University of Melbourne students excavating at Rabati, 2023. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson

Rabati 2023: Report on Georgian-Australian Investigations in Archaeology

The Georgian-Australian Investigations in Archaeology (GAIA) project is a research collaboration between the Georgian National Museum and the University of Melbourne. GAIA was established by the late Emeritus Professor Antonio Sagona and Dr Claudia Sagona. SHAPS’s Andrew Jamieson reports here on the 2023 season of the GAIA dig at Rabati, with contributions from Brian Armstrong, Giorgi Bedianashvili, Catherine Longford, Abby Robinson, Claudia Sagona and Martin Tomko.

This year we arrived in Georgia on Thursday 15 June. The next day in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, we met with Professor Dr David Lordkipanidze, Director of the Georgian National Museum and colleagues from the museum’s Centre for Archaeology. The 2023 season was eight weeks in duration: six weeks of excavation (19 June to 30 July) and two weeks of post-excavation analysis and collections management (31 July to 12 August).

Ancient Rabati is located on the northern side of the modern village of Zveli, which is situated between the larger towns of Akhaltsikhe and Aspindza in southwest Georgia. The upper Kura (Mtkvari) River basin largely defines this area, flowing towards the northeast through the deep, narrow gorge between the Javakheti Plateau and the Erusheti volcanic mountains. Zveli sits on a flat highland plain at the edge of these mountains, at an altitude of approximately 1480 metres above sea level and bordered by forest that leads up to highland pastures. From the summit of the site there are uninterrupted views east and west along the valley.

Aerial image of the summit at Rabati with remains of fortifications walls in the foreground, 2023. Photographer: Giorgi Bedianashvili


The archaeological excavations at Rabati settlement in 2023 brought to light several significant findings that contribute to our understanding of the Caucasus region and its adjacent areas.

The most remarkable of these is the massive stone structures, dating to the Early Bronze Age (c3000–2500 BCE) specifically attributed to the Kura-Araxes culture (c2500–2000 BCE), and featuring walls that extend over 20 metres in length. This finding suggests complex and advanced architectural development during that time.

The Kura-Araxes structures were subsequently superimposed by deposits from the Early Kurgan period. Rabati stands out as a one-off site where this period is represented by two distinct phases, clearly visible in the stratigraphy. This provides a unique opportunity to study the evolution of cultural practices and architectural techniques during this period.

Aerial image of the central (top) and western (bottom) excavation areas, 2023. Photographer: Giorgi Bedianashvili

Unlike other settlements in the South Caucasus, where the post-Early Kura-Araxes culture is mostly associated with barrows (burial mounds), Rabati has provided evidence of the Bedeni (c2500–2000 BCE) and later Trialeti (c2000–1600 BCE) cultures in a settlement context. This attests to the diverse ways in which these Early Kurgan cultures manifested across different types of sites.

The continuous occupation of Rabati settlement over millennia very well reflects the cultural dynamics and interactions during the Early and Middle Bronze Ages in the Caucasus region.

In addition to the findings from earlier periods, the archaeological excavations also uncovered structures from the medieval period; notably, one-metre-wide walls dating from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries CE, which are believed to be part of the fortification system of Rabati. This suggests the site’s strategic importance and its role in defence during this era.

Providing Students with Archaeological Training Opportunities

This season University of Melbourne undergraduates Edan MacCartney, Elizabeth Tetaz, Hannah Lewis, Mark Krezner, Miette Welsh, Nadino Kivarkis, Orla Christie, Peggy Lucas, Raff Netley, Sarah Johnston, Yilin Chen and Zeejay Tan participated in the fieldwork at Rabati.

University of Melbourne students excavating at Rabati, 2023. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson

Processing Finds at the Dig House

Thanks to the great efforts of team members who assisted with the processing of finds from Rabati, substantial progress was made on all fronts. Overall, 486 bags of pottery, including last year’s finds, were sorted into ware types, weighed and counted, and targeted loci recovered from the site this season. This greatly added to the tally which has been accumulating since work began at Rabati in 2016.

Every step along the way, from the careful excavation and the processing of finds in the workroom, including inking, drawing and photography of the diagnostic pottery and other artefacts, has contributed in a significant way to the overall success of the season and the value of these various aspects should not be underestimated.

University of Melbourne student Miette Welsh recording artefacts in the dig house at Rabati, 2023

It was a delight that so many helped with the illustration of objects: from the enigmatic pottery discs fashioned from pottery fragments to the quantities of bone and lithic tools to the numerous significant ceramic examples designated RSPF (Rabati Special Pottery Finds). Others managed the flow of finds including bone, obsidian, artefacts, grinding stones, 14C samples and so on, which accumulated at the end of every day. The steady cleaning, organisation and management of these finds are vital.

Most importantly, these efforts have helped in the process of building the narrative of how people lived in Rabati through many centuries of occupation. Not least of all, we now have significant data clarifying the nature of the long Bedeni cultural sequence in a settlement context, from its fledgling days to its final stages. Similarly, we have made some inroads into defining the Trialeti culture which followed at Rabati.

Selected Key Artefacts

During the 2023 season large quantities of artefacts were found, made from pottery, obsidian and bone. These included obsidian arrow heads, flint sickle blades, bone needles and points, and wooden combs and ceramic spindle whorls. Circular discs in different sizes made from modified pottery sherds appeared in large numbers. The frequency and regularity of these items suggest a special function – possibly they were used as weights or counters. Other finds included Ottoman ceramic pipe fragments and a fragment of zoomorphic vessel made of fine orange burnished ware.

Bronze Age flint sickle blades
Bronze Age ceramic spindle whorls (L) and bone points and needles (R)
Ottoman clay pipe fragments (L) and Bronze Age obsidian arrows (R)
Bronze Age comb
Ottoman/Medieval embossed bronze disc (L) and Zoomorphic vessel (R)
Different sized ceramic discs (possibly weights or counters)
Reconstructed pots (medieval left, Bronze Age right)
Early Bronze Age cooking pot (L) and Peggy Lucas holding reconstructed Trialeti pot (R). All images in this section, 2023. Photographer: Mirian Tabukashvili

Survey Team

The survey team, consisting of Brian Armstrong and Martin Tomko from the University of Melbourne’s Infrastructure Engineering department, had a busy season at Rabati! Initial works included the rectification of the archaeological site grid, quality control checks and the emplacement of permanent concrete surveying markers for accurate layouts for the coming seasons.

University of Melbourne surveyors Brian Armstrong and Martin Tomko, 2023. Photographer: Mirian Tabukashvili

In addition, various surveys were conducted of the site and surrounding valley using a drone, with several different outputs produced, including 3D models and digital elevation models, highly useful for ongoing planning and archaeological landscape analysis. The drone was also used for video documentation of the site and its surrounds, as well as for producing educational and instructional content for students to train in the use of surveying total stations.

Aerial images of the summit at Rabati, Georgia, showing survey markers, 2023. Photographer: Brian Armstrong

Survey works were also conducted at the new dig house, with internal and external spaces mapped for the project by architect Jana Tomko. Initial design plans for the house have been completed by Jana, with the broader team excited about the prospects for working and staying at Rabati well into the future! The survey team loved their time in Georgia and look forward to an ongoing partnership with the project. There are incredible prospects for future work, with plans being made for laser scanning of some subsurface tunnels and continued mapping of the wider landscape. Next season can’t come soon enough!

Lidar image of the summit at Rabati, showing survey markers, 2023. Photographer: Brian Armstrong

Archaeobotanical Analysis

Archaeobotany, the analysis of plant remains from archaeological sites, can provide insights into ancient diets, agriculture, fuel use, vegetation history and past climates. As part of the archaeological investigations at Rabati, we continued our archaeobotanical research. Soil samples were collected from all trenches and were processed by flotation at the dig house in Zveli. This year we processed over 40 samples, totalling close to 1,000 litres of soil. The charred plant remains will be studied by Dr Catherine Longford at the University of Sheffield, UK, whose grant from the British Institute at Ankara funded the archaeobotanical fieldwork.

Charred plant remains from flotation, 2023. Photographer: Catherine Longford

While at Rabati, Catherine and palynologist Dr Inga Martkoplishvili, from the Georgian National Museum, visited the Elkana Seed Ark farm near Akhaltsikhe, where endemic Georgian crops are preserved and cultivated for reintroduction across the country. Elkana is a Georgian bioorganic farming collective, which aims to promote traditional Georgian crops, farming methods and agrotourism. Catherine and Inga were delighted to meet the consultants at Elkana, who showed them test fields of five endemic Georgian wheats and also gave them grain samples of the rare Georgian crops to help with their research. The visit was very stimulating and could potentially lead to fruitful collaborations with Elkana to both investigate ancient agriculture and promote sustainable farming in the Caucasus using our archaeological data from Rabati.

Catherine Longford and Inga Martkoplishvili’s visit to Elkana, Georgia, 2023. Photographer: Catherine Longford

PhD Research

Cassandra Kiely, a SHAPS Classics and Archaeology PhD candidate, is investigating Rabati’s medieval remains (i.e., architecture, ceramics, etc.) and related comparative data from the Meskhet-Javakheti region of southwest Georgia for her doctorate. Cass is the 2023 Antonio Sagona Scholarship recipient; the grant supports costs associated with overseas travel for a graduate research student focusing on Near Eastern archaeology. Joining Cass this season at Rabati were daughter, Violet, and partner, Lee.

(L) PhD candidate Cass Kiely with daughter, Violet, at Rabati, Georgia, 2023. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson. (R) Medieval pottery from Rabati, Georgia, 2023. Photographer: Claudia Sagona


At the end of every season, the site is protected from the elements during our absence. Tarpaulins and sugar bags filled with earth are used to cover and reinforce the trenches.

Tarpaulins and sugar bags protect the site at the end of the season, Rabati, Georgia, 2023. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson

Artefact Repository

All the artefacts from Rabati are stored in a repository in Tbilisi. At the end of this season, we were able to organise and curate the material, improving access to the collection. Post extraction, the GAIA project recognises the importance of archaeological collections management practices.

The Artefact Repository, Rabati, Georgia, 2023. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson

Ambassadorial Visit and Support

During the 2023 season the new Georgian Ambassador to Australia, Beka Dvali, visited Rabati (12 July). It was a great opportunity to show him the excavations and some of the recent finds. Accompanying Beka was his wife, Nino Lezhava Dvali, Vakhtang Makaridze also from the Embassy, and Mikheil Makaridze local representative.

To further and foster the Georgian-Australian cooperation, discussions are underway about a possible exhibition in Australia that will feature aspects of Georgian history and culture, including the origins of winemaking in Georgia.

Georgian Ambassador to Australia, Beka Dvali (second from left), visits Rabati on 12 July 2023. Photographer: Mirian Tabukashvili

Other initiatives have also been proposed, involving support for Georgian students to undertake postgraduate research at the University of Melbourne.

The GAIA project is also pleased to report enthusiastic support from the Australian Ambassador to Georgia (based in Ankara), Miles Armitage. The DFAT web page for Georgia has been updated and now mentions the GAIA project:

One of the strongest cultural links is the Georgian-Australian Investigations in Archaeology project, a collaboration between the University of Melbourne and the Georgian National Museum, running since 2008.

Cameron House

The GAIA project was very fortunate to receive a major donation to secure a base for our operations at Rabati/Zveli. Significant progress was made on the new dig house, named Cameron House.

The old asbestos roof was replaced with a new galvanized tin roof. A large, paved terrace and stone wall were constructed using locally sourced basalt. Stairs were added to the front of the property. The basement was fitted with two steel doors. Windows were repaired. Electrical wiring was replaced. Water was connected to the property. A gate was installed at the perimeter and the local council graded the road, improving vehicular access.

Cameron House, the dig house at Rabati, 2023. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson

Architect Jana Tomkova created a master plan to help guide the development of the new dig house. The plan includes a design for an extensive new dormitory to accommodate students and project members.

Plans for the new dig house at Rabati, Georgia, developed by Jana Tomkova

Rabati 2023 team members (listed alphabetically by participant surname)

Dig team at the 2023 Rabati Dig, Georgia. Photographer: Photographer: Mirian Tabukashvili

Mohamed Alsamsam, cultural attaché

Dr Brian Armstrong, Infrastructure Engineering University of Melbourne

Dr Giorgi Bedianashvili, co-director, Georgian National Museum

Dan Bolitho, student, University of Melbourne

Yilin Chen, student, University of Melbourne

Orla Christie, student, University of Melbourne

Giorgi Gogoladze, archaeologist, trench supervisor

Anthony Gowans, archaeologist, trench supervisor

Kerri Grant, trench archaeologist, supervisor

Dr Heather Jackson, ceramicist, University of Melbourne

Associate Professor Andrew Jamieson, co-director, University of Melbourne

Sarah Johnston, student, University of Melbourne

Cassandra Kiely, PhD candidate, University of Melbourne (+ daughter, Violet Parker, and partner, Lee Parker)

Nadino Kivarkis, student, University of Melbourne

Mark Krezner, student, University of Melbourne

Hannah Lewis, student, University of Melbourne

Peggy Lucas, student, University of Melbourne

Dr Catherine Longford, archaeobotanist, University of Sheffield

Edan MacCartney, student, University of Melbourne

Zurab Makharadze, trench supervisor, Head of the Centre of Archaeology Georgian National Museum

Salome Markozia, archaeologist, trench supervisor

Dr Inga Martkoplishvili, palynologist, Georgian National Museum

Raff Netley, student, University of Melbourne

Abby Robinson, co-director and PhD candidate, University of Melbourne

Tornike Rostiashvili, archaeologist, trench supervisor

Dr Claudia Sagona, co-director, University of Melbourne

Amy Sandkuhl, archaeologist, trench supervisor

Richard Serle, Pitt Bequest Officer, Baillieu Library University of Melbourne

Mirian Tabukashvili, photographer

Zeejay Tan, student, University of Melbourne

Elizabeth Tetaz, student, University of Melbourne

Associate Professor Martin Tomko, Infrastructure Engineering, University of Melbourne (+ mother, Jana Tomkova, and son, Oliver Smith-Tomko)

Miette Welsh, student, University of Melbourne

View from the summit at Rabati, Georgia, overlooking the Kura River valley below. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson


GAIA would like to acknowledge with gratitude the following: Professor Dr David Lordkipanidze, Director of the Georgian National Museum, and Professor Margaret Cameron, Head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at The University of Melbourne, for their encouragement and support of this collaborative project; we are very grateful for funding from the Shota Rustaveli National Scientific Foundation of Georgia, and the British Institute at Ankara (BIAA), as well as contributions from the Antonio Sagona research fund and from private sources in Melbourne.

The outstanding generosity of Wallace Cameron and Dr Kim Wright is also greatly appreciated.

As we enter the next exciting phases of the project at Rabati, we look forward to forging new creative and financial partnerships and to welcoming many new students, researchers and visitors, from Georgia, Australia and beyond, to the site.

Fields of wildflowers at Rabati/Zveli, Georgia, July 2023. Photographer: Mohamed Alsamsam

For more: University of Melbourne students @Nadino.kv, and @Y.I.L.I.N.C showed us what a day looks like doing archaeological fieldwork at Rabati on Instagram.




Feature image: University of Melbourne students excavating at Rabati, 2023. Photographer: Andrew Jamieson