Dzhantukh Burial Ground in Abkhazia

The Dzhantukh Burial Ground dating to the Late Bronze – Early Iron Age is located in a mountain area of South-Eastern Abkhazia on Mount Dzhantukh near the Village of  Akarmara (Town of Tkuarchal) at the gorge of the Aaldzga (Galidzga) River. This spectacular site was explored periodically by a team of Abkhazian archaeologists in 1981, 1983 and 1985. The site drew much more attention from local treasure-seekers and a substantial part of the burial ground was destroyed.

In 2006 a joint expedition of the Institute of Archaeology, RAS (A.Yu. Skakov), the D.I. Gulia Abkhazian Institute of Humanitarian Research, Abkhasian Academy of Sciences, and the Abkhazian State Museum (A.I. Dzhopua) began excavations at Dzhantukh. Since then the site has been annually explored (since 2009 the excavations have been supported by the grants of the Russian Foundation for Humanities). Six burial pits (one pit has two layers) and two individual burials in shaft-pit graves have been thoroughly examined. The sites explored are dated to the 13th –11th centuries BC (the lower layer of burial pit 6), the 9th century BC (burials 2 and 3), the turn of the 7th century BC (the upper layer of burial pit 6), the 7th–5th centuries BC (burial pit 7), the 5th–3rd centuries BC (burial pits 3–5, and 8). Presently a sophisticated burial and memorial complex consisting of stone pavements and a burial pit that was used between the 6th and the 2nd centuries BC is being examined. Some finds suggest that earlier burial pits apparently dating to the first half of the 2nd millennium BC might be located in the burial ground as well.

Traditionally, Abkhazia sites dating to the early–mid-1st millennium BC are attributed to the Colchian culture, but distinctive features of the Dzhantukh Burial Ground that exhibit clear similarities with the Koban sites from the northern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range make the archaeologists rethink their conclusions. Currently it is assumed that there existed a Koban-Colchis cultural and historical society, and a number of kinship groups or at least related archaeological cultures are singled out within this society. One of such cultures is the Inguri-Rion culture that occupied modern Western Georgia and Eastern Abkhazia (Ancient Colchis). A local variant, represented by the Dzhantukh Burial Ground and a number of other sites, is singled out within this culture.

First of all, this archaeological culture is noted for its use of a second burial rite when human remains were interred in collective cremation burial pits long after people’s death. It is now clear that this burial rite developed in Colchis not at the turn of the 6th or the 8th century BC, as has been considered until recently, but much earlier. At first bodies were cremated somewhere else, but starting from the 7th–5th centuries BC bodies were cremated in situ. The site has revealed another previously unknown specific feature of the Cholchian burial rite such as arrangement of hidden pits on the bottom of the burials filled with burned bronze and iron implements. Classical texts say that dead Colchians were placed on the trees in sacred groves. During Greek colonization the ‘second burial’ rite persisted only in Inner Colchis; therefore, stories on this rite could reach ancient authors via two ways, i.e. either as sketchy accounts about mountaineers of the Greater Caucasus or legendary motifs attributed to the first Ancient Greek settlers and related to the period of the Argonauts. Apparently, that is the main reason why all classical written sources say nothing about the burial of the remains after the dead body was put on display.

Distinctive features of the burial ground are reflected in ceramics that somehow preserved their Cholchian ‘look’ and practically in all main groups of grave offerings such as unique ornamented bone beads, numerous bronze zoomorphic statuettes, various pendants, bracelets, and torcs. Of special interest are gold items, for example, a pendant shaped as a little ram of a high artistic value and a local imitation of a stater of Alexander the Great.

The amount of materials collected in recent years is enormous; a whole range of issues can be addressed from a new angle thanks to the finds at Dzhantukh. For example, new data change our understanding of such issues as the links between the early nomads and the Koban and Cholchian populations; the Trans-Caucasian contacts in ancient times; drivers of Cholchian culture development and the role of the Central Caucasian impact in this process. New information demonstrating how goods imported from classical lands penetrated into the mountain areas of the Western Caucasus is interesting because such goods are found in relatively large quantities at Dzhantukh. Archaic features of both the grave offerings and the burial rite at Dzhantukh that have preserved many characteristics and elements of the cultures, which disappeared from the sites located in the lowlands and piedmont areas are worth mentioning.

A.Yu. Skakov

Digital Version of the Booklet