Chazin digs her work excavating historic sites in Armenia. (Photo by Samuel Dolgin-Gardner, AB'09)

Shards unseen

Archaeologist Hannah Chazin searches for late Bronze Age artifacts in Armenia.

At a five-by-ten-foot hillside trench in Armenia's Aragatsotn region, a crew of Armenian workers sings to Chicago anthropology doctoral student Hannah Chazin, AB'08. Anna, Anna, Sirrun Anna, "Anna, Anna, beautiful Anna," sings one man, recruited from the nearby village.

"I led a crew when I worked in the Western US, but that was different because they were all Americans my age and had a degree in anthropology or archaeology," Chazin tells me. "Most of these guys have years of field experience—one was even sent to study in the capital, but he had to go home to take care of his family before he could complete his degree." Most of them are not used to having a woman chief.

Chazin talks with the workers in Russian, which she studied for two years at Chicago, but she's learning Armenian words as well. She reminds the workers to dig carefully with their shovels, excavating level by level, layer by layer, working around stones rather than dislodging them, so as not to upset the strata or miss a piece of pottery. She already has a gallon Ziploc bag full of shards, some showing intricate patterns carved by potters who lived more than 30 centuries ago.

Chazin's adviser, Cornell archaeologist Adam T. Smith, who taught at Chicago through early 2011, arrives to examine the day's finds. The American codirector of the Project ArAGATS expedition Chazin is working on, Smith has worked in Armenia since 1992, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, and has surveyed the entire region. He even knows the small village where I work as an English teacher in the Peace Corps, a town most Armenians have never heard of. From the shards of pottery a few inches wide in Chazin's bag, he can conjure an entire vessel, a water jug, a formal bowl, or a grain container. "Look," he points out. "This is the handle."

I take a shovel and begin scraping dirt. A glint catches my eye. It's a flake of obsidian, volcanic glass used around the world since Paleolithic times. Ancient cultures discovered that obsidian could be chipped into sharp knives, arrowheads, and other bladed tools.

Even after centuries underneath dirt and rock, the glass retains its cool, smooth sharpness. Chazin points to a rounded bump in the center. "This is the bulb of percussion," she says. "It's formed when obsidian is hit with another stone to form a blade, a process called knapping. It indicates that this was definitely a flake from a tool, worked on by humans." The piece, less than an inch long, goes into another bag of tiny tool shards.

It's hard to dig a hole in Armenia without hitting the remnants of an ancient civilization. Armenia was a vassal state of the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the Russians, and later the Soviets. Christianity arrived, Armenians believe, with the missions of the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus, and Armenia became the world's first officially Christian state in 301 AD.

Armenians are immensely proud to have maintained their religion through centuries of dominance by pagan, Islamic, and communist powers. The Armenian alphabet was created in 406 AD to translate the Bible into the local language, and the country's landscape is dotted with ancient churches and monasteries.

Chazin is looking for even earlier civilizations. "Anything with Armenian written on it is too new for me," she says. Project ArAGATS, named for the highest mountain in the present-day Republic of Armenia, has explored sites from the early Bronze Age through the Medieval period, but today Chazin searches for artifacts from the late Bronze Age, between 1500 and 1150 BC, when the grassy hilltop we're sitting on was a stone citadel. In 2003 excavations uncovered a well-preserved late Bronze Age shrine.

Not all digs are successful. Last summer four trenches were excavated. Three yielded architectural structures, along with large ceramic pots, but Chazin's turned out to be a garbage dump. "That was interesting," Chazin says, "but I'm hoping to find something better this year. We're looking for the gateway to the complex—and perhaps another shrine."