Burying History: Scientists say Syunik region sites are being destroyed, instead of preserved

A joint Armenian-American-British archeological expedition has found another example of the destruction of ancient Armenian monuments. This time, though, it is neither in Georgia nor in Azerbaijan (where monuments and churches have been destroyed), but in the Syunik marz of Armenia.

In the village of Shaghat, 22 kilometers from the town of Sisian, the archeologists from the Institute for Archeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia, University of Michigan and the Sheffield University in England discovered a rich archeological material while at a test excavation in 2004. The detailed examination of the finding was planned for 2005.

But when the expedition returned to the village it found the 1 hectare territory totally ruined by bulldozers.

“The smallest piece of clay or stone of archeological interest is very important to us, so can you imagine what it means turning a hectare of territory upside down,” says archeologist, Professor Susan Alcock, regretfully pointing out to the pieces of decorated vase of Bronze Age that has narrowly escaped the bulldozer.

Numerous monuments with cultural layers typical of different ages were found during the excavations on a territory of approximately 5 square kilometers in Shaghat and neighboring Balak.

“We are especially interested in the discovered settlements of Middle Bronze Age,” says senior scientist Mkrtych Zardaryan from the Institute for Archeology and Ethnography of the NAS. “There are many tombs that have been preserved from those times, but this is the only settlement until now discovered in the Middle East,”

But rather than a fertile ground from which scientists might embellish history of the region, the site is being turned into a cemetery.

Shaghat village head Hovik Mkhitaryan turned the tractors loose on the property to clear it for a graveyard, because the land in shifting in the village’s old one. (Some charge, too, that the sudden interest in creating a new cemetery comes suspiciously close to election time, when the village head might need to curry favor among voters.)

“I addressed the government for allotting land under the new cemetery. I have not done anything illegal. Moreover, I have suffered damages myself – who should pay for the fuel for my car?” says Mkhitaryan.

According to Mkhitaryan he has proper permission by the government of RA. But the map, reduced several times on the submitted document, does not show the ruined territory at all.

According to Hrahat Hakobjanyan, representative of the Syunik regional Service for Preservation of Historical Monuments, the Shaghat case happened due to a lack of proper mapping of monuments.

Karen Tunyan, head of the Sisian regional branch of State Cadastre said new maps have been received only two weeks ago including “territories under state protection” highlighted with green.

“But the lack of indication on the map also has no justification, for the head of the village is responsible for being aware of each stone in his community; besides the head of the village himself used to dig here and there with a spade in his hand in search of treasures, like all the rest of the village. That is to say, they knew clearly there were old settlements in the territory,” says Hakobjanyan.

Syunik has long been known as a region rich in ancient historical remains, including a citadels settlement from the time of fifth-century Prince Andovk Syuni.

“The northern slope and the foot of Shaghat are constantly destroyed by the residents; time after time people decide to find the treasures of Prince Andovk Syuni. People must understand that these old settlements and the castle are more precious than the imaginary treasures,” says Mkrtych Zardaryan.

According to him the Shaghat case is one among hundreds.

An Armenian-French archeological expedition making excavations in the Inner Godedzor ancient settlement in the village of Angeghakot 13 kilometers from Sisian also has problems since part of the ancient settlement territory is a stone mining area.

“We learnt about the ancient settlement in 2003 when the cultural layers were destroyed during mining. Fortunately, our expedition was working in the neighborhood. The test excavations showed that we deal with an interesting settlement of late Copper and Stone Age,” says senior scientist of the Institute for Archeology and Ethnography of the RA NAS Pavel Avetisyan.

Archeologists from the Maison de l'Orient at Lyon University and the Institute for Archeology and Ethnography of the RA NAS found ceramics belonging to the Obeyid culture of the 5th millennium here.

According to Avetisyan the close ties between historic Armenia and Mesopotamia and Syria are proved for the first time by material facts, although it has been mentioned in historical documents for many times.

The upper layer of the ancient settlement has disclosed for the first a settlement of late Eneolithic era that has served as grounds for the creation and the development of Kura-Arax culture in these territories.

“The Kura-Arax culture is a huge cultural phenomenon of early Bronze Age of 4-3 millennia BC typical to northern and sout Caucasus. Until today its origins and hotbed of formation were not found,” says Avetisyan.

Archeologists are concerned that these and other important archeology sites are being carelessly destroyed.

“We have appealed to all proper bodies, the case is in the marz prosecutor's office, but the stone mine works day and night,” says Avetisyan. “This is a state crime before everybody’s eyes."

Michigan University professor John Cherry who has worked in Greece, Turkey, Italy and other countries, says it is too bad that the Armenians show such disregard for the riches of their own past.

“As far as I know, they try to develop the tourism industry here and such monuments are the best means to do that. Syunik is almost not studied and is very rich in historical monuments,” Cherry says. “If it continues this way many ancient settlements may be destroyed without being studied.”