I spent the last two years driving my kids around to see megaliths and archaeological sites in Georgia – or as my wife calls them: “rocks”. Enough to be asked to become a guide in the region. Almost all of these sites are unprotected, which is why this is not a guidebook. I’ve read many academic journal articles and a handful of books, but I remain an amateur – just a little more knowledgeable than the next guy. Hopefully this post inspires you to explore the Caucasus further. Here are some of the many adventures we had, and an attempt to organize them according to chronological time periods of archaeology.
Many thanks to:
My three oldest kids, for putting up with extra driving so I could see some random hill or pile of rocks. Davit Berishvili, who has the best Georgia tour website of all time, and who is just a really nice guy. David Berikashvili, archaeologist at University of Georgia, for agreeing to partner together and for sharing his expertise, passion, and good fun. Dimitri Narimanishvili for your generous open communication about megaliths. John Graham, for joining us on adventures and sharing your deep knowledge about history and Georgian polyphonic singing. Tbilisi linguist and connoisseur of all things Caucasus, Tom Wier, and his alter ego Will Dunbar for your devotion and enthusiasm for the facts – two of the most knowledgeable people in the region. And finally Rachel, for putting up with hours and weeks of staring at Google Earth in search of “rocks“.
I once participated in a “100 mile diet” as part of an environmental awareness campaign – eat only those things you can find within 100 miles of your hometown. In my case, Winnipeg, Manitoba. It strengthened awareness of globalization, transportation routes, and highlighted local alternatives, like rabbit stew.
If you think about Archaeology in the same terms – what can you find within a 100 mile radius of where you live? – Georgia has to be the best bang for your buck, even better than historical heavy weights Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Sound crazy? Everything in this post is a day trip from Tbilisi.
The Lure of the Caucasus
For example, this weekend I drove 45 minutes to Tsikhiagora, a 500 BC Zoroastrian temple along the Kura river, known for its Persian Achaemenid bull protome capital. It also happens to be a 5700 year old village built before the invention of cuneiform writing and the first pyramid. The locals know it as a medieval garrison for Queen Tamar in the 12th century AD.
Nearby is a Calcolithic (Copper/Stone age) kurgan burial mound in the Caucasus – the earliest known in the Caucasus, which was much later overrun by Scythians, Huns, and Mongols. Just around the corner, the spectacular and barely visited Drisi medieval castle, with ancient caves in the cliff. Everyone goes to Rkoni monastery down the road. This castle just doesn’t even make the cut on people’s list. Sand in the river is partially magnetite, and may have been used to make iron (stay tuned for future posts about smelting Iron from magnetite). I’m not sure whether these caves have been excavated.
By Canadian standards, these places are in my backyard. Not only are there hundreds of sites around Tbilisi within 100 miles, but they have been entirely forgotten by time and mass tourism, which gives the wonderful illusion and adrenaline rush that you are discovering them for the first time. Gobekli Tepe in Turkey received 300,000 tourists in 2019. These sites saw……probably just me and a handful of others. Mtskheta, a 10 minute drive away, boasts a huge stone cist burial site at Samtavro – extending from the late Bronze Age to Medieval times. Friends that have lived here for 20 years have never even heard of the site. This is the town overrun by Pompey in 65 BC – yes, the Roman Pompey, and later fortified by Vespatian in 79 AD.
Most Georgians have never heard of the royal seat of Kartli – Bagineti – the site across from Mtskheta where St. Nino of Cappadocia helped convert Mirian to Christianity. I’ve been there over 10 times and hardly seen anyone. On my latest visit I was lucky to meet Petre Kankava, an archaeologist who helped dig it. This is the view.
Georgia is a land of imagination, the border of empires, a land of imposing boundaries but also passageways. To the Greeks it was the end of the known world. To the Persians it was the equivalent of “The Wall” in Game of Thrones, which sometimes kept out the nearly invincible Scythian savages. The late Antonio Sagona, in his 2018 survey “Archaeology of the Caucasus”, describes it as a liminal place – both a corridor and a barrier. It’s this liminal quality that fires the imagination, with continuously changing dramatic landscape conjuring the sublime, attracting, repelling, and ultimately putting a spell on those who dare to explore off the beaten path. It’s a place of fabulous diversity and synthesis with surprising longevity and unity.
You can read about this longevity and birth of humanity in Yuval Harari’s book, Sapiens. Or you can see and touch it, alive in the southern foothills of the Caucasus mountains – where the evidence of human settlement at Dmanisi starts 1.8 million years ago with homo ergaster georgicus, the first properly human migrant community out of Africa. That is 1 million years before Sapiens even existed!
I spent most of last year obsessing about megaliths in the Javakheti volcanic plateau, which was a restricted military zone during Soviet times, and thus little explored. I also read about the incredible revolution of ancient DNA analysis spearheaded by David Reich’s lab at Harvard, which has proven the Yamnaya steppe origin of Indo European languages, and shown a more complex migration pattern out of Africa.
Recent DNA analysis shows that ancient Georgians share DNA with Anatolian stone age farmers and Yamnaya steppe peoples, the Proto-IndoEuropeans north of the Caucasus. Caucasian hunter gatherers thus have a major DNA influence on all European populations. Georgian, however, is not an Indo-European language, and has no relation to any other non-Indo European language. Discussions about the birth of languages with the local linguistics professor (and whiskey afficionado) Tom Wier have been invaluable.
The Caucasus is a corridor for the material culture that allowed the Yamnaya steppe peoples to dominate Europe – the domestication of animals, rise of shepherding, birth of metallurgy, and the dominance of wheeled carts. They all have interesting stories to tell here.
For me, imagining the past through these lenses inspires a sense of wonder at existence – it inspires the sublime in the same way as looking at spectacular mountains. This sense of wonder is tied to many other questions: When did humans evolve self-consciousness? How did language evolve from grunts? How did religions arise? What does it mean to be a “human” given our hominin and neanderthal admixture?
Six years ago I attended a talk at the Tbilisi National Museum by Donald Johanson, the discoverer of 3.2 million year old autralopithecus, “Lucy”. The central exhibit is a large collection of pre-Sapiens skulls, focused on the discovery of homo georgicus, the first anatomically human species, seen below.
Also at the museum – a ceremonial bear skull from Tsutskhvati cave near Kutaisi, where I’ve camped numerous times on student adventure trips. As teenagers hiked out of the cave in June 2019, French archaeologists set up camp to dig up more Neanderthal remains from the twilight of their existence 50,000 years ago.
Samshvilde: “Place of the Bow” and “Mother Fortress”
All this exploration culminated in a partnership with archaeologist David Berikashvili, of University of Georgia, to organize volunteers for a phenomenal site just south of Tbilisi: the sprawling medieval city of Samshvilde. The citadel guards sweeping views of Khrami gorge at the end of several kilometers of medieval ruins, flanked by neolithic caves down all sides of its cliff defenses.
David wrote his PhD on Mesopotamian Uruk migrations during the Early Bronze Kura Araxes culture. He also regularly collaborates with Iranian archaeologists at Susa, Persepolis, and Pasargadae. Here we are, the day after discovering a Persian imperial seal impression from Darius I, 500 BC.
Often overlooked by tourists, Southern Georgia (Kvemo Kartli) is full of castles, megaliths, silk-road routes, and eye-popping beauty. This is the view of Khrami gorge from the citadel, toward its origins in the Javakheti volcanic plateau.
Since I teach interdisciplinary research in AP Seminar, I’ve enjoyed looking at history, paleobotany, ancient DNA, and metallurgy. Samshvilde boasts an Early Bronze Age Kura Araxes settlement, with occupation layers at the citadel through Iron to the 5th century AD, when it became a larger town at the same time as Tbilisi. A short history runs as follows: Conquered by the Arabs, then Armenians as a vassal state to Ani, then Georgians, Seljuks after the battle of Manzikert, and reconquered under David the Builder in 1110, eventually abandoned in the 18th century, when the town of Samshvilde was settled by an Armenian minority.
In 2018, Berikashvili discovered a hoard of 250 medieval coins, some from the reign of Queen Tamar in 12th century.
One coin shows the Georgian king sitting cross-legged with a falcon, and an inscription in Arabic.
Bioarchaeologist Isabelle Coupal of the University of Montreal partners with David, but unfortunately could not make it for the 2020 season due to COVID. Last year the team uncovered the grave of a bronze age rider under the citadel and conducted bone analysis – head trauma, slip disks in the spine – the story of a warrior, and the advent of the mighty horse. I was lucky to dig just 10 feet away around the same massive foundation boulders, rummaging through bronze age obsidian blades. Here, one of David’s master’s students looks for another Bronze Age burial in our square (notice the large medieval qvevri in the upper left).
The Caucasus represents a blend and continuity of various traditions. But sometimes the new changes are a backward step in time. This is the Bronze Age menhir inside a Samshvilde chapel, converted to a cross. Outside the chapel is a medieval olive crushing stone converted into a creepy anthropomorphic menhir…
Below is the 17th century gravestone on the walk to the Citadel complex. The tradition of carved stone from neolithic to medieval is just one of the reasons history feels alive in the Caucasus.
I wanted to share the experience of discovery with my students, just like I had 20 years ago in Tel Rehov, Israel, at the dig led by Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Amihai Mazar in 2000. I was incredibly lucky to be digging rich complex stratigraphy that fires the imagination. Tel Rehov was a large village, just south of Sea of Galilea in the Jordan Valley. It also incidentally happens to be the furthest extent of Bronze age Kura Araxes culture, which originated in the Caucasus. DNA analysis also shows links between Caananites and Caucasus Kura Araxes peoples. In area C, I was able to dig in my square from top soil down to the Solomonic era 1100BC. This is the 8th century BC Assyrian destruction layer in a room filled with sacrificial chalices of bird offerings, and a fully intact amphora. I was 19 years old.
“Mother Fortress” – that’s how Samshvilde is described in the medieval Georgian chronicles. Kartlos, the mythic founder of Georgia four generations removed from Noah is said to have built this citadel around the 3rd century BC. Samshvilde means “place of the bow”, and the pre-Christian gravestones in the area attest to the name. This one from Gokhnari is recurved – it looks like a classic Assyrian recurved bow. These would have been composite bows made of laminated wood, horns, and sinew. It’s unclear when composite bows were first invented – probably by nomadic steppe peoples – but there were composite bows found in king Tut’s tomb, so that’s at least 1300 BC.
The warriors on these gravestones have long beards and tall hats like the Assyrians and Persians after them. I’m not sure whether or not these show stiffened tips, or “siyah”, a development found only after the 4th century BC which increases the leverage and power of the bow. Turkish composite bows have the record for the longest and fastest arrow flights. The the horn and sinew laminate allowed ancient bows to be much smaller, but still incredibly powerful. They were standard issue for Roman archers, but the skills developed by the Scythians, Huns, and other steppe peoples of archery on horseback were never equaled. Here’s another recurved bow gravestone, on the path to the citadel at Samshvilde.
For a place that’s named after a bow, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Samshvilde and its surroundings encapsulate all of Eurasian human history as we know it. It is a gem within a crown, tied to all historical periods of Georgia. Turkey may have more spectacular and well-known sites, but it takes four times as long to drive to them all. Before showing you pictures of the Samshvilde dig itself, I propose to show you the history withing 100 miles. Georgia is an archaeological playground, and because of my explorations I haven’t even made it to Svaneti in the six years I’ve lived here. Remember that I’m going in chronological order, so the places aren’t necessarily on the same day trip or direction.
A History of the World in 100 Miles
Exhibit A – The birth of Humanity
Within a day’s walk south of Samshvilde lies one of the most famous early pleistocene sites in the world – Dmanisi. The oldest anatomical humans outside Africa were found under a layer of volcanic ash in this medieval silk road town. At 1.8 million years ago, these were our shorter more ape like ancestors who worked stone choppers (Oldowan tools) to strip meat from bones. Despite their smaller brain size, they were ingenious enough to migrate out of Africa one million years before Sapiens even existed (photo National Geographic).
The development of increasingly complex stone tools in the Lower Paleolithic required greater forethought and planning, and could be one reason that humans developed imaginations. All developments of Paleolithic stone tools can be found in Georgia, starting with Oldawan, Acheulean, and then Mousterian. The most advanced is the Levallois point, seen below:
David Reich’s timeline of ancient humans according to the DNA evidence, from his book “Who We Are and How We Got There”:
David Berikashvili just beginning to survey the caves around Samshvilde, and is also digging in a cave at nearby Kazreti, where Mousterian stone tools were found underneath a medieval chapel. Mousterian is associated with Neanderthals from 160,000 to 40,000 years ago, but we know that humans shared technology and the ability to socially coordinate hunts. However, it appears Sapiens was able to form larger social networks and cross larger distances, which eventually displaced Neanderthals.
These are some late neolithic tools found in Samshvilde, housed at the University of Georgia.
Upriver at the birthplace of the Khrami, Ice Age hunters scrawled their own image on cliffs near Tsalka. These petroglyphs are currently undated, not to mention unprotected.
Exhibit B – The Birth of Culture
A day’s walk to the east from Dmanisi and Samshvilde is the worlds oldest known wine production at Gadachrili Gora. Here the early Neolithic hunter/farmers slept in circle shaped beehive huts as they fermented the first vintage out of the womb of qvevri clay jars in 6000 BC. The black fertile soil of the Marneuli plain that gave us the most sacred beverage known to man is even today ploughed by horses and their Armenian masters along the southern border. Pre-bronze age people would have plowed the land with antlers, and grew a wide variety of crops: wheat, barley, sorghum, oats and millet. Despite a mix of hunting and farming, there is no evidence of seasonal migration with flocks to pasturelands (transhumance) which dominates the Marneuli landscape today.
6000 BC is about the time of domestication of animals – sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle are basically the same thing you still see today. Burials were similar to Catalhoyuk in Turkey – after sprinkling the body of your family member with red ochre, they would stay with you underneath your floor or courtyard. Burials outside dwelling and towns begins with the early Bronze Age Kura Araxes culture, for unknown reasons. But the idea lives on: our guide at Sanahin monastery just across the border in Armenia explained that walking on the graves gives you the power of the ancestors.
The beehive structures here would have been comfortable enough for one person. The same circular houses can be seen at the world’s oldest settlement in Turkey – Gobekli Tepe, 10,000 BC. In recent years, archaeologists found a shift away from circular houses to rectangles, like those at Catalhoyuk in 7000 BC. In the Caucasus, perhaps because of the lingering presence of hunter gatherers, circular buildings pop up 3000 years later. Here’s what the layout of a 6000 BC Calcolithic settlement in the Caucasus looks like (comparison of Goytepe, Artashen, and Khramis Didi Gora, in Sagona, 97):
It’s hard to imagine that these houses were just after the invention of pottery itself. There is far less pottery at these sites than later times. Each culture tried out its own new and improved version. During the transition from Copper/Stone (Calcolithic) age to early Bronze, the “Sioni” culture in this area discovered that mixing bits of obsidian into their pottery allowed for greater heat transfer and faster boiling times. Technology developed, but at a much slower pace.
The greatest symbol of increased inequality and empire was mastery of metallurgy, and the Caucasus is renown for mastering this art early. The huge copper deposits of Kazreti, visible across the Khrami gorge from Samshvilde, would have served as one of the beating hearts of the Bronze Age. The Chatakhi iron deposits upstream, like the Chorokhi magnetite sands of the Black Sea, would have lured Jason and the Argonauts to discover Georgia’s metallurgical secrets. The first metals can be found as far back as the early 4000s, however the Early Bronze age Kura Araxes period from 3500 is full of small scale experimentation with arsenical copper alloys and gold. Discovery of nickel deposits also confirm this could be the birthplace of bronze.
What’s fascinating is the shift in culture that came with the rise of metallurgy. Kura Araxes settlements are odd, in that they have no centralized structures, no temples, and no differentiation between men’s and women’s burials. Here’s a 2020 dig near Bolnisi:
By all accounts, this is an egalitarian culture. However by 2500 at the end of the Kura Araxes cultural horizon, male warlords take precedence in large monumental burial mounds, along with their cache of bling.
The Kura valley is fascinating, because alongside these early Bronze age settlements, you’ll see very early signs of mixing with steppe cultures. It’s possible that the Kura Araxes acted as metallurgical specialists for their steppe clients, similar to the relationship between Scythians and farmers north of the Black Sea. Debate continues about whether kurgans and wheeled wagons appear first in one place, or like many technologies, are invented in different places. Did the domestication of the horse first happen in Kazakhstan with the Botai? Did wheeled wagons first go north or south through the Caucasus? Wagons appear roughly at the same time throughout Europe and Mesopotamia, and the desire to commemorate the dead with a mound is common around the world. Were the kurgans of the Caucasus influenced by the steppe and the early Maikop peoples? There is a strong material connection between Uruk Mesopotamian cultures and the northern Caucasus Maikop, so we know there was extensive movement and trade in this region. There are pre-Bronze age kurgans near Berikldeebi and Tisikhagora. Here is one near Berikldeebi in a farmer’s field, with a view north towards the Caucasus range in Ossetia.
According to Palumbi, the development of metallurgy and ore production among the Kura Araxes attracted the attention of Mesopotamian Uruk migrants (the first urbanized people with strong heirarchies) and North Caucasian Maikop chieftans, who sought prestige goods for the elite, and covered greater distances with their new wheeled wagons. Arslantepe, an important trade city at the top of the fertile crescent in south east Turkey, has Kura Araxes cultural layers, and also the first known bronze swords.
You may have heard about the oldest known sword found in an Armenian museum in Venice – it was most likely produced in Arslantepe around 3000 BC, and uses the same arsenical copper alloy.
Beside Kazreti copper deposits lies Sakdrisi, the oldest known gold mine in the world. This gold lion, an icon of the modern Bank of Georgia, is from a kurgan in Tsnori, 2300 BC. According to Sagona, it would have taken 16 workers 330 days working 8 hours a day to produce 1kg of gold at Sakdrisi. It’s estimated that up to 1000 kg of gold was produced at Sakdrisi.
The same increase in social stratification transformed Europe, starting about 4,000 BC with the Yamnaya steppe incursions. These are Indo-European speaking tribes who displaced neolithic farmers, and this migration and cultural mixing is confirmed by David Reich’s DNA analysis. In Britain, the replacement rate of neolithic DNA to steppe Yamnaya is upwards of 90%. The mixing north and south of the Caucasus before the Bronze Age means that Europeans have some part of South Caucasian DNA. Maikop kurgans with horse burials in the north Caucasus confirm the cultural link as well. This paper published in Science details results of over 500 ancient individuals’ DNA sequence, and shows the percentage of Yamnaya DNA in various parts of the world. Unfortunately it does not detail the southern flow through the Caucasus, which almost certainly happened as well.
In recent years, David Anthony’s thesis that the domestication of the horse took place in 3500 BC in Kazakhstan has been confirmed. Later, around 3,000 BC the Yamnaya, based in the steppe north of the Caucasus, invented the wheeled cart, and began to settle in the open steppe for the first time. They slept in their mobile houses and left no traces of permanent settlement. Before the invention of the 4 wheeled cart, all steppe burials are found in river valleys, and not in the open steppe! The Yamnaya DNA incursion to Europe was a gradual one over one thousand years. Researchers have found evidence of the pestis plague shortly after their arrival. Through raiding, assimilation, and plague, the Yamnaya slowly replaced stone age farmer DNA – splitting off in different directions. This NOVA documentary on the domestication of the horse and its connection to Indo-European languages is a must watch, as it interviews not only David Anthony, but other scientists and archaeologists who studied the Botai and Yamnaya:
The first four wheeled carts were not much more than 1 meter wide and a meter and a half long. Actually, this donkey cart at Samshvilde, seen entering the citadel, would have been about the same size:
When domesticated horses first appeared in Mesopotamia around 2500 BC, they called them “asses of the mountains”.
Perhaps because of the natural barriers, or cramped space, kurgan cultures do not dominate the south Caucasus until the middle bronze age. Samshvilde sits just at the south end of the Bedeni plateau to the North and West, known for its rich kurgan burial mounds of 2500 BC.
There are many smaller kurgans, with little valuable grave goods, suggesting a kind of warrior “middle class”. However, there are also some really huge ones with elaborate artifacts. The Ananauri kurgan near Lagodekhi (ok, this is a little more than 100 miles!!) at 2500 BC was 12 meters high, 100 meters long, and housed two 4 wheeled carts. As with later Scythian steppe descendants, chieftans would bury their horses and wagons with them.
Around Tsalka near the birth of the Khrami gorge, the largest kurgan was Zurtakerti, a terraced kurgan of the “Trialeti” culture, dated to 1700 BC. Gold craftsmanship reached a high point in Trialeti.
These large kurgans are not unlike pyramids – huge groups of people were required to build them, and the elite were buried after a ritual procession on a road that led into the kurgan. In Trialeti, sometimes these are even 500 meters long and 5 meters wide, oriented exactly east/west. The entrance of the kurgans faced the east, so that the deceased would continue their journey as gods along the same path as the sun. Egyptian pyramids have similar “ascending” ceremonial roads, and Near Eastern rulers are always associated with as sons of the sun. Babylonian “Shamash” and Greek “Helios” are also associated with underworld suns, and the roads themselves would have been symbolic defense lines separating Chaos from Order (Narimanishvili).
The Trialeti culture is named after the region just south of the Trialeti ridge in the lesser Caucasus. The ridge is still used by shepherds today, but there is not a lot of space for multiple herds. Here is the ridge looking down to the Kura valley to the north, on the off-road drive from Didgori to Tbilisi.
Here is the south view, where the Algeti forest turns into the Tsalka volcanic plateau at Kldekari castle. During the bronze age, this plateau was covered with oak trees.
Exhibit C – A New Stone age
Amidst all these kurgans in the open plain, large megalithic towns crop up around hills in the late Bronze Age during the Mitanni empire. This cultural development is the reverse in Europe, where those who built Stone Henge were replaced by the Bell Beaker people of steppe DNA. The last building at Stone Henge is exactly when the first megalithic fortresses are introduced to Georgia, 1600 BC. The Bedeni plateau and Khrami gorge lie at the edge of a ring of megalithic fortresses extending West into Turkey on the Javakheti volcanic plateau. Dimitri Narimanishvili recently completed a survey of all megalithic structures in Georgia:
They form a natural barrier for the warring Hittite and Mittani empires jostling for power at this time. Built just before the Trojan war, these megalithic peoples ultimately fell into the darkness that filled the world during the Bronze Age collapse in 1100 BC. The collapse should be seen as the interruption of the first age of globalization in the world, when huge quantities of bronze tools and weapons are first made between 1400 and 1000 thanks to the relative stability of empire, quick road systems, and far flung sourcing of scarce Tin. Bronze made everyone’s lives more efficient, but it took world trade routes, a mastery of languages, and the speed of trust to accomplish.
Here is the largest menhir in Georgia, housed by a chapel and surrounded by a stone circle at the Azeri village of Tejisi. The last time we were there, we shared the room with a sacrificed chicken head.
The Tsalka plateau is full of megalithic sites. This is Avranlo, a late Bronze Age three-ringed megalithic fortress in a town of Pontic Greeks.
This anthropomorphic menhir is reminiscent of ancient Mongolian stelae.
Further up the plateau, Chikiani menhir marks an ancient obsidian mine and workshop near Paravani lake. There are literally piles of obsidian lying beside the new Baku/Ceyhan train tracks that cut into the hill. Obsidian from this mine is found all over Georgia, and is the northern most source south of the Caucasus mountains. Blades from the bronze age are better crafted than later medieval ones. Are some of the pieces here natural breaks, or knapped discards from humans?
These are the incredibly crafted obsidian arrowheads from the Ananauri kurgan, in Kakheti.
Numerous menhirs depict the animist beliefs of late-Bronze age people: Chikiani is said to have the image of a snake and a bull torso. This menhir in Javakheti shows the image clearly. However, the local Armenians believe it represents a breast, and call it the “milk stone”. They say that Pontic Greeks make a pilgrimage here every year, believing that it gives powers of lactation for recent mothers.
There are similar “vishap” stones throughout Armenia and eastern Turkey with carved animals. This one looks similar in design and resembles the face of a bull.
In the background of Chikiani, on the cone shaped volcano of Shaori mountain, is one of the most mysterious places in Georgia – an extensive dolmen burial site with a processional road winding up to the circular complex at the top. At its base are kurgan burial mounds – this one in the process of excavation by Davit Narimanishvili, who recently published a monograph on megalithic sites in Georgia.
The walk up to the top on a ceremonial stone staircase is breathtaking. The land of the dead on an extinct volcano, where perspective fades away amid the lack of trees. The mountaintop is a giant graveyard with dolmens all along the walk up – archaeologists have found no evidence of settlement. Spooky, and absolutely fabulous. The huge circular cult structure at the top of Shaori has at least 16 dolmen burial chambers
At the far end of Paravani lake on Patara Abuli mountain lies a proper megalithic fortress, this one overlooking the trade routes into Armenia and Turkey. Tribes west of here in the Pontic region of Turkey would have participated in the Trojan War, and the collapse of the Bronze Age trade routes would have plunged these once flourishing trade centers into cozy hideouts during the struggle of the Assyrian and Urartian to rebuild trade routes in the Iron Age. There they remain, still standing keeping watch.
New tribes are said to have settled here from the West – the Diauehi, and other proto-Georgians, who traded with the kingdom of Urartu. As with previous Hittite and Mittani empires, the outline of megalithic fortresses corresponds to the borderlands of Urartu in the 9th century, and a couple Urartian cylinder seals discussing trade have been found.
After the Bronze Age collapse, when crumbled empires could no longer ensure the trade routes necessary for Tin and Copper, Iron became the new metal of choice, despite being much more difficult to work with. The Kaska tribes east of here – who were powerful enough to sack the Hittite capital – specialized in iron and were known as master sword smiths. The first iron daggers are described by Hittite records as Kaska, who dominated the Chorokhi river that still continues to rain black magnetite sand across the beaches of the Georgian Black Sea. Tutankhamun had rare iron daggers in his burial 1300 BC, but these were made of meteorites, not natural ore. As the Assyrians began to assert dominance over the entire Near East in the 8th century BC, they sourced iron ores in neighboring lands, allowing them to equip the first standing army with iron weapons for the first time in history.
Sometimes, you just want to drive up the back of a volcano.
Goderdzi Narimanishvili is currently uncovering a late Bronze Age megalith site across the river from Samshvilde. There are a couple megaliths at the Samshvilde complex in the form of tetraliths, or three big rocks on top of eachother. There’s also the standing stone greeting you as you walk down the medieval road. Villagers still use this sacred stone as a candle holder during the feast of St. Mary.
Across the Bedeni plateau, the “Lodovani” sites are megalithic burial complexes with dolmens reminiscent of Shaori, with interconnecting tunnels. Is this Medieval or Bronze age? I found this place on Google Earth after searching for a couple hours. On the hike up, I ran into Beso, a local hunter who looked suspiciously like the Assyrian warriors on those gravestones.
As the last great kurgan peoples vanished from the Caucasus, stone cist burials become more popular, and these can be seen in great abundance in Mtskheta, at the Samtavro burial complex. Here is one, possibly built for a child, overlooking Tsikhiagora Zoroastrian temple in the Kura valley. It could have been there 1,000 years before the Persians….. or 1000 afterwards. Who knows?
Exhibit D – Age of Empires
In the darkness following the Bronze Age collapse, waves of Scythian marauders pouring through the Caucasus crushed the warring Urartu and Assyrian empires. This attracted the attention of the Persian empire, who campaigned to bar the great Dariali mountain gates from these bloody savages. Dariali is a Persian word that means “Dar e Alani” – gates of the Alans, or Scythian decendants. Scythians warriors were paid by chiefs according to how any human scalps they could harvest. Here is Khaishaurni Bronze Age megalithic tower, guarding the pass to Gudauri (in someone’s backyard), up to the Darial gorge.
Scythians were not only fearsome in spirit, but also brought with them one of the greatest technological developments in the history of war – the socketed two or three pronged arrowhead, which allowed arrows to spin and fly straighter through crosswinds, and were better able to pierce armor. It is from the Scythians that the great Assyrian empire adopted the iron cast socketed arrow heads, allowing them to dominate the entire Near East. These types of arrowheads show up in sites across Georgia, especially Kakheti, in the 7th century.
Later, the Persian Achaemenid empire issued socketed arrows as standard equipment:
Before the Scythians, arrows were fixed to a shaft in a less secure way through a prong:
The socketed arrowhead is not unlike the invention of the stirrup, which allowed later steppe savages called the Mongols to engulf civilization in flames a full 2000 years later. Just to the south of Gudauri, Khada gorge has various Bronze age ruins and according to medieval Georgian Chronicles was also the site of battles with the Mongols. Georgians were such fierce and good warriors that the Mongols used them in their attacks against the Pontic Greeks, and you can feel a sense of pride in the chronicler, to be included alongside the greatest of all warriors.
This is the cult shrine and tower above Tskere.
One of the few megalithic structures near Borjomi in the lesser Caucasus mountains is the super mysterious Gogichaant Ghele – a beehive shaped grave, reminiscent of Sardinian nurages, or Thracian and Ukranian steppe beehive tombs. I’ve never seen anything like it in Georgia, and excavations just began this summer. The tholos structure includes a small grave goods room to the south, and the entrance wall is curved. Would the Scythians or some other steppe peoples have built this tomb on their way through the Caucasus? Or perhaps cultural contacts influenced a wealthy chieftan to be remembered like a proper European. During the late bronze age, some Trialeti kurgans have similar artifacts to tombs in Mycenae, suggesting cultural ties.
If you’re looking for a nice picnic spot without leaving Tbilisi, and want to at the same time imagine murderous Scythians pouring in, look no further than Treli. Today it sits peacefully above a bustling highway, and no one knows it exists. There is no sign (and unfortunately no protection, despite being right beside the now defunct archaeology museum). Treli was the largest neolithic settlement in Georgia. It was occupied by Kura Araxes, and eventually Scythians during the 7th century BC, on their way to destroy the Urartu and Assyrian empires. Artifacts from the site featured in the British Museum’s recent exhibition on Scythian metallurgy.
On their way through the Caucasus, the Scythians saw many kurgans, and without knowing who was buried in them, adopted them as their own, adding their own slain warriors to the grave. This is the main evidence we have for Scythians in the region – layered or reclaimed kurgans with multiple bodies at different levels. To make sure the kurgan was known as theirs, they would place a stone statue or stelae on top of the mound, marking the new “king of the hill”. Here is a modern rendition of this practice – a 20th century tombstone placed on a kurgan style hill in front of Didi Abuli. Perhaps they too wished to reclaim this sacred mound and add glory to their family name.
The barbaric practices of the Scythians are well documented by Herodotus. However, nothing compares to the myth and legend of the “Amazon” women warriors, who have been found in graves, just like men, with their weapons of war. There have even been whole tribes of Scythians led by these trouser wearing tattoed women. Over 1000 Greek vases depict Scythian women in battle, and archaeological evidence confirms that these encounters did indeed happen.
In her book about Scythians, Adrienne Mayor places the archaeological evidence alongside classical accounts and modern folktales of women warriors in the Caucasus, showing that 37 per cent of Scythian graves are females with weapons who would have fought alongside men. Graves of 10 year old girls with swords and light armor have been discovered. She claims that the oldest evidence of warrior women warriors that exists, 1000 BC, is in Zemo Avchala, which I can see from my balcony in Tbilisi! Three women with their weapons were discovered here in 1931, one of whom was killed in battle with an axe to the head. Today this neighborhood is better known for Tbilisi Mall and the upscale Dighomi village. It’s a rather sensational claim to be taken with a grain of salt, and I’ll report back with more details.
Around 500 BC Darius I, known for his defeat at the battle of Marathon at the hands of the Greeks, presided over the greatest extent of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, pursuing the Scythians through Bulgaria up into Ukraine, and also conquering the southern Caucasus. Zoroastrianism thus became an influential religion in Georgia – a monotheistic precursor to Christian conversion. This is Tsikhiagora, the ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple along the Mtkvari, or Kura river. The altar can be seen on the right. A large bull protome (pillar capital) was found here and can now be seen in the Tbilisi National Museumi (S. Batiuk photo). Like many sites along the Mtkvari river, it’s also a 5700 year old early Bronze age Kura Araxes settlement, first excavated in 1970.
Every hill and river valley in the Caucasus teems with the ghosts of human ancestry. These are not just the mountains of poetry, conquest and empire, but the very womb and birthplace of the human soul. This is the domain of the “Mother Fortress,” Samshvilde.
Exhibit D – Samshvilde, the “Mother Fortress“
Finally we come to the original purpose of this post – the archaeological dig at Samshvilde, 2020. By now I think you can appreciate how exciting it was. We were there for one week, but in our square alone we were digging up all of Georgian history. One of the highlights for me was seeing my seven year old son Alasdair beam with excitement at the prospect of another hard day’s work.
David did an excellent job preparing for us, and was a wonderful teacher. The site itself has been dug for 8 years in a meticulous way, and there were many stories to tell. We were there with 9 high school guys, and we continued talking about the days work long after the sun had gone down.
The small finds started immediately, and David’s masters students Shota and Levan were put to work on the transit to catalogue an iron mace head, glazed medieval plates, glass, obsidian, bracelet, and more (actually I think that’s a bronze age obsidian arrow head…).
The most interesting time was seeing what everyone found at the end of the day. A cannon ball, a braided metal ring, byzantine style glaze, obsidian cores, rough neolithic pottery, and some 5,000 year old Kura Araxes fragments.
On the third day, things got pretty interesting. Local Armenian villagers were clearing what David thought might be a temple complex. They found a seal fragment, and after washing, it looked to be a Persian seal from the Achaemenid period. David was beside himself with glee. “Come, come!! Let me show you what this is!.. An imperial seal from Darius I, 500 BC…. here in Georgia?!” Alasdair and I went into his office where he was comparing the seal to one in the British Museum. “These are the wings of Ahura Mazda, and here you can see the chariot… and this is where the lion would be!” It was a moment of child like wonder and excitement. “You can even see the imprint of the fingers that pressed the seal..”
In the next couple days, Alasdair’s square was deep into the Bronze Age, and they were now getting consistent material in that context. There were zoomorphic jar handles – which would have been shaped like deer or stags as part of the ancient animist culture. An oil lamp, three sided obsidian fitted blades…
What can I say? The experience was the full package. By Saturday I was thinking of writing a book about it.
…….to be continued……..
Thanks again to David Berikashvili of the University of Georgia for this wonderful experience!
….In the fall while visiting Truso gorge near Kazbegi, we met up again during his survey of Zakagori fortress. That Saturday we had breakfast at the monastery where they stayed for the week (no hot water!), and then dug more trenches. After the first trench, we celebrated “to our future success” by downing 4 or 5 shots of chacha – the true Georgian way! And then we took a nap. Here I am with the Armenian locals of Samshvilde, in the highlands of Georgia, holding an 18th century sword. To the future success of archaeological discovery in Georgia!
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This is an incredible survey. Please write more, with photos and details! The literature references are also really helpful. I’m thrilled that I was on a couple of these adventures, and I look forward to more!
Let’s go find that cuneiform inscription of Argishti… Really its an honor to travel with you, and listen to you sing Georgian chant in various chapels we visit. Pretty cool to think that the medieval “Tamar” bridge we visited was once the furthest reaches of the kingdom of Ani.
Great Post. I look forward to reading the historical fiction account of Samshvilde someday in paperback!
Thanks for the tip on James Mitchener’s “The Source”!
Yes, please do write a book…or at least more posts! Looking forward to more day trip ideas!
Although Samshvilde is my favorite, I enjoyed other chapters as well. I don’t remember any western person in last decade, who wrote about Georgian Cultural Heritage in such exiting way and in such manner…Bravo Andrew and hope to see you on Kazreti Ortvala Excavations this year…
Hear hear. Stimulating, beguiling. I’m coming back to follow up more threads. My father thoroughly enjoyed reading through too. You are going to fire up a lot of fans.
You might find these folks and their videos interesting: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkYq3d0MhkI0cpNawWvYCrw
I can make an introduction if you’d like, though most of them don’t know much English, unfortunately. They do hope to do English versions of the videos eventually.
Thanks – yes, these are great. Lots going on in Georgia!