Archaeologists Rescue Huge Iron Age Cemetery from Road Project

Armen Martirosian 
Armen Martirosian  / Armen Martirosian 

Archaeologists in Armenia are conducting a rescue excavation of a huge Iron Age cemetery in a regional capital of the ancient kingdom of Urartu. Discovered two years ago during construction of the nation's North-South Highway, the site, located near the Armenian capital city of Yerevan, holds hundreds of graves and perhaps 1500 people.

Because the government-funded highway project is a major investment for Armenia, meant to connect the entire country and bolster the Eurasian trade corridor, the archaeologists have little time to excavate—just six months, and one month has already passed.

The 50-hectare necropolis was located in an Iron Age city called Teishebaini. Among the finds unearthed so far are several skeletons with elaborate grave goods, as Armen Martirosian, an anthropologist (and medical doctor) working at the site, describes in a first-person account on Facebook. Of excavating the remains of a person the team has nicknamed Ligo, he writes:

After a great deal of delicate excavation, a small tap on the remaining dirt keeping Ligo’s skull in place was enough to free his skull and have it roll into my waiting hand. For the first time in 2600 years or so, Ligo, a warrior from the Late Iron Age kingdom in the modern Republic of Armenia known as Urartu, was back above ground. How he died still remains a mystery, but the tomb that housed him for well over two and a half millennia certainly contains a host of information of his life and times. In addition to his tomb’s co-occupant, he was buried with an iron dagger, a small iron knife, an iron quiver with iron arrowhead, two bronze plaques the size of a pack of cards, probably attached to some kind of military uniform, a number of ceramic vessels, and what appeared to be a sacrificed lamb above both his and Rigo’s heads. From the wear on his teeth, he appeared to be in his mid 20s, with an estimated height, based on his femur and vertebrae, to be 175cm. As the on-site anthropologist on the archaeological team, my role is but one of many in uncovering the history of Armenia. These individuals were not just strangers reverting to dust, but ancestors of many of the people of the Trans-Caucasus, particularly Armenians.

The kingdom of Urartu is mentioned in Assyrian sources as far back as the 13th century BCE. It was located in a mountainous region southeast of the Black Sea and spanned what is today Armenia, eastern Turkey (home to its capital city, Van), and northwest Iran. Urartu was at its most powerful in the 9th and 8th centuries BCE. While historically it's been thought that Armenians replaced the Urartians in the 6th century BCE, some say that recent genetic evidence backs up the idea that Armenians and other modern-day people living in the region are actually their descendants.