Monthly Archives: September 2011

Independence Day, Armenia-style

On September 21st, Armenia celebrated its 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union.  There were concerts, dance performances, and a general party atmosphere all over the center of Yerevan.  In the evening, Republic Square was transformed into one large concert- and show venue, where a full orchestra played while dancers danced, singers sang, and a visual history of Armenia was projected onto the History Museum of Armenia as well as the two government buildings flanking it (the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Finance).  I’ve never seen anything like the light show played on the buildings; these photos don’t do it justice.  It was really remarkable.

The History Museum of Armenia

I had spent the evening with a couple of friends, talking, eating fruit and treats, drinking cognac and rose liqueur, and I decided I needed to witness the events in Republic Square.  A 20th anniversary only comes around once—and I figured that such a milestone would be perceived a little differently than, say, our 235th anniversary of independence.  I started my investigations into the holiday by talking with friends and colleagues, asking what they thought of the anniversary—both in general, and specifically, of the celebrations the government was planning.  The celebrations had clearly been in the works for a long time, including not just that day’s activities, but also an entire printed campaign with signs proclaiming “Hayastany Du Es!”, or, you are Armenia!, as well as a music video that played frequently all summer: . Continue reading

Another day, another period uncovered: Hellenistic remains at Armavir!

We had been focusing on removing the medieval (and modern) remains at Armavir, in order to expose the Urartian-period temple courtyard, when we started to uncover large flat stones with distinctive wedge-shaped holes.  The early first millennium BC architecture at the site (e.g. the Urartian temple) was constructed of well-worked stones laid next to each other, sometimes with joins that jogged slightly, but without mortar or clamps or other fasteners between the blocks.  In the Hellenistic period, throughout the Mediterranean world, a type of clamp frequently called “swallow-tail” was used. The name comes from the shape; a wedge-shaped hole was made in each block on either side of a join, and when you look at the two stones next to one another, the holes make a bow-tie or swallow-tail shape.  A fastener was then inserted across the two stones, linking them.  In many cases in the Mediterranean world, the fastener (clamp) was made of metal.  One of the reasons you see ruins now with ‘bites’ out of the ancient blocks is that the metal was valuable, and people would destroy the corners of the stones to dig the metal out.

But here in Armenia, it had been speculated that wood was used as the fastener.  And now—there is evidence!  We found wood in situ in the swallow-tail holes.  This discovery is interesting for three reasons: one, that we uncovered a Hellenistic-period layer at the top of the hill; two, that the lead excavator now has evidence for the use of wood in joining blocks; three, the fact that we found these blocks under what we thought was an Urartian-period courtyard forces us to reconsider the periodization of that courtyard (since it would be pretty difficult for a 8th- or 7th-century BC construction to lie on top of a later 3rd- or 2nd-century BC wall foundation).  I had to leave the site to work in Yerevan, but I assume that the archaeologists continued to unearth the Hellenistic wall foundation; when I left, they were debating in which direction to go, in order to find its extent.  Super exciting!

Swallow-tail clamps

Swallow-tail clamps joining multiple blocks

Armavir, day ummm…

I’ve lost track of on which day what happened, but here are some photos from the most recent day of ‘excavation,’ during which we began to take apart (by ‘take apart,’ I mean demolish w/ a sledgehammer) the Soviet-era military bunker.  In more interesting archaeology, however, work continues on opening the paved temple courtyard.

Evaluating which rocks need to be removed, as part of the courtyard-clearing process.

The bunker, in the process of being dismantled

The dismantling includes chucking very heavy reinforced-concrete posts over the side of the mountain, into the backdirt.

Excavation mascot

Armavir, day 1

Today, I got a personal tour of the Hellenistic-period capital city, Armavir.  In the Urartian period (early 1st millennium BC), there was a large temple, whose foundation still stands.  The city (which some have interpreted more as a sacred religious center than a true ‘city’) was still in use in the Achaemenid period (6th-4th centuries BC), and into the Hellenistic period (3rd-ca. 1st centuries BC).  Then there was a gap in occupation until the Middle Ages, at which point many of the well-worked stones from the Urartian temple were redeployed in a different construction.  It’s clear where the newer construction starts and where the older, Urartian construction lies next to it.  Those folks in the Middle Ages didn’t bother fitting the worked stones together well, leaving an overall impression of rather sloppy construction.

The well-worked black blocks are Urartian; the red stone wall in the center is medieval.

The summit of the hill is very interesting, partly because of the multiple periods of use, which also include the Soviet period, when some sort of military blind was erected on the medieval construction.  This year, the excavators are working to take down as much of that military construction as possible, in order to more completely expose the temple foundation.  So to do that, the work involves a lot of demolition with pickaxes and an absolutely enormous prybar.

There are also some inscriptions at Armavir that are quite interesting, although they are on a rock at the base of the hill, on the southern face.  More on those later.

The raised area to the right (to the left of the worker) is the paved floor.

Update: The medieval wall has been removed!  It was a chapel, whose floor likely consisted of some flat paving stones that had been in the courtyard for the Urartian temple. Some of the paving stones have been found, and the wall was removed to facilitate the search for the extent of the courtyard.

Journey out of Yerevan

I’m studying the inscriptions of the Hellenistic and Roman periods in Armenia, and while most of them have been collected in the History Museum of Armenia in Yerevan, there is one in a regional museum in a town called Yeghegnadzor. So a colleague arranged permissions for me, and I was slated to travel there yesterday.

I decided to make an adventure of it and stop at a couple places on my way back to Yerevan, and thus flexibility was key, so I would need to either hire a driver or rent a car. In the end, the price for a driver and car or for my own car was the same (except for gas, which was additional), but I enjoy traveling independently, and I thought it would be an adventure. And I was definitely correct. It’s more usually been the case that my husband drives while I navigate, but yesterday, I had to both navigate and avoid crazy drivers, kamikaze pedestrians, etc.

The road signs in Armenia are improving, but they are not great, and to get to the southern part of the country, you have to figure out how to weave through the southern part of Yerevan in order to emerge on the correct highway. I almost did it correctly: I ended up on a smaller highway that led in the same direction through villages, rather than the 4-lane divided highway that goes toward Artashat from Yerevan. I always knew I was at least headed in the correct direction—when an enormous double-peaked mountain dominates the southern horizon, that’s actually not hard. I kept Mt. Ararat on my right, and I was in business—once I managed to leave Yerevan, that is. Leaving Yerevan was the tricky part; there is an amazing amount of traffic that leaves via a small 2-lane road that takes a sharp turn under a very narrow train bridge, where sometimes oncoming traffic has to wait for the other direction because of the tiny width of the underpass. It looks like you’re taking a short cut through a factory yard, but in fact, you are on one of the main routes south out of the city.

Eventually I made my way to Yeghegnadzor and found the museum after asking three people where to find it (turned out that third person thinks I’m crazy; I had just passed it and was sitting in front of the neighboring building; “Excuse me, can you tell me where the museum is?” Incredulous look. Point.). And at the museum, the docent was incredibly helpful and generous with her time. We took the altar outside, washed it thoroughly, and then I made a “squeeze,” an impression of the words on the stone using wet paper, pounded into the inscription with a boar-bristle brush. I used two different kinds of paper and multiple brushes and eventually succeeded in getting a relatively clear reverse impression of the inscription.

The stone is a portable altar that some have argued was connected to the 15th Roman legion, which was stationed in Armenia during the second century AD. The inscription is in Greek.

Scrubbing the monument in preparation

Waiting for the squeeze to dry

And this is the exciting result