Ancient Shrines for Predicting the Future in Armenia

Ancient Shrines for Predicting the Future in ArmeniaLive Science reports about the discovery of three ancient, 3,000 years old shrines within a fortress on a hill in Gegharot, Armenia. It is assumed that local rulers used the sanctuaries for divination, a practice for predicting the future.

Each of the structures consists of a single room with a clay basin filled with ash and ceramic vessels. A number of artifacts were discovered on site, including clay idols with horns, stamp seals, censers, and a high quantity of animal bones with markings. The researchers say that during the divination rituals, the rulers and diviners have probably burnt some substances and drank wine to achieve “altered” states of mind.

In an article published in the American Journal of Archaeology, Adam Smith and Jeffrey Leon write, “The logic of divination presumes that variable pathways articulate the past, present, and future, opening the possibility that the link between a current situation and an eventual outcome might be altered.” We should mention that Smith is a professor at Cornell University while Leon is a graduate student of the same university.

Pots were used to burn substances on the site of the shrine.

Smith also told Live Science in an interview that Gegharot may have been used as the ancient rulers’ occult center. The names of the polity and the rulers are unknown though as writing had not yet spread to this region of Armenia at the time.

Smith and Leon discovered evidence for three forms of divination employed in Gegharot.

One of them was osteomancy involving animal bones, in this case, knucklebones of cows, sheep, and goat.

The knucklebones now covered with burns and other markings were rolled like dice in divination rituals.

“You would roll them, and depending upon whether the scorched side or the marked side came up, you would get a different interpretation,” said Smith.

Another form of divination used in Gegharot was lithomancy, which is a practice of prediction of future through stone. At one of the sanctuaries, archaeologists found 18 small pebbles inside a basin.

“These stones appear to have been selected for their smooth, rounded shape and their color palette, which ranged from black and dark gray to white, green and red,” write Smith and Leon. How exactly the discovered stones had been used in divination rituals remains a mystery.

At one shrine in the fortress’ eastern citadel, the archaeologists discovered a construction used to grind flour. The flour could have been used in divination in the aleuromancy practice, Smith and Leon write.

“What is conspicuous about the grinding installation in the east citadel shrine is the lack of a formal oven for bread baking.” So, the sanctuary’s basin “was clearly used for burning materials and certainly could have been used to bake small balls of dough, but it is unlikely that it would have been used to cook loaves of bread.”

Stamp seals discovered at the shrine probably allowed people to punch various shapes into dough. Among many other possibilities, the dough marked by the stamps was probably used for aleuromancy.

Figures D and E show stamps that could be used to stamp images on dough pieces before they were used for divination.

The shrines had been in use for about century until the surrounding fortress was destroyed along with other structures in the vicinity of this site as the polity controlling Gegharot may have been wiped out in one of the various conflicts.  Smith writes that the site has been mostly abandoned thereafter.

Despite the rulers of Gegharot going to great lengths to predict and maybe even change the future, their great fortresses didn’t avoid being impacted by the cataclysm that destroyed them.

The excavations at the sanctuaries are a part of the American-Armenian Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies (Project ArAGATS). The west terrace shrine was unearthed in 2003, the west citadel shrine in 2008, and the east citadel shrine in 2010-11.

This image depicts a shrine unearthed on the western terrace of the fortress. The stone stele, in the center of this image, was most likely the focus for rituals held in this temple.

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