Episode 25: Transcaucasia Goes Neolithic

The Southern Caucasus, also known as Transcaucasia, sits to the north of northern Mesopotamia and is made up of the modern countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as northeastern part of modern Turkey and the northwestern tip of modern Iran. The region is made up of mountains and wide river valleys for the Kura and Araxes rivers, with the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east.

A general map of Transcaucasia showing the modern countries that make it up, as well as the major rivers and some of the archaeological sites that we find in different regions. Image from Nishiaki and Guliyev 2020.

In this mountainous landscape, hunter-gatherer groups at the end of the Pleistocene had to move around more often to find food without stripping any particular part of the landscape bare. Because of this, instead of living in a series of semi-permanent or permanent villages built of houses with stone foundations like Epipalaeolithic hunter-gatherers were able to do in Mesopotamia or the Levant, hunter-gatherer groups here after the end of the Ice Age continued to live in shorter-term camps of tents or small shelters. These differences mean that this time period in Transcaucasia is known instead as the Mesolithic, or middle stone age.

People of Mesolithic Transcaucasia, which here is often called the Trialetian Mesolithic made their camps both outside in the open air, as well as under rockshelters and at the entrance of caves. Here they hunted local deer and wild boar, as well as gathering wild plants from across the landscape. They also hunted bears, although based on the butchery marks we find on the bones of these bears these were not hunted to eat, but for their thick furs.

As Transcaucasia is home to many sources of obsidian, people of the Trialetian Mesolithic unsurprisingly made their stone tools almost entirely from obsidian. These tools share some general technological approaches with hunter-gatherer groups of the Epipalaeolithic and early farmers of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic to the south, with a focus on the production of blades and microlithic bladelets from unidirectional, prismatic and bullet cores and the finishing and shaping of tools using pressure flaking. This shaping can be seen on the heavily retouched and shaped tools favoured by these Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, such as those found at Klmo-2 rockshelter and other sites, called ‘Klmo tools’.

Examples of some of the obsidian tools found at Mesolithic sites of Transcaucasia. Image from Petrosyan et al 2014. Original caption included.

These Mesolithic hunter-gatherers continued to live in Transcaucasia until about 6000 cal BCE, when we start to find Neolithic farming villages turning up across the landscape. There is some debate as to whether these Neolithic farmers were groups of people from the south, east and west who moved into the region and founded villages, if these early farmers were Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who took up farming, or a mix of both. Unfortunately, this is a tricky question to figure out, so the debate as to who made the early Transcaucasian Neolithic continues.

When Neolithic settlements do start to appear in Transcaucasia from about 6000 cal BCE, they have a full ceramic Neolithic already in place. Villages show pottery, which seems to be rather limited in the first 100-200 years but soon becomes a more common part of everyday life. These villages also have the full set of domesticated plants and animals that we see elsewhere in the Near East. They also seem to have added something new, with pips of wild grapes and the oldest pips of domesticated grapes being found from Neolithic sites across Transcaucasia.

The Neolithic in Transcaucasia is generally known as the Shomutepe-Shulaveri Culture, after the sites of Shulaveris Gora in modern Georgia and the site of Shomtepe in modern Azerbaijan. Within this, though, there are several regional groups that do things a bit differently from one another. All of the Neolithic villages here are built of groups of small round or oval houses, connected together by walls and without stone foundations for the buildings. these probably would have functioned as individual houses with a larger round building for daily life and sleeping as well as smaller buildings for storage and other activities. In central Transcaucasia these are built with the floors slightly dug out inside to increase the interior height. The walls are built of mudbrick in dark brown or bright yellow, which was often arranged in contrasting patterns for visual effect. The insides of these houses could be left as exposed mudbrick or finished off with a plaster of with yellow clay, which is also sometimes used to finish off the floors as well. Occasional patches of staining on these plastered floors suggest that they may also have been painted red with red ochre. These groups of houses were clustered together in villages, with narrow paths between them. Sometimes they are set so close together that no path can be seen between these houses.

Part of a house from Aruchlo (central Transcaucasia) made with a colourful mix of dark brown mudbricks and bright yellow mortar. Image from Lyonnet et al. 2012.
A house group of round buildings from Göytepe (central Transcaucasia). Image from Nishiaki and Guliyev 2020.
A potential reconstruction of the village of Göytepe in central Transcaucasia, showing tightly packed groups of round house complexes. Image from Nishiaki and Guliyev 2020.

In southern and southwestern Transcaucasia, in the Ararat Plain, houses were also built as groups of circular structures connected by walls. In some of the earliest Neolithic levels here, we sometimes find rectangular buildings as well, but these seem to go out of fashion in favour of the groups of round structures. Unlike in central Transcaucasia, these houses are made with pisé (rammed mud) mixed with chopped straw known as chaff, and the floors of the buildings tended to be at ground level rather than dug down inside. The interior walls could be left in the exposed pisé or finished off with yellow clay plaster. Here we also find some traces of red ochre on floors as well. In the later stages of the Neolithic, this building style changes and more and more houses are made instead with mudbrick.

An early rectangular building made of pisé construction found from the early Neolithic levels at Aratshen. Image from Badalyan et al 2022.
A house complex of round buildings from the middle Neolithic levels at Aratshen. Image from Badalyan et al 2022.

In the east and southeast of Transcaucasia, in the regions of Nakhichevan, the Mil Plain and the Mugal steppes, villages were also made of tightly packed groups of round houses with courtyards. Over time, the architecture here also changes, with rectangular buildings appearing within round house groups, and becoming a more popular house shape through time.

These regions also show differences in their stone tools. Sites across this region continue to make most of their tools from obsidian, although local flint types are used as well. We also see a lot of groundstone axes. These are found to the south and west, but are not very common. In the villages of the Transcaucasian Neolithic we find them much more often. We also find slingstones, in common with Neolithic villages of the sixth millennium in Northern Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Southern Levant. These are rarely made from fired clay, and are much more commonly collections of natural river pebbles of the right size and shape which were stored in caches within house compounds of the villages. We also get common use of lots of bone tools across Neolithic villages of Transcaucasia. These include antler hoes and picks as well as carved bone needles and awls, as well as more detailed tools such as carved bone spoons or even (in central Transcaucasia) bone arrowheads.

An example of a groundstone axe from the site of Aratshen on the Ararat Plain. Image from Badalyan et al. 2022.
Some of the carved bone spoons found at Aratshen in the Ararat Plain. Image adapted from Badalyan et al. 2022.

Villages of the east, in the regions of Nakhichevan, the Mil Plain and the Mugal steppes make mostly flakes and tools made from flakes, with little retouching or additional shaping used to finish off tools. In central Transcaucasia villages at the beginning of the Neolithic made mostly blades and tools made from blades. Over the centuries flakes become more and more common, and by the later stages of the Neolithic in this region most of the stone tools are made from flakes. When blades were made, they tended to be made with advanced techniques, such as indirect percussion and finished with pressure flaking.

Cores, blades and other stone tools of obsidian from Aknashen on the Ararat Plain. Image from Badalyan et al. 2022. Original caption included.

The most advanced techniques are found to the south and southwest at sites of the Ararat plain. In these sites, blades and tools made from blades continued to be popular throughout the entire course of the Neolithic. These were often finished off with careful pressure flaking, but it is the way that they were made initially which is the most advanced. Blades were removed using the more common methods of direct percussion and indirect percussion, as well as percussion using a crutch or lever – where a core was placed into a frame and struck with a point attached to a lever to produce identical long flakes in succession by slowly rotating the core.

A reconstruction of the pressure with a lever or crutch technique used to produce long blades at sites of the Ararat Plain in southern and southwestern Transcaucasia. Image adapted from Badalyan et al. 2022.

These differences in stone tools between regions are also seen in the pottery at villages of these different regions of Transcaucausia. As with stone tools, there are some overall patterns. Pottery from the early centuries of the 6th millennium cal BCE tends to be mineral tempered, using fine gravel or crushed stone. Pottery tempered with chaff (chopped up straw and other grain processing fragments) is less common. The proportion of chaff-tempered pottery used at sites increases through time, though, and by the middle of the sixth millennium it becomes the more common type of pottery found on sites.

A hole-mouth jar from Göytepe with relief decoration of dots along the rim. Image adapted from Nishiaki and Guliyev 2020.
Anthropomorphic (human shaped) decoration on vessels from Aruchlo (central Transcaucasia). Image from Lyonnet et al. 2012. Original captions included.

Over time in central Transcaucasia, we not only see this change from mineral to chaff-tempered pottery, but we also see a greater range of shapes of pottery and more decoration being used on pottery. This is not elaborate decoration, mostly simple applied relief designs of dots or ovals along the rim of jars and bowls, and at its most common is still only about 30% of the pottery. More rarely we find a more elaborate type of relief decoration of little anthropomorphic (human-shaped) figures along the sides of vessels. While not a massive proportion, this is a significant amount of decoration compared to sites to the south and southwest in the Ararat Plain, where pottery is almost entirely undecorated apart from the occasional burnished (polished) vessel.

This does not mean that decorated pottery was rare in all areas. In the east, at sites of Nakhichevan, the Mugal Steppes and the Mil Plain, painted geometric decorations are seen on some of the more finely made vessels. These are mostly bowls, with decoration along the rim and the interior, or tall jars and bottles, with decoration along the outside of the body.

A slipped and painted bottle from Kamiltepe (Mil Plain). Image adapted from Lyonnet et al. 2012.
A slipped and painted beaker (deep and narrow bowl for drinking) from Kamiltepe (Mil Plain). Image adapted from Lyonnet et al. 2012.

We also get the occasional find of Halaf-style pottery. This is either a local imitation of Halaf pottery – which someone would have seen and then tried to copy – or fragments of vessels that were imported in from the south. These seem to be more commonly found in the southern parts of Transcaucasia, such as along the Ararat plain, but they do also turn up occasionally in central Transcaucasia. Based on the designs of the fragments that have been found, most of the pieces of Halaf pottery found in Transcaucasia comes from the Late Halaf, or the last few centuries of the Neolithic in Transcaucasia. These are not the only imports that we start to see in Transcaucasia during the later stages of the Neolithic, as we also see connections to central and southern Asia in the form of fragments of imported turquoise and carnelian, which was often made into jewellery.

Carnelian beads from Aruchlo (central Transcaucasia). Image from Lyonnet et al. 2012. Original captions included.

Works Cited:

Badalyan, R., Chataigner, C. and Harutyunyan, A. 2022. The Neolithic Settlement of Aknashen (Ararat Valley, Armenia): Excavation Seasons 2004-2015. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Badalyn, R. and Harutyunyan, A. 2014. Aknashen – the Late Neolithic settlement in the Ararat Valley: main results and prospects for research. In B. Gasparyan and M. Arimura (eds.) Stone Age of Armenia: A Guidebook to the Stone Age Archaeology in the Republic of Armenia. Kanazawa: Kanazawa University: 161-176.

Baudouin, E. 2019. Rethinking architectural techniques of the southern Caucasus in the 6th millennium BC: a re-examination of former data and new insights. Paléorient 45(1): 115-150.

Berthon, R. 2014. Past, current and future contributions of zooarchaeology to the knowledge of the Neolithic and Chalcolithic cultures in the south Caucasus. Studies in Caucasian Archaeology 2: 4-30.

Hansen, S., Mirtskhulava, G., Bastert-Lamprichs, K., Benecke, N., Gatsov, I. and Nedelcheva, P. 2007. Aruchlo 2005-2006. Bericht über die Ausgrabungen in einem meolithischen Siedlungshügel. Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Iran und Turan 38: 1-34.

Harutyunyam, A. 2014. On Neolithic pottery from the settlement of Aknashen in the Ararat Valley. In B. Gasparyan and M. Arimura (eds.) Stone Age of Armenia: A Guidebook to the Stone Age Archaeology in the Republic of Armenia. Kanazawa: Kanazawa University: 191-204.

Hayrapetyan, A., Martirosyan-Oshansky, K., Areshian, G.E. and Avetisyan, P. 2014. Preliminary results of the 2012 excavations at Masis Blur. In B. Gasparyan and M. Arimura (eds.) Stone Age of Armenia: A Guidebook to the Stone Age Archaeology in the Republic of Armenia. Kanazawa: Kanazawa University: 177-190.

Helwing, B 2014. East of Eden? A review of Turkey’s eastern neighbours in the Neolitic. In M. Özdoğan and N. Başgelen (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey: 10500-2000 BC: Environment, Settlement, Flora, Fauna, Dating, Symbols of Belief, with Views from the North, South, East and West. Istanbul: Archaeology and Art Publications: 321-377.

Helwing, B. and Aliyev, T. 2018. Same but different: a comparison of 6th millennium BCE communities in southern Caucasia and northwestern Iran. Origini 41: 55-82.

Hovsepyan, R. and Willcox, G. 2008. The earliest finds of cultivated plants in Armenia: evidence from charred remains and crop processing residues in pies from the Neolithic settlements of Aratashen and Aknashen. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 17(Suppl 1): S63-S71.

Kushnareva, K. 1997. The Southern Caucasus in Prehistory: Stages of Cultural and Socioeconomic Development from the Eighth to the Second Millennium B.C. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Lyonnet, B., Guliyev, F., Helwing, B., Aliyev, T., Hansen, S. and Mirtskhulava, G. 2012. Ancient Kura 2010-2011: the first two seasons of joint field work in the Southern Caucasus. Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Iran und Turan 44: 1-190.

Nishiaki, Y. and Guliyev, F. 2020. Göytepe: Neolithic Excavations in the Middle Kura Valley, Azerbaijan. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Nishiaki, Y., Guliyev, F., Kadowaki, S., Alakbarov,V., Miki, T., Salimbayov, S., Akashi, . and Arai, S. 2015a. Investigating cultural and socioeconomic change at the beginning of the Pottery Neolithic in the southern Caucasus: the 2013 excavations at Haci Elamxanli Tepe, Azerbaijan. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 374: 1-28.

Nishiaki, Y., Guliyev, F. and Kadowaki, S. 2015b. Chronological contexts of the earliest Pottery Neolithic in the southern Caucasus: radiocarbon dates for Göytepe and Haci Elamxanli Tepe, Azerbaijan. American Journal of Archaeology 119(3): 279-294.

Petrosyan, A., Arimura, M., Gasparyan, B., Nahapetyan, S. and Chataigner, C. 2014. Early Hlocene sites of the Republic of Armenia: questions of cultural distribution and chronology. In B. Gasparyan and M. Arimura (eds.) Stone Age of Armenia: A Guidebook to the Stone Age Archaeology in the Republic of Armenia. Kanazawa: Kanazawa University: 135-159.

Ricci, A., D’Anna, M.B., Lawrence, D., Hlwing, B. and Aliyev, T. 2018. Human mobility and early sedentism: the Late Neolithic landscape of southern Azerbaijan. Antiquity 366: 1445-1461.

Sagona, A. 2011. Anatolia and the Transcaucasus: themes and variations ca.6400-1500 B.C.E. In S.R. Steadman and C. McMahon (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia: 10,000-323 B.C.E. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 683-703.

Sagona, A. 2018. The Archaeology of the Caucasus: from Earliest Settlements to the Iron Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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