

On a personal note, this edition of News and Notes also contains an In Memoriam for Barbara Mertz, who in her guise as Elizabeth Peters was hugely instrumental in planting the passion for archaeology in my young novel-reading brain. So I’m proud to be continuing her legacy of critical thinking, curiosity, and not-always-demure behavior in league with the OI.

Excavating at Hin Bazarjugh: A view into the late medieval Kasakh Valley

As we continued to excavate through the levels of fill in the 4×4 meter unit at Hin Bazarjugh, the excavations generated a series of unexpected and thought-provoking situations.  The first and most apparent challenge arose as we excavated around and past the level of the rim of the standing vessel or tonir oven—which was accomplished first in a section (when an cut is made at an arbitrarily measured point to explore lower soil in only part of a larger area).


Image:  The Hin-Bazarjugh excavation team, Artur and Ando, with the excavated tonir-oven.  The cut of the section appears to the right side of the photo.

Our excavations revealed that the soil deposit around the oven consisted of a single thick, mixed layer, containing large stones and a mix of broken ceramics and poorly preserved animal bones, as well as occasional pieces of charcoal.  This suggested to us that these soils and stones had fallen or were dumped into the room and oven in a single event or a series of closely related events. Also, this meant that the floor of the room was not near the rim of the tonir (as is the case in some Armenian houses from the last century) but lay beneath this fill deposit.  Indeed, as we continued to excavate, we came upon a leveled living surface cut into the clayey bedrock of the Kasakh Valley bottom.  In addition to being an abruptly flattened surface, we knew that this was the house floor for several reasons: a) it contained no artifacts, though artifacts like sherds and pieces of bracelet rested on top of it, and b) this surface ran underneath both the excavated tonir and beneath the remains of what may have been a second vessel-oven to the southwest of the first.  All that remained of this second oven was a round discolored depression in the floor and a few fragments of rim still in place.


Image:  The house at Hin Bazarjugh fully excavated.  Note the tonir oven (center right), the discolored second vessel trace (left) and the large floor pit.

As is visible in the above image, the house floor was pierced by pits of varying sizes.  One pit was a meter in diameter, and so deep that in excavating it, the team hit the modern-day water table!  This pit was almost certainly dry in the late medieval period, and may have been used by the inhabitants of the house to store cheese or yogurt or other things they wanted to keep cool.

In the course of the excavations at the Hin Bazarjugh house we encountered numerous artifacts which provide clues as to what the materiality of daily life was like in the late medieval period.  Many of these were broken pieces of ceramic, including incised (called sgraffiato) and glazed bowl fragments but also many, many pieces of rough cooking pots and unglazed red bowls.  As mentioned above, we also found several pieces of bracelets made of blue and purple glass.

Image Image

Images: AD 13-14th c ceramic fragments, and a fragment of a blue glazed bracelet from the house at Hin Bazarjugh.

As or more interesting as the objects found inside the house was the situation of the house itself. Judging from the patterns of soils, stones and artifacts, we surmised that the house was filled methodically with soil and stones in a concerted, intentional act.  The tonir oven was left surrounded not only by rocks and soil, but by large fragments of broken ceramic pot which had been pressed up against it, perhaps in an effort to preserve the oven from falling stones and the destructive effects of passing time and neglect. The room was filled with dirt and rocks using the same amount of care(or more) that we archaeologists use to backfill our trenches, preserving the remains inside; the relationship of the house walls, floor and the dirt the filled the room suggested that the walls of the house might even have been pulled down, once this ‘backfilling’ was completed.

This constellation of dated artifacts, soil features and implied events produce a fascinating but very partial picture of medieval life in this tiny corner of the Kasakh Valley. Many questions remain unanswered, which we will hope to explore both through analysis of the data collected from this summer’s excavations, and through further work at Ambroyi and in the Kasakh valley.


Image:  An Arai shepherd dog resting on the backdirt-pile.  Archaeology is exhausting!

All photographs courtesy of the Author.