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The Vorotan Project, Armenia



Susan E. Alcock, University of Michigan and Brown University
John F. Cherry, University of Michigan and Brown University
Armen Tonikyan, Union of Architects, Yerevan
Mkrtich Zardaryan, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, National Academy of Sciences, Yerevan

View across the Vorotan River to the site of Balak.

The Vorotan Project, an international, collaborative archaeological project based in Armenia, formally began fieldwork in August 2005, following preliminary reconnaissance trips in 2004. The Project focuses on the country's southernmost province, Syunik, sandwiched between Iran, Azerbaijan, and the Azeri enclave polity of Naxcivan. Running through this region is the Vorotan River, long a major conduit of trade and intercommunication in the southern Caucasus—a region that itself lies at a significant crossroads, controlling the corridor between the Black and the Caspian Seas, between Russia to the north and western Asia to the south. The project's goal is to carry out multiyear fieldwork in this sensitively located, but little-known, area beginning in a self-contained river basin around the village of Angeghakot.

Much sound archaeological work has been undertaken in Armenia, especially in the decades when it formed part of the USSR. Over the years, numerous excavations have been conducted at sites of the Bronze Age and the Urartian period (ca. 800–600 BCE), as well as at some of classical and medieval date; for the latter eras, the results of excavations at places such as Armavir, Artashat, Dvin, Garni, and Tsakahovit are best known. Most attention, however, has been paid to the Ararat Plain (in the vicinity of the modern capital city of Yerevan) and areas to its north and east (for example, near Lake Sevan). By contrast, very little systematic work has been done in Syunik in the deep south, although occasional finds (e.g., a tomb with rich grave goods indicating a strong Mediterranean influence) and the existence of a remarkable standing-stone complex known as the "Armenian Stonehenge" (Karahunj/Zorats Karer) have always made clear that this is potentially rich archaeological territory.

Apart from a desire to begin more systematic exploration of an unknown, but clearly key, zone in the southern Caucasus, the Vorotan Project has two other principal objectives. First, it experiments with methodologies that have hitherto not often been deployed in this part of the world, not least archaeological survey (i.e., the intensive, systematic reconnaissance of regional landscapes for traces of past human activity). This type of work, aimed at the reconstruction of changing human landscapes over time (revealing, for example, trends in settlement patterns or sacred geography), has been attempted once before, and briefly, in the southern Caucasus, but its suitability to this region requires further assessment.

Second, although regional work is inherently diachronic in nature, the project is according special attention to the later 1st millennium BCE and early 1st millennium CE. These important centuries—known, after local dynasties, as the Yervandid, Artaxiad, and Arsacid periods, and roughly equivalent to the Achaemenid, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, and Parthian periods in the chronologies of cultures to the west and south—have mostly been studied "from the top down," that is, through the partial excavation of capital cities (sites such as Armavir or Artashat). Patterns in economic and social life below that elite level, and beyond the Ararat Plain, remain an enigma. The pottery chronologies essential for studying sites of this period are as yet poorly understood; to refine their understanding, the project in 2005 undertook some limited excavation sondages on two very promising sites (Shaghat I, Balak), already identified as having occupation of this date. The final component of the Project's first season was the beginnings of a systematic mapping and study of the mortuary landscape of the study region. The area is dotted with an extraordinary palimpsest of stone-built tombs of various types, which require careful analysis to unravel patterns in their use and reuse over time.

The Vorotan Project joins a growing number of American and European projects now working in the Black Sea region and in the Caucasus, projects that are building communicative bridges to the strong tradition of Soviet archaeology. Archaeology in these areas had previously tended to be marginalized in Western eyes, being neither fully "Mediterranean" nor "Middle Eastern." In this way, the Project continues the Kelsey Museum's rich heritage of working on the edges of the classical world, as well as broadening the scope and ambitions of classical archaeology.