Archaeology at the Mountain Top

By Professor Antonio Sagona and Dr Claudia Sagona, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, Faculty of Arts

A Day on a Dig in the Southern Caucasus

Summer is late this year, according to the locals of Zveli, a highland village of stockbreeders and horticulturalists. The village sits over 1600 metres above sea level. It’s here each year we set up the centre of our archaeological operations.

Sandwiched between the Black and Caspian Seas, the isthmus of the Caucasus experiences a variety of climates. Here, storm clouds roll over the snow-capped mountains of southern Georgia - a pearl at the crossroads of easternmost Europe and western Asia.

... [the] focus: to uncover the ancient settlements of Chobareti and Rabati. They collectively cover more than 5000 years of human occupation...

We’re here for the Georgian-Australian Investigations in Archaeology (GAIA) project. It’s a collaborative initiative between the University of Melbourne and the Georgian National Museum, Tbilisi, and began in 2008. A global team of excavators and conservators, object specialists and scientists, surveyors and architects comprised of senior staff, students and alumni, have a singular focus: to uncover the ancient settlements of Chobareti and Rabati. They collectively cover more than 5000 years of human occupation, from around 3500 BC (the Bronze Age) through the Iron Age and Medieval settlement to the 19th century, when the region was on the cusp of the Ottoman Empire.

Below our site lies the dramatic Upper Kura River Valley, just 20 km from the border of Turkey. The deep history of this region has been shaped by the flow of people and ideas between the Russian steppes and the ancient civilisations of the Middle East. Not long ago this was a militarised area and out- of-bounds during the Soviet period. Against this background, we’re aware that our team of archaeologists has a pioneer quality.

The on-site dig house is buzzing with activity. Thousands of objects and pottery sherds are washed and analysed in the course of our field work. Eventually, some are pieced together by the conservation staff. Barely an hour after breakfast, the botanist is already muddy, and wet soil samples are poured into the flotation tank. It allows the remains of seeds and cereals planted many thousands of years ago to be caught in fine nets. When dry, these organic samples will tell us a lot about ancient diets and economy.

Many exciting discoveries come to light, among them a building, simply known as 'Structure 6'. It’s one of several terrace houses partly dug into the mountain slope at Chobareti, and its extraordinary preservation has ensured a wealth of information. By the time the excavators reach the floor level, they’ve exposed a stone wall more than two metres high, as well as numerous ceramic vessels, grinding stones and other items still in situ. Embedded in the floor is an impressive circular hearth. Hearths are often decorated with symbols, usually displaying human or animal elements. In this Bronze Age culture, which had no public temples or sanctuaries, it’s likely that religious expression was carried out in houses. But without texts to guide us, it's virtually impossible to know what type of belief system prevailed, but material remains go a long way in giving us clues.

We conduct this excavation for six weeks during the mid-year break in June and July. Recently, the project has facilitated two field surveys of the surrounding landscape. Our teams are often multi-national - Australia, Georgia, USA, UK, Italy, Belgium, Turkey and New Zealand. The project also employs just as many locals to assist with the excavation. Yet, while several languages are spoken on the dig, the lingua franca is archaeology.