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An Anglo-Georgian project in the Land of the Golden Fleece

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Jenna Bluehut
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« on: December 13, 2010, 01:24:20 am »

An Anglo-Georgian project in the Land of the Golden Fleece

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An Anglo-Georgian project in the Land of the Golden Fleece

by Ian Colvin

The village of Nokalakevi stands along the Senaki to Martvili road in Mingrelia in western Georgia where it crosses the River Tekhuri, emerging from the Caucasus mountains onto the great plain of Colchis.Above the village looms a low mountain, half enclosed by a loop of the river, on top of which stand the imposing ruins of a fortress and settlement. Long walls run down to the river, enclosing a small segment of plain. Situated within these fortifications are the village’s 6th century church, a small palace and the foundations of a number of other baths, churches and palaces; the remains of the former capital of the Western Georgian kingdoms of Colchis and Lazika-Egrisi.
6th century church

6th century church

These visible ruins date back 1500 years to the 4th to 6th centuries AD, a period when Lazika became a target for the rivalries of the superpowers of the day: the East Roman and Sasanian Persian empires. The site was known as Archaeopolis to the Romans, who successfully held it against several Persian assaults. The remarkable condition of some of the remains, particularly the church and the fortifications, is thanks to successive repairs over the ages.Below these standing remains lie the buried traces of earlier settlements. A cemetery of the 4th to 2nd century BC extends beneath the eastern end of the lower town and beyond the fortifications; and there are traces of levelling of the site on the lower terrace. Among the burials can be found yard surfaces and the stone foundations, and destruction debris of clay and timber buildings. Intriguingly, much later Georgian tradition associated foundation of the fortress with this period: according to the mediaeval Georgian annals, the Kartlis Cxovreba, the mythical West Georgian ruler Kuji founded the fortress of Tsikhegoji at Nokalakevi around the end of the 4th century BC.

    The site was known as Archaeopolis to the Romans, who successfully held it against several Persian assaults

Whatever grains of truth lie behind this legend, archaeology provides evidence that the site was already inhabited before Kuji’s foundation. Isolated finds have been dated to the end of the second millennium BC. But the earliest habitation layers excavated thus far date from the 8th-7th centuries BC, and provide evidence for metalworking, bead manufacture and cult worship at the site. It may be no coincidence that this is the same period in which Colchis first begins to appear in extant Greek sources associated with gold and metal-working and the famous legend of Jason and the Argonauts’ search for the Golden Fleece.

Nokalakevi was first identified as the Archaeopolis of our late Roman sources in the 1830s by the Swiss philologist Frédéric Dubois du Monpéreux. It was nearly a century later in the winter of 1931 that the first excavations at the site confirmed his idea. A Georgian commission, under their great historian Simon Janashia, arranged for a Ministry of Education excavation in collaboration with the German archaeologist Alfonse-Maria Schneider. This four-month expedition traced the line of the walls and made trial excavations of one of the towers and near the bell-tower/gateway in what Schneider termed the Agora.

Unfortunately, the collaboration was not resumed, probably a victim of the troubled German and Soviet politics of the 1930s. But in the 50s and 60s interest grew in Georgia’s early history and in archaeology’s role in investigating it. In 1973 the Georgian State Museum organised a large and well-funded expedition to excavate and record the 4th-6th century monuments at Nokalakevi and in the surrounding region. Under academician Parmen Zakaraya, this expedition excavated, conserved and restored the site to the condition it is in today. By 1993 three volumes of official results had been published alongside numerous articles and other books. In 1990 a long-planned museum was opened at the site to display the most important of the thousands of finds.
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Jenna Bluehut
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« Reply #1 on: December 13, 2010, 01:26:02 am »

Sadly, the turbulence that followed Georgian independence from the Soviet Union dealt a heavy blow to the museum, the site and the expedition. In 1991, during this initial period of instability, the museum was broken into, its cases smashed, and many of its most valuable artefacts were stolen. Worse was to come. In 1995, rebels supporting the ousted president, Gamsakhurdia, briefly occupied the site and looted the expedition’s equipment, and destroyed much of its infrastructure. Meanwhile a slower but more pernicious destruction was taking place.

As government funding of scholarly research and cultural heritage collapsed during these turbulent times, and meaningful salaries ceased to be paid, the human assets of the expedition, the team of specialists who had been assembled and trained up over a quarter of a century, dwindled and were dispersed. Archaeology no longer offered a viable career to young Georgians, and students ceased to train in it and related disciplines. At the beginning of the 21st century, Georgian archaeology and heritage faced a crisis in financial and human terms at the very time when the country most needed the economic boost that its unique cultural and heritage resources could offer via tourism.
Backfilling a trench

Backfilling a trench

A new phase in the study of Nokalakevi began with the creation of the Anglo-Georgian Expedition to Nokalakevi (AGEN) in 2000 at the suggestion of Professor Lomitashvili, deputy director of S. Janashia’s Museum of Georgia. In July 2001, with the support of the British Institute at Ankara and Cambridge University, AGEN arranged for seven British and Georgian volunteers to work alongside professional Georgian and British archaeologists to resume excavations at the site. Despite the challenging physical conditions of these early years, the collaboration was a resounding success.

At least as important as the actual artefacts found has been the scientific and cultural exchange between all those involved and the chance for students, British and Georgian, to work alongside volunteers and professionals from around the world. The translation of British archaeological and conservation manuals into Georgian has made modern training materials available to Georgian archaeology students, while foreign interest, the resumption of excavations and a growing recognition from the Georgian government regarding the economic benefits their cultural heritage has for tourism development has encouraged young Georgians to enter the profession again. There will be a challenging handover at some point soon when a generation of leaders in their field, trained in the Soviet period, have to hand over to a post-Soviet generation two decades younger. Nevertheless, Georgian business and politics has already performed a similar generational leap. No doubt archaeology and heritage can manage it, too.
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Jenna Bluehut
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« Reply #2 on: December 13, 2010, 01:26:44 am »

In the seven years since then around 50 British and international volunteer archaeologists have worked alongside a similar number of young Georgian volunteers, many returning year after year. In 2004, British Archaeological Jobs & Resources (BAJR) travelled to Nokalakevi. Struck by the enthusiasm of the Georgians despite their difficult circumstances, and by the amount that could be achieved by relatively small sums, BAJR was inspired to launch an appeal that raised over £1500 towards the museum. As a direct result, further Georgian funding was made available. A new roof was put on the museum, the building was made watertight, rewired and provided with electricity and new glazing for its cabinets. The dig base has also since benefited from private donations. The bullet-scarred basement of the one remaining dig house has been transformed into a modern laboratory that can provide conservation services for archaeological expeditions throughout west Georgia, allowing fragile artefacts to be conserved near their point of discovery, where before they had to be taken the long journey to Tbilisi.
Steve

Excavating a Byzantine grave containing a young male, aged approx. twenty years old

With renewed vigour and hope for the future the Anglo-Georgian expedition has gone from strength to strength. Recent seasons have revealed four Hellenistic structures; specifically the stone bases of a number of clay and timber walls, with substantial quantities of collapsed, burnt daub wall capping. From this was obtained a charcoal sample which is currently undergoing C14 dating. That deposit also produced carbonised grape seeds of both wild and domesticated varieties, as well as garden pea, some cereal and indications of walnut – pretty much the key ingredients for a good Georgian feast.

Since 2002, 19 burials have been excavated from the Hellenistic necropolis, including two neonates, two infants and three in early childhood. Of these, three were laid out in broken amphorae and one was a cremation burial. Particularly interesting was a crouched adult burial with five bronze bracelets, two small-handled jugs and a huge number of ornate beads, some small and fine and made of a lovely blue glass. Nokalakevi is such a multi-layered site that there are sure to be many more discoveries well into the future, and perhaps one day evidence will be found for the Kingdom of Colchis and the legend of the Golden Fleece. This expedition, however, has always been about cultural exchange as well as the archaeology. Everyone who comes to Nokalakevi cannot help but notice that it is the Georgian people themselves, their friendliness and hospitality, which makes the experience an unforgettable one.

Ian Colvin began researching Georgian History in 1992. His doctorate deals with Roman-Sasanian rivalry in the South Caucasus in the fourth to seventh centuries AD. He studied modern and classical Georgian in Oxford and Tbilisi and since 1998 has spent his summers in Georgia. In 1999 he and Professor Lomitashvili first discussed the idea of establishing the Anglo-Georgian Archaeological expedition. After a preliminary visit in 2000, the first full season of excavation took place in 2001 with British volunteers from Cambridge University.
Get Involved

Annual fieldwork takes place every summer for approx 4 weeks where there are a few oppportunities available for paying volunteers to participate.

Website: http://www.nokalakevi.org/volunteer.html

http://www.pasthorizons.com/index.php/archives/12/2010/excavations-in-the-land-of-the-golden-fleece
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Jenna Bluehut
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« Reply #3 on: December 13, 2010, 01:28:14 am »



6th century church
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« Reply #4 on: December 13, 2010, 01:28:58 am »



Nokalakevi museum
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« Reply #5 on: December 13, 2010, 01:29:42 am »


Backfilling a trench
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Jenna Bluehut
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« Reply #6 on: December 13, 2010, 01:30:32 am »



Bullet scarred dig house
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« Reply #7 on: December 13, 2010, 01:31:25 am »



Excavating a Byzantine grave containing a young male, aged approx. twenty years old
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