by Ian Lindsay
"Take a close look because you'll probably be the last Westerner to see these petroglyphs. They'll probably be gone tomorrow," Dr. Pavel Avetisyan told me, shaking his head.
Dr. Avetisyan, an archaeologist at the Armenian Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, had taken me on a field trip to the Armavir region to see a breathtaking example of 6,000-year-old rock art near Aghavnatun.
He was pointing to pictures of prehistoric people and animal scenes carved on what is now a small active tuff mine that is slowly devouring the artistic works of some of Armenia's most ancient farmers.
The good news is that, in many respects, the future of Armenian archaeology in the 21st century has never looked brighter. Unfortunately, just as Armenia's rich archaeological heritage is beginning to gain the recognition of the international scientific community, many of its exposed and unprotected sites are under constant threat from construction projects, erosion, and vandalism. And for sites that are properly excavated, there is no funding available in Armenia to properly preserve the unique artifacts recovered by scientists.
Although laws designed to preserve archaeological and historic sites have existed since Soviet times, problems arose in Armenia and other newly independent republics as a result of the quick privatization of lands in the early 1990s. Still facing a daunting range of developmental issues following independence, it is perhaps not surprising that the Armenian government lacks the funding or political will to alleviate the mounting threat to Armenia's archaeological heritage. Armenia has a whopping 33,000 known archaeological monuments within its borders with new ones discovered regularly.
A perfect example is the spectacular 200-hectare site of Agarak that has been inhabited, with brief hiatuses, since the Early Bronze Age (about 2900 B.C.). The site was cut in half during construction of the main Yerevan-Gyumri highway, and although it was made a national park in 2001, there are currently no means for protecting the site from the elements or for creating interpretive signs for the increasing numbers of tourists visiting the area.
An appreciation for Armenia's long, storied history, with its many accomplishments, is part of what ties Armenians across the globe together in a common identity. While the Soviet Union used symbols of Armenia's history for its own political messages, today they are used by local companies and brands as marketing tools.
In addition to the swelling tourist trade, Armenia is becoming renowned in the scientific community. During the last 10 years, exciting new discoveries and opportunities for international collaboration have made Armenia a new center for archaeological research. Like many recent developments in Armenia, it has been slow and without much fanfare. But in 2004 alone, archaeologists and graduate students from respected research institutions in the United States, France, Canada, Germany, Austria, England and Italy worked alongside Armenian archaeologists to study an array of Classical, Urartian, Late Bronze Age and Neolithic sites. These collaborations, forbidden during Soviet times, have attracted archaeologists from Europe and the U.S. seeking partnerships with their Armenian counterparts.
Armenia has joined the Near East as a hotbed of study for the "Neolithic Revolution"—the period that witnessed the shift from hunting-and-gathering to farming societies. Exploring how this transformation evolved in Armenia, an Armenian-French team recently completed excavations at the 8000 year old village of Aratashen (near Etchmiadzin), and found well-preserved spoons, shovels, and other household tools carved from animal bone; long, razor sharp obsidian blades; and burned grains of domesticated barley harvested by the region's earliest farmers among circular adobe houses.
Another international collaboration, the Armenian-American Project ArAGATS, has been excavating Late Bronze Age fortress settlements built around 1500 B.C. on the north slope of Mt. Aragats. Since 1998, Project ArAGATS has been working to understand this period, which dates centuries prior to Urartu.
Focusing their research within the Tsaghkahovit Plain northwest of Aparan, the team recently uncovered a large shrine at the fortress of Gegharot, whose altar was surrounded by the remnants of many large ceramic pots. Vast quantities of sheep and goat bones indicate that people from around the region were coming to make offerings to the shrine. This incredible discovery stunned the archaeologists, once they realized that they might have uncovered the regional center of ancient religious life 3500 years ago. (For more info, see the Project ArAGATS website at http://acc.spc.uchicago.edu/ ~atsmith/Pages/Aragats.html.)
Despite the recent flurry of scientific activity, interest in Armenia's archaeological heritage is not new. In the late 1800s, Russian and European aristocrats and explorers were the first to describe the ruins of the classical temple of Garni while more and more evidence emerged that the south Caucasus was one of the ancient centers of metallurgy.
At the turn of the 20th century, digs at the medieval Armenian capital of Ani became a training ground for the first generation of Armenian archaeologists. And later, the landmark excavations at Karmir Blur, Erebuni, Metsamor, Dvin, and other sites helped complete part of the puzzle about Armenia's ancient past.
Despite general interest, few Armenian students have been interested in seeking training as archaeologists, preferring more lucrative fields. The troubles of the early 1990s led to a scientific "brain drain," as scientists left the country or joined the ranks of the unemployed. Few from the younger generation are ready to take the place of scholars that remained.
New international collaborations are beginning to make up for some of the dried up government funding in archaeology. However, the three biggest problems facing Armenian archaeology today continue to be (1) the lack of funding for research and modern technical analysis, (2) the lack of suitable, modern curation and conservation facilities, and (3) a widening generation gap resulting from the above, threatening the future of the discipline in Armenia.
To help address these problems, Project Discovery!, an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to the discovery and preservation of the archaeological and cultural legacy of ancient Armenia was formed in 2003. The aims of the organization include facilitating academic scholarship and research in the archaeology of Armenia; supporting the publication of archaeological research in Armenia; supporting the preservation and conservation of Armenia's archaeological heritage; and fostering public awareness and appreciation of the archaeological and cultural legacy of Armenia.
With the help of private donations, Project Discovery! offers funding opportunities to Armenian archaeologists and graduate students for digs, access to high-tech analytical techniques and travel expenses to participate in international conferences. For those interested in assisting with excavations, Project Discovery! also provides summer archaeological programs for amateur enthusiasts.
For more about Armenian archaeology, visit Project Discovery! at www.projectdiscovery.net.
Ian Lindsay is an archaeology graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has been traveling to Armenia regularly since 2000 as a member of Project ArAGATS and is currently finishing his Ph.D. on the study of Late Bronze Age fortress communities in the Armenian Highlands.