Kasakh Valley Archaeological Survey


The Kasakh Valley Archaeological Survey (KVAS), a field initiative of Project ArAGATS, entails a systematic transect survey of the upper Kasakh River Valley between the Villages of Ria Taza and Hartavan, along the eastern and northeastern flanks of Mt. Aragats. This research has been funded by a variety of public and non-profit organizations that support archaeological study in the South Caucasus.

A total of 43.7 sq km have been surveyed to date during four field seasons between 2014-2017. Along with intensive and extensive pedestrian and aerial survey and mapping, the project also included test excavations at select sites and cemeteries at Mirak and Aparani Berd to address questions about the changing uses of ancient fortified landscapes in the region. While fortresses served as the monumental foci of settlement systems on the Armenian Highland for approximately a thousand years during the later Bronze and Iron Age periods—continuing again in the later Classical and Medieval periods—our understanding of conflict and its sociopolitical implications in these periods remains underdeveloped.

During fieldwork, data from all periods were recorded, although the particular research goals driving the survey have focused onfortified landscapes as a means to better understand the shifting role of militarism and warfare in politics, settlement, and social identity. The results of the survey are currently in preparation for publication, but a summary of the survey’s general approach to investigations in the Kasakh Valley can be found below.

Survey team and data collection strategy

KVAS’s fieldwork has relied on the generous support of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Cornell University, Purdue University, Stanford University, and the National Science Foundation (grant #BCS-1561237). Participants included survey co-directors Dr. Ian Lindsay (Purdue University) and Dr. Alan Greene (NYU/ISAW), and a helpful and hardy survey team (listed alphabetically): Karen Azatyan (Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography graduate student), Salpi Bocchieriyan (Cornell graduate student), Gabrielle Borenstein (Cornell graduate student), Amy Cromartie (Cornell graduate student), Dr. Elizabeth Fagan (Truman State University), Bryan Fagan, Elizabeth Hardy (Cornell graduate student), Arshaluys Mkrtchyan (Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography employee), Chris Stevenson (Purdue graduate student), and Shujing Wang (NYU/ISAW graduate student). 

KVAS employs full coverage systematic techniques, meaning our team walks the landscape evenly spaced, records archaeological and architectural complexes from all time periods, and collects representative small finds. The chronological breadth of recorded sites and isolated finds spans the Paleolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages, early historic and Medieval periods, through the Soviet era, and up to the contemporary. The generally sparse ground cover has led us to use a rather wide 50 meter transect spacing, which also proved successful during our earlier survey of the Tsaghkahovit Plain. In the survey area’s diverse topography, we draw on satellite imagery, especially high-resolution Pleiades 1 (50cm) and ASTER DEM (30m) data, to identify the range and distribution of survey transects.

During the initial 2014 season, Lindsay and Hardy conducted a pilot survey of different sections of the upper Kasakh River valley as a means of field-tested a new ‘born-digital’ tablet-based data collection system using ESRI’s Collector for ArcGIS mobile app (a detailed description of our mobile GIS system is currently being prepared for publication). Between 2015 and 2017, Lindsay and Greene and graduate students from the US and Armenia expanded our use of this data collection system to see how it would perform with a larger team and amidst a more extensive data collection effort. The increased scale of data collection also allowed us to test basic analytical processes within the GIS and begin to quantify and visualize spatial patterns in the survey data.

Archaeological survey, like other forms of anthropological investigation, often proceeds as an iterative process, as ideal research methods and goals are adjusted in response to unfolding field conditions and emerging results. In 2016 and 2017, for example, the results from prior survey seasons prompted us to discontinue walking flat, cultivated field portions of the survey area. This change was due to two factors: first, our data led us to conclude that habitual plowing or soil turnover, which can disturb stone architectural remains, and low summer ground visibility due to crops and fodder fields, were resulting in extremely low data collection rates in these regions. Second, many field areas are located within the first and second flood terraces of the Kasakh River and have been intensively transformed, or “ameliorated,” through the installation of pipe irrigation and other Soviet-era hydrological management systems (distribution pipes, junction stations, cisterns, sprinklers, etc.). This means that field-intensive portions of the survey areas west of the M3 highway have not been walked and are marked for future investigation using systematic unaligned random remote sensing data collection via magnetometry and/or ground penetrating radar.

in 2017 we initiated a more substantial program of extensive survey to cover territory and range that was difficult to survey through systematic transect walking, either due to its verticality, ruggedness, or relative distance from our core survey region along the Kasakh River’s main trunk. In order to identify potential areas for extensive survey with high site potential, we utilized two primary methods. The first, involved “manual” scanning of the project’s Pleiades satellite imagery of the Upper Kasakh Valley, including the arable valley tracts, Tsaghkunyats foothills, and the eastern slopes of Mt. Aragats. Limited work in site identification and gound-truthing during the 2016 field season familiarized us with the imagery colors, textures, and patterns associated with various types of fortification, habitation, and mortuary sites. Thus, we were able to pre-identify sites for 2017 ground-truthing and verify them through extensive survey during the field season (e.g., Dzoraglukh 2). Our second extensive survey method combined this approach with the use of the Armenian Commission for the Preservation of Monuments online site list. The List, while somewhat dated and speculative, provided general geographic parameters for identifying the broad, likely locations of prehistoric and historic sites, which were then cross-referenced with Pleiades imagery in order to evaluate the degree of preservation and find potential. Sites identified in this manner included Aver Berd and numerous Medieval and Modern settlements, churches, and cemeteries throughout the survey area.

For the photogrammetric component of our aerial survey, we employed Pix4Dmapper Pro software package, a tool that uses drone-derived aerial photos to generate 3D models and orthomosaic images. We used Pix4D Capture mobile app on the iPad to pre-program the drone’s flight transects; with a battery life of 15-20 minutes, we typically were able to fly 200 x 200m missions, acquiring 65-95 photos per mission. When the photos are downloaded and processed in Pix4Dmapper, the resulting 3D models can be used to create topographic and site feature maps for purposes of GIS-based documentation, site monitoring, and research planning. Arshaluys Mkrtchyan worked as drone operator, data manager, and image interpreter.

KVAS’s ongoing research is focused on the mapping, data analysis, and publication of the 2014-2017 investigations. Future efforts will be directed to expanded landscape sampling and test excavations throughout the upper Kasakh River Valley.