Zayamchai Cemetery

Evidence: Eneolithic | Bronze Age (Settlement/Cemetery) | Iron Age | Antique | Albanian | Medieval | Post-Medieval

Attention was drawn to this site from 2002 onwards by the presence of a number of isolated kurgan structures, within an area containing many similar features on the terrace above the east side of the Zayamchai River. When excavation began, it was thought that a group of around six of the structures would be affected. As excavation progressed in 2003 the site appeared much more complex, with approximately 125 features designated as 'graves'. A series of radiocarbon dates confirmed the material from the site as late Bronze Age to early Iron Age date.

There is no formal Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography report for the site within the structure of the Phase Five series of reports, as a report had been prepared at the close of fieldwork and prior to the main Phase 4 tasks being undertaken. Because of this the analysis has been conducted in a different fashion and, consequently, the archive report varies from the others.

Graves were marked by stones filling the burial pit and forming little burial markers. Several graves on the west of the excavation appear to have some structures with elements that could be seen as entrances or 'dromos'. The stones were all river-rounded pebbles and cobbles from the nearby River Zayamchai. Over time, many of these have been lost and, even today, stones are removed from kurgans by those seeking suitable building material.

There was evidence that elements of the site varied considerably. These could be grouped as graves with human remains, pottery and other objects; graves with pottery vessels and metalwork but no human remains; and graves with few pottery vessels and no metalwork. The absence of bone was puzzling given that in some graves bone was well preserved and excavation techniques across the site were generally good, so evidence was not missed. Many graves had been disturbed by robbers at some point so it is possible that material had been removed, but this only affected 1015 per cent of the features and generally the non-valuable contents were simply thrown back into the grave pit. The case for commemorative graves has been made, for an absent personality, but the sheer numbers of such graves with no human remains is puzzling.

The other possibility is that the features without human remains represent an earlier tradition, with later graves containing human remains interspersed among the earlier burials. This appears unlikely, as there is no significant difference in the nature or date of the material from the site as a whole.

During the excavation of the similar-period cemetery of 378 Tovuzchai, a number of features were identified as 'offering places'. These were adjacent to graves and usually consisted of several vessels and possibly a meal, evidenced by animal bones. The concept of 'offering places' can be retrospectively identified at Zayamchai, especially if the site plan is marked by the correlation of human remains with bronze metalwork and compared with features containing relatively few pottery vessels and no human remains.

The site could then be interpreted as one where there are 35 burials, each surrounded by varying numbers of 'offering places', which may in turn contain either relatively few pottery vessels or a large collection.

The consideration of the three main sites of this type - Zayamchai, Tovuzchai and Hasansu - using this form of analysis shows considerable variation. Zayamchai has many 'empty' graves, Tovuzchai few and Hasansu none at all. Hasansu is later and contains a smaller range of vessels per grave.

One feature of the Zayamchai site is that 75 was a horizon filling a depression or ditch and contained animal bones and pottery. This was later cut through by graves 72, 92 and 101. Whether this was a domestic activity pre-dating the use of the area as the cemetery or some activity relating to burial is difficult to know. The period of time between the two activities was not very great, as 75 has a radiocarbon date of Cal BC 1410-1200 (Beta 220987) while grave 72 has a radiocarbon date of Cal BC1420-1250 (Beta 220989).


© Internet Archaeology/Author(s)
University of York legal statements | Terms and Conditions | File last updated: Fri Jun 17 2011