Tirinkatar in Armenia in the Running for UNESCO World Heritage Status

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Prehistoric site is currently being researched by archaeologists from Freie Universität Berlin

In 2012, archaeologists from Freie Universität Berlin came across mysterious stones in the mountains of the South Caucasus. Known as vishaps ("dragon stones"), these large stelae are approximately five meters in height and are famously found in the high mountains of Armenia. An international team led by Arsen Bobokhyan (National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia), Alessandra Gilibert (Ca’ Foscari University, Venice), and Pavol Hnila (Freie Universität Berlin) has been investigating the site since 2012. Around 150 of these basalt monuments have been discovered across the South Caucasus region and eastern Turkey - with twelve of them (the largest concentration known to date) located at Tirinkatar, a site on the southern slopes of Mount Aragats. While investigating, researchers found additional archaeological evidence (stone circles, petroglyphs, temporary settlements) that points to the significance of the area as a space for pastoral, cultural and funeral practices dating back six millennia. The vishaps and the cultural landscape of Tirinkatar (also known as Karmir Sar) covers approximately 370 hectares, and the site was submitted to UNESCO’s Tentative List early this year by the Armenian government: https://whc.unesco.org/en/­tentativel­ists/6702/ . The archaeological research taking place at Tirinkatar could result in it being one of the few prehistoric sites to be nominated for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage Site List.

"Despite the fact that many sites and monuments have been discovered and investigated in Armenia in the past thirty years, this is the country’s first submission to the Tentative List since 1995, which highlights the unique nature of the findings, the special location of the stones, and the many years of research fueling this decision," says archaeologist Pavol Hnila, researcher at Freie Universität Berlin’s Institute of Ancient Near Eastern Studies and codirector of the excavations taking place at Tirinkatar.

The largest concentration of vishaps, or dragon stones, found to date is at Tirinkatar, a site located 2,850 meters above sea level on Mount Aragats, Armenia’s tallest mountain. Despite what their name suggests, these basalt stelae do not depict images of dragons, but rather fish or rams, or sometimes a mixture of both. These dragon stones are found not just in Armenia, but also in southern Georgia and eastern Turkey. However, the stones found in Tirinkatar are particularly unique due to the sheer number of them, as well as the archaeological context in which they are situated. To date, Tirinkatar is the only archaeological site where dragon stones have been methodically excavated in their original context.

Scientists believe that the vishaps’ significance is religious in nature, and tied to beliefs and practices related to water. However, the specific details surrounding their creation are still unknown.

When dating the stelae, the research team made a breakthrough after almost ten years’ work on the site. "The vishaps were created around 6,000 years ago, meaning that they are the oldest examples of monumental art in the entire Caucasus region. This means that Tirinkatar serves as a unique example of complex religious traditions, as well as for the settlement and cultural development of the South Caucasian highlands in prehistoric times," explains Hnila.

In addition to the dragon stones, Tirinkatar provides a wealth of knowledge surrounding cult, funeral, and settlement practices in the region dating from the Stone Age to the modern day, granting scholars an expansive overview of human activity in the South Caucasian highlands across time. Interestingly, archaeologists have yet to find evidence of certain time periods at Tirinkatar. The project "High Mountains as Cultural Landscape: An Inquiry on Interrelations between Pastoralism, Cult, and Climate Change in Prehistoric Armenia," led by Hnila and based at Freie Universität Berlin, aims to shed more light on these lesser-known time periods. Funded by the German Research Foundation, this project tests the hypothesis that prehistoric pastoralists frequented the high mountains during several long-term cycles and examines how these cycles correlate with changes in the climate.

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