Exploring the Qızqala Necropolis

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My experience on the Naxçıvan Archaeological Project 2014 excavation season.

By: Selin Nugent, Heritage Excavation Fellowship Recipient  

This summer, I had the great pleasure of travelling to the Naxçıvan Autonomous Republic, Azerbaijan and joining the Naxçıvan Archaeological Project for a new phase of excavations as a Bioarchaeologist studying human remains and mortuary space. The Naxçıvan Archaeological Project is the first joint American-Azerbaijani project of archaeological survey and excavation and is directed by Dr. Lauren Ristvet (University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Hilary Gopnik (Emory University), Dr. Emily Hammer (University of Chicago), and Dr. Veli Baxșaliyev (Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, Naxçivan). Nestled in the fertile Șarur valley, this region encompasses an important geographical space at the intersection of the Southern Caucasus, eastern Anatolia, and northern Iran, making it an exciting area for the archaeological investigation of empire and interaction in the Mesopotamian frontier.

First glimpse of an obsidian arrowhead amongst painted bowls.

This season marked the first phase of my dissertation data collection at the site. My dissertation investigates interactions between mobile pastoralists, local polities, and external empires in the Late Bronze through Early Iron Age (1500-800 BCE) South Caucasus through the perspective of population mobility and migration. I use biogeochemical analyses of human remains contextualized with changes in construction of mortuary space to reconstruct these behaviors and interactions.

Middle Bronze red-ware ceramic jar with black painted patterns.

An integral part of this project, and also a goal of the 2014 season, was exploring the diversity of Middle Bronze to Early Iron Age mortuary practice in the Șarur valley. Satellite imagery and pedestrian survey in previous seasons revealed a number of mounded features resembling burials that dotted the ridges around the Qızqala fortress to the west of the Arpaçay River and at the Northwestern edge of the Șarur valley. Of these many mortuary features, I selected three of varying size for excavation.Based on excavation reports of similar mounds that had been excavated elsewhere in Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus, we expected that these lightly mounded features ranging from 5 to 12 meters in diameter would yield a modestly furnished mortuary space with ceramics and animal bone with few to no human remains. However, we were soon delighted to discover truly extraordinary and well-preserved contexts in each.

Kurgan CR2 stone circle.

Removal of topsoil revealed that each feature was a kurgan with inner and outer stone circles and stone mounding that extended about 2m below the surface. Layer after layer of large stone removal was challenging, but proved to be worthwhile after discovering the grave pit.Forty-two complete Middle Bronze ceramic vessels (many painted with designs), a bronze cauldron, a bronze dagger, a bronze spearhead, obsidian arrowheads, and a large quantity of fine beads (glass, carnelian, hematite, marine shell, and bronze) were among the many beautiful burial artifacts discovered over the course of excavations. In addition, all three kurgans were filled with an abundance of animal bone, including whole bovid skulls and whole/articulated caprids. While the largest kurgan did not contain human remains, the two smaller kurgans had fascinating inhumations.

Kurgan CR3 surface mounds with Oğlanqala fortress in background.

Kurgan CR2 contained two adult individuals in flexed position facing each other, while one cradled a young lamb or kid in their arms. Kurgan CR3 contained three individuals, two adults, and a child in flexed position.

One adult also cradled a young lamb/kid as well as a puppy. Given the clear context and preservation of these humans and animals, in the upcoming months Hannah Lau (our zooarchaeologist) and I hope to conduct isotopic analysis on these humans and animals to investigate their patterns of mobility and migration.

Cluster of whole Middle Bronze ceramic vessels in kurgan CR3.

In addition to participating in an extraordinary season of excavation at Qızqala’s kurgans, it was a privilege to work alongside an excellent team of archaeologists with a wide variety of specialties. I not only had a chance to significantly develop my dissertation research, but also had the opportunity to develop as a scholar with insights gained through the various perspectives and extensive experiences of our directors and fellow graduate students.


Kicking off our boots to do some finer burial excavation work in our socks. Jen Swerida (left) and me (right).

Successful scholarly endeavors aside, I also had great fun exploring the beautiful landscapes and lovely towns of Naxçıvan and meeting incredible people along the way. I leave the season with strange and wonderful memories of an impromptu mountain dance parties with my excavation partner, Susannah Fishman, sipping Arnold Palmers on the Iranian border, July 4th soul food dinner, and garden hedgehogs. I also cannot conclude this entry without mentioning the little souvenir of the season that came back home with us: an abandoned 2-month-old puppy that we named Dize after the village where we were staying. She is happy, healthy, and living in Maryland with our archaeologist, Jen Swerida.

I greatly appreciate the support of the Heritage Excavation Fellowship for the support of my research and for providing me the opportunity to participate in this adventure with the Naxçıvan Archaeological Project.


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