Exploring an Autonomous Exclave: Naxçıvan Archaeological Project 2014

CIA FactBook Map of Azerbaijan (1995)

CIA FactBook Map of Azerbaijan (1995)

Salam from Azerbaijan and Hoşgəldiniz to Beyond the Gallery Walls! After a week of preparations and setup, the 2014 season of the Naxçıvan Archaeological Project (hereafter, NAP) is now in full swing. As with any archaeological field project, there are many things that must be taken care of before a research season can begin in earnest – this year being no exception. Before we could dedicate ourselves fully to fieldwork the dig house had to be properly outfitted; this included, among other things, logistical tasks such as stocking and equipping the kitchen, provisioning the sleeping quarters, setting up the data processing workstations, installing the internet, starting a workflow, cleaning, repairing and organizing field gear as well as divvying up chore routines. While these preparations would ideally be finished before fieldwork starts, it rarely works out that way in practice, which leads to a hectic and busy first few weeks. Archaeology is nothing if not a complicated endeavor no matter where one works, but especially so in the former Soviet Union.

Maiden's Tower (Baku)

Maiden’s Tower (Baku)

As eight years have passed since the beginning of the NAP, much of the diplomatic heavy lifting that has made this collaborative project possible has already been accomplished. Our directors, Dr. Lauren Ristvet of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Hilary Gopnik of Emory University, and Dr. Emily Hammer (soon to be) of the Oriental Institute, have been working in Naxçıvan for eight years now; their hard work in previous field seasons and their success in obtaining funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) have made it possible for this project to continue. Under their leadership, the NAP has become a premier archaeological expedition: not only is it the first American project to work in Azerbaijan, but it is also one of only six archaeological projects funded by the NSF to be directed entirely by women. It is an honor and a privilege to be part of a project that is breaking new ground (pardon the pun) in the academy and beyond.

As mentioned above, this is the first American-led archaeological expedition to Azerbaijan; despite it being a relatively easy country for Americans to work in compared to its immediate neighbors, few American or other Western archaeologists have done research in this Caucasian republic. Indeed, few people in the United States are familiar with the recent history of Azerbaijan or its rich cultural heritage.

Our project is based in the Autonomous Republic of Naxçıvan, an exclave that is separated from the main bulk of the country by Armenia. Naxçıvan is mostly formed by the wide valley on the right bank of the Araxes River (the left bank opposite Naxçıvan lies in Iran) and averages approximately 1000 meters above sea level in elevation. The landscape alternates between open prairie, brush-land, agricultural fields and mountainous ridges, but the most conspicuous feature on the horizon is the looming silhouette of Mount Ararat, the purported landing place of Biblical Noah’s ark. Other imposing features include the many Iron Age hilltop fortresses such as Oğlanqala, Sədərəkqala, Qizqala, and Shahtaxtı, all located at strategic access points to the fertile Araxes floodplain from the passes through the surrounding mountains.

The Flame Towers (Baku)

The Flame Towers (Baku)

Ludwig Nobel's Mansion (Baku)

Ludwig Nobel’s Mansion (Baku)

This season we are investigating the ancient societies that flourished in this region during the first millennium B.C.E. We are interested in the relationships between the fortress-based polities that existed here and the contemporaneous local communities that dotted the valley floor. Our team is excavating areas in the lower town that surrounds the fortress of Oğlanqala, as well as conducting geophysical and field-walking surveys in order to delimit the extent and nature of this settlement. While half a dozen seasons of excavations on the citadel mount have yielded much valuable information about the fortress of Oğlanqala, little is known about the settlement that surrounded it. We want to know: was it a planned imperial city, a high-density agrarian city, a low-density agro-pastoralist urban settlement, or was the fortress surrounded by many low-density pastoralist settlements? Our work seeks to evaluate the utility of these four different models of settlement dynamics, each of which represents a particular configuration of social variables including but not limited to: population density, spatial patterning, planning, fortifications, mobility, and degree of economic integration.

Mount Ararat (view from Sədərək Settlement)

Mount Ararat (view from Sədərək Settlement)

Oğlanqala Fortress on top of Kara Depe (View from Qizqala)

Oğlanqala Fortress on top of Kara Depe (View from Qizqala)

These kinds of research questions can be addressed in a number of different ways. Archaeological excavation is a familiar enough idea to most people, through its frequent depiction in television, film, and other media, but archaeological survey is less ‘sexy’ and therefore has a less stable referent in the public imaginary. In my next post I will introduce what it is like to participate in an archaeological survey and how we use a specific set of methods and equipment in order to locate, identify, and characterize archaeological sites and ancient monuments.

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