Metalsmiths of Metsamor

Taronik, Armenia
Aug 1, 2018

Astgh, the archeologist at Shengavit had fueled my interest in ancient sites dotted around present-day Armenia and I have been diligently trying to find and visit them. Baffled looks alternate with bemusement when I ask for directions to obscure sites and the poor souls at the reception of the guesthouse have begun to have a hunted look when I turn up with my map. I have sneaking suspicion they are counting the days until I leave and can no longer pester them for information.

The site near Taronik, a village close to the town of Metsamor is one of them and relatively easy to reach via a combination of marshrutkas and taxi. A line of phallic stones graces the entrance to the small museum. Some are large, some small, many of them with inscriptions carved on them. Behind the small museum is the site. The volcanic rock is riddled with troughs and scored with small holes. They are testament to a thriving center of metallurgy attested by slag heaps found at the site and evidenced by the artifacts. Metsamor was a Bronze Age city, inhabited as early as the 3rd millennia BC.

Almost all the artifacts that grace the small museum are from the site, a mind-numbing twenty-two thousand! There are tools and pendants made of bone, as well as fragments of a hearth from 3rd millennium BC. Anthropomorphic statuettes and jewelry of carnelian gracing a display date from 4th to 1st millennium. Based on the findings, the experts believe that following the decline of the Kura-Araxes culture, Metsamor too declined between 23rd to 18th century BC. But it re-emerged later.

There is pottery with its distinctive pattern and buttons, molds for metal tools and horse bridles from 15th to 13th century BC. There are shells from the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean indicating communication and trade between far-flung areas. And there are household utensils such as combs and ladles, pots and pans. Items for rituals and incense burners are plentiful.

Captured by Argishti I, it became a part of the Urartian kingdom between the 9th and 6th centuries BC. Layers of ash and signs of pillage, combined with beheaded and maimed skeletons found at the site lead experts to conjecture that the city was destroyed at the hands of the Urartians, but the importance of the site endured, and it thrived again.

Among the ornaments of gold and silver, is a gold swirl dated to the 3rd millennium BC. It is startlingly like the gold spirals I saw in the museum in Tbilisi. A pair of animal motifs from a belt from the 11th century BC bear a strange swastika-like symbol. And I wonder what, if any connection it may have with the Indian swastika. A tiny statuette of a frog has carved inscriptions in Babylonian cuneiform on its back. It tells about the successive rulers of ancient Babylon, from the end of 6th century BC to the 1st century BC. It is signed by the artist, one Ulam Buariashi. There is a carnelian cylinder stamp that shows an image from Egypt.

Clearly this site inhabited through many a millennium, was not an isolated corner or outpost. It had connections with and traded with those other ancient sites in the then-known world. The glass vials and bangles found at the site are from the 17th century AD, practically yesterday in this place with its ancient origins. The museum may be small, but it is well worth the effort and jaw-dropping in the artifacts it houses. I spent the better part of the afternoon gawking and pondering and marveling at this treasure trove.

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