polish-georgian project in kutaisi (GEORGIA)

Text authors: Jacek Hamburg, Roland Isakadze

Kutaisi is the third-largest city in Georgia located in the western part of the country on the Rioni River in the famous Colchis Valley. Sometimes, it is identified with ancient Aya from the myth of the Argonauts, although archaeological research cannot confirm this, due to the lack of any written sources of this region of the Caucasus during the Bronze Age period.

The Polish-Georgian excavation in the frame of the Kutaisi Archaeological Landscape Project is a long-term interdisciplinary archaeological project conducted by the Krukowski Polish-Georgian Interdisciplinary Research Center and the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia; in cooperation with the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw, the Polish Institute in Tbilisi, the Polish National Foundation, the Kutaisi Historical-Architectural Museum-Reserve, the Akake Tsereteli State University in Kutaisi, and the Niko Berdzenishvili State Historical Museum in Kutaisi. Excavation focuses on research into the archaeological landscape in the Imereti province, so far concentrating on sites within the city and its surroundings. The project has been led since 2017 by Dr Jacek Hamburg from the Polish side and Assoc. Prof. Roland Isakadze from the Georgian side.

Joint research is deeply interdisciplinary, the project has also reached out to specialists in various fields. The mentioned specialists come from the System Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences (drone photos, photogrammetry, geodesy, databases), the University of Gdańsk, the Earth Museum of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, University of Reading (environmental studies, archaeobotanical research, geoarchaeological drillings), Helsinki University (analyses of ceramic and earthen building materials), the Warsaw University of Technology (geological analyzes), Poznań Radiocarbon Laboratory [Poland], Weizmann  Institute of Science [Israel], Vilnius Radiocarbon Laboratory [Lithuania] (radiocarbon analyzes), and the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn (GPR - georadar systems research).

In the city of Kutaisi archaeological research takes place in the area of three archaeological sites: Gabashvili Hill, Dateshidze Hill, and around the famous Bagrati Cathedral. In the seasons 2018-2021, the first two sites were found to confirm the existence of an ancient settlement in the area - the remains of a defensive moat and drainage system. These findings are the first material evidence of the existence of an important center of Colchian culture in the area. The settlement was probably located on the hills of Gabashvili and Dateshidze, where archaeological works were carried out. Unfortunately, the area is already very much transformed by modern constructions, which makes research very difficult. The moat may therefore be the only evidence discovered of the existence of a settlement in this area intact. The dimensions of the moat are about 10 meters wide and 4.90-5.75 meters deep. The youngest layers indicate that in the pre-classical and classical periods (6th-1st centuries BC) the moat was still visible in the ground, but it probably did not perform its defensive function. It is also worth mentioning that recent studies indicate that the ditch may have had an additional function as a channel to drain rainwater from the hills towards the main bed of the Rioni River. To confirm it, however, additional research and analysis are needed.

Among the findings from the pre-classical and classical periods can be distinguished: quern-stone, grinding stone for metal objects (most probable pins), fragments of tuyeres from metallurgical furnaces, remnants of crucibles, and pottery. Among the ceramic materials, there are many interesting examples of not only locally made but also imported vessels. In the excavated group of pottery, there are imports from Greek islands (e.g. Kios), Cyprus or the Pontic area of the northern coast of modern Turkey (e.g. Sinop). Among the ceramic material, there are ordinary drinking vessels, pithoi (also richly decorated, which happens very rarely), and amphorae, including one example with the Colchian stamp in the upper part of the handle. During the 2021 season, the joint team of archaeologists discovered the remains of two structures (houses?), one on top of the other and dug out a few cavity pits. Moreover, archaeologists discovered one pre-classical grave (5th century BC) buried in the middle of older layers. In addition to single bones and teeth, it was also found two bronze and one iron bracelets, over 300 beads made of glass and glass paste, and two vessels, including one decorated with an incised pattern. Among the findings from layers dating back to the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age period, one should indicate black polished and black smoothed fragments of pottery, often with a handle decorated with animal horns, very characteristic for the Colchian culture, other vessels both in the decorated version and without decoration on their surface, fragments of slag and iron ore (perhaps post-production waste?) and a couple of well-preserved casting moulds for the production of asymmetrical Colchian axes and weapon. This type of axe is one of the most characteristic finds related to the Colchian culture and the found moulds were used for their production. Combining the moulds with data from the 1960s and 1980s Georgian excavations, that took place near our research spot, it can be assumed that there may have been metal production sites (workshops?) in the area near the moat.

The discovered sections of the moat were characterized by an enormous accumulation of organic material, i.e. wood, seeds, etc., which were collected using the flotation method and then analyzed by specialists in a separate project. They are aimed at the correct determination of the ecofacts found during the research, the separation of suitable residues for further analyses (e.g. for radiocarbon dating), as well as, in the long-term, the reconstruction of the natural environment in the studied area and the restoration of the diet of the local community during the Late Bronze Age period and the development of Colchian culture in this region.

Another place of research is the Dateshidze Hill, where the remains of the Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age building were unexpectedly found. Archaeologists faced a huge challenge as the site was partially built-up and in the 20th century it was leveled by the hauling of about 2 m of soil to level the ground for the construction of a road and modern school buildings. From the northern part of the site, the first traces of burnt wooden beams and a huge amount of ceramic and earthen building material (so-called CBMs / PEMs) appeared, which testify to the collapse associated with the ancient building. After the discovery of the southern part of the excavation and deeper analyses of the data, it turned out that archaeologists were dealing with a wattle-and-daub structure of at least one store high, that collapsed inwards as a result of a strong fire and then destroyed its structure after it was burned. In the central part of the excavation, an arrowhead of foreign provenance was also found (it is certainly not a local type of arrowhead). Perhaps it is a trace indicating that the fire of the investigated building was not the result of an accident or coincidence. In the layers above the house, mainly pottery and quernstone were found. Then there is pottery from the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age periods.

South of the building, a domestic area appeared where it was decided to further explore and carry out two poll surveys inside the excavated space. In the first survey poll conducted in the southwestern part of the trench, another level with a concentration of CBMs and characteristic pottery was found, such as a miniature vessel with a handle ending in an animal Colchian culture motive. Besides, a concentration of stones, tuyeres for the metallurgical furnace, and a bronze slag were found there, which can be associated with metallurgical activities at this site. The second one was located in the south-eastern part of the trench. The first one was characterized by an unusual concentration of pottery from the Late Bronze Age period (mainly black polished pottery, also larger fragments). Then a small number of CBMs and a large concentration of burnt millet were found, which was passed on for archaeobotanical analyses.

The last of the examined places in the territory of Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi. Trench No. 1 was a continuation of the Georgian research carried out in this place parallel to the reconstruction of the Cathedral in 2012. Unfortunately, the excavation was never completed until 2018. It was during this season that the old excavation spot was cleared, archaeological profiles were cut and documented, and parts of the excavation that had not been completed several years earlier were finished. Thanks to this research, it can be concluded that there are remains of a building from the Late Bronze Age period in this area. Among the finds related to these layers, archaeologists meet mainly pottery, but the Georgian side also found clay animal figurines and between 2019 and 2023 our Polish-Georgian team found new ones depicting cows, deer, and bulls. What is more, the completion of the excavations and digging into the lower layers under the remains of the building led our team to interesting finds. It turned out that there are also remains of layers connected with the Middle Bronze Age and the Middle-to-Late Bronze Age Transition periods. The objects found in these layers (mainly pottery, but also stone spearheads) can be dated back to the half of the 2nd Millenium BC, which turned out to be a big and positive surprise for all members of the project and may indicate that there are even older objects here than originally assumed. In 2019, new trenches No. 2 and No. 3 were also opened, in which remnants from the Late Bronze Age, Pre-Classical, Byzantine, Middle Ages, and Turkish periods were found. 

In the season of 2022, research focused solely on the vicinity of the Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi. Our goals were to discover the remains related to the Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age period, as well as the remnants associated with the Byzantine period and the developed Middle Ages, i.e. the time of construction of the Cathedral itself and its surroundings (11th century AD), and finally the period of the Turkish occupation of the Bagrati. During this season, in addition to the huge amount of medieval pottery, we found a whole set of Turkish pipes, three medieval walls, and a long ceramic pipe supplying water to the buildings on the Citadel. In addition, six pit graves tentatively dated to the 8-10th century AD, more storage pits, amphoras and kvevris (Georgian wine containers), bricks and roof tiles, and also residues of brick and glass production. Some structures go into the trench profile, so some of them were unveiled during the next season. Finally, an unexpected discovery was the bronze coin of Emperor Constantine I (306-337 AD), the first of its kind in Georgia from a strict and clear archaeological context. Early Classical period remains have been discovered in the lower layers for the very first time at Bagrati, including pottery, a ceramic building material likely from a collapsed house, whetstones and quern-stones, also glass and bronze items. This is the period corresponding to the finds from the famous Vani. In the lowest strata that KALP archaeologists have reached during 2022 season, residues of the Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age period have been found. Other remnants of a collapsed wattle-and-daub house, ceramic building material, fragments of wooden construction like burnt planks and beams, and yet unidentified stone structures were discovered there. Among the findings from this period are pottery, beautiful clay animal figurines, a small bronze dagger, whetstones, flint and chalcedony arrowheads, stone tools, etc.

During the last 2023 season, our joint research focused mainly on trench No. 2 around the Bagrati Cathedral in Kutaisi. This time, our main goal was related to completing the exposure of remnants of the wattle-and-daub buildings from the Late Bronze Age period (13th – 10th century BC), which were partially excavated already in the 2021 and 2022 seasons. An additional goal of this season was to discover all the possible remains related to the earliest periods represented on the Bagrati archaeological site. As it turned out, we are dealing with two periods: the Middle-to-Late Bronze Age Transition period, as well as the clear Middle Bronze Age period, i.e. the end of the first half of the 2nd millennium BC. It means that for the first time, the remains of the Proto-Colchian culture were discovered in the city of Kutaisi itself. In the middle strata, our archaeological team found remnants of collapsed wattle-and-daub buildings, typical clay and ceramic building materials, big pieces of timber from wooden constructions of houses like burnt beams and planks, traces of floorboards and also mysterious “stone structures” (foundations? It need to be determined yet). The finds, apart from characteristic Colchian pottery, included grinding stones, whetstones, inserts for wooden sickles, small fragments of bronze objects, as well as ceramic weights typical of this period. In the lowest strata that the KALP scientific team has reached in the 2023 season, residues of the earlier occupation period have been found. Preliminary dating indicates that we are dealing with artifacts and architectural pieces characteristic of the end of the Middle Bronze Age and the Middle-to-Late Bronze Age Transition period. It means that these objects date back from ca. 1700 to ca. 1400 BC. Archaeologists have never before found such old settlement remains or any archaeological artifacts in the heart of Kutaisi city. In the deepest layers, our Polish and Georgian archaeologists found nicely decorated pottery, which is characteristic of the Proto-Colchian II period (end of the Middle Bronze Age). Very interestingly, it seems that some fragments of this pottery may be imported from the eastern part of Georgia. In addition, we discovered bronze knives, flint and stone arrowheads, one beautiful flint spearhead, whetstones, ceramic weights, a quern, an interesting stone set consisting of mortar and pestle, as well as some organic materials like charcoal, wood or seeds, which is very helpful for more precise dating of the site using the radiocarbon (C14) method. Speaking of specialized research, during the 2023 season, we also obtained results of analyzes using the radiocarbon method to determine the age of the most important specific layers uncovered during our newest and previous joint excavation in Kutaisi during the 2021-2023 seasons. 

The archaeological landscape of Kutaisi is not only the sites inside the city but also many archaeological locations in the Colchis Valley and within a radius of about 30-40 km from the city center. All these sites are settlements fortified by a system of moats and embankments, dating back to the Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age (the second part of the 2nd Millenium and the first part of the 1st Millenium BC), and many of them also have layers related to the pre-Classical and Classical periods (6th-1st centuries BC).

During one of this research in the surrounding area of Kutaisi, archaeologists discovered the upper part of the pithos grave and several grave goods in the form of vessels around it. A characteristic cutting line was also visible. At that time, the dead were buried in this way in western Georgia. This enormous pithos was a ceramic coffin. However, the large vessel did not have an entrance opening large enough, so it was cut in half. After the body of the deceased was placed inside the vessel, the upper part (in the form of a lid) was placed over the body and thus closed.  Also, two vessels inserted into each other were found, which closed the entrance to the pithos. The vessels were put upside down closing the rim, which could have been related to the ritual or the beliefs of this community.

According to the assumptions, in the upper half of the pithos' interior, only fragments of the vessel shattered from above were found. In the central part of the burial, two more vessels were discovered. These were small jugs decorated with red-painted strips. This is quite characteristic for the vessels from the 4th century BC At the very bottom, single human bones were found which, after preliminary anthropological analyses, indicate a young woman, mixed with quite a large number of grave goods.

The buried woman had five bronze bracelets on her left wrist and four bronze bracelets on her right wrist. Some of them had very nicely decorated endings in the form of the so-called Colchis dragon and animal motives. Some with only a geometric cut on the surface. In addition, two straight bronze rings and one larger iron ring (probably with a seal or a space for the ornamented stone - the object needs to be conservated) were found in the burial. Inside the ring, there was a well-preserved human phalanx, which survived thanks to the proximity of the metal. Moreover, archaeologists discovered two simple bronze earrings and dozens of beads. These small objects, which eventually created the whole necklace, were made of gold foil, glass paste, mountain crystal, and the characteristic Georgian red carnelian and took many different forms and shapes.

To sum up, in 2019 intact and unearthed grave was found in a place near the Meskheti site. Several cemeteries of this type are known from the territory of western Georgia in the interior of Colchis Valley. Some of them were also unexploited and yet not so rich in artifacts. Gold objects are also extremely rare. The grave in the pithos, which was explored by the Polish-Georgian archaeologists is, therefore, one of the richest graves of its kind found in the territory of the Colchis Valley.  

Members of the Project (in alphabetical order)