Hand Augering among the Carved Rocks at Ughtasar
The spectacular rock art site of Ughtasar is set within the naturally bounded space of a cirque within an extinct strato volcano at an altitude of 3300metres in the Syunik Mountains of southern Armenia. The study area, accessible for only 3 months of the year, measures c1 x 1.5kms plus the steep rocky approach from the south and the more gradual ascent from the north. The landscape is dominated by high craggy twin peaks, which form part of the eroded rim of the caldera. Rich grasslands house seasonal pools while the only permanent glacial lake is held by a massive natural dam of rocks and boulders. Extensive boulder streams of fractured basaltic lava spill across the site; heavily glaciated and darkened by rock varnish, the polished rocks form an inviting surface on which to peck animals, humans, occasional wheeled vehicles and abstract motifs. The mainly self-funded Ughtasar Rock Art Project team (a committed and enthusiastic group of Armenian, UK and international archaeologists, art historians, students and volunteers led by co-directors Anna Khechoyan and Tina Walkling working under the auspices of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences, Armenia and the Landscape Research Centre, UK) has recently completed a survey of nearly 1000 carved rocks. We are currently busy analysing the results - most striking is the extraordinary predominance of images of wild goats with huge horns, which account for 65% of all the figurative motifs. What we have been sorely lacking is geo- archaeological and environmental information, in particular from palaeo-botanical, palaeo-climatic and more detailed geo-morphological studies, which would provide invaluable information about the site formation processes – and perhaps even help towards dating. Excavation is expensive, time consuming and potentially destructive and the logistics of working and camping at 3300m are not straightforward – the nearest village is 17km down a rough track at the foot of the mountain. Having seen environmental archaeologists successfully gaining information from auger surveys at various sites in the UK, it seemed that hand augering would prove to be a useful and non-destructive way of providing information that would help to fill in some of the gaps urgently needed to piece together the environmental conditions within the caldera in the ancient past. The company of Van Walt, renowned throughout the UK and internationally for its soil sampling equipment, was recommended by our UK principal partner and mentor, archaeologist Professor Dominic Powlesland, and by geo-archaeologist Dr Mike Allen, who kindly offered similar advice. I was determined to obtain an auger for our project!
It was explained to me on the phone that the difficult site conditions might not be suitable for survey by auger, however Vincent van Walt kindly agreed to meet me at the company’s offices in Haslemere. Vincent was not over-optimistic when he pored over the geomorphological map (prepared by Armenian geomorphologist, Dr Samvel Nahapetyan). “I’m not sure that you’ll find a suitable place to auger in such rocky conditions”. We discussed the possibilities and the problems and then to my utter astonishment and delight Vincent offered to sponsor us by providing augers, extension rods and handle! Overjoyed, I left dancing on air! Two or three days later the promised packages arrived, containing three different augers, each 7cms in diameter, one for stony soil, one for riverside sampling and an Edelman type combination auger, together with handle and extension rods (to ‘dig’ as deep as possible!). Having tried out the equipment in our London suburban garden we packed it carefully for the journey to Yerevan.
We were thrilled to hear that Samvel Nahapetyan, Armenia’s only geo-morphologist and Roman Hovsepyan, Armenia’s sole palaeo-botanist planned to visit us on site for a couple of days in order to obtain soil samples with the augers and from a small test pit which Samvel had previously excavated a couple of years before. But would they manage to reach the caldera? Two nights of dramatic thunder and lightning with torrential rain meant that the rough tracks up the mountain might be impassable. As I hugged my knees in the middle of the night with the storm flashing and crashing directly overhead, I crossed my fingers hard and next evening, Wednesday 27th July Samvel and Roman arrived having safely ascended the mountain in their 4-wheeled drive vehicle. Next day the augers were used in a variety of different situations, first in a low-lying area of rich grassland not far from a circular mound that might possibly be a burial. The auger descended to a depth of c60cms into glacial clays with no organic layer (more than enough clay to fashion a small human figure!).
Next, a sample obtained to a depth of 40cms from near Rock 9 revealed no apparent organic deposit. But then a much more positive result was obtained when Roman augered to a depth of 30cm closer to the carved rock revealing an organic layer very similar to the one in the re-opened small test pit adjacent to Rock 9. We were delighted to find that a further auger hole near Rock 81 also revealed a possible organic layer at a depth similar to the one by Rock 9, which we hope may possibly be contemporary with the rock carvings. In total four samples were taken for pollen analysis and one for possible AMS dating. Also a sample from the small test pit was obtained for micro-morphological analysis together with a sample for OSL dating in a small test pipe carefully sealed at both ends. These are the first environmental samples that have been obtained from the site and we are very excited and optimistic about the results. But we will have to be patient! As there is no equipment available for pollen analysis,
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