The riddle of Metsamor

Metsamor is one of the more impressive prehistoric monuments in Armenia, but it is one that I found it rather difficult to get to grips with. It lies 20 miles west of Yerevan and is today best known by most Armenians as the site of their controversial atomic power station – built 1980 but still providing 40% of Armenia’s electricity. (Actually, if you look at the horizon between the second and third stones, you can just see one of the cooling towers)

However Metsamor was a very important archaeological site. It is essentially a Bronze Age city, of the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC, when copper mining took place on a major scale, and it was a major source of bronze production. However it continued to be a major site in the Urartian period (9th  to 6th centuries BC), and it was even occupied in the Middle Ages.

For many years, from 1955 to 1996 it was extensively but somewhat chaotically excavated by  a redoubtable lady,  Emma Khanzadian, who has now passed away and the site remains as her memorial.

In the 1970s a museum was erected at the entrance to the site, and just outside the museum is a row of standing stones which have been brought together from various parts of the site.

When we arrived, I immediately began to take photos, but they rushed out and said please don’t photograph it. This is a little silly because it is the most iconic site in the whole of Armenian prehistory, and photos of it are reproduced everywhere – you can see it on Wikipedia – so trying to stop people taking photographs of it is rather like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted. Fortunately I had already taken some good photos with my little camera.

In fact there are two different types of standing stones. The majority of them, the smaller of them to the rear are clearly phallic symbols. I don’t know their date but I suspect they are Urartian, in the 1st millennium BC.

Vishap stones

Much more interesting however is the single tall standing stone at the front which is a Vishap stone.

Vishap stones, or dragon stones, are among the most important monuments of Armenian prehistory, for they are fish shaped stones sometimes with a fish’s eye and flippers carved on them, though sometimes sacrificed bulls are engraved on them. They are associated with water and were often erected in at the sources of natural and artificial lakes and springs.

Vishap stones were sometimes put inside kurgans (barrows) and dozens of such stones have been found on the north-eastern shore of Lake Sevan, often in association with water engineering and construction of big and small artificial lakes and a complex system of canals joining them.

They are one of the more interesting mysteries of Armenian archaeology.

To the right is a splendid example now in the Sardarapat museum, but coming originally from the Kotayk region.

Metsamor is a very extensive site with many different aspects and I will mention just four of them.

Firstly there are the extensive Cyclopean walls, made of huge stones, often weighing several tons each. They were originally erected at the height of the city’s success, in the late 2nd millennium BC, but the walls were re-used in the Urartian period, from the 9th to 6th centuries BC

.(Sorry, poor photo as the light was wrong: but it does show the casement projections, which are repeated at intervals, and which appear to be common in the Middle East from the 12th to 8th centuries BC)

The quarries

Secondly in the interior there are extensive excavations, the most impressive of which appear to be quarries, where, presumably, copper was quarried on an industrial scale.(see photo right)

There is also apparently a smelting quarter, but we did not see this – and there was also a decrepit iron shed which apparently covered some temples.

However what we did see were the remains of olive or wine presses, inserted into the floor of the quarries, presumably at a later date – see left.

It would appear that the city was at its height in the Bronze Age when it was a major producer of copper, and presumably bronze, but that its raison d’etre rather disappeared with the introduction of iron.

The Sacred Rock

At a some distance from the main excavations is what is probably the most the best-known – or should I say notorious part of the site, an outcrop of rock covered with engraving in what British archaeologists would call the cup-and-ring mark style.

However astro-archaeologists have had a field day here and have seen much evidence for astronomical alignments – for them it is a great ‘astronomical observatory’ complete even with the signs of the zodiac.

There is also said to be a map depicting the water engineering in the Ararat Valley: I failed to find it.

But there are an impressive number of carvings on the rock and it was clearly a major ritual centre throughout much of earlier prehistory – I suspect it should not be dated any closer than that.

The Museum

Finally there is the museum itself with a display of material from the excavations on the ground floor, but in the ‘Gold Rooms’ underneath there is a fine collection of objects from the very extensive excavations of a cemetery that ran from the 4th to 2nd millennium BC.

There are many objects of gold and necklaces of carnelian, and there are even some objects from as far away as Egypt, testifying to the widespread international contacts in the 2nd millennium BC.

Mme Khanzadian published a report on the cemetery – in French – but did not include a plan of the cemetery to show where the individual graves came from.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *