Bronze Age Transcaucasia

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Transcaucasia is the territory south of the great Caucasus mountain range that spans the region from the isthmus between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east. The modern political boundaries of Transcaucasia include the republics of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the area of eastern Turkey and northwestern Iran. Emphasis here is placed on the cultural developments of the area encompassed by Georgia and Armenia, but the archaeological record of the entire region is discussed in the context of overall archaeological trends.

Although Transcaucasia is a region with a unique archaeological history, the material record also reflects some of the shared influences of contact with surrounding territories to the north in the great Caucasus and to the south in the Near East. The span of the Bronze Age (from c. 3500–3300 to 1200 b.c.), in particular, is a period of significant interregional contact, change, and development in nearly all aspects of the way the early Transcaucasian inhabitants lived. Some of these important developments include the invention of transformative technologies, such as metallurgy and wheeled transportation, and changes in the manner in which people built homes, settled, and used the land upon which they lived and established interconnections with surrounding territories. The archaeological history of the entire Bronze Age is of importance for understanding long-term cultural trends and changes, but this article focuses on developments particular to the Early Bronze Age (up to 2200 b.c.). It was during this period that some of the most significant cultural transformations have been recorded and the underpinnings for subsequent cultural, technological, and economic changes were established.

Transcaucasia is a region of vast climatic and ecological diversity, and this diversity had an impact on prehistoric settlement and the emergence of complex society during the Bronze Age. The region is largely mountainous, interspersed with fertile valleys and upland plateaus. Along its western border at the Black Sea there is a lush, subtropical depression in the Colchis region of Georgia. In the east are desertlike, dry steppes bordering the river lowlands in eastern Azerbaijan, and along the shore of the Caspian Sea spreads a broad coastal plain. There are a few seasonally passable routes linking the steppe and the northern, or Greater, Caucasus with the southern Caucasus. To the south in Armenia the terrain is characterized by windswept highland plateaus that connect the area almost without interruption with Anatolia (modern Turkey) and northwest Iran. Transecting the region are two major rivers, the Kura (ancient Cyrus) and the Araks (ancient Araxes) (1,364 and 915 kilometers long, respectively). These rivers, giving name to the Early Bronze Age Kura-Araxes culture, flow from west to east and are joined intermittently by highland-draining tributaries. They link course in Azerbaijan before flowing into the Caspian Sea. The headwaters for both the Kura and Araks Rivers lie in eastern Turkey.

The presence of the rivers and their tributaries is significant for supporting some of the ecological riches of the region, in that they afforded the availability of water necessary for supporting agriculture
and for the establishment of permanent settlements along the river courses. As well as being rich in fertile land for practicing agriculture and pasturing animals, Transcaucasia also is rich in other natural resources, such as obsidian (volcanic glass), semi-precious stones, and the very important resource copper.


Some explanation of the history of archaeological research in the region is relevant for understanding how archaeologists have come to reconstruct society during the Bronze Age. During the nineteenth century, antiquarians began to investigate the prehistoric riches of the region with the discovery of massive earthen burials called kurgans. Kurgans are large circular or square semi-subterranean pits, sometimes constructed in wood and lined with stones, within which were often placed numerous bodies, wagons, animals, jewelry, bronze artifacts, and pottery. The artifacts uncovered in kurgans provide the earliest glimpses into the rich archaeological prehistory of the region. During the first half of the twentieth century more systematic excavations in Transcaucasia were implemented, and a fuller picture of the region's archaeological history began to emerge. These investigations were conducted by Russian and Caucasian (Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani) archaeologists.

While the significance of these excavations was recognized and published within the region, these reports often did not circulate among western scholars with interest in European and Near Eastern prehistory. Among the reasons that western scholars did not have access to the archaeological reports from Transcaucasia is that during the Soviet era (1917–1992) members of the scientific community of the Soviet Union remained largely isolated from their European and American colleagues. In addition, the reports of these excavations were published in Russian or in the language of the country where the excavations were conducted. These language barriers further hindered access to what was being recorded of the rich archaeological past. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, collaborations among western and former Soviet scholars have opened exchanges of archaeological findings, which has afforded a greater understanding of the overall archaeological picture in Transcaucasia. The archaeological history of this region now can be compared more effectively with contemporary prehistoric developments in surrounding regions, such as Europe and the Near East.


The nature of the development and emergence of the Early Bronze Age Kura-Araxes culture in Transcaucasia is not very well understood, but the archaeological record shows an explosion in the number of settlements across the region. Hundreds of new sites were established in ecologically diverse zones. While excavations at several Early Bronze Age sites, such as Kultepe and Baba Dervish (both in Azerbaijan), Imiris-Gora and Shulaveris-Gora (both in Georgia), Shengavit (Armenia), and Sös Höyük (Turkey) have revealed uninterrupted occupation from the preceding Aneolithic period, the vast majority of these sites represent newfound settlements where none previously existed. In addition to the six sites named, dozens of other sites have been thoroughly excavated, and from these excavations archaeologists are able to interpret much about the culture and economy of the region. Cemeteries have been discovered in association with a few Kura-Araxes settlements, such as Horom in Armenia and Kvatskelebi in Georgia, and the material remains recovered from graves provide an enriched account of the customs of burial as well as a more thorough documentation of Kura-Araxes material culture.

Before the Early Bronze Age, the Aneolithic period (5500–3500 b.c.), which corresponds to the "Copper Age" in southern and southeastern Europe, is characterized by relatively few sites, typically no larger than a hectare in size. The structures built during the Aneolithic Shulaveri-Shomu Tepe and Sioni cultures were constructed from mud brick or wattle and daub, and they typically were rounded, single-room dwellings, sometimes with benches built along the interior walls. The pottery was handmade from coarse clay, and the vessel shapes generally were simple bowls and jars. Stone tools made from obsidian and flint during the Aneolithic are abundant and reflect a sophisticated technology, as do tools made from antler and bone. A limited number of radiocarbon dates of the fossilized remains of plants and animals reveals that as early as the sixth millennium b.c. people inhabiting the region practiced some agriculture and kept livestock, such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. They also supplemented their diets by gathering wild cereals and hunting wild game.

Archaeologists typically use the appearance of a more complex copper-based metallurgical technology to mark the chronological and technological distinction between the Aneolithic and Early Bronze Age. There are other significant cultural and economic attributes, such as the increase in the number of sites, intensified agriculture and pastoralism, and changes in ceramic technology, that distinguish these periods. While about a dozen copper artifacts, such as awls and beads, have been excavated from Aneolithic levels at such sites as Khramis Didi Gora and Gargalar Tepesi in the central Transcaucasia, these objects are not typical of the period. It is not until about 3200 b.c. that a more developed copper-alloy metallurgical technology was established in Transcaucasia. The origins of metallurgy in the region are not well known, but the Caucasus Mountains are rich in polymetallic ores necessary for producing metal objects, especially bronze. It is likely that metallurgical technology was adopted from regions outside Transcaucasia, such as northern Mesopotamia or, more likely, the Balkans and areas along the Black Sea, where earlier archaeological evidence of metal production appears. During the early stages of the Bronze Age, metal objects were typically manufactured from a combination of copper and arsenic.The deliberate addition of small amounts of arsenic to copper can make the final object, such as a dagger or a bracelet, stronger than if it were made from copper alone.

While the adoption of metallurgy had a profound effect on the regional economy of Transcaucasia at the beginning of the Bronze Age, there are other significant economic and technological changes evident in the archaeological record as well. The practice of agriculture and pastoralism was intensified during this period. At least six varieties of wild wheat are known to be indigenous to Transcaucasia, although it is likely that the practice of agriculture was introduced from territories to the west and south in Anatolia. Rain-fed agriculture could have been practiced on the central and southern Caucasus plains, where tributary-fed valleys would have been fertile enough to support an agricultural economy. Irrigation would have been required in the eastern region of Azerbaijan, where more desertlike conditions are prevalent; conversely, drainage would have posed a problem in the semitropical Colchis region of Georgia along the Black Sea.

Because of Transcaucasia's ecological diversity, however, it is impossible to define a single economic base that characterizes the entire region during the Early Bronze Age. Pastoralism, whether seasonal or classic nomadism, was certainly a significant component of the economy. Archaeologists have yet to decipher just how prevalent the practice of pastoralism was during the Early Bronze Age and in what manner this way of life coalesced with agriculturally oriented Kura-Araxes people. Still, archaeological evidence in the form of settlement patterns, where sites reveal only single-occupation levels, faunal remains, and portable hearth stands, supports the concept that pastoralism was practiced to some degree.

The earliest Kura-Araxes settlements may indicate a semi-nomadic lifestyle because many of the sites have only single levels of occupation. This suggests that sites were used for a period of time and then abandoned; they do not appear to have been occupied for long periods, which would have necessitated rebuilding of houses and storage facilities. This evidence may reflect seasonal or short-term occupation. Some of the material culture, such as elaborate, yet portable hearth stands, also may be an indication of impermanence (fig. 1).

These conditions are not universal for all Kura-Araxes sites, however. There are many sites, such as Karnut and Shengavit in Armenia, where the houses are constructed from tuff, a local volcanic stone. The investment required to build a home from stone (rather than principally from mud) indicates that the inhabitants may have intended to reside for longer periods of time in a single location. Nonetheless, there is evidence to suggest that the settlements with more deeply stratified layers, reflecting longer periods of occupation, are found mainly in the areas that may have been better suited for agricultural and year-round occupation. Those Kura-Araxes settlements with shallow deposits that appear to reflect seasonal or short-term occupation generally are located instead in areas where the land was better suited for pasturing animals on a seasonal basis. The relationship between the relative degree of permanence among Kura-Araxes settlements in Transcaucasia and zones of ecological diversity in the region remains to be fully investigated.

What clearly appears to be a hallmark of the Early Bronze Age in Transcaucasia, however, is the establishment of many settlements where none previously existed. Rectilinear annexes on the circular dwellings become more common after the first stage of the Early Bronze Age (up to 2800 b.c.). The subsequent addition of rectangular structures has been interpreted, using ethnographic parallels, to suggest a general shift in the economy from one based on nomadism to one that is possibly more sedentary and probably more agriculturally based.

Archaeologists frequently rely on the presence or absence of different types of ceramics at archaeological sites to characterize archaeological cultures, interaction among cultures, and the relative chronological periodization of sites. Kura-Araxes ceramics are unique and very distinctive among contemporary pottery types found in Europe and the Near East. The Early Bronze Age pottery of Transcaucasia is handmade, highly burnished, and red-black or brown-black in color. Vessel forms range in size and shape, but typical forms include carinated bowls and jars with cylindrical necks and flared rims. The Kura-Araxes ceramics from the first two phases of the Early Bronze Age (up to 2500 b.c.) occasionally are decorated with incised lines. Ceramics of the later phase of the Early Bronze Age (2500–2200 b.c.) are more consistently brown-black or red-black in color, extremely highly burnished so as to resemble a metal surface, and occasionally decorated in relief on the exterior surface, with coils of applied clay in the shape of spirals and geometric designs.

Kura-Araxes ceramics have been found across a broad region extending beyond the traditional borders of Transcaucasia well into Iran, northern Mesopotamia, and as far south as Syria and in Palestine, where it is called Khirbet Kerak ware. The expansive presence of this distinctive Kura-Araxes ceramics type across the greater Near East is indicative of the region's contacts with surrounding territories. The economic forces driving the interregional contacts are not well understood, but they may have been connected to numerous complex factors, such as the seasonal migrations of small populations of nomadic pastoralists, the development of metallurgical technology, and an increasing demand for bronze artifacts and expertise in metal technology.

While archaeologists have yet to interpret fully the social and economic relationships between Transcaucasia and its surrounding territories, the discovery of a "royal" tomb at Arslantepe in the Malatya plain of eastern Anatolia reveals a far more complex picture than was recognized previously. Arslantepe was a major urban settlement of the region during the fourth and third millennia b.c., and finds from this site show significant connections with southern and northern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) as well as Transcaucasia. Discovered in 1996 by a team of Italian archaeologists, the remarkable finds excavated within the "royal" tomb, which dates to 3000–2800 b.c., show a notable influence by bearers of both early Transcaucasia Kura-Araxes and Mesopotamian cultures.

Within the tomb, constructed in a cist form characteristic of some Early Bronze Age Transcaucasian burials, were found numerous Kura-Araxes vessels as well as ceramic types typical of the local tradition. In addition, four juveniles, believed to have been sacrificed, were discovered in the upper portion of the burial, and a single male interred with an extremely rich assortment of metal objects was found within the tomb's central chamber. The metal objects (sixty-four in number) offer the most telling evidence of Transcaucasian influence during this period. These artifacts (jewelry such as a diadem, or headband; spiral rings; and armbands made from silver and silver-copper) are typologically very similar to objects found in Georgia. In addition, many weapons in the tomb, such as bronze spearheads with silver inlay, show clear connections in their metallurgical composition and typology with contemporary Transcaucasian examples.

The finds from the Arslantepe "royal" tomb and the widespread appearance of red-black, burnished Kura-Araxes ceramics suggest that the bearers of the Kura-Araxes culture had far-reaching influence across a wide region during the Early Bronze Age. The command of metallurgical technology as well as the abundance of ores that existed in the Caucasus Mountains, along with the movements of nomadic animal herders from Transcaucasia, may have influenced the economic, political, and social developments in highly significant ways across the Near East.


At the end of the Early Bronze Age in Transcaucasia, around 2200 b.c., there was a pronounced change in the archaeological record. Most of the Kura-Araxes sites appear to have been abandoned, and the Middle Bronze Age is known primarily through rich and elaborately constructed kurgan burials, of the same type that inspired antiquarians in the early twentieth century to investigate the prehistory of the region. Transportation bears a previously unseen significance at the end of the Early Bronze Age. The domestication of the horse, which probably was introduced from the Russian grassland steppe, had a profound impact on the mobility of Middle Bronze Age peoples, and two-wheeled wagons appeared for the first time in Middle Bronze Age kurgans. No simple archaeological interpretation exists to explain the drastic shift of settlement patterns from the end of the Early Bronze into the Middle Bronze Age. A variety of explanations seems possible.

One possibility is that the environment may have become unsuitable to support agriculture, thus forcing or merely encouraging a more nomadic or pastoral-based economy. Another possibility is that dramatic social and political changes in surrounding territories, such as Anatolia and the northern Caucasus, possibly driven by competition for resources and the emergence of incipient state-level political organizations, may have forced changes in how people made a living, settled, stored wealth, and buried their dead. Based on the present evidence, however, such a determination is not made simply, and the result of such a shift is dramatically and swiftly apparent in the material record throughout the Caucasus at the end of the Early Bronze Age.

Ongoing excavations in Transcaucasia continue to provide evidence to further archaeologists' understanding of the prehistory of the region. The finds at Arslantepe as well as the increasing collaboration among Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, and western archaeologists are changing how archaeologists understand the Early Bronze Age of Transcaucasia. The archaeological picture is far more complex than previously was understood. The explosion in the number of settlements, the development of metallurgical technology, the growing reliance on economies of pastoralism and agriculture, and interregional interaction are all component factors in the development of increasingly complex social and political structures during the Early Bronze Age.

See alsoEarly Metallurgy in Southeastern Europe (vol.1, part 4); Iron Age Caucasia (vol. 2, part 6).


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Bronze Age Transcaucasia

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