University of Winchester

Anglo-Georgian Expedition to Nokalakevi – 2017

The Anglo-Georgian Expedition first excavated at the stunning, multi-period site of Nokalakevi (in Samegrelo, western Georgia) in 2001, when a handful of British students travelled to a relatively unknown corner of Europe and were taught archaeological skills by an equally small number of British and Georgian professionals. Going from strength to strength – helped, it must be said, by the huge improvement in the stability of Georgia and its economy since 2001 – the expedition is now the longest-running international collaboration in Georgian archaeology, with a team this year of about 30.

The site itself is most well known for the surviving fortifications, dating to the 4th to 6th centuries AD, which still dominate the landscape. The eastern fortifications add to the impressive natural defences provided by a steep hill to the north, and a deep limestone gorge carved by the Tekhuri river which meanders in a loop around the west and south of the site.

The site of Nokalakevi at the base of the steep hill (left) where the Tekhuri emerges from the gorge onto the Colchian Plain

Since 2001, the Anglo-Georgian Expedition has worked in six trenches. Complete sequences from Trenches A-C have revealed 3.5m of stratified deposits, with settlement at the site having begun at the latest by the 8th century BC, and some evidence that it was even earlier.

This season we are working in Trenches F and G. The first is revealing a large Hellenistic-period building, terraced into the lower slope of the hill where it begins to level out onto what we refer to as the ‘lower town’ area. Constructed in clay and timber, the bases of the walls consist of lines of unbonded limestone blocks – presumably providing a waterproof sill to prevent groundwater in this very wet and humid part of Georgia limiting the lifespan of the buildings. Having found fragmentary remains of Hellenistic-period structures in Trench A in 2007, this is the first time we have been fortunate enough to find an apparently complete structure. In the last few days a burial was found close to the structure, complete with ear-rings and a large number of intricate glass beads.

A large Hellenistic-period building being revealed in Trench F


Work beginning in Trench G towards the start of the 2017 season

Trench G was only opened this season, and so far it has taken a great deal of effort to remove 1980s conservation deposits; overlying a large quantity of limestone blocks that fell from the fortifications once they ceased to be properly maintained. Having excavated through these deposits we have revealed post-medieval features, including part of a ‘qvevri’ – a distinctive variety of large ceramic vessel in which Georgian wine has been made for thousands of years, in a process now on the Intangible World Heritage list.

Remains of the large qvevri in Trench G, perhaps once full of wine

Trench G had one last surprise for us, however. Just as we were cleaning up ready to draw our sections in the middle of the last week, a coin fell out of the section and was spotted by Giles, one of our trench supervisors. Although it needs to be properly cleaned by our colleague Nino at the Janshia Museum laboratory in Tbilisi, it appears to be a 30 nummi coin of the late 6th century AD, probably dating to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Tiberius (578-582).

The obverse and reverse of a 6th century 30 nummi coin

This year’s ‘Day of Archaeology’ falls on our last full day in Nokalakevi before we head back to Tbilisi tomorrow after a month’s excavating. Today we will be tying up loose ends, and protecting the archaeological remains with sheeting and backfill so that we can return to it next year.

Anglo-Georgian Expedition to Nokalakevi (AGEN)

This season is the sixteenth of excavation by the Anglo-Georgian expedition at the multi-period site of Nokalakevi, the longest running international collaboration in Georgian archaeology. Working closely with colleagues from the Georgian National Museum and the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia an international team, primarily from the University of Winchester, has been in Nokalakevi since the 1st July.

Those with an interest in our work here can read more in our 2014 BAR publication of the first ten years’ results, and we are now in the process of writing our 2011-15 publication. In brief, however, the first significant settlement at Nokalakevi dates to the 8th/7th centuries BC from which period we have recovered double-headed zoomorphic figurines. The site was more or less continually occupied from then, with further peaks of activity in the 6th-5th centuries BC, and in the 4th-1st centuries BC. The distinctive features that survive at Nokalakevi today are the stunning fortifications dating to the time of the Laz kings and their Byzantine allies in the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries AD, culminating in the enormous refortification of the eastern gate under Justinian as he prepared for war with Persia.

This year, with a team including volunteers from Georgia, Britain, America and Nor way, we have worked in three trenches in Nokalakevi.

Trench A was located next to the eastern gate, and has provided evidence of the complete span of occupation here. Last week, after 16 seasons and 200 students, we reached the underlying natural deposit. Unlike the natural clay in Trenches B and C, in Trench A it was the bottom of a palaeochannel with rolled riverstones. The presence of a palaeochannel – and the visible movement of some groundwater through it even today – goes a considerable way to explain the difficulties we have experienced in recent years with water logging and standing water in the trench. The fragments of double-headed zoomorphic figurines recovered from Trench A, without any associated structures, might indicate deliberate deposition all practice at the edge of an area that would most likely have been marshy in the 8th/7th centuries BC.

Work has continued in Trench E when the weather allowed – this area too suffers with issues of waterlogging – and we have also opened five trenches at a new site 11 miles to the east, where evidence from test-pitting last year strongly supports the presence of a ‘lost’ Byzantine fort briefly held by the Persians during a military incursion into west Georgia and described by both Agathias and Procopius.

Having finished Trench C last year, we opened Trench F at the start of this season. Located across the top of the old Trench B the new area was designed to fully expose a Hellenistic structure which had been partially revealed in 2004 and 2005. Trench F successfully located the southwest corner of this structure, however we will need to extend it to the east and north next season in order to reveal the entirety of what now appears to be a very complicated structure, or structures.

After a month of hard work, spells of very bad weather and spells of very hot weather, today is the last day of the 2016 season. Tomorrow we pack up and head for Tbilisi for a brief stay before we fly home. We will all be sad to leave Nokalakevi, but we are already making plans for our return in 2017.

Anglo-Georgian Expedition to Nokalakevi (AGEN)

2014 sees the fourteenth season of excavation at the multi-period site of Nokalakevi by the Anglo-Georgian expedition, making us the longest running international collaboration in Georgian archaeology. Since we started coming out here there have been significant cultural, political and economic changes in Georgia most recent of which is the arrival of a 3G phone signal (and reliable electricity supply) to this rural part of western Georgia, and with it the internet and access to the Day of Archaeology tomorrow.

Those with an interest in our work here can read more in our recent publication of the first ten years, or in a brief article for the Antiquity project gallery published in 2010. Suffice to say here that the site was first settled (on current evidence) in the Chalcolithic, almost continually occupied until the 8th century AD, and restored as a significant regional locus in the 15th century. The distinctive features that survive at Nokalakevi today are the stunning fortifications dating to the time of the Laz kings and their Byzantine allies in the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries AD, culminating in the enormous refortification of the eastern gate under Justinian as he prepared for war with Persia.

Our work here has shed more and more light on the story of Nokalakevi, but at least as important, if not more so, has been our role in training the next generation of Georgian archaeologists alongside students/ volunteers from Britain, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia, Holland, Poland, France and Spain. We were the first to employ modern, western methodology in Georgia and its influence is clear as a young Georgian heritage sector prepares itself for the threats that accompany a stable and improving economic situation.

This year, as we look forward to contributing to the Day of Archaeology, we are working in two trenches (Trench A and Trench C). The former is located next to the eastern gate, and is currently investigating 8th/7th century BC layers from which we have already retrieved a number of fragments of double-headed zoomorphic figurines for which Nokalakevi is famous. The latter, recently opened after Trench B was completed, has already revealed elements of the dig house that served as the base for the National Museum’s 1973-1991 expedition, and the village hospital that preceded it. It was particularly interesting to investigate the old dig house, and to combine archaeological techniques with the oral testimony of those who remembered being students living there. However, with the last of the structural elements removed today, tomorrow holds the potential for exposing Byzantine deposits that lie underneath the terracing dug for the hospital in the late 19th century.