Archaeological Survey in Vayots Dzor

By: and Christopher Besser

July 19, 2018

For the month of June 2018, a team from the University of Pennsylvania surveyed Vayots Dzor, Armenia, under the direction of Dr. Peter J. Cobb from the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM) and Dr. Elvan Cobb of Cornell University, as part of the Open Archaeology project. Support for the project came from the Penn Museum, the Penn Libraries, and the Price Lab for Digital Humanities. Our survey was a part of the Vayots Dzor Fortress Landscapes Project (VDFLP), directed by Dr. Tiffany Earley-Spadoni, from the University of Central Florida, who was excavating in the valley this season, as well as Arthur Petrosyan and Boris Gasparyan, from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, National Academy of Sciences, Armenia.

Our Team: Hayk, Malkia, Chris, Elvan, Peter, 3-year-old Nehir, Andrew, and Colin.

Our team was a mix of engineering and humanities students; two of us (Chris and Colin) are Computer Science majors with no prior archaeological experience; other team members include a masters graduate student in Byzantine and Late Antique Studies (Andrew Williams), a Penn undergraduate student majoring in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations (Malkia Okech), and a Professor at the University of Wisconsin (Dr. Caitlin Curtis). Our day-to-day tasks ranged from washing pottery sherds to debugging Android applications. One of Open Archaeology’s goals is to make archaeology more accessible by combining traditional methods like field survey with digital technologies. Thus, our range of experiences and the fact that most team members had not surveyed before created a great group dynamic where all of us could share our past work experience with each other with room still to learn something new together. For example, the engineers were showing the humanities students how to create a website, and the humanities students were showing the engineers how to handle, wash, and 3D scan pottery.

Farm fields in Vayots Dzor.

All of our surveys took place within the Vayots Dzor province, a name which can be interpreted as “valley of sorrows” in Armenia, which may be a reference to a historic earthquake with many causalities. While today the region is known for its beautiful landscapes and productive vineyards, it is historically an important corridor for travel, as the mountain passes, especially the Selim Pass at the northern end, provide a route to Lake Sevan. The valley has been inhabited in most periods of human history, but some periods of high activity include the early 1st millennium BCE during the Urartian Empire, and the early 2nd millennium CE medieval period. Fortresses present some of the main structural evidence visible in the valley today, including a previously excavated Urartian fortress, but the majority of the currently observable structures are likely medieval. Currently, the valley consists of around ten small, spread out villages, most of which we surveyed near or at least briefly visited, with farmland on the valley floors in between. Our biggest challenge was identifying the remnants of structures; during the Soviet period in Armenia, rocks, boulders, and often the foundations of old structures were pushed out of the way of farm fields. While we found pottery in such fields, some fruitful locations were on the peaks of mountains and hills that were ideal for fortresses because of their defensible vantage point and clear view of the valley. We found a few medieval fortresses that were considerably well preserved because of their elevated, isolated positions, around which we found a variety of pottery sherds, pieces of obsidian, and the foundations of walls.

Capturing a 360 degree photograph.

We used a variety of equipment during our survey, but our most experimental addition was an Emlid Reach. The Reach is a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) positioning device, consisting of a base and a rover; devices like these are commonly used in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) navigation and surveying. They aim to enhance the precision of positions by calculating an error on the base and correcting the rover’s position using that error (a ‘differential’ correction), providing up to centimeter-level accuracy. Our intention in using this device was to be able to calculate accurate positions of finds in the field, mapping our discoveries on the fly with a precision hitherto unobtainable at an affordable price in field surveys. The engineers on our team created a mobile application we could use in the field that would let us easily record finds. Using this system, we would take a few minutes each morning to set up the base at a fixed location within the valley, then later record the location, the material, pictures, and comments of our finds, which would be synchronized to our cloud-based relational database when we came home and connected to the internet. The application could also record our walking paths, allowing us to easily view both the areas we surveyed and the finds we collected in software like ArcGIS on the CAAM Virtual Lab (a virtual desktop server) when we got back to our local basecamp.

Having a meal with a local family.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the project was the immersion in Armenian culture. An Armenian archaeology student named Hayk Azizbekyan joined us on our field surveys and would attempt to teach us the language and share his culture with us. We also had a driver named Vrej, a white-haired man with all-gold teeth who would drive us throughout the valley in a 1954 Soviet jeep held together by his own repairs. Vrej spoke no English but never failed to chat up and introduce us to the locals. Thus, we not only got to know Armenia through our friends Hayk and Vrej, but also through our experiences with the local farmers and shepherds; often Vrej and Hayk would introduce themselves, explain what we were doing, only to have the farmers share their knowledge of the local landscape, often directing us to locally known sites, fortresses, and khachkars (cross-stones). The generosity and hospitality of everyone we ran into was remarkable; sitting down and eating a meal or sharing tea and coffee with a family or a group of workers was a common occurrence, and a welcome break from walking through the fields. When we weren’t working, we would make excursions to historically significant sites. We visited Noravank, a nearby 13thcentury Armenian monastery, the Areni-1 cave, known as the earliest winery and famous for its earliest-known shoe, Tatev, a 9th century monastery and famous cultural center, and the University of Gladzor, an important medieval learning center established in the 13th century. We also shared a home and a workspace with a wonderful local family that took care of us, guided us around the village, and fed us three meals a day with ingredients that were grown and prepared by themselves in their own gardens.

A view from above.

All in all, our experience has been wonderful, and we are proud of what we have accomplished here. Total counts and statistic for Colin, for example, are 32 total survey tracks with a total duration of 42 hours across 15 days, 25.88 miles surveyed for a total of around 188,000 steps and 5,689 feet climbed (one mile!). As a team, we found almost 500 finds, for which we have precise locations and photographs, and some of which we brought back to our basecamp for 3D scanning. We encountered too many snakes to count, recent droppings and signs of brown bears, all sorts of beautiful insects, and plants. We’ve choked on interesting local soups, we’ve cried, coughed, and sneezed because of allergies, we’ve fallen on our backs, and are coming back with scrapes and bruises, but all of us have fallen in love with the people and places of Armenia and would come back in a heartbeat.

All photos by the author.