I just got back from two weeks in the Lake Van region of eastern Turkey, where I was doing pre-dissertation research on sites from the Urartian Empire (860 – 590 BCE). Specifically, my research takes a phenomenological approach, focusing on bodily experiences of archaeological sites: sights, sounds, textures, sensations of movement, and the emotional impact of built and natural features. Rather than simply looking at site plans, phenomenology attempts to capture the human experience of what it is like to be at an archaeological site. In order to document this, I visited 12 Urartian sites, walked around the whole site, took photos and videos, and recorded my experiences.
Luckily for me, Urartian sites are great for this kind of project. Since most Urartian sites are located so as to be easily defensible, they’re often on hilltops with stunning views of the surrounding landscape, including mountains, valleys, and the beautiful Lake Van. Some are on high grassy hills, while others are perched atop sheer rock outcroppings. Visiting the sites in person really drove home how imposing they would have been both to subject populations, who would have been in awe of their leaders’ abilities to build such massive structures, and to enemies, who might have thought twice about trying to attack. The Urartians also made use of man-made features such as massive carved stone blocks, precarious staircases carved into the bedrock, and inscriptions, to mark their claim on these places.
The Urartian landscape is difficult to move through; getting to many of the sites requires climbing steep hills, the ground iss often rocky and uneven, and staircases are extremely treacherous. Compared to other empires in the region, the Urartians had looser political control over their subject populations. Visiting the region myself, it was easy to see why: winding roads took us through narrow mountain passes and up and down steep hills. Movement would have been more limited due to this terrain, and populations would have been more isolated. Yet the mountainous landscape also would have provided many interesting experiences for people living in and passing through it. The mountains themselves are both beautiful and imposing, and would have provided a striking backdrop for Urartian built features. I was able to see for myself landscape features that were important to the Urartians, including Mt. Suphan and Mt. Ararat, and witness how these features are visible from the various archaeological sites, giving me a better understanding of how the Urartians experienced their landscape.
Finally, I was able to see how life in the region today reflects life in the past. Many times we had to stop our car to allow herds of sheep or cows to pass. Animal husbandry has been an important part of the economy of highland Anatolia, and the basis for many people’s way of life, since even before Urartian times, and it remains that way today. At the foot of the Urartian castle at Dogubeyazit, a shepherd herded his flock of sheep down from the hills, where they would have been grazing, into the village, where the women would shear them and wash the wool. This process probably would have been exactly the same in Urartian times.
My trip to Turkey exposed me to both the natural and the cultural landscape of the Urartian Empire, something that will be crucial to the phenomenological approach I plan to use for my dissertation. In addition, it allowed me to see firsthand patterns of life that reflect those in the past. I’m extremely grateful for funding from the Penn Museum that allowed me to carry out this research, and I can’t wait to conduct similar research on Urartian sites in Armenia next summer.