Anglo-Georgian Expedition to Nokalakevi: Archeology

There are presently two areas within the lower town under excavation. Of interest in both areas are the remains of Hellenistic period clay and timber structures over a foundation of undressed limestone blocks. A total of 60 human burials have also been excavated from both areas ranging from Byzantine to early Hellenistic periods. Finds from both trenches include associated burial artefacts (beaded paste and glass necklaces, silver and copper alloy bracelets, etc) arrows and knives of the 4th through 6th century AD, fragments of painted wall plaster, a great deal of glass, ceramics and building materials, a fragment of cross with Greek inscription (dated to the 6th century AD), and a small gold enamel object.

  • Area A Archaeology
  • Area B Archaeology
  • Research Objectives
  • Procopius

Area ‘A’ was opened on 18th July 2001. It is located next to the 6th century gatehouse and was extended in 2004 to a 14m x 14m area. The early years of excavation saw a sequence of wall collapse and construction layers dating to the Roman and Byzantine periods. In 2003 and later from 2005 to 2009, 23 burials dating predominantly from the Hellenistic period were excavated. Of these burials, four were contained with ceramic vessels; three were cremations. A further five had been buried with jewellery, including bead necklaces, rings and bracelets.

First exposed in 2003 and more thoroughly in 2006 and 2007, a line of unbonded limestone boulders was uncovered measuring approximately 6m from east to west with a return to the north (at the western end) that extends for 1m. After this area was fully revealed and investigated in 2007, subsequent lines of walls were exposed, confirming that these archaeological remains represented a complex sequence of Hellenistic structures. Structure 2 was made up of a line of unbonded limestone boulders on an east-west alignment (4.5m long) with a return at the western end extending for 1m to the south. The east-west element of this structure is almost parallel to the east-west section of Structure 1. The earliest structure excavated to date, (Structure 3) was a roughly square structure consisting of a line of unbonded limestone boulders. It was approximately 2.5m square, with the suggestion that there may have been an entrance at the northwest corner. It lay underneath Structure 2 and about half a metre south of Structure 1 on the same orientation as the other buildings. Structure 3 was sealed by a substantial deposit of burnt material – predominantly daub.

Trench B was opened in 2002 (7.5m x 7.5m) and extended in 2003. Thirty four human burials were excavated within Trench B from 2002 to 2009, the vast majority of which were located within the small area of the northeastern corner of the Byzantine/ Medieval cemetery exposed in the southwest corner of the trench.

The remains of a Hellenistic period clay and timber building were first exposed in 2004, and further examined in 2005. This building was characterised by a line of substantial, though undressed, limestone blocks which ran the full width of the far north of the trench. This wall base was orientated roughly east-west, and in places there were remains of the beam that would once have rested upon them. This beam survived in fragmentary form as charcoal, and the fire which apparently consumed the building also resulted in a large quantity of burnt daub which sealed related surfaces south of the building. Impressions of wattle within the daub, and fragmentary remains of narrow posts (which were presumably set upright into the beam) gave clear indications of the likely form of the building. Ceramic material sealed between the burnt daub and the underlying yard surface was identified as belonging to the Hellenistic period.

As the most important site in West Georgia during various periods, the elaboration of the site chronology can be useful for understanding developments in west Georgia as a whole. In particular, the archaeology holds the potential to improve our understanding of a number of problems raised by the lack of historical documentation for certain periods of west Georgian history.

It is notable that the history of Lazika-Colchis is well documented for the sixth century, but only sketchily recorded in other periods of literature. The main sources for the history of West Georgia before the tenth century are Greek, Roman and Byzantine historians and the East Georgian chronicle, Kartlis Cxovreba, the earlier parts of which appear not to have been written down in their present form before the tenth century.

Earlier archaeological work at sites across West Georgia suggests that from Antiquity they followed a cyclical chronology of strong central authority corresponding to economic development followed by the collapse of central authority and the corresponding collapse of economic development as illustrated by the wealth of burials and the survival of stone buildings in occupational sites.

There are sufficient moments of historical documentation to allow us to potentially tie together various site chronologies across Georgia. What would be most helpful would be a pottery chronology that would allow us to date the various phases of occupation more precisely and to link events across sites. This work will have a significant impact on both regional and national pottery studies and will enable greater definition of inter-regional trade and acculturation.

Future isotopic analysis of the skeletal material will indirectly supplement the phasing of the archaeological levels by determining the origin of the interred remains, thus alluding to the occupational force of the time.

A Historical Reference to Nokalakevi, identified as the ancient city of Archaeopolis


551AD The Persians and the Romans fought over the territory of modern Georgia - namely Iberia in the east and the land in the west known as Colchis to the ancient Greeks or Lazica to the locals. Mermeroes, a Persian commander in Lazica, leads an army consisting of a large force of Persian cavalry, four thousand Huns of the Sabiri nation and eight elephants against the three thousand Romans stationed within the city of Archaeopolis – “the first and greatest city in Lazica” – commanded by Odonachus and Babas.

Procopius of Caesarea “History of the Wars” Book VIII Chapter XIV

“The city of Archaeopolis is situated on an exceedingly rugged hill, and a river flows by, coming down from the mountains which are above the city. And it has two gates, one of which is below, opening on the base of the hill, but this one is not inaccessible except in so far that the ascent to it from the plain is not smooth; but the upper gate leads out to the steep slope and is extremely difficult to approach; for the ground before the gate is covered with brush which extends to an indefinite distance. And since the inhabitants of this city can get no other water, those who built it constructed two walls which extend from the city all the way to the river, in order that it might be possible for them to draw water from it in safety.
Mermeroes, consequently, being eager and determined to assault the wall there with his whole strength, did as follows. He first commanded the Sabiri to build a great number of rams, of the sort which men would be able to carry on their shoulders, because he was quite unable to bring up the customary engines to the circuit-wall of Archaeopolis, lying as it did along the lower slopes of the hill; for he had heard what had been achieved by the Sabiri who were allies of the Romans at the wall of Petra not long before, and he sought by following out the method discovered by them to reap the advantage of their experience. And they carried out his orders, constructing immediately a large number rams, such as I have said were recently made for the Romans by the Sabiri. Next he sent the Dolomites, as they are called, to the precipitous parts of the city, directing them to harass the enemy there with all their strength. These Dolomites are barbarians who live indeed in the middle of Persia, but have never become subject to the king of the Persians. For their abode is on sheer mountain-sides which are altogether inaccessible, and so they have continued to be autonomous from ancient times down to the present day; but they always march with the Persians as mercenaries when they go against their enemies. And they are all foot-soldiers, each man carrying a sword and shield and three javelins in his hand. But they shew extraordinary nimbleness in running over cliffs and peaks of mountains, just as on a level plain. For this reason Mermeroes assigned them to attack the wall there, while he with the rest of the army went against the lower gate, bringing up the rams and the elephants. So then the Persians and Sabiri together, by shooting rapidly at the wall so that they filled the air round about it with their arrows, came not far from compelling the Romans there to abandon the parapet. And the Dolomites, hurling in their javelins from the crags outside the circuit-wall, were inflicting still more harm upon the Romans facing them. On every side, indeed, the situation of the Romans had become bad and full of danger, for they were in an extremely evil plight.

At that point Odonachus and Babas, either as making a display of valour or wishing to test the soldiers, or it may even be that some divine influence moved them, left only a few of the soldiers where they were, directing them to ward off the assailants of the wall from the parapet, and meanwhile called together the greater part of them and made a short exhortation, speaking as follows. “Fellow soldiers, you perceive the danger which is upon us and the necessity in which we are involved. But it is incumbent upon us not to yield in the least to these evils. For those who come into a situation where safety is despaired of could be saved only by not courting safety; for a fondness for life is wont in most cases to be followed by destruction. And you will be obliged to consider this fact also in our present stress, that by simply warding off the enemy from this parapet your safety will by no means be firmly established, even though we carry forward the struggle with the greatest zeal. For a battle which is waged between armies standing apart gives no one opportunity to shew himself a brave man, but the issue as a general thing is determined by chance. If, however, the conflict becomes a hand-to-hand struggle, enthusiasm will in most cases prevail, and victory will appear where valour lies. And apart from this, even in the case of success in the conflict, men fighting from the wall would reap no great benefit from this success, because, while they have for the moment succeeded in repulsing the enemy, the danger will again be acute on the morrow, and, on the other hand, if they fail even by a little, they are naturally destroyed along with their defences. But once having conquered their opponents in hand-to-hand combat they will thereafter have their safety assured. Let us then with these thoughts in mind advance against the enemy with all zeal, calling to our aid the assistance from above, and with our hopes raised high by that desperate situation which has now fallen to us. For God is ever wont to save those men above all others who find no hope of safety in themselves.”
After Odonachus and Babas had thus encouraged the soldiers, they opened the gates and led the army forth on the run, leaving a few men behind for the following reason. One of the Lazi, who was a man of note in this nation, an inhabitant of Archaeopolis, had on the previous day negotiated with Mermeroes for the betrayal of his native land. Now Mermeroes had sent word to him to render the Persians only this service, that, whenever they began the assault on the wall, he should secretly set fire to the buildings where the grain and the rest of the provisions were stored. And he directed him to do this, reasoning that one of two things would happen, either that the Romans being concerned about this fire and devoting their attention to it would give his men opportunity to scale the circuit-wall unmolested or that in their eagerness to repulse the Persians storming the wall they would pay no attention to these buildings; and if in this way the grain and other provisions were burned, he would with no difficulty capture Archaeopolis in a short time. With such purpose did Mermeroes give these instructions to this Laz; and he, for his part, agreed to carry out the order when he saw the storming of the wall at its height, by setting fire as secretly as possible to these buildings. And when the Romans saw the flames rising suddenly, some few of them went to the rescue and with great difficulty quenched the fire, which had done a certain amount of damage, but all the rest, as stated, went forth against the enemy.
This force, by falling upon them suddenly and terrifying them by the unexpectedness of their attack, slew many, for the Persians offered no resistance; indeed they did not even dare raise a hand against them. This was because the Persians, having no expectation that their enemy, who were few in number, would make sally against them, had taken up positions apart from one another with a view to storming the wall and so were not in battle array. And those who were carrying the rams upon their shoulders were quite naturally both unarmed and unprepared for battle, while the others, with only strung bows in their hands, were entirely unable to ward off an enemy pressing upon them in close array. Thus the Romans, slashing and turning from side to side, kept destroying them. At that moment also it so happened that one of the elephants, because he was wounded, some say, or simply because he became excited, wheeled round out of control and reared up, thus throwing his riders and breaking up the lines of the others. As a result of this the barbarians began to retreat, while the Romans continued without fear to destroy those who from time to time fell in their way. And one might wonder at this point that the Romans, though knowing well by what means they ought to repel a hostile attack by elephants, did none of the necessary things, being obviously confused by the situation, and yet this result was achieved without effort on their part. And what this is I shall now make clear.

When Chosroes and the Medic army were storming the fortifications of Edess, one of the elephants, mounted by a great number of the most warlike men among the Persians, came close to the circuit-wall and made it seem that in a short space he would overpower the men defending the tower at that point, seeing they were exposed to missiles falling thickly from above, and would thus take the city. For it seemed that this was, in fact, an engine for the capture of cities. The Romans, however, by suspending a pig from the tower escaped this peril. For as the pig was hanging there, he very naturally gave vent to sundry squeals, and this angered the elephant so that he got out of control and, stepping back little by little, moved off to the rear. Such was the outcome of that situation. But in the present case the omission due to the thoughtlessness of the Romans was made good by chance. But now that I have mentioned Edessa, I shall not be silent as to the portent which appeared there before this present war. When Chosroes was about to break the so-called endless peace, a certain woman in the city gave birth to an infant which in other respects was a normally formed human being, but had two heads. And the meaning of this was made clear by the events which followed; for both Edessa and practically the whole East and the greater part of the Roman empire to the north came to be fought for by two sovereigns. Thus did these things happen. But I shall return to the point from which I strayed.
When confusion thus fell upon the Medic army, those stationed in the rear, seeing the confusion of those before them, but having no real knowledge of what had happened, became panic-stricken and turned to retreat in great disorder. And the Dolomites also experience a like panic (for they were fighting from the higher positions and could see everything which transpired), and they too began to flee in a disgraceful manner, so that the rout became decisive. Four thousand of the barbarians fell there, among whom, as it happened, were three of the commanders, and the Romans captured four of the Persian standards, which they immediately sent to Byzantium for the emperor. They say, moreover, that not less that twenty thousand of their horses perished, not from wounds inflicted by their enemy’s missiles or swords, but because in travelling a great distance they had become utterly exhausted and then had found no sufficiency of fodder since the time they had come into Lazica; and so, they say, under the stress of both starvation and weakness they succumbed.
Having thus failed in this attempt, Mermeroes withdrew with his whole army to Mocheresis; for, even though they had failed of getting hold of Archaeopolis, the Persians still held the mastery of the greater part of the rest of Lazika. Now Mocheresis is one day’s journey distant from Archaeopolis, a district which includes many populous villages. And this is really the best land in Colchis; for both wine and the other good things produced there, though the rest of Lazika, to be sure, is not of such a sort.”










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