Discovering Armenia: The Potential of Archeological Sites and Obstacles to Excavations

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

Archeologists have been conducting excavations in Armenia since the 1870s. These projects have been undertaken by academic institutions and other organizations to catalog the wealth of artifacts that shed light on Armenia’s history.

According to 2021 data, there are 24,221 immovable historical and cultural monuments throughout Armenia. The region of Gegharkunik tops the list in immovable historical and cultural monuments, with 5,267, followed by Kotayk at 3,227.

As new discoveries are made, the list is expanded. For example, 19 newly-discovered monuments in the capital city of Yerevan and seven of the ten regions were registered in 2020. They have already received the legal status of a monument by the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport (MESC). 

The list of immovable historical and cultural monuments includes a large number of religious structures and places of worship, namely chapels, churches, monasteries and monastic complexes. According to information provided by the MESCS, 192 religious structures and places of worship have been transferred to the stewardship of the Armenian Apostolic Church (Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin).

Recent Activity

The Law on the Preservation and Use of Immovable Historical and Cultural Monuments and Historical Sites regulates activity in this sphere. For example, in order to conduct an excavation in the territory of the Republic of Armenia, it is necessary to apply for and be granted a permit. Permits are issued in accordance with a 2002 government regulation, most recently amended in 2019.In their application, the initiator must substantiate the necessity of the excavation and identify the qualifications of the expedition leader.

The Archaeological Interdepartmental Committee of the MESCS approved excavations in the vicinity of 46 monuments in 2018, 45 in 2019, 27 in 2020, and 50 in 2021.

In 2021, archeological excavations were carried out for the first time at six archeological sites: the Iron Age fortress-settlement of Jradzor village near Amasia in the Shirak region, near the Veri and Vari fortresses of Lernakert village also in Shirak, the early Bronze Age site of Haghartsin in Tavush, the Urtsadzor-1 cave of Surenavan in Ararat region, and in the vicinity of the newly-discovered ancient site of Otevan in Aragatsotn.

No new applications for archaeological excavations were submitted in the first quarter of 2022.

State Financing

In recent years, the state budget has allocated funds to the following institutions for excavations at archeological sites:

  • The Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia: 32 million AMD in 2018; 34 million AMD in 2019; 26 million AMD in 2020; 32 million AMD in 2021; 51 million AMD in 2022,
  • The Historical and Cultural Heritage Research Center SNCO: 2 million AMD in 2018; 2 million AMD in 2019; 2 million AMD in 2020; 2 million AMD in 2021; 40,139,600 AMD in 2022,
  • For excavations carried out for the restoration of the monuments, the state has provided 5 million 752, 000 AMD in 2018; nothing in 2019 and 2020; 47 million 634,600 AMD in 2021 (plan and excavation).

Pavel Avetisyan, Director of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia, notes that excavations in Armenia rely on private funding, in addition to state support. Avetisyan’s institute excavated 31 monuments in 2021. They include the vicinity of 11 churches as part of restoration programs, rescue excavations at four sites which are triggered upon chance discoveries during construction projects, and 16 academic study excavations. 

It is impossible to say exactly how many unexcavated archeological sites there are in Armenia. The MESCS informed EVN Report that they do not provide statistics on unexcavated archeological sites. 

Preserving History

There is no separate funding for the preservation of monuments in Armenia. This process is carried out by the MESCS’ Agency for the Protection of Monuments of History and Culture, the Service for Protection of Historical Environment and Historical-Cultural Museum Reserves SNCO, and the Scientific Research Center of the Historical and Cultural Heritage SNCO (State Noncommercial Organization), at the expense of allocations from the state budget.

According to data provided by the MESCS, monitoring has revealed that some 500-600 monuments are subject to primary restoration, 250 of which are more critically damaged and endangered than the rest.

It should be noted that the List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Armenia includes the Monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin (1996, 2000), the Cathedral and Churches of Etchmiadzin and the Archaeological Site of Zvartnots (2000), the Monastery of Geghard and the Upper Azat Valley (2000).

There are another four sites on Armenia’s Tentative List. They include: the basilica of Yererouk, the monasteries at Tatev and Tatevi Anapat and the adjacent areas of the Vorotan Valley, the monastery of Noravank and the upper Amaghou Valley, and the archaeological site of the city of Dvin.

Back to Dvin

Excavations at Dvin were first carried out by Georgian orientalist, Armenologist, linguist and archeologist Nikolai Marr in 1899. Subsequently, excavations were done periodically by other archeologists in 1907-1908, 1936-1939, 1946-1976 and 1977-2010.

In recent years, the Dvin excavation site has once again attracted attention. As of 2019, the archeological expedition at the site is being led by Professor Hamlet Petrosyan,  Head of the Department of Cultural Studies at Yerevan State University (YSU).

The main members of the archeological expedition are from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia. This expedition has been operating since the 1970s and has carried out large-scale work, including the publication of important papers on Dvin.

Dvin was founded by Khosrov II Kotak, son of Trdat III, in the 330s. The city covered an area of about 400 hectares. The ruins of Dvin are located near the village of Hnaberd in the Ararat region, 30 km from Yerevan. Dvin ultimately declined in the 13th century due to Arab and then Mongol-Tatar invasions.

Dvin is a multi-layered site. It was inhabited as far back as the 3rd millennium BC. Excavations uncovered a large settlement with cyclopean structures on top of a hill. Experts also discovered a site of worship dating back to the 9th or 8th century BC.

Petrosyan told EVN Report that the monument seemed to have been neglected following the death of Aram Kalantaryan, who had led the previous expedition from 1977-2010. In 2019, Petrosyan was offered the opportunity to lead the expedition and decided to take on the responsibility of caring for it.

He notes that the program to develop Dvin into a tourism destination had already been launched before he joined the project. The program also included restorations to some parts of the central district of Dvin, separate parts of the lower fortress and the residential complexes. It proved challenging but is now complete.

“I think, in archeological terms, those restorations were not sufficiently justified,” states Petrosyan, “But since the project had already been approved, each time I objected, I was countered with ‘It has been decided long ago. The expedition took part in the decision-making, as did the architect.’ It was a difficult process.”

Nevertheless, the professor was successful in barring restoration in several places, as restoration plans had been drawn up even for sections that had not yet been excavated.

“Dvin was excavated vertically; they started from the top and tried to reach the bottom, which is also acceptable, but in specific cases. Now, it seems a considerable part of that monument has been lost, the reason being that Dvin is a city of dirt. Most of the structures in Dvin are made of raw brick. If that raw brick gets rained on, it turns into ordinary clay, and you often cannot distinguish whether it is a real wall or an ordinary layer of clay.

Now we have decided to improve the area and take a slightly different approach when excavating,” explains Petrosyan, adding that they have been working with the Department of Medieval Archeology at the University of Florence for about a year now, and have been collaborating with their experts during excavations of other sites. They will soon present a comprehensive report on the cooperation with their Italian partners, and an article about Dvin will be featured in a magazine published in Italy.

A Unique Market

In 2019, they had managed to clean a part of the central square and prepare it for restoration. Then, work stalled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, before resuming in October-November 2021 with joint, equal financing from their Italian partners. Activity is scheduled to resume in the summer of 2022.

They have chosen a remarkable monument located about 500 meters from the city of Dvin, traditionally called Dvin’s Market, for their joint operation. The structure was partially excavated by the expedition in the 1950s, but it has remained largely unexplored. Petrosyan notes that the structure is unique in the entire region:

“Firstly, it is unique in size; it is 60-70 meters from one end to the other and up to 30 meters in width. We do not have any other medieval secular structure of that size. Secondly, Dvin’s Market has perfectly paved slabs, anchors and columns that are now fragmented, and it is our task to understand this structure, especially in the context of the Silk Road.

It was the first year and excavations were not as intense, but we managed to explore it, to some extent. I think we will barely be able to conclude the excavations in the next 4-5 years. This will also give us the opportunity to think about and discuss the future outlook for Dvin’s archeological exploration and the concrete steps to be taken.”

Petrosyan notes that some artifacts uncovered in Dvin are unknown as to their use, but Armenian laboratories don’t have the necessary equipment to fully examine some of them.

Laboratory analysis relating to archeological excavations is carried out by the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) of the Republic of Armenia, the Erebuni Historical and Archaeological Museum, Yerevan State University, the MESCS Historical and Cultural Heritage Research Center, and other archeological museums.

Professor Petrosyan explains that archeology labs typically carry out metrological and physicochemical analysis but the latter is not available in Armenia, especially for pottery and metal.

He notes that there are phenomenal examples of glazed pottery in Dvin, the likes of which cannot be found in any museum in the world.

“Dvin was a very important center and the most famous goods of the time were imported from various centers of the Arab Caliphate, especially from Samara,” Petrosyan explains.

Thus, Petrosyan’s team has initiated a new program with the Italians to study Dvin’s pottery. “We have previous experience with such collaboration. For example, we sent Tigranakert’s pottery to Rome. At the core of these collaborations, above all else, they provide us with technological support. Naturally, we know both the monument and the materials well… I am very satisfied with these collaborations. The study of Dvin’s pottery is still in its initial stages,” Petrosyan states.

Roughing It

In addition to a lack of laboratory equipment, Armenian archaeologists also face inadequate lodging conditions.

“It is quite difficult to accommodate an international expedition, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. We went to Dvin and found out that the shower and lavatory were not even functional. There were a myriad of problems. The Italians said that they could not live under old roof tiles [asbestos slates], so we had to galvanize one of the lodges,” says Petrosyan.

Now, the situation is much better; the shower and lavatory are working, everyone has their own room. There is even a library and a reading room. These problems are not new, says Petrosyan, recalling that no matter where he went for fieldwork, they first had to build the shower and lavatory.

However, Dvin’s archeological camp, which was created in the 1930s, is in the city itself, which, according to Petrosyan, is a gross mistake. Now, they are trying to build a new campsite—with lodging and, of course, a museum—which will be outside the fenced area of the main city.

“Imagine: specialists work for hours in dust and dirt. That is why the provision of sanitary-hygienic conditions is one of the important tasks of our expeditions. Any archeological expedition, any exploration faces almost equally serious technical and logistical problems, in addition to the purely scientific ones.

The problems I have listed are the result of a lack of a comprehensive policy in exploring our culture. I can firmly say that archeologists try to create the necessary conditions for themselves,” says Petrosyan. He is proud of the independence of his peers:

“The state allocates hundreds of millions of drams for archeological excavations and, thankfully, salaries were increased at the Academy in January of this year. But one should not think that our work is the result of state policy; in my opinion, the archeological community acts independently.

Of course, there is state support, but I am convinced that archeological explorations are the result of efforts by archeologists first and foremost. We are the ones who find partners, we are the ones who sign contracts, they know us, they come here, they respect us, they present proposals, etc. In other words, archaeologists are an enviable professional community; this community tries to steer independently.”

Clashing With the Regulators

However, the path of an independent community sometimes clashes with the perceptions of public administration. For example, with the Dvin restoration project, the state initially planned to restore a small part of the monument located in the residential complexes. Archaeologists cleared that area, excavated it, unearthed many interesting findings, but afterwards nothing else was done and so prior efforts became meaningless.

“Today, if they decide to restore it again, we have to once again clear the area… That program was implemented by the Ministry of Culture at that time, and then it was transferred to the MESCS. They, essentially, managed to partially restore the church buildings and the Catholicos’ palaces in the central district,” says Petrosyan.

Moreover, in April 2021, the government made the decision to create the Dvin Reserve without taking into account the opinion of the leader of the expedition.

“There were various decisions that I was opposed to, but were already decided upon. Now Dvin has become a Reserve, and that, in my opinion, is a very wrong policy. Officially, the interests of the monument—its exploration and preservation—presuppose that the monument should be the priority, and not the approach to it,” says Petrosyan, noting that there are a number of reserves in Armenia that are included in tourism programs and are profitable.

“The government selects monuments that are profitable, not those that are in need of state support… in this sense, the Reserve is the one selling the tickets; it ushers in tour guides and tourists. The state has certain financial incentives, while the archeological expedition is, in a way, sidelined.

This is where a number of issues arise: how to organize fieldwork? How to construct the road? How to manage other tasks? The decision [whether or not Dvin should become a Reserve] should have been made by the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia.”

Thus, according to the professor, the monument has two owners: a state body that manages the funds, and the “poor” expedition of the Academy. Although Petrosyan states he has no personal issues with anyone, nevertheless, he does not consider this approach to be a serious, thought-out policy.

“But we are faced with a fait accompli and are now trying to find common ground for cooperation. Conducting archeological explorations in Armenia leads to many technical and financial problems, but our institute is really good and so is the director. I think the next two years will be important, especially with regard to Dvin. Dvin has unique specimens and is a unique monument. Of course, we had a difficult beginning, but hopefully, good things are just around the corner,” concludes Hamlet Petrosyan.

Hasmik Baleyan EVN Report

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