Sifting their hands through the mound of dirt, the excavators uncover thousands of pottery fragments and small intact perfume flasks find their way to light under the careful guidance of the archeologist guide. A glint in the brown earth catches the eye of the guide, and he carefully blows the granules of dirt away from a bead of pure gold, part of a funerary necklace worn by a royal princess more than 6000 years ago.
Seems like a fantasy? At working excavations in Armenia finds like these occur repeatedly, and the richest finds are centered in the working excavation at Metsamor, the heart of Armenia’s "Cradle of Civilization". Until recently all have been "hands-off" to visitors, students and amateur archeologists, but a recent need for funding and the desire to share Armenia’s extraordinarily rich history has spurred Metsamor to permit a limited number of Excavation tourists to actually participate in the archeological digs.
Patterned on the working excavations in Egypt and Greece, the Metsamor Excavation Expeditions place participants as working assistants with professional archeologists on active digs. "The expedition package price is actively funding the excavation," Emma Khanzatian, director of the Metsamor excavation says. "And as an assistant to the professional excavators, participants receive an in-depth introduction to the world of the ancient Armenians and their culture by actually uncovering the layers of history with their own hands."
Participants are carefully guided through the excavation process, and receive on-hands lectures and side visits to other archeology sites in Armenia.
"Metsamor was the richest city in the area," Khanzatian adds, "It held the source and process for refining rich ores of copper and tin into bronze, it charted the stars and was the center for religion in the area. We just uncovered a layer that shows inhabitation in the 6th millennium bce. And there are more layers to go". Older than the pyramids at Giza, the city of Metsamor is a key to understanding the beginning of Civilization.
Armenia’s emergence into world history begins with the earliest story we know of, the Sumerian epic poem Gilgamesh (5th-4th millennium bce). In the poem there is mention of a land called "Arata", where visitors had to "go by mountain, return by river". This perfectly described the Armenian Plateau, where the Euphrates and Tigres Rivers have their source below Mt. Ararat. As the Mesopotamian empires rose, they referred to a rival power in the "Land where the Mountains of the gods live," a land rich in bronze, gold and precious jewels.
Beginning 9000 years ago, a series of cities appeared at evenly placed spots in the Ararat Valley, all of them built around the metal and trade industries: the inhabitants were among the first to forge copper and bronze; and are the first recorded to discover the properties of and successfully smelt iron. The metal ore mined in this area was among of the purest in the world, and the natives shaped their culture around it. They believed the technique for forging metal was given to them from the heavens, and they became the first recorded astronomers: they are earliest recorded to have sophisticated observatories, the earliest to create a calendar that divided the year into 12 segments of time, they were among the first to devise the compass, and to envision the shape of the world as round.
Located just outside the village of Taronik, Metsamor (which means "black swamp" or "black quicksand") the fortified citadel is about 10.5 hectares in size, but the entire city is believed to have covered 200 hectares at its greatest extent, inhabited by up to 75,000 people (making it a large metropolis in those days). Nearby spring-fed marshes and lakes suggest the extent of the wildlife that covered the area up to the bases of Mount Aragats and Ararat. Metsamor’s 3rd millennium BCE observatory includes an early use of trigonometry to chart the rising of the star Sirius, then ascendant in the East.
First excavated in 1965, annual digs at Metsamor continue between September and December, under Khanzatian’s supervision. Khanzatian is preparing two new books on the Metsamor Kingdom, beginning with the 5th millennium BCE. "Metal processing at Metsamor was among the most sophisticated of its kind at that time," Khanzatian says, "the foundry extracted and processed high-grade gold, copper, several types of bronze, manganese, zinc, strychnine, mercury and iron. Metsamor’s processed metal was coveted by all nearby cultures, and found its way to Egypt, Central Asia and China."
The most recent dig in 2002 revealed a mass of skeletons piled under the 4th millennium BCE cyclopic walls, indicating a siege of the city by a rival kingdom.
But the excavation continues to pose more questions than answers. One of the most remarkable is that after 32 years of excavation that has uncovered extraordinary examples of pottery (in a geometric style predating that of the Minoan cultures in Asia Minor), exquisitely designed gold, lapis lazuli and quartz jewelry, an advanced understanding of the cosmos and medicine, no sign of a written language has been found.
How could a culture that was so sophisticated as to develop one of the first calendars and actively trading with Asia, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the early Mycanaeans vanish without a record of their language?
Khanzatian believes because it is because the Metsamorians carefully guarded the written word and kept all examples in archives that have yet to be uncovered. Frustrated through lack of funding, Khanzatian and her team have had to focus recent excavations on the outer walls and burial chambers nearby, but the intrepid director believes she has found the location of the archives, under the temple mound.
"They are there, and if we can receive the help of visitors, we can at last uncover them." An incredible opportunity to be a part of one of archeology’s major finds, the excavation tour puts participants right there with the archeologists, and who knows, as an assistant on the dig, they may be there when the archives are found.
Note: If you are a student and wish to earn credit for your excavation expedition, the Archeological Union can provide a certificate of completion for your participation in the tour. Check with your college or university about earning credit for participating in this event.
Contact: To arrange participation, call Rafael at (3741) 53-24-55, he will put you in touch with Emma for the final arrangements. Full participation is on sponsorship basis, at $50 a day or $150 a week, lodging and meals additional.
On Your Own:
How To Get There: Metsamor is located 35 kilometers from Yerevan, and is 500 meters from Taronik Village. The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 until 5 (100 AMD, and extra 100 AMD for guided tour in Armenian).
Practicalities: The Ararat Valley can get very hot in the summertime. Wear protective clothing, a hat with a visor and sunscreen. Drink lots of water. Armenian food is naturally salty, which helps with water retention. A translator is provided for organized tours, but the archeologists do not speak English or French themselves. Archeology finds are a part of the country’s national treasure, and are forbidden from being exported, even fragments of pottery. Remember this is a working tour: as an assistant you participate in all phases of the dig, including sifting through uncovered earth.
Lodging/Meals: 500 meters from Metsamor, the newly renovated Lich Motel ( $36-40 double; Tel: (374-247) 5-00-44, ask for Bingio) with 7 bright and comfortable units, cable TV, an International telephone connection, central heat and air conditioning, hot showers, and the freshest food at their pier restaurant plus a lake to call your own and one of the best views of Ararat we’ve seen, beats anything in Yerevan at $15-25 dollars a room (double occupancy). Setraki Restaurant/motel (Tel: Yerevan: 27-73-69, ask for Spartak) is located on Aknalich (Akna Lake), 700 meters from Lake Motel entrance 10 cottages in wooded area, no phone, but swimming pool, hot water, air conditioning and central heat, beautiful walks through wooded area up to edge of lake. $50-70 for two people, meals included.