Bronze-Age Sites in the North-Western Caucasus

The study of Bronze-Age sites in the piedmont and mountain zones of the North-western Caucasus and the adjacent regions of the Black Sea coast is a traditional research focus for the Institute of Archaeology. An expedition team from the Institute has been working there since 1979. In recent years field work has been concentrated at the interesting and unusual sites of the megalithic dolmen culture of the Caucasus, which modern scholars would date to the III–II millennia BC. At the same time, the sources and most ancient structures, which include some of the funerary sites of the Novosvobodnenskaya Culture, can be traced back to the IV millennium BC.
Caucasian dolmens attracted the attention of Russian and European travellers as far back as the late-18th or early-19th century. Nevertheless, such important questions as the origin of the tradition or the chronology of the sites and also certain questions relating to the study of the material culture, the economy and social relations of the population, which left these sites behind it, are far from resolved. The main reasons for this are the unsatisfactory state of preservation of the structures themselves, which have deteriorated over the course of time and — to a still greater degree — the destruction of the funerary complexes arranged inside the dolmens, resulting from the multiple use of the burial chambers in the course of the Bronze and Iron Ages and, in some cases, in the Medieval period as well. Modern grave-robbers have also caused major damage to these sites.
Over the last seven years the expedition team has surveyed 22 groups of dolmens on the northern slopes of the Caucasus range in the Abinsk district of the Krasnodar Region alone and recorded more than 210 dolmens and their ruins. It has been established that many shapeless clusters of stones, which had not formerly attracted the attention of researchers, were in fact the remains of dolmens: when excavations are undertaken, they yield new often unexpected information. Together with classical structures made of flat dressed slabs of sandstone, a series of “trough-shaped” semi-monolithic structures has been surveyed: these “boxes” are made out a single boulder and covered over at the top with a flat slab providing a lid. An extremely rare and hitherto unknown specimen of a dolmen-monolith was also found cut out of a vertical rock face. The excavation of 13 dolmens carried out over a wide area provides an idea not only of the architecture of burial-chambers and of the burials contained within them, but also regarding the arrangement of structures around the dolmens conspicuous by dint of their considerable size. They include stone platforms and mounds under burial chambers and around them; dromoi adjacent to the entrances; dolmen anterooms or small courtyards paved and laid out, the sides of which were faced with stone slabs or masonry. In a number of cases examples of decorated finish for outer walls have been found, and also depictions on stone using symbolic signs (crosses in a circle, cup-shaped recesses, lines resembling snakes, etc.). A major discovery of the last few years was the find of compositions, depicting whole scenes consisting of petroglyphs calling to mind schematic human figures dancing. It should be noted that in view of how they are laid out and positioned within the structures, many depictions need to be dated to the time when the megaliths themselves were erected or when they were first being used.
The difficulties associated with dating archaeological materials found in the chambers of the dolmens, which are known from the outset to have been disturbed and to be of varying date, although it is clearly remains of burials from the end of the Middle Bronze Age (no older than the 22nd or
21st century BC), the Late Bronze Age and the so-called proto-Maeotic Culture of the Bronze/Iron Age (8th–7th centuries BC) which predominate, make it imperative for us to search for new ways to identify the time when these megalithic structures themselves were built. With this in mind, radio-carbon dating of the buried soils from under the base of the dolmens has been undertaken within the framework of a programme for palaeo-geographic research and analysis of the ancient soils conducted concurrently with the excavations carried out in conjunction with the Geography Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The results obtained for various structures within a single group — from the Gruzinka VII Burial-ground — differ from one another considerably: within the system of calibrated dates, those obtained are 33rd–20th, 28th–24th and even 17th–15th centuries BC. The collapse of the latest dolmen from this group occurred as a result of it having been washed away by a mud-flow in the period around the 8th–6th century BC. This enables us to date the end of its use to the time of the proto-Maeotic Culture.
When discussing the place of Caucasian dolmens in relation to the sites of other megalithic cultures of Eurasia, it can be noted that the similarity recorded regarding their construction and details of their arrangement has not yet progressed beyond observations relating to scattered parallels of a non-systematic variety. Yet the number of such parallels duly noted continues to grow and it would appear to be wrong to examine the actual phenomenon of the Caucasian megaliths separately from the funerary and cultic megalithic structures made of dressed stones, as represented first and foremost in the Western Mediterranean region.

A.N. Gey

Digital publication