Tag Archives: Armenia

In Print!


MASC has a new publication out, reviewing two+ years of research at Ambroyi, and putting our data from the site in the context of wider discussions of political economy and social life in the Near Eastern middle ages.  The article, which is available (with a subscription) here, is titled:

Examining the Late Medieval Village from the Case at Ambroyi, Armenia

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We’re excited to have this work out in the world– and looking forward to responses from our colleagues.


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.

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*

Welcome to MASC!

Medieval Archaeology of the South Caucasus is a research project in archaeology, history, landscape and culture run as a collaboration between the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and the Republic of Armenia National Academy of Sciences Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Yerevan.
We will be sharing our experiences in the field, and the results of our research here, as well as links to materials related to the study of the medieval Caucasus and neighboring regions and cultures.