The Bronze Age


The Bronze Age

Lchashen lake from hillfort 0806

The Story of the Chariots

Lake Sevan, as seen from the Lchashen hillfort. The walls in the foreground are the rebuilt walls of the hillfort.

When the level of the lake was lowered in the 1950s, an extensive barrow cemetery was revealed on the reclaimed land just below the hillfort


In 1910, the great Armenian engineer Alexander Asaro had a bright idea. 90% of the water of Lake Sevan was being lost through evaporation. Why not therefore reduce the level of the lake, and use the water extracted for agriculture – and at the same time expose a wide swathe of fertile ground around the lake. His ideas languished at first, but in the 1950s and 60s when Armenia had become part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, that great planner and master designer Joseph Stalin decided to put the idea into operation.

Indeed, inspired by this, he had other bright ideas, notably as regards the Aral Sea. Here he successfully diverted the waters of the main rivers flowing in, the Amy Darya and used the water for crop fertilisation, so that today Azerbaijan is one of the world foremost producers of cotton – and  the Aral Sea has been reduced to a mere 10% of its former size. Stalin’s other great plan, to reverse the flow of the river Ob, the 7th longest river in the world – which today flows uselessly into the Arctic Ocean, so that it flowed more usefully into the Aral Sea, never came into being. But when Stalin died, many of his boldest ideas perished with him. However the plans for Lake Sevan were at least partially successful and the level has been reduced by nearly 15m and as a result generates much electricity. Among the benefits from the lowering of the levels was the benefit to archaeology.

Lake Sevan, which is said to be the third highest lake in the world, is the only large expanse of water in landlocked Armenia. However when the level was reduced, a very extensive barrow cemetery was revealed at Lchashen (pronounced ‘Lachashen’). The contents included a number of wooden chariot burials, but because the land had been flooded, the wood was preserved, so as a result, the National Museum of Armenia in Yerevan has the finest collection of Bronze Age chariots in the world.

Lchashen cemetery 0366
The site of the Lchashen cemetery. In the foreground, the ring of stones presumably marks the kerb of one of the barrows.

The excavations at Lchashen,  undertaken by the History Museum of Armenia and the Institute of Archaeology and led by archaeologist Harutian Nakatachien are not yet fully published, but among the discoveries were sumptuous wooden catafalque carts, with the ashes of the chiefs, unique examples of arms and armour, and highly artistic sculptures of animals. The burials were made in burial chambers, the walls of which were made of slabs weighing 2 to 5 tons. The ceilings were covered by logs supported by solid wooden columns, and the vaulted roof of huge slabs was placed thereon.

The most spectacular discoveries are were more than a dozen four-wheeled and two wheeled wagons, as well as two wheeled chariots with spoked wheels – evidence that at least as early as the Bronze Age chariots were being used in the Caucasus. ‘Battle scenes with chariots give notion of the Armenian armed troops of that period’ (Hakob, this is a quote from your book: do you have a photo of these scenes?)

Two of these carts are on display in the National Museum and make one of the more spectacular displays. One of the four-wheeled wagons was a covered cart with the semicircular roof made out of withies still preserved. At the time, Prof Stuart Piggott was fascinated and included them in his classic book on The Earliest Wheeled Transport.


LLchashen chariot museumAbove. The finest of the wagons recovered from Lchashen. The four solid wheels are made from three planks of oak, while the interior is covered by a covering of withies.

Note to the right the yoke, showing that it had been pulled by oxen.

Lchashen chariot statuette

Right. One of the sculptures from from Lchashen. Does it show a chariot with the horses at the left, while to the right two figures are riding in a chariot with spoked wheels?

If so, this would be among the earliest evidence for the use of chariots, presumably in warfare.



The Bronze Age

At this point we should perhaps stand back and consider the Bronze Age of the Caucusus more generally. Prof Simonyan has recently excavated two major sites, both with very rich burials, so we must see where they fit into the Bronze Age as a whole

The Middle and Late Bronze Age marked a sharp difference from the earlier Shengavit culture. Old sites are mostly abandoned, and new sites begin.  The main feature was the advent of large numbers of sometimes very rich burials often covered by large barrows known as Kurgans, the actual burials being made in deep pits, called pit burials.

Some of these burials contain the remains of wagons or carts.  The earlier ones were four wheeled wagons, presumably hauled by oxen,  the later ones were chariots pulled by horses.  It is a matter of considerable debate as to when the changeover took place, and when horse drawn chariots were first introduced.

There is much discussion as to how far these changes, particularly the introduction of the Kurgan burials and the wagons come from the north, from Russia where Kurgan burials had long been established.  Traditionally this was seen as the coming of the Indo-Europeans though modern discussion is far less certain about this.

The type site for this period is Trialeti in Georgia to the north, where forty two barrows were excavated from 1936 – 40 in advance of a hydroelectric scheme, and a further six were excavated from 1959 – 62: the ground was waterlogged, and the remains of two wagons were preserved in pit graves, with traces of two others.

 The earliest progenitor of this period is a huge burial excavated at Maikop in southern Russia in 1897 with a rich assemblage of material including two golden bulls and two silver vessels  with animal friezes.



Cattle on pots cropped
The middle Bronze Age saw an increase in herding and animal cultivation. These illustrations found on some of the superb pottery in the Nerkin Naver barrow are presumably goats.




The Bronze Age of the Caucasus can be divided into two parts, the Middle Bronze Age from around 2,500 to 1500BC, and the Late Bronze Age from 1500 down to 900 BC.

 The earlier part contains a number of very rich burials, but  the actual cultures appear to be localised, as if there was a number of rich chieftains, all trying to outdo each other in the lavishness of their funerals.

One of the richest cemeteries of the earlier part of the Middle Bronze Age, around 23rd to 21 centuries BC, was that excavated at Karashamb. The main tomb (right) was surrounded by numerous satellite burials.

 The superb silver cup (of Iranian origin???) is now one of the treasures of the National Museum.


Kzarashamb dig
Karashamb potAbove. The central, presumably royal, burial from the Karashamb cemetery, surrounded by small satellite graves. Were these of retainers? Or were they sacrifices to accompany the burial of the king? 

Right. This  superb silver vessel found in the Karashamb cemetery may have been made in Iranian or in Babylonian workshops.





A similar cemetery of the 23rd to 20th century BC has recently been excavated by Hakob Simonyan  at Nerkin Naver (Upper Naver) where a fine range of pottery was discovered

However Hakob Simonyan has been excavating a similar cemetery of the 23rd to 20th century BC at Nerkin Naver (Upper Naver) where a fine range of pottery was discovered.

This Middle Bronze Age culture is very localised – several different ‘cultures’ can be a distinguished which vary according to which scholar you follow

 Nerkin Naver tomb
Nerkin Naver jewellery

Above The excavation of the Nerkin Naver barrow cemetery, dating to the early part of the middle Bronze Age, between the 23rd and 21st centuries BC. In the foreground is the largest of the barrows excavated

Right. One of the fine pieces of gold jewellery from the Nerkin Naver barrow



This is one of the treasures of the National Museum and is generally interpreted as being a model of the solar system (use your imagination!).  It is a casual find from an unknown source, but is generally considered to be Bronze Age.  Solar system
This masterpiece of bronze workmanship is often considered to be a model of the solar system. It is one of the treasures of the National Museum in Yerevan


In the Late Bronze Age it begins to come together and a far more homogenous culture came into being. This is the main period of the Lchashen cemetery but Hakob has been excavating a very rich site at Verin Naver, which must not be confused with nearby Nerkin Naver, because the one is Upper Naver, and the other Lower Naver.

Hakob has been excavating the cemetery since 1976 but in 2012 he found that the largest kurgan (barrow) of all lay in the line of a new road, so he just had to excavate it. This was over 50 m in diameter and 2 metres high, and proved to cover a very rich chariot burial.

 There were in fact two burial chambers, one at the centre, and a second added on at the side like a sort of pimple (I assume it was later). This smaller barrow can be seen to the left.


VN general
 The great barrow at Verin Naver as excavated. Note the smaller additional barrow to the left


This smaller chamber was surrounded by a ring of river boulders and had a sort of mini V-shaped dromos (entrance).

 At the centre was the burial chamber with a rich cremation accompanied by exotic gold jewellery, carnelian beads, and Egyptian faience, demonstrating the large-scale of international trade or rather gift exchange at this period.


 The smaller narrow at Verin Naver. Note the V-shaped  entrance passage at the bottom


There were also some highly decorated black burnished bowls. Here we see one with a burnished frieze showing dogs chasing deer.

Analysis of the soil at the centre by the University of Georgia revealed traces of flax and hemp and wool that had made the fabrics that had accompanied the central cremation


 VN vessel
A pot from the smaller barrow at Verin Naver, with frieze of dogs chasing two deer



The main chamber at the centre of the mound was approached by a passage way. The central chamber, which was cut into the bedrock, and survived to a height of six or seven rows of tuff slabs, was built round the chariot.

Nothing survived of the chariot apart from the bronze fittings, but these enable a fairly good picture to be reconstructed: horse bits, the tubular decorations of the yokes and the horn-shaped guides holding the reins in place

There were also hundreds of nail and nail-heads that may have decorated the cart

Verin Naver  tomb
.  The main burial chamber of the Verin Naver barrow. It originally contained a wagon or chariot of which only the bronze fittings survived

Of particular interest is a leather quiver attached to the chariot. Again, all that survived were two bronze hoops, but there were more than 60 arrowheads: these were extremely colourful – no doubt deliberately so, with red flint contrasting with the translucent obsidian

(Obsidian is native to Armenia: the motorway from Yerevan to Lake Sevan cuts through an obsidian mountain leaving glittering display in the sides of the motorway cutting)

VN arrowheads Nerrkin Naver plaque

Left is this superb collection of coloured arrowheads, which were presumably the tips of arrows that were placed in a quiver fastened to the side of the chariot of which two bronze rings survived.

Above. Bronze plaque from the tomb. The lower register may possibly show the lord of the beasts, a central figure being worshipped by beasts on either side.



But the greatest treasure of all was the remains of the crown or chest piece that lay under the cremation at the northern end of the chariot. This consisted of five medallions, made of bitumen but fixed in a circular bronze frame and covered with gold foil.

Since all that has survived is the black bitumen, they cannot really be appreciated so a modern replica has been prepared showing a bearded man with ringlets. One of the other medallions has a man surrounded by a circle of animal figures including a pair of rams lying on both sides of a tree of life.

Five other such medallions are known having appeared in the antiquities market: the BM, the Louvre and the Met all have one. They are usually attributed to south western Iran during the Middle Elamite period, but this is the only one from a secure archaeological context. Should they all be considered to be Armenian?

VN repliica gold medallion

Above. The replica medallion
Right. The excavator holding the actual plaque

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The centralising tendencies of the Late Bronze Age also saw an increase in the number of fortified sites – hillforts perhaps. These had begun in the Middle Bronze Age and were to reach their peak in the succeeding Urartian period of the early Iron Age.

We visited a fine example at Lake Sevan where we scrambled up a steep hillside to find the hillfort at Lchashen, overlooking the burial site.

There was also a fine hillfort at Metsamor which we have already discussed

Lchashen hillfort gate 375

Now, either onto the controversial site of Metsamor,


Onto the Iron Age when Armenia was part of the Urartian kingdom. This is considered to be the predecessor of greater Armenia and we look at the great fortified towns of Erebuni and Karmir Blur 

View through the gateway of the hillfort at Lchashen. There is a road that leads down to the left. Lake Sevan lies to the right. In the distance is the holiday resort of Sevan.