The Chalcolithic of the near East and South-Eastern Europe: Discoveries and New Perspectives from the Cave Complex Areni-1, Armenia

By Areshian, Gregory E.; Gasparyan, Boris et al. | Antiquity, March 2012 | Go to article overview

The Chalcolithic of the near East and South-Eastern Europe: Discoveries and New Perspectives from the Cave Complex Areni-1, Armenia


Areshian, Gregory E., Gasparyan, Boris, Avetisyan, Pavel S., Pinhasi, Ron, Wilkinson, Keith, Smith, Alexia, Hovsepyan, Roman, Zardaryan, Diana, Antiquity


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Introduction

The current perception of Chalcolithic societies of the Middle East, Central Asia, and many parts of south-eastern Europe dating to c. 5000-3000 BC is shaped by more than a century of excavations at numerous tells or tepes (for a general discussion of Chalcolithic tells in the Caucasus see Djavakhishvili 1973, Areshian 1996 and Kushnareva 1997). The study of tells reveals substantial similarities in the lifeways of their inhabitants from the western foothills of the T'ien-Shan and Hindu-Kush mountains in the east to the Danube Plain in the west and the Nile Valley in the south. But how comprehensive and adequate is their account of the Chalcolithic?

A different perspective began to emerge in the 1960s when several major discoveries were made at other types of sites, such as the Nahal Mishmar hoard in a cave of the Judaean Desert near the Dead Sea (Moorey 1988; Levy 2007), the Varna necropolis on the west coast of the Black Sea in Bulgaria (Ivanov & Avramova 2000) and the huge (450ha) Tal'janki settlement in the Ukrainian steppe (Kruc 1994). These discoveries suggest something much more complex than the single model generalised from tells.

In particular, the significance of caves to the study of Chalcolithic societies in the mountainous regions of the Near East was hinted at by finds from the 'Cave of the Warrior' and the 'Cave of the Treasure' (Nahal Hemar, Peqi'in) in the southern Levant (Schick 1998), and the Kunji (Wright et al. 1975: 131-3) and the Wezmeh (Abdi et al. 2002) caves in the central Zagros. Here we provide a brief account of the discovery in 2007-2009 of a Chalcolithic cave site in the canyon of the Arpa River in the central part of the Near Eastern highlands in Armenia, notable for its rich intensive occupation and exceptional preservation of organic remains.

The cave complex Areni-1

Archaeological survey in 2006-2009 in the middle part of the Arpa River drainage in the Vayots Dzor province of Armenia, not far from the border with Iran, located 39 caves, most of which contained traces of human presence (34 of these are mapped on Figure 1). Systematic excavations began in 2007 at the cave complex Areni-1 (known locally as 'Bird's Cave') which is located approximately 1.5km east of the village of Areni on the highway connecting the Ararat Plain with the highland plateau of Syunik (39[degrees]43' 53.4" N, 45[degrees] 12' 13.4" E; Figure 2). Around the village of Areni, to the west of the cave, the canyon opens onto a narrow valley, the floor of which is covered by alluvial deposits of the final Pleistocene and Holocene, creating fertile strips of land along both banks of the Arpa. The modern vegetation covering the mountain dopes near the site is characteristic of a dry steppe with patches of small trees, bushes, and shrubs in the canyons and along streams surrounding the abundant orchards and vineyards cultivated on irrigated land.

Areni-1 consists of three distinct areas (from north to south)--the steep northern slope of the talus (approximately 40 x 30m, Trench 4 on Figure 3), an external rockshelter (Trench 3) and three cave galleries, extending to a depth of more than 40m into the rock with subsidiary caverns and niches (Trench 1). The height of the eastern gallery exceeds 10m at its entrance measured from the modern surface. The western gallery is partially damaged by abandoned attempts to construct a restaurant inside it some years ago. The external (northern) edge of the rockshelter was formed by a monumental wall of cyclopean dry masonry built of conglomerate rocks, of which only the three lowest courses of the small western portion still stand. The wall must have functioned simultaneously for slope retention and defence.

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Excavations were started in Trench 1, located deep within the central gallery, in Trench 3 placed in the eastern part of the rockshelter, and in Trench 4 on the upper part of the cave talus between the shelter and the river bank (Figure 3). …

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