From the Field: SHAPS Students in the Southern Caucasus

Staff and students from Melbourne University’s archaeology fieldwork intensive subject in Georgia were pleasantly surprised when the Australian Ambassador to Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, Marc Innes-Brown, and Second Secretary, Andrew Cooper, visited the site during the 2019 excavation season. The Ambassador shared his impressions of the visit with Larissa Tittl.

The Ambassador was struck by both the beauty of the setting and the constructive nature of the collaboration between the University of Melbourne team and their Georgian colleagues: “I was delighted to be able to visit so many enthusiastic students and faculty at the University of Melbourne archaeology dig in remote Georgia,” he said. “High in the mountains, Australians and Georgians were working side by side, revealing the history of this spectacular landscape and building friendships.”

Working hard under a cloudy Georgian summer sky, 2019. Photographer: Marc Innes-Brown via Twitter

Georgian-Australian excavation teams have been working in Georgia since 2008, and in the southwest since 2012. This collaboration between the University of Melbourne and the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi sits under the banner of the Georgian-Australian Investigations in Archaeology (GAIA) project.

The southern Caucasus (modern Georgia) has a long history of human habitation. The area around Rabati (and Chobareti, a nearby site) has been continuously occupied from around 3500 BCE to the nineteenth century, covering the Bronze and Iron Ages, the Medieval period and the cusp of the Ottoman Empire. Together with their Georgian colleagues, the GAIA project was pioneered by the late Professor Tony Sagona and Dr Claudia Sagona. More details about this project are available in this article.

Black burnished drinking cup, Bedeni period (Middle Bronze Age, circa second half of the third millennium BCE), found during the 2016 Rabati excavations. Photographer: Antonio. Sagona. ‘Archaeology at the Mountain Top’, ARTiculations, 2016
Ambassador Marc Innes-Brown peruses some Georgian ceramics excavated at the site, 2019. Photograph courtesy Marc Innes-Brown via Twitter

Associate Professor Andrew Jamieson has continued Tony Sagona’s work on this project. Each northern summer, he leads an intensive program for third-year archaeology students at the site. Students receive a hands-on introduction to vital excavation skills and techniques, all the while embedded in a stunning Georgian summer landscape.

The Ambassador acknowledged the excavation’s success, both as a site of learning for archaeology students and as a place where close bonds are formed: “Associate Professor Andrew Jamieson and the rest of his team are to be commended for providing this extraordinary opportunity. I hope that the digging and the friendships continue on into the future”.

The two diplomatic visitors left heartfelt messages in the Visitors Book, with Second Secretary, Andrew Cooper, noting that the visit was “particularly special” to him as a University of Melbourne alumnus. Ambassador Innes-Brown also tweeted about his visit, no doubt propelling the team and the site to global acclaim!

Ambassador Marc Innes-Brown’s entry in the Visitors Book, 2019. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson.
The Georgian-Australian Rabati excavation team, with Ambassador Marc Innes-Brown (in the light blue shirt) standing in the centre, and Associate Professor Andrew Jamieson (in the dark blue shirt) just to the right of the centre, 2019. Photograph courtesy Marc Innes-Brown via Twitter

It is well known in archaeological circles that no site is complete without a resident canine archaeologist and, here too, Rabati does not disappoint.

Basa, or as he is called by the team, Professor Basa, adopted one of the site’s associated survey teams, following them to the dig house from another village. Professor Basa was honoured to accept a position with the family from which the GAIA team rents the excavation compound. University of Melbourne PhD graduate, Dr Aleks Michalewicz, notes that “[Professor Basa] is SUCH a good dog!” She fondly remembers the late Professor Tony Sagona showering his canine colleague with ‘special treats’ and always leaving a bag of dog food behind at the end of each season.

Rabati’s resident canine excavator, Professor Basa, oversees work in the trench, 2019 Photographer: Paula Philips

The 2019 excavation season was definitely one to remember for the students involved, with comments in the Visitors Book highlighting their enthusiasm: “an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life”; “a great site with amazing people”; “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”; “an authentic archaeological opportunity”. The field school’s success is a testament to the vision and hard work of both the Melbourne and Georgian teams, with the intensive providing vital practical archaeological experience to students and a dynamic and collaborative project in the southern Caucasus.

Feature image: The stunning landscape of southern Georgia. View southwest from the site of Chobareti (near Rabati), looking down on Zveli village, home to the archaeological team during the field season, 2016. Photographer: Antonio Sagona. Source: ‘Archaeology at the Mountain Top’, ARTiculations, September 2016.