Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Excavations in Daghestan

Daghestan, "The Land of Mountains," lies in Southern Russia at a point where the high ranges of the Caucasus most closely approach the western shore of the Caspian Sea. The mountain ridges never completely sever the long narrow Caspian littoral plain, however, and it is this thin ribbon of flat land that has formed a vital corridor from time immemorial between the Eurasian steppes to the north and the inviting lands of the Near East to the South. It has always been an invasion route, usually but not always for nomadic groups pressing southwards from the steppes. But it has also served as a major artery for the transmission - in each direction - of ideas and technology; and it could have been via this particular route the domesticated horse eventually reached Upper Mesopotamia in the late third millennium B.C.

The present account is intended to provide a brief description of two seasons of archaeology excavation which took place in Daghestan in 1994 and 1995 at the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age site of Velikent - a settlement that sits astride the coast road at a point 25km to the north of the ancient fortified city of Derbent. Some note will also be taken of the still well preserved condition of the Sasanian walls of Derbent and the little-studied Long Wall of Khosrow I (531-579 A.D.), which stretches from Derbent for a distance of nearly 50km.

The surviving remains of the early settlement at Velikent (local building activities regularly nibble at the edges of the site) occupy the tops of five natural hillocks (Mounds I-V) that stand up to 9 meters in height. The mounds represent the remains of terraces left by the third transgression of the Caspian Sea and the early inhabitants can be seen to have situated their houses and their cemeteries on these clay-like "islands" that overlooked the surrounding, rich agricultural land.

The presence of archaeological excavation materials at Velikent was first noted by the Russian archaeologist, A. Rusov, in 1882. The first controlled soundings took place in the mid-fifties and then, in the late 1970's and the early 1980's, more prolonged archaeology excavations were undertaken on behalf of the Daghestan Academy of Sciences. This latter work revealed one area with well preserved architecture on Mound I and elsewhere, on Mound III, several collective tombs were located and excavated.
The 1994 and 1995 seasons at Velikent

The most recent investigations have been conducted by a joint American-Daghestani team, led by Magomed Gadzhiev, Philip Kohl, Rabadan Magomedov, and myself. The American component of the team has included students from Wellesley College and graduate students from both the University of Arizona and U.C. Berkeley. Support for the Project has come from various sources including an extension of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Geographic Society, and the Irving and Gladys Stahl Foundation of the University of California at Berkeley.

In so far as our own investigations were partly informed by earlier work at the site, we decided to return to the area of the first archaeology excavations that had previously been conducted near the summit of Mound I. In this latter area we were able to re-examine the still relatively well preserved remains of three adjacent rooms within an elongated, heavily burnt building that can be dated, on the basis of pottery parallels from Transcaucasia, to the second half of the third millennium. It also transpired that the methods that had been used to construct this building were somewhat unexpected; and, with this in mind, we took steps, in 1995, to excavate part of a fourth room, to the north of the previous limit of excavations.

Room 4 proved to have been subject to especially intense burning. The wall plaster was discolored by fire and the interior of the room was found to contain huge fused masses of fallen plaster and other debris. Some of the pottery was vitrified and twisted into grotesque shapes by the effects of fire. Apart from the shattered remains of numerous vessels of local Kura-Araxes ware, the floor of Room 4 yielded a variety of small disc-shaped beads made from carnelian, paste, and shell (from the adjacent beaches of the Caspian). A copper object may very well represent an ingot; and, as such, it would constitute the first example of Early Bronze Age date to have been found in Daghestan. Also if interest was a single skull which was located not far above floor level - apparently unassociated with any other skeletal material (at least in the excavated portion of Room 4). According to preliminary studies of the skull now being conducted at U.C. Berkeley by Garry Richards and Michelle Bonogofsky this was the skull of a woman of about thirty-five years of age who had been suffering from a brain tumor. But whether or not this was the actual cause of death is not known since the top of the skull also shows the clear impress of a heavy, conceivably fatal blow.

As far as the original construction of the Burned Building is concerned, it's builders apparently began by digging a long trench into the natural clay surface of the mound. Wherever the natural clay deposit stood undisturbed by earlier, and deeper, Early Bronze Age circular pit dwellings, this extended trench permitted the builders to count on the presence of hard clay side walls and a solid clay floor. In such areas they simply lined the opposing long sides of the excavated area with stone courses set in mortar. The large river boulders in these side walls vary from 20 to over 60cm in length, with the largest stones necessarily resting near the base of the wall. And while the stones were usually laid in successive courses of stretchers, they could also be laid in alternative courses of headers and stretchers (or even inserted as upright "fillers"). Above a height of one meter the long walls were probably carried up in mudbrick since the Burned Building's cross-walls were constructed of mudbrick alone. In addition, the weight of the roof was at least partly carried by vertical oak posts, the bases of which were found in situ in a carbonized condition.

On Mound II two separate trenches, one of which was supervised by Ms. Shoki Goodarzi-Tabrizi of U.C. Berkeley, have been used to test what appears to have been a relatively long occupation sequence stretching from the early Bronze Age back into the Late Chalcolithic. It should be added that carbon samples submitted to the AMS Facility of the University of Arizona from the deeper levels of Mound II have so far yielded four calibrated C14 dates that are tightly clustered between 3300 and 2950 B.C. Seed remains from both Mounds I and II were also collected with the aid of a floatation system and the seeds in question are currently awaiting analysis in the United States. Elsewhere, on Mound III, a previously plundered mid-third millennium collective tomb yielded two finds of special note. The first is a spiral gold ringlet with flattened finials (the first object of gold so far known to have been found in any of the Velikent tombs) and the second is a copper or bronze ax that is similar in form to axes that are otherwise known from Late Maikop burials in the far northwest region of the Caucasus.
The Sasanian Walls of Derbent

Time was also taken, in association with Dr. A. Kudriavtzeff and Dr. M. Gadjiev to examine the impressive sixth century stone fortifications in and near Derbent that were erected by the Sasanian ruler, Khosrow I, in order to protect Iran from the depredations of nomadic invaders who were then pressing down the narrow coastal corridor from the north. Remarkably enough, the tall walls of the main citadel at Derbent, the walls and towers of the lower city walls that run down to the seashore, and the walls of the hill-top defensive wall that runs inland for a distance of 46km are each characterized by the same distinctive from of stone masonry. A review of contemporary monuments in Iran indicates that just this kind of finely worked header-and-stretcher masonry was also employed in the construction of the main gateways at the celebrated Sasanian site of Takht-i Sulaiman.

Since the formidable Long Wall of Khosrow I, and the much earlier remains are beginning to be revealed in some detail at Velikent, each stand in definite need of further investigation, it is much to be hoped that local conditions in the war torn North Caucasus will indeed permit an early resumption of the promising collaborative work that has taken place so far.

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