Neutron Activation Analysis on Tsaghkahovit Plain pottery

Integral to Project ArAGATS’s ongoing investigations is a chemical characterization study of ancient materials, including obsidian and ceramics. These investigations are shedding new light on material flows amongst communities of the Tsaghkahovit Plain during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Chemical characterization of pottery is a common means for addressing how political economies were organized in early complex societies and can provide insight to the negotiation of group identity and political dynamics. Neutron activation analysis (NAA) is a particularly efficient sourcing technique that provides a high-precision determination of concentrations of major, minor, and trace elements in a variety of geological materials, including clay, chert, and obsidian, all of which are common raw materials used to make archaeological artifacts.


In the reconstruction of ceramic distribution patterns, NAA aids in tracing artifacts (e.g., ceramics) back to their original raw material sources through the identification of shared chemical signatures, thereby illuminating patterns of circulation, production, and consumption. In Armenia, sourcing techniques that rely on chemical characterization are of particular value since there are currently no morphological or decorative elements among Lchashen-Metsamor horizon ceramics that can be used to trace LBA pots back to a territory of origin since they are relatively homogenous in style and construction technology. Our NAA samples were analyzed at the University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR) and the now-decommissioned Ford Nuclear Reactor at the University of Michigan.

Our research into the flows of pottery is comprised of three complementary NAA, petrography, and microscopy studies of the geochemistry and microstructure of pottery collected at the sites of Gegharot, Hnaberd, and Tsaghkahovit fortresses (Greene 2012; Lindsay et al. 2008; Smith et al. 2004, 2009). Our pottery circulation studies have thus far involved over 400 sherd samples from the sites of and samples from 20 workable clay sources inside the Tsaghkahovit Plain and in surrounding valleys, identifying three compositional groups. All three groups were well represented in the pottery recovered from Gegharot while assemblages from other sites across the Tsaghkahovit Plain, such as Hnaberd and Tsaghkahovit, were more restricted to local clays. Specifically, over three-quarters of the pottery from Tsaghkahovit and Hnaberd were made from their local clay sources, but at Gegharot the inverse is true; approximately 80 percent of the pottery was produced elsewhere. In other words, it appears that goods were moving into Gegharot far more than they were moving out to other contemporary fortresses, indicating a significant asymmetry in local exchange relationships possibly in the context of religious offerings, obligations, or tributes to hilltop shrines that were first uncovered at Gegharot in 2003.

These results echo the analysis of survivorship patterns among the faunal remains recovered at Gegharot where the kill-off patterns of sheep and goats suggest that the Late Bronze Age occupants of the Gegharot fortress did not manage their own herds but were instead supplied with meat or live animals from other sites, further reinforcing the impression of goods flowing into the fortress from outside. Given the presence of ritual spaces and large bone middens at Gegharot, it seems likely that the animals were contributed as ritual offerings or obligatory contributions to the shrines. The asymmetrical flow of goods observable at Gegharot, and their implications for the development of political economies, ritual practices, and the movements of goods and people during the Late Bronze Age, provide useful hypotheses to test in our ongoing research at other forts in upper Kasakh River valley such as Aragatsi Berd and Mirak.

For further details, download the following references:

Greene, A.F., (2012). Where pottery and politics meet: mundane objects and complex political life in the Late Bronze Age South Caucasus. In: Hartley, C., Smith, A.T., Yazıcıog˘lu, G.B. (Eds.), Regimes and Revolutions: Power, Violence, and Labor in Eurasia between the Ancient and the Modern: Proceedings of the Third University of Chicago Conference on Eurasian Archaeology. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp. 302–322.

Lindsay, I., Minc, L., Descantes, C., Speakman, R.J., Glascock, M.D., (2008). Exchange patterns, boundary formation, and sociopolitical change in Late Bronze Age southern Caucasia: preliminary results from a pottery provenance study in northwestern Armenia. Journal of Archaeological Science 35, 1673–1682.

Smith, A.T., Badalyan, R., Avetisyan, P., Zardaryan, M., Hayrapetyan, A., Minc, L., Monahan, B., (2004). Early complex societies in southern Caucasia: a preliminary report on the 2002 investigations of Project ArAGATS on the

Tsakahovit Plain, Republic of Armenia. American Journal of Archaeology 108, 1–41.

Smith, A.T., Badalyan, R.S., Avetisyan, P., (2009). The Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies I: Regional Survey in the Tsaghkahovit Plain, Armenia. Oriental Institute Publications, Chicago.

©2018 by Ian Lindsay