Text authors: Jacek Hamburg, Katarzyna Pawłowska, Rafał Bieńkowski

Beshtasheni is one of the most interesting archaeological sites in south-eastern Georgia. It is located in the historical region of Trialeti in the Kvemo Kartli province. It consists of a cemetery and a settlement. The cemetery itself is situated in the north-western part of the village, near two rivers named Baiburt-Chai and Bashkov-Su. The settlement is located on a promontory at the confluence of these rivers, protected by cliffs on both sides.

The research carried out by Soviet archaeologists indicates the existence of layers from the 3rd, 2nd and 1st half of the 1st Millennium BC, as well as later, Persian and Sasanid layers in this area. The settlement was the object of Georgian archaeological research since the summer of 2020. Conducted in years 2012-2016 by PhD Dimitri Narimanishvili (including 2013-2015 with the participation of a group of Polish archaeologists, and in 2016 as an official Georgian-Polish expedition on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw, in both cases under the direction of Mr Jacek Hamburg), the excavations focused on the cemetery, which was threatened by the operation of nearby seasonal rivers.

The Beshtasheni site was discovered by accident by a well-known Soviet archaeologist, ethnologist, and astronomer Boris Kuftin. It took place in the 30s and 40s of the 20th century during archaeological research on large kurgans of the Trialeti culture (1st half of the 2nd Millennium BC). Boris Kuftin dug up and documented 49 graves from the Bronze Age and located several ancient tombs (4th century BC - 4th century AD).

After the Second World War, the site was forgotten, and only in 1991-1998, the research was resumed by the Tsalka-Trialeti Archaeological Expedition. At that time 11 graves were discovered. Then, from 2012, expeditions led by the Kldekari Historical-Architectural Museum-Reserve, and then by the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw and the Georgian National Museum, as the Polish-Georgian Archaeological Expedition in Beshtasheni, organized official rescue research on this site.

During five seasons (2012-2016) of excavations, 45 graves were discovered. The chronology for this cemetery was initially set for the period between the 13th and 6th centuries BC, which corresponds to the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age in this area. The dating was done only based on characteristic pottery and weapons made of bronze and iron. In 2015, samples for radiocarbon research were taken from several graves with the best-preserved bone material and sent to the Gliwice Radiocarbon Laboratory (GADAM Centre) in Poland. The results confirmed the initial chronology, setting the dating of the graves at 10th - 7th century BC.

The Beshtasheni site is extremely rich in various types of burials. The characteristic feature of this cemetery is the orientation of the graves in a north-south axis and the arrangement of the bodies with the head to the north direction. Only skeletal graves - single and double, male and female and, so far, only one child's grave, discovered by the expedition in 2013, were found at the site. The largest group of the deceased are young people, aged 20-30 years old, with a gender balance. It is worth noting that at this point the condition of skeletons was often not good. They kept their form, but already during the exploration and subsequent removal of the bones from the grave, they were scattered into smaller fragments and became 'soft', which forced anthropologists to work quickly. The state of preservation of the skeletons is connected to the activity of subcutaneous waters related to local watercourses, mountain climate (the site is located in the Trialeti Mountain Range), as well as the “thick” and muddy soil.

On the Beshtasheni site, archaeologists are dealing with interesting and rich burials. The individual male graves, the best examples of which are #21, #41, and #49, hid the remains of men of different ages. The first is the burial of a mature man of 45-50 years old, which is very rare in this cemetery. It contained a full cross-section of different types of objects characteristic for burials in this place. A spectacular bronze belt with rich decoration depicting hunting scenes, a long iron sword, a short bronze dagger, arrowheads, and a bronze decorated pin are the equipment and arsenal worthy of an experienced warrior. Besides, the tomb contained three large vessels.

Another grave was the burial of a young 20-24 year old man. The equipment of the grave was equally rich. It consisted of: a wide bronze belt richly decorated with geometrical patterns and animals from the deer family, a long iron sword with preserved bronze rivets, a collection of bronze, iron, and bone (also from the horn) arrowheads, a stone whetstone, a long bronze pin, and four vessels. In the next grave, a skeleton of a man aged 25-39 was discovered. Also, this burial was rich in interesting findings: another bronze belt decorated with geometrical patterns and a wave and spiral motives, a spearhead, a short iron dagger, bronze arrowheads, two large jugs, a bronze pin, and an unusual bone hairpin. From the set of single women's burials, the most characteristic seems to be grave #19. A young woman aged 18-24 was buried there. With quite a well-preserved skeleton were found two bronze bracelets, a decorated pin, a collection of carnelian and mountain crystal beads, and a large vessel. However, the greatest interest of archaeologists was aroused by grave #46. Its uniqueness was that in one of the corners of the pit grave was a flat plate on which a woman's skull was placed (about 25 years old), most probably cut off from the rest of the body! Was it a form of some other burial ritual or maybe some kind of punishment? Unfortunately, this is not known. It is supposed that it could have been a secondary burial, or the grave was destroyed (by water or in connection with a robbery in antiquity) because it contained many shredded fragments of pottery and animal bones, bronze rivets, or beads from the carnelian scattered throughout the chamber.

A unique group of burials is double graves, so far always male and female. Good examples are graves #25 and #43. In the first one, a woman aged 20-30 and a man whose age was estimated by Polish anthropologists to be 25-30 years old. Unfortunately, the grave was severely damaged, which resulted in the mixing of bone material. It is also likely that some of the finds that were identified in another tomb were washed away. What was discovered inside the burial, however, is impressive: a wide, bronze belt decorated with geometrical motives, an iron sword unnaturally placed vertically in the tomb, practically perpendicular to the skeletons, and fragments of vessels. Grave #43, also characterized by this kind of double burial, was one of the most interesting during all years of research. A woman aged 19-25 years and a man of 23-25 years old were buried there. The couple lay hugged together. The grave was equipped with an iron sword, over 50 cm long, a long bronze pin, and four vessels. However, it was not the quantity and quality of the skeleton equipment that drew the greatest attention of archaeologists, but the fact that both skeletons had no heads! Unfortunately, the vertebrae of the cervical section of the spine have not been preserved in a good condition to be able to state with certainty that they were intentionally cut off - such is the preliminary assumption. However, the most fascinating was the discovery of artefacts which were no grave goods. After analyzing the skeleton of a woman during an archaeological exploration, it turned out that there were two additional objects in her body. These were bronze arrowheads. One was in the leg and the other under the ribs, near the heart. According to archaeologists, these could have been the direct cause of the woman's death.

The last group consists of a unique children's grave #22. The simple pit grave was different from the other graves, oriented on the east-west axis. Inside, a well-preserved skeleton of a child about 4 years old was found. The child's head was directed north-western. The grave was not particularly rich in grave goods, but a surprising necklace, consisting of a series of perforated "beads" made from the bones of a pig's metatarsal foot, caught the attention of researchers.

An interesting feature of the Beshtasheni cemetery is the fact that both warriors and farmers were buried there together, as evidenced by elements of equipment such as swords, arrowheads, but also bronze sickles or obsidian inlays for sickles made of wood. The military activities of the local community should not come as a surprise, because these were times when regions of modern Georgia were invaded by two big empires: Urartians and Assyrians.

Excavations at the Beshtasheni site required archaeologists to apply the newest documentation techniques. It was necessary to use the best possible methods of documentation, i.e. those that allow for the registration of as much information as possible. During the excavations at the Beshtasheni site, the main method used in the documentation of graves and excavations was photogrammetry performed by Rafał Bieńkowski (currently from the System Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences).

The process of creating photogrammetric documentation was carried out in two basic steps. The first step was to take photos documenting the subsequent stages of excavation works within the examined grave. These photos were taken with the use of digital cameras at each stage of exploration. The second step was to combine the collected photographs to obtain photogrammetric documentation.

The documentation of each of the explored graves consisted of sets of photographs, each of which corresponded to the next stage of work. The first set was created after cleaning the ceilings of the graves, regardless of their construction. In all cases, it was connected to removing the surface layer under which the graves were directly located. The creation of subsequent sets of photographs was connected with the stages of the conducted works, similarly as in the case of traditional photographic documentation. The last set of photographs always documents the condition after the completion of work in the grave chamber.

The second step in the creation of photogrammetric documentation is data processing. Processing of photographs into three-dimensional and photogrammetric documentation. Before processing, it is necessary to remove blurred photos from the sets and calibrate the cameras. Only after calibrating the cameras can you start combining the photos to obtain a point cloud and generate a 3D model. Photorealistic textures obtained from the photos are applied to the model. Based on the generated point cloud and the 3D model, orthomosaics, which is a composite of spatial information and information from the photos, were performed. Archaeological drawings were made based on photogrammetric documentation created in this way. The final product was documentation, which is a combination of ready orthomosaics with interpretative drawings.

The presented method of generating photogrammetric documentation allowed the Georgian-Polish archaeological team to obtain the most complete picture of the situation in the explored graves at each stage of work. This method of documentation combines objective data (photographs and spatial data) and interpretation data (drawings) and offers a transparent and clear way of presenting information about archaeological objects while allowing for verification of the data before the recipient.

The Beshtasheni site is an extremely interesting place hiding many smaller or larger secrets and the history of people who lived here almost 3000 years ago.