Diggers at work at the GAIA site, Rabati, Georgia (detail), 2022. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson

A Settlement for the Ages at Rabati, Southwest Georgia

The Rabati project is part of the long-running GAIA (Georgian-Australian Investigations in Archaeology) initiative, founded by Tony and Claudia Sagona of the University of Melbourne with collaborators from the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi.

In June and July 2022, GAIA conducted its fourth season of excavations at Rabati in the historically important and visually stunning Samtskhe-Javakheti region of southwest Georgia. Here, Andrew Jamieson from Classics & Archaeology talks with PhD student Abby Robinson about the Rabati project and recent excavations at the site.

Could you tell us a bit more about the location of the project?

Samtskhe-Javakheti is shaped by the basin of the Kura River, which cuts right through its centre. It shares modern borders with northeast Turkey and northwest Armenia. Rabati, a multi-period mound site, is located within the present-day village of Zveli. It’s on a highland plateau between the larger towns of Akhaltsikhe and Aspindza at an altitude of c1480 m above sea level – which means that even when we visit in midsummer, we still need our thermals!

Map showing the location of Rabati in Georgia and the wider region, 2018. Courtesy, Claudia Sagona

Rabati overlooks the Kura, which here flows towards the northwest through a steep and narrow ravine. In some places, the gorge widens slightly to create small riverside valley floors. Through the centuries, the corridor formed in this way was simultaneously thoroughfare and barrier: a pathway for transporting people, goods and ideas but also an obstacle to movement across and up to the highlands on either side.

So, the views are good?

Yes, as you will have gathered, the terrain relief in this area is very pronounced. As well as the long northwest–southeast views along the river valley, Rabati’s position offers sweeping vistas across the Kura of the Trialeti mountains in the north and the Javakheti plateau to the northeast. Behind us, to the southwest, are the Erusheti mountains, which extend into Turkey and are cut by numerous deep gorges. The photographs accompanying this post will give you a taste of the scenery around the site, but you need to be there to fully appreciate the beauty of it.

View along the Kura valley, Georgia, looking southeast, 2022. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson

What sort of site is Rabati and what’s there now?

Rabati was a fortified settlement, as shown by remains at the site of a substantial stone wall that likely once completely encircled it. Signs that this wall was rebuilt several times are one clue that the settlement was inhabited for many centuries; more evidence of its longevity was provided by two giants of Georgian archaeology, Tariel Chubunishvili and Otar Gambashidze, who briefly investigated Rabati in the 1970s. Their work, combined with later surface survey, indicated that occupation of the site spanned the Chalcolithic to the medieval era (in other words, from c5000/4800 BCE–1200 CE). To us, all indications were therefore that it could supply cultural deposits from the Chalcolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and medieval periods, providing a rare opportunity to study continuity and change in settlement patterns, pottery production, subsistence strategies, and social and economic structures over the longue durée.

Overhead photograph of the excavation site, showing the central and western areas, and the fortification wall along the ridge, 2019. Photographer: Giorgi Bedianashvili

Who makes up the team at Rabati, and what are their jobs?

My co-directors are Giorgi Bedianashvili from the Georgian National Museum, and Claudia Sagona from the University of Melbourne. As well as managing the project year-round at the Georgian end, during the field season, Giorgi runs the excavation on the ground. Back at the dig house, Claudia applies her vast knowledge of the ceramics of the southern Caucasus and eastern Turkey to artefact analysis. She is assisted in her work by our University of Melbourne colleague Heather Jackson, a highly respected pottery specialist in her own right. Other specialists involved in sampling, analysis and publication include palynologist Inga Martkoplishvili, archaeobotanist Catherine Longford and bone tools expert Jarrad Paul. My job is to bring all their contributions together within a robust interpretative framework, as well as to look after the financial and administrative aspects of the project.

Claudia Sagona shows the Australian ambassador to Georgia, Miles Armitage, some of the key pottery finds, 2022. The ambassador’s visit was a highlight of the 2022 season, and we thank him for his support. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson

We are also fortunate to work with several archaeologists from the Georgian National Museum each year, who join postgraduate and undergraduate students from the University of Melbourne in the field. Our team is completed by our driver, Zurab, and the people of Zveli, who assist in many and various ways at both the excavation site and the dig house, generously sharing their local knowledge at every point.

Can you give us a couple of examples of interesting things you found while excavating?

The excavations have so far been concentrated in two locations on the mound: the central and the western parts of the summit. Architectural highlights include, in the central area, a very unusual and very large drystone building that has been C14-dated to the Early Bronze Age. In the west, Middle Bronze Age remains incorporate pits and fragments of plaster surfaces – until now, this period in the Caucasus has been almost exclusively known through burials, so it’s exciting to identify its remnants in another kind of context.

Diggers at work onsite at the GAIA excavation, 2022. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson

We’ve recovered large quantities of ceramics, bone and obsidian across the site, as well as charcoal and organic samples. Carbon samples have been analysed at two laboratories and produced four absolute dates for the Early Bronze Age at Rabati; these fell within the range 3039–2630 BCE, when the widespread and enduring Kura-Araxes culture was at its peak. The radiocarbon evidence also confirms the Middle Bronze Age (Bedeni culture) presence at Rabati, with C14 readings from 2466–1864 BCE.

Loom weights and bone and antler tools found at the GAIA excavation site. See image below for find sites

Because there are no walls, burnt timbers or post holes associated with the Middle Bronze Age plastered surfaces, we think these were open-air activity spaces. The many bone tools and loom weights we’ve found there, as well as, importantly, traces of fibres in soil samples and in the residue on artefacts suggest these spaces were used for manufacturing textiles. Palynological (NPP) analysis has revealed that flax and cannabis (hemp) predominated, but the samples also contained cotton fibres – the first time that remnants of cotton textile have been discovered at a Middle Bronze Age/Bedeni-period site in Georgia. Twisted and coloured fibres observed in the samples point to spinning and dyeing.

Aerial view of trench D9 (bottom) with the find spots of loom weights and bone and antler tools, in the above figure, marked, 2019. Photographer: Giorgi Bedianashvili

What does the future hold at the site?

As far as the excavation itself goes, our focus in forthcoming seasons will be on further investigating the stratigraphy, studying the fortification system in depth and digitally recording the site.

Beyond that, we are keen to repeat the successful undergraduate field school we ran at Rabati in 2019. And, in very exciting news, thanks to the generosity of a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, we have been able to purchase a house in the village that will become (after some renovations) our dig house. Establishing this permanent base in Zveli is one of the ways we’re securing the project’s future for many seasons to come.

Many people make up the GAIA project. Andrew thanks them all for their ongoing support. In particular, we would like to acknowledge with gratitude the following: Professor Dr David Lordkipanidze, Director of the Georgian National Museum, for his encouragement and full support of this collaborative project; the funding provided by the Shota Rustaveli National Scientific Foundation of Georgia (SRNSFG; grant number FR17-415); as well as contributions from the Antonio Sagona research fund and from private sources in Melbourne; and the assistance given in the field by all team members from Georgia, Australia and elsewhere, as well as by the local workers we employed.

The future dig house on the edge of the village, with views of Rabati, 2022. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson

Selected reports

Bedianashvili, G., Sagona, C., Longford, C., Martkoplishvili, I. with the assistance of Losaberidze, L., Kirkitadze, G., 2019. Archaeological investigations at the multi-period settlement of Rabati, southwest Georgia: Preliminary report (2016, 2018 seasons). Ancient Near Eastern Studies 56, 1–133. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2143/ANES.56.0.3286813

Bedianashvili, G., Jamieson, A., Sagona, C., 2021. The early kurgan period in Rabati, Georgia: The cultural sequence and a new suite of radiocarbon dates. Radiocarbon 63(6), 1673–1713. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/RDC.2021.56

Bedianashvili, G., Eales, L.J., Jamieson, A., Longford, C., Martkoplishvili, I., Paul, J., Sagona, C., (2022). Evidence for Textile Production in Rabati, Georgia, during the Bedeni Phase of the Early Kurgan Period, Journal of Archaeological Science. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352409X22001304

Abby Robinson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne and a member of the GAIA project, who has taken part in archaeological fieldwork in Georgia and Turkey for more than a decade. Her PhD thesis is based on extensive field surveys in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, with a focus on matters of border formation and maintenance. She is particularly interested in the roles and qualities of geographical borders: rivers, mountains, and more. As well as studying material culture, she incorporates both ancient texts and GIS spatial analysis into her work.

Andrew Jamieson is associate professor of Near Eastern archaeology and has extensive field experience in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Australia. In the mid-1990s he was involved in the UNESCO postwar salvage operations in Beirut, then for ten seasons he worked at Tell Ahmar in northern Syria. In 2015 he won the Barbara Falk Award for Teaching Excellence. Andrew has also been involved in a range of curatorial, conservation and field projects with Heritage Victoria.

He was a member of the Archaeology Advisory Committee of the Heritage Council of Victoria. In 2014 Andrew was invited to represent Australia on the SHIRĪN International Committee, a Research Initiative for the Safeguarding and Protection of Syrian Heritage. Andrew first visited Georgia in 2017, then again in 2018, and led the intensive field school and excavation season at Rabati (SW Georgia) in 2019 as director of the Georgian-Australian Investigations in Archaeology (GAIA) project.

Feature image: Diggers at work at the GAIA site, Rabati, Georgia (detail), 2022. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson