Iron Age Caucasia

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The Iron Age (defined broadly as an archaeological period from c. 1200 to 300 b.c.) in Caucasia witnessed a series of remarkable transformations in the social, cultural, and political traditions of the region that have left indelible marks upon the region's cultural landscape and contemporary geopolitics. During this era, small, hierarchical, centralized polities emerged as the dominant features of the region's social order. In some areas, particularly southern Caucasia, these archaic sociopolitical formations subsequently fused into large empires; in other regions, traditions of local control persisted even as contacts with an expanding ecumene—driven by both Greek colonialism and Achaemenid imperialism—brought new social forces and cultural influences into the region. This brief overview provides an orientation to the region's primary sociopolitical transformations. Because the beginning of the Iron Age closely followed traditions established in the Bronze Age, this account begins in the early second millennium b.c. and concludes with a brief historical discussion of post–Iron Age Caucasia from the conquests of Alexander the Great through the Roman defeat of both the Pontic kingdom (66 b.c.) and Tigran II's Armenian empire (65 b.c.).


The Caucasus range traverses more than 1,100 kilometers, from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea along the northern end of the isthmus that separates the Eurasian steppes from Southwest Asia. Caucasia continues to be shaped by the tectonic action of the Arabian and Eurasian plates, a collision that has thrown up the Caucasus Mountains, folding the underlying bedrock and erecting high volcanic peaks. The volcanic activity that raised peaks, such as Mount Elbrus, Mount Ararat, and Mount Aragats, to name only a few, covered the region with a sea of lava, leaving behind vast deposits of basalt, tuff, and obsidian. Caucasia is an ecologically diverse region with provinces ranging from the subtropical Colchian depression in the west, to the well-watered high mountains in the south, to the arid steppes in the east. Climate is similarly variable, with average annual rainfall varying from about 2,500 millimeters on the Black Sea coast near the modern Georgian city of Batumi to less than 200 millimeters on the Apsheron Peninsula of eastern Azerbaijan. Throughout much of Caucasia, the period of heaviest precipitation is between March and mid-May, but whereas summers are dry, heavy snows can fall in the highlands during the winter.

Distinct geographic provinces within Caucasia are most readily defined in reference to elevation and the Kura and Araxes River drainages. Southern Caucasia is most readily defined as the highland middle Araxes River and its drainages: a region of rugged upland mountains and high plateaus. Average elevation is between 1,200 and 1,800 meters above sea level, dipping below 1,000 meters only in the fertile Ararat Plain. The highlands of northern Caucasia are defined by the upper and middle Kura River and its drainages. North Caucasia should not be confused with the North Caucasus region, which encompasses the northern slopes of the Great Caucasus. Western Caucasia (the Colchian depression, drained by the westward-flowing Rioni and Inguri Rivers) and eastern Caucasia (the steppes of Azerbaijan, crossed by the lower Araxes and Kura as they sprint to the Caspian) are both low-lying areas characterized by broad open terrain.


The end of the Early and beginning of the Middle Bronze Age, across most of Caucasia, was marked by the disappearance of the Kura-Araxes archaeological horizon (defined most readily by distinctive black burnished ceramic complexes) and the large-scale abandonment of settled village communities. Except for the late-third-millennium b.c. layers from the Bedeni sites in southern Georgia, there is little evidence for continuity in Early and Middle Bronze Age occupations, and indeed comparatively few Middle Bronze Age settlements have been documented in Caucasia. As a result, the vast majority of the archaeological record for the Middle Bronze Age comes from mortuary sites. The tombs and kurgans of Shengavit, Trialeti (old group, a distinctive group of burials within the Trialeti complex), and Martkopi indicate profound social, cultural, and political transformations were under way during the third quarter of the third millennium b.c.

This shift in settlement patterns across Caucasia during the Early to Middle Bronze transition is traditionally interpreted as evidence of the advent of increasingly nomadic social groups predicated upon pastoral subsistence production. The appearance of ox and horse sacrifices in numerous Middle Bronze I and II burials attests to the increased prominence of pastoral production and equestrian mobility within these communities. The shifting subsistence economy was also accompanied by fundamental transformations in the social milieu, changes that centered on emerging radical inequality between a martial elite and the remainder of the social body. The rich inventories of Middle Bronze Age kurgans signify a profound departure in social relations from those indicated by the burials of the Kura-Araxes phase. Even more dramatic expressions of this inequality are visible in the following Middle Bronze II period, when a great part of highland Caucasia was enveloped in the Trialeti-Vanadzor horizon, which was most prominently marked by large burial complexes of unprecedented wealth. The monumental construction and rich mortuary goods of tombs from Trialeti, Vanadzor, Karashamb, and Lori Berd as well as the iconography of elite privilege portrayed on the metal vessels from Karashamb (fig. 1) and Korukh Tash testify to profound changes in the social orders of Caucasia and provide the initial indications of emergent sociopolitical inequality in the region.

During the Middle Bronze III period, Caucasia appears to have fragmented into several distinct material culture horizons. If the earlier Trialeti-Vanadzor sites present a relatively homogeneous horizon style for the Middle Bronze II phase, transformations in burial construction and the forms and styles of painted and black ornamented pottery during the succeeding period indicate the differentiation of the region into at least three contemporary, overlapping ceramic horizons: Karmir-Berd, Sevan-Uzerlik, and Karmir-Vank. Karmir-Berd materials largely prevail in the highlands of central-southern and northern Caucasia. The Sevan-Uzerlik horizon tends to predominate in the western steppe of Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh highlands, and the Sevan and Syunik regions of Armenia. The Karmir-Vank horizon is best known from the Nakhichevan region of Azerbaijan and the site of Haftavan Tepe in northwestern Iran. These general regional divisions cannot be taken as rigid geographic mosaics. Sevan basin sites have also yielded evidence of Karmir-Vank and Karmir-Berd painted pottery; Ararat Plain sites have included both Karmir-Berd and Sevan-Uzerlik materials; and Sevan sites contain both Karmir-Berd and Sevan-Uzerlik ceramics. In Georgia, the Trialeti-Vanadzor horizon persists into the Middle Bronze III phase at sites such as Treli, Tsavgli, Natakhtari, and Pevrebi; however, it is also possible to detect the influence of Sevan-Uzerlik complexes as well, represented by black pottery with dotted lines.

During the Middle Bronze III phase, the wealth of the burial inventories seen in the preceding phase begins to diminish such that, in the complexes represented by Karmir-Berd or Karmir-Berd/Sevan Uzerlik pottery, relatively few bronze artifacts have been recorded. Furthermore, in the complexes that signify the end of Middle Bronze Age, the distinctive painted pottery becomes increasingly rare, yielding to the incised gray and blackware ceramics that came to predominate under the Lchashen-Metsamor horizon of the Late Bronze Age.

The first clear evidence for sociopolitical complexity in southern Caucasia appears in the Late Bronze Age. The Late Bronze Age is marked most conspicuously by the reappearance of numerous permanent settlements in the form of variably sized stone-masonry fortresses built atop hills and outcrops. These fortified settlements are often associated with large cemeteries, such as Treligorebi located on the outskirts of modern Tbilisi, Georgia. The transition between the Middle and Late Bronze Age is also marked by the gradual introduction of new ceramic forms and decorative styles—most notably the disappearance of painted pottery and punctate designs in favor of suites of black, gray, and buff wares with incised decorations—as well as new approaches to metallurgical production.

Examinations of Late Bronze and Early Iron Age sites in Caucasia began in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, when archaeologists and architectural historians embarked on a series of nonsystematic surveys to document the settlement history of the region. To date only a handful of Late Bronze or Early Iron Age settlements, including Metsamor in the Ararat Plain and Tsakahovit on the northern slope of Mount Aragats, have hosted intensive archaeological investigations. Evidence of unfortified settlements remains scarce, even in regions, such as the Tsakahovit Plain, that have hosted intensive systematic archaeological surveys. Archaeological investigations have focused more resolutely on late-second- to early-first-millennia b.c. cemeteries. Large mortuary complexes at Lchashen (on the northwestern coast of Lake Sevan), Lori-Berd (in the Lori-Pambakh region of northern Armenia), and Artik and Horom (both on the lower western slope of Mount Aragats) have provided the most extensive orientation to the material culture of the era as well as the primary bases for periodization.

With the dawn of the Late Bronze Age, the social inequalities visible in the kurgans of the early second millennium appear to have been formalized into a tightly integrated sociopolitical apparatus where critical controls over resources—economic, social, sacred—were concentrated within the cyclopean stone masonry walls of powerful new centers. These political centers projected authority well into the hinterlands. Large-scale irrigation facilities first appear in the region in association with Late Bronze Age fortress complexes, suggesting significant centralized control over the agricultural productivity of the region. In addition, vast cemeteries appear coincident with the emergence of Late Bronze Age polities.

In the Tsakahovit region, an archaeological survey conducted in 1998 and 2000 recorded a very high density of Late Bronze Age cemeteries (4.6 per square kilometer) in the mountain highlands immediately surrounding a series of adjacent fortresses. Given the lack of nonfortified settlements in the region, it is quite likely that non-elite populations may have continued the highly mobile ways of life that arose in the Middle Bronze Age, even as elites settled within fortified complexes. It is possible that the explosion in tombs and cemeteries in the Late Bronze Age was part of an effort by emergent sociopolitical authorities to increase the commitments of their subjects to a specific place (through ties between ancestral and descendant families and groups) and thus make them a more stable foundation for the demands of the extractive political economy.

Many of the material culture forms and styles developed in the Late Bronze Age continued into and through the Early Iron Age. Pottery from Early Iron Age levels is typologically distinct from Late Bronze III wares but is quite clearly continuous with Late Bronze Age formal and decorative traditions. The same holds true for fortress architecture, which, while distinct in several morphological features, remains within the building traditions established in the Late Bronze Age. Thus the Early Iron Age is marked archaeologically by the emergence and expansion of iron implements but appears to have been socioculturally continuous with the preceding era. Examinations of materials recovered from mortuary contexts suggest that the Early Iron Age can be divided into two distinct phases: a transitional Early Iron I, dated conventionally to the late twelfth century and eleventh century b.c., and an Early Iron II phase during the tenth and ninth centuries b.c.


The florescence of local polities during the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages was brought to an end in southern Caucasia by Urartian imperial expansion in the early eighth century b.c., providing a rather emphatic terminus for the period visible in the destruction levels at several sites, including Metsamor. The state of Biainili, known to the Assyrians (and hence modern scholarship) as Urartu, appears to have emerged in eastern Anatolia from a group of local polities during the late second millennium and early first millennium b.c. Between the mid-ninth century and the late eighth century b.c., the Urartian kings embarked on a program of imperial expansion, conquering rivals from the headwaters of the Euphrates to the south shore of Lake Urmia. Although a Urartian presence had existed north of the Araxes since the reign of King Ishpuini in the late ninth century b.c., the Urartian occupation of southern Caucasia did not begin until the second decade of the eighth century b.c., when King Argishti I formalized his military conquests through an extensive program of fortress construction in the Ararat Plain.

Although direct Urartian rule in the region was focused in southern Caucasia, the expansion of the empire had profound implications for Caucasia as a whole. The military campaigns of Urartian kings ranged far more broadly than their ambition to govern, and the demands of tribute in the form of goods, livestock, and human captives that they made upon the vanquished must have had considerable implications for local economies of the region. Furthermore, the rise of Urartu profoundly altered trade patterns in the region, as the empire was strategically positioned to regulate north-south exchanges between Caucasia and northern Mesopotamia as well as east-west trade between central Anatolia and northern Persia.

Urartu's imperial era was brought to a close by a series of military defeats in the late eighth century b.c. Urartian military and diplomatic incursions into the southern Urmia basin provoked Sargon II to reassert an Assyrian presence in the region. His campaign climaxed in the defeat of the Urartian army led by King Rusa I. Assyrian intelligence reports indicate that Urartu was also attacked at this time by Cimmerians crossing the Caucasus and destabilized by an insurrection within the Urartian ruling elite that threatened the royal dynasty. Rusa I succeeded in deflecting the Cimmerians and quelling the rebellion, thus preserving the dynasty, but Urartu's era of expansion came to an end, its imperial designs checked by Assyria in the south and Cimmerians moving into Caucasia from the north.

The historical record for Urartu's reconstruction period during the seventh century b.c. is not as rich as that of the preceding imperial phase. But the archaeological record is substantial, indicating a reconsolidation of much of Urartu's territory, a resurgence of Urartian resolve to challenge Assyrian pretensions in the highlands, and a reinvigoration of the power of Urartian central authorities. The reign of Rusa II was the apogee of the reconstruction period. Thanks to foundation inscriptions, five major fortresses, accomplished on a massive scale, are directly attributable to him, including Teishebai URU (modern Karmir-Blur) on the Ararat Plain near Yerevan (fig. 2). Several additional fortresses in southern Caucasia that lack foundation inscriptions can also be dated to the reconstruction period based upon architectural parallels and ceramic assemblages. Dynastic succession following Rusa II is unclear, leaving some confusion over the last rulers of the empire and the dating of collapse. The fate of Urartu and its possessions in southern Caucasia during the late seventh century b.c. is not well understood. Boris Piotrovskii dated the final collapse of Urartu to 590 or 585 b.c. based largely upon a biblical reference, but this chronology is generally thought to be too long. An inscription of Ashurbanipal, dated to 643 b.c., records the submission of the Urartian king "Ishtar-duri" (Sarduri III or IV) to the Assyrians. Although this event does not provide an adequate date for Urartu's collapse, the empire was never again a significant force in the geopolitics of Southwest Asia.


Investigations of Late Iron Age Caucasia have been accomplished at a number of key sites, including Armavir-Argishtihinili, Erebuni, and Artashat in the Ararat Plain; Horom and Benjamin in the Shirak Plain; Sari-Tepe in western Azerbaijan; and small soundings at Astghi Blur, Jujevan, and Norashen in northeastern Armenia. These sites together provide an orientation to the architecture and archaeological materials of an era during which the rapid decline of Urartu was followed by the emergence of local rulers (including the Yervandid, or Orontid, kings of Armenia) who were subsequently incorporated as satraps of the Achaemenid empire.

During the Late Iron Age, local ceramic traditions from the Middle Iron Age continue, in part, in most sites. In southern Caucasia, preceding Urartian constructions were reoccupied and renovated, often following episodes of destruction that attended the Urartian collapse (e.g., at Armavir-Argishtihinili). The collapse of Urartu appears to have initiated a transformation in settlement patterns, as populations shifted away from the handful of large fortresses that dominated life under the Urartian regime and toward a larger number of small dispersed towns. Throughout the Urartian period, local ceramics in Caucasian regions peripheral to the major centers continued traditions of the preceding Early Iron Age horizons. Following the collapse of Urartu, these pre-Urartian ceramic traditions were partly reenergized, as local wares developed as syntheses of both pre-Urartian and Urartian traditions.


Colchis, the easternmost archaic Greek colony, has penetrated the Western imagination largely as a place of myth: home of Medea and destination of the Argonauts. Ancient Colchis was located on the fertile lowlands of the Rioni River drainage of western Caucasia. The region appears to have developed along similar lines as the rest of Caucasia during the Early Iron Age, with the regularization of an entrenched elite, the rise of increasingly large settlements, and the development of a robust metallurgical industry with major centers in Abkhazia to the north and Adzhar to the south. However, the arrival of Greek colonists during the sixth century b.c. brought unique sociocultural and political forces to bear upon the region in the Middle and Late Iron Ages. It has been suggested that it was the prominence of Colchian metallurgy and metalworking that lured not only the Greeks to Caucasia's Black Sea shores—an argument found in the Geographia (1.2.39) of the Greek scholar Strabo (c. 63 b.c.–c. a.d. 21)—but also encouraged the northern campaigns of Urartian kings, who referred to the region as "Kulha" or "Qulha." Sarduri II, for example, boasted in his "annals" inscribed on the rock face at Van Kale of having destroyed twenty-two cities in Qulha. Furthermore, the incredible scale of bronze and, later, iron production within the Colchis archaeological horizon has suggested the possibility of close economic and social ties to the prolific metallurgical traditions of the Koban region of the central north Caucasus (North Ossetia).

Despite extensive archaeological and epigraphic research, however, it is not as yet entirely clear as to what kind of sociocultural entity Colchis was. Greek myths suggest a highly centralized kingdom dating back into the late second millennium b.c.; however, Urartian inscriptions indicate a more fragmented political landscape with a number of kings ruling discrete portions of the territory from large fortified settlements (similar to what they encountered in southern Caucasia). Nevertheless, broad similarities in major material culture classes, including metal and ceramic styles, suggest a degree of sociocultural integration in western Caucasia even if the case for political unification remains unsubstantiated (although substantial disparities in mortuary customs—for example, shaft graves such as those at Dvani in contrast to the dolmens found to the north in Abkhazia—suggests that variation within the Colchis archaeological horizon has been understated).

The dating of the arrival of the Greeks is also a matter of some debate. While the earliest appearance of Greek pottery in the region has been dated to the end of the seventh century b.c., it is not until the mid-sixth century that Colchian sites begin to boast a substantial corpus of Greek wares. Greek settlement in the region was limited to the seacoast and river estuaries. Information about this initial era of colonization comes largely from archaeological sources and a few fragments of mythohistorical sources. However, both do seem to indicate that the vanguard of initial Greek intrusion came to Phasis, at the mouth of the Rioni, from Miletus, on the southwestern coast of Asia Minor. Burials around Vani, the most extensively excavated aboriginal Colchian site, suggest a further intensification of inequality and elite privilege in the era of early Greek colonialism, with extensive and rich burial inventories, including gold jewelry, silver and bronze personal ornaments, and local and imported pottery. The site of Vani itself appears to have been dominated by a local aristocracy that sat at the apex of a stratified social hierarchy. The dramatic expansion in the size and number of large storage jars (pithoi) during this period has suggested to some scholars a concomitant increase in the scale of surplus production, increasing demands upon the productive economy from redistributive institutions, or both.

The arrival of Achaemenid imperial forces in Caucasia established Yervandid Armenia as a formal satrap and also reconstituted Colchis geopolitically from a distant periphery to a remarkably cosmopolitan borderland, assimilating and reinventing traditions and practices from Greece, Persia, and the Eurasian steppe as well as the diverse array of social worlds within Iron Age Caucasia. The Histories of Herodotus (3.97), from the fifth century b.c., describes the relationship between an autonomous Colchis and the Achaemenid regime as based not on forced tribute but rather regular "presents" of one hundred young men and one hundred young women given to the Persian court. And Colchian soldiers were also listed among the expeditionary force that followed the Persian king Xerxes into Greece. But even at this time, perhaps Colchis's most prosperous era, it appears that the region continued to be ruled by a dispersed aristocracy rather than a single king capable of unifying the region into a single polity.


The arrival of Alexander the Great's forces in Southwest Asia and the subsequent collapse of Achaemenid power brought about important transformations in Caucasia, including the slow erosion (despite the tenacity of Aramaic in major inscriptions) of Persian cultural influence under the spread of Hellenism; however, it is important not to overstate the significance of the event. Alexander never found his way into Caucasia or the Armenian Highlands of eastern Anatolia, and even if he had, Greek cultural influence was already permeating the region via the long-standing colonies in Colchis. Moreover, Alexander's conquests do not seem to have profoundly reordered the political landscape of Caucasia. By 316 b.c. Armenia was reconstituted as a satrap of Macedonian power, ruled by a king named Orontes, who appears to have been part of the Yervandid dynasty already ensconced in the region during the Achaemenid era. Occasionally the Yervandid kings formally recognized Seleucid suzerainty, but there is little to suggest that the titular overlordship of the Macedonian conquerors made a profound practical difference in Caucasia's sociopolitical order.

In 188 b.c. Artaxias (also known as Artashes) succeeded to the throne of the Armenian kingdom, initiating a new Artaxian dynasty and consolidating much of Caucasia and the Armenian Highlands under his authority. Despite efforts by the weakened Seleucids to reassert their authority over a reinvigorated local dynast, Artaxias was successful in creating an empire that established unified control over a broad swath of Caucasia and eastern Anatolia. Until the first century b.c., the expansion of the Armenian empire under the Artaxian kings was largely unchecked as Seleucid power diminished; however, the emergence of the Parthian dynasty of the Arsacids in Iran and the increasing ambitions of Rome in Southwest Asia signaled trouble not only for the Armenian empire but also for Caucasia's other regimes in Pontic Colchis, Iberia, and Albania. Artaxias's grandson, Tigran II (r. 95–55 b.c.), presided over the largest consolidated polity in Caucasia's history, ruling a territory larger than Urartu that extended from the Caspian in the east, to the Kura Valley in the north, and to the Mediterranean in the west. One result of Tigran II's campaigns in the west was the further Hellenization of the royal court, which had long held to Achaemenid traditions of the early Yervandid era. Tigran was particularly successful in campaigns against Parthia (88–85 b.c.), which brought his armies on the eastern front as far south as Hamadān in Media (northwestern Iran), while to the west his forces reached Syria and the city of Antioch. For thirteen years, a Pax Armenia covered an immense multicultural and multinational empire ruled from the major cities of the empire, such as Artashat, on the northern bank of the Araxes, and Tigranakert, east of modern Diyarbakır. Artashat, occupying twelve hills (approximately 100 hectares), hosted extensive archaeological excavations during the 1970s and 1980s that explored many of the major constructions of the Artaxian period and provided the primary artifactual sources for the period.

Rome, preoccupied in Anatolia by a protracted war with Mithradates of Pontus did not interfere while Tigran's expansionary ambitions were directed against the Parthians and Seleucids. However, by 71 b.c. the imperialists in the Roman Senate sought a more encompassing solution to their problems in the east. A legate of the Roman general Lucullus delivered an ultimatum to Tigran at Antioch to hand over the recently defeated King Mithradates VI of Pontus, who had taken refuge in Armenia. Tigran refused to surrender him. Two years later, in 69 b.c., Lucullus marched on Tigranakert and, after a short siege, succeeded in defeating the main body of the Armenian army and sacking the city. The defeat of Tigranakert prompted the rapid unraveling of Tigran's dynasty, and soon, assailed by both Rome and Parthia, Artaxias's grandson sued for peace (66 b.c.) under terms that left him only the Caucasian and east Anatolian heartland. While Tigran's son Artawazd II (r. 55–34 b.c.) succeeded him on the throne, Armenia was reduced to a buffer state between Rome and Parthia. Artawazd's participation in raids along the Roman border led to a severe response, as the forces of Marc Antony succeeded in occupying Artashat and carrying Artawazd as a captive into Egypt, where he was eventually executed.

See alsoBronze Age Transcaucasia (vol. 2, part 5); Greek Colonies in the East (vol. 2, part 6).


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Adam T. Smith