Despite possible efforts to alter the future, a greedy ancient polity went down in flames
It is unknown what words or rites seers in Armenia chanted 3,300 years ago to tell the rich ruling class what the future held, but the chambers they attempted to do their magic in contained a treasure trove of divinatory implements.
Archaeologists Adam T. Smith and graduate student Jeffrey Leon, who wrote an article for the American Journal of Archaeology, have been excavating a hilltop fortress in Gegharot, Armenia, which they think was a cult center. Smith is a professor at Cornell University.
"The logic of divination presumes that variable pathways articulate the past, present and future, opening the possibility that the link between a current situation and an eventual outcome might be altered," wrote Smith and Leon.
They concluded the chamber shrines, which contained censers, many animal bones with markings on them, horned clay idols, stamp seals and a clay basin in each chamber filled with ceramic vessels and ash, were used for divination or telling the future. They also found what are called manghals, a narrow artifact with an opening at both ends whose purpose they do not know.
The people used the shrines for about a century. Then all fortresses in the area were destroyed and the Gegharot fortress was abandoned, Smith told Live Science. There was a lot of conflict in the south Caucasus at the time as various nations or polities fought. Their attempts at telling the future apparently did them no good as the people who ruled Gegharot were probably killed in one of these wars.
The loss of the rulers may not have been a great tragedy. Consider what Smith and Leon wrote: “These new settlements testify to the emergence of a South Caucasian political tradition founded on the regularization of radical inequality, centralizing practices of economic redistribution, and new institutions of rule.”
The three shrines were under excavation from 2003 to 2011.
Smith and his team found two funnels (A and B) and two censers (C). Diviners burned substances in the censers. Manghals (D), a curious type of artifact whose purpose is uncertain, were also found.
While attempting to foresee future events, the seers and rulers may have drunk wine and burned some substances to achieve altered states of consciousness, the archaeologists concluded.
The Gegharot fortress is among several such structures built in Armenia around 3,300 years ago. "Evidence to date suggests that this coordinated process of fortress construction was part of the emergence of a single polity that built and occupied multiple sites in the region," Smith and Leon wrote in their paper.
There was no form of writing in the region at the time, so the name of the rulers and their state are not known. The team found three forms of fortunetelling at the three sites:
- Lithomancy, or the use of stones to predict future events. In a basin in one of the three chambers they found 18 small pebbles, though how they were used is unknown. "These stones appear to have been selected for their smooth, rounded shape and their color palette, which ranged from black and dark gray to white, green and red," wrote Smith and Leon.
- Osteomancy, or attempting to tell the future by using animals bones in rituals. The archaeologists found knucklebones of goats, sheep and cows that had burns and other markings. When they rolled the bones the future could be divined by seeing which side came up.
- Aleuromancy, in which the seers may have used ground flour to make dough balls that were impressed with stamp seals. Stamps and a flour-grinding arrangement were found there. "What is conspicuous about the grinding installation in the east citadel shrine is the lack of a formal oven for bread baking," they wrote. The basin "was clearly used for burning materials and certainly could have been used to bake small balls of dough, but it is unlikely that it would have been used to cook loaves of bread. One possibility (admittedly among many others) is that the stamps marked the dough that was then used for aleuromancy."
Stamp seals diviners may have used to stamp pieces of dough for use in divination.
Featured image: In a shrine in a hilltop fortress in ancient Armenia, seers may have tried for foresee of even change the future. (Adam T. Smith photo)
By Mark Miller