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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Armenia

by Vahan M. Kurkjian

published by the
Armenian General Benevolent Union of America

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 3

 p6  Chapter II
Before the Dawn

Palaeolithic Age

The manufacture and use of implements and weapons have vital significance as a measure of the development of primitive man. For hundreds of thousands of years before written history began, these things were made of stone — with some additions of bone and wood in the later periods. This long span of man's existence, whose duration is estimated at anywhere from 500,000 to 1,500,000 years, is known as the Stone Age, and has by various scholars been separated into two or three epochs. An early period of manufacture has been designated by some as the Eolithic, though others include it in the Palaeolithic Age. The Eolithic antedates the Quaternary geological age; the Palaeolithic extends through the whole of the glacial and post-glacial epochs. During this time, man's tools and weapons were fashioned from flint.

Neolithic Age

Following the Palaeolithic era came the Neolithic, when the tools and weapons were more carefully made, sometimes even polished, and when stones other than flint were used, including obsidian or volcanic glass. Bone and wood also came into use, and towards the close of the period, crude carving and fresco, or wall pictures began to be done. Man, who had lived mostly in caves and subsisted on fruit, grain and raw meat, now discovered how to produce fire, a revolutionary milestone of progress in the story of mankind. The arrow and the spear had come into use, and trees began to be felled with axes of sharpened stone, for the construction of boats and huts. Family life was developing, and permanent  p7 dwelling places began to be adopted, but as yet there was no private owner­ship of land. Wild beasts were being domesticated, cattle-breeding and the cultivation of land for agriculture began. Villages came into existence, and the barter of goods took form.

What little we know of these far-away ages has been laboriously worked out through a study of the rarely occasional ruin, village site, human bone, tool, fragment, carving or wall painting discovered beneath the earth or in caves. Findings in various parts of Armenia apparently prove that Neolithic and even Palaeolithic man lived there.

Tools and Implements

The discovery of the production of fire eventually led to the working of the first metals known, copper and tin. The blending of these two produced bronze and ushered in a new area which we call the Bronze Age. As nearly as can be ascertained, the Neolithic Age began in Europe some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, the Bronze in various parts of Europe from 2000 to 3500 B.C., and the Iron Age, which succeeded it, about 1000 B.C. In western Asia and Egypt, the dates for these eras are earlier.

The increase in the kinds of tools and implements and the appearance of new modes of labor marked a slow differentiation of man's functions from those of woman — though women were doing many things which later came into the province of man; for example, scratching the soil with pointed sticks for the sowing of grain, and aiding in the domestication of beasts — first the dog, then the goat, sheep, hog and cow. Near the close of the Neolithic Era, woman is the central figure in the family, caring for the children and the habitation, gathering fruits, storing foodstuffs, doing such cooking as was done and looking after the domestic animals.

Religious conceptions, the worship of spirits, the disposal of the dead by burning or burying, all these slowly took shape in the same epoch, while the ideas of private or collective owner­ship of land were still nonexistent. All the characteristics of the Neolithic Era were also those of the primeval inhabitants of the Armenian table-land.

Ancestral Relics in Graves

The first excavations in Armenia, undertaken by Russian savants in 1876, brought to light a burial-ground near Dilijan in which were  p8 76 prehistoric graves. Jacques de Morgan in 1887‑89 unearthed 576 graves around Alaverdi and Akhatala, on the Tiflis-Alexandropol railway line. Later on, 300 more were discovered by V. Belck near Elisavetpol (Gandzak), and yet others were excavated by Lalayan (second in importance only to de Morgan's) and Ivanovski. In Turkish Armenia only one tumulus, that of Shamiramalti, near the fort of Van, has been studied so far. But many ancient arms and implements have been discovered, in various places on the plainsº and slopes, in the Valleys of Lori, on the shores of the Lakes of Sevan and Van, in the salt mines of Koghb (Kulp) and along the Aradzani and upper Tigris Rivers. The oldest Neolithic relics so far found in Soviet Armenia are large stone axes, with grooves which show that the handles were attached by lashings. In Armavir, Vagharshapat and elsewhere, Neolithic weapons, knives, axes, hammers, mortars for grinding grains, saw, makhats (large needles for coarse sewing), awls, made of stone, obsidian or bone, and pottery, some of it with geometrical ornamentation, have been found, as well as traces of human habitations, cremations or other mortuary disposals, fossils of domestic animals, such as sheep, goats and dogs, and remains of wheat and barley.

One human skeleton found on the bank of the river Zanku, with a flint implement beside it, is believed to be that of a man of the Palaeolithic Age. Other excavations of small circular hillocks — at Shresh, near Etchmiadzin and at Eylar, near Erevan — underneath which are graves, usually covered with a slab, have yielded many Neolithic relics. Nearby were cinder beds with objects of stone, funeral urns (proofs of the practice of cremation) and piles of human bones.

Huge stone placements, presumably Neolithic, are numerous in Armenia — dolmens (large unhewn stones resting on two or more smaller ones), menhirs (standing stones), cromlechs (stone circles), and cyclopean walls. The region of Aragadz Mountain is a natural museum of archaeology; and the extensive plains around the towns of Oshakan, Parbi, Amberd and Aghtz, as well as near Shusha and Sisian, are dotted with hundreds of Neolithic monuments.

In megalithic fields on higher levels are found constructions in huge blocks, composed of a number of concentric walls of decreasing heights. Those at Kosh and Aghavnatun, which are the best preserved, might have served either as forts or enclosures of a sanctuary. The wall near Daylakla on a small tributary of the River Arax,  p9 is of the same type, though inside were circular or oddly-shaped rooms, walled with smaller stones, which might have been dwelling places roofed with large slabs.

Almost all the excavated graves belong to Metallic eras later than the Neolithic, probably to the later years of the Bronze Age. They are all of similar construction, a sort of box, with four large slabs as partitions and two more as covers, placed together without mortar — a kind of dolmen.

In some tombs the dead are in large jars, usually sitting or squatting, though in some cases two connected jars were used, the limbs being in one, the rest of the skeleton in the other. Objects found with the dead comprised ornaments, tools, broken pottery and weapons such as daggers, swords, lances, axes, bows and arrows. Of 76 daggers found in one cemetery, seven were of iron, the remainder of bronze. A few club-heads of stone were found, one dented ring, which was probably used in boxing, and smaller rings believed to have been parts of a lasso, used either in hunting or domestication of animals.

Ornamental Work

The tools commonly found were knives, straight or curved, the blades of bronze or iron, the handles of bone, wood or metal. There were combs and hones of bronze or gold, adorned with dangling bronze rings. Women's tombs contained iron or bone needles, long and short, as well as bronze tweezers, bronze hooks and forks. As for jewelry, there were earrings of bronze, rarely of silver, sometimes hung with beads of carnelian, glass, porcelain, quartz, agate or alousite. Necklaces usually carried from 40 to 80 pearls. Bracelets, found in large numbers, are of bronze, silver, iron, lead and various beads. They were worn on the upper arm, forearm or ankle, and served not only as jewelry but as currency. Bronze pins sometimes had small heads, some large and heavy, shaped like a bird. Finger-rings, less common than bracelets, were found in the tombs of women, men and even children. There were rich girdles of bronze, bordered with geometric designs, the middle part engraved, often with hunting scenes or mythological pictures. One of these represents a man with an animal's head standing in a chariot drawn by two horses, in front of which an archer pursues a flock of chamois. Another belt shows an archer with a bird's head in a horse-drawn chariot, while over the horses is a scarab (beetle) flying before the  p10 arrow of a second archer. Girdle clasps or fasteners were a sort of bow of bronze wire, with a beadle-like pin thrust through an eye. Curiously enough, one such fibula unearthed is similar to that used in Armenia today to tether domestic animals in the manger. Buttons, found in large numbers, served not only to fasten the clothing but as trimmings on the dress or belt.


Ceramics were found in quantity in the tombs. Hand-made pottery is rudimentary. Pitchers for water or wine are spherical, with short necks and flat bottoms. Cooking vessels are also spherical. Cups are in various shapes; in one pattern, a representation of the head of a stag forms the handle. The small, deep dishes which served as oil lamps are still in use in some Armenian villages.

Among other articles discovered are bronze mirrors, chariots, threshing planks, remnants of woolen or flax stuffs, cords, ribbons and leather thongs.

Earliest Metal-Working

The question, When did metal-working begin in Armenia? cannot yet be answered. Jacques de Morgan believes that the iron industry had Armenia as its birthplace before the 20th century B.C. As bronze-working came before iron, and bronze is an alloy of tin and copper, Adontz questions the French scholar's accuracy, pointing out that tin was not found in Armenia or anywhere else in Asia Minor. It was anciently produced in China, in Drangiana (an East Persian province) and the region of the Indus River, from which sources Chaldea and Elam obtained the metal as the alloy for their bronze.

Bronze and Iron Ages

The rise of power­ful civilizations took place in Mesopotamia and Egypt during the Bronze Age, and to some extent was based upon the bronze industry. In the Aegean area the Bronze Age had begun in the third millennium B.C. In Chaldea copper appears around 2500 B.C. Bronze is also known as of that time; bronze helmets, the points of lances and other arms, were common. Armenia could not have remained untouched by these cultural developments among her neighbors, and may even have been in the forefront of the movement. The main object of early Assyrian incursions into Armenia  p11 was to obtain metals. The iron-working age followed that of bronze everywhere, opening a new epoch of human progress. Its influence is noticeable in Armenia, and the transition period is well marked. Tombs whose metal contents are all of bronze are of an older epoch. In most of the cemeteries explored, both bronze and iron furniture were found, indicating the gradual advance into the Iron Age.

No trace of iron was found in the ruins of Troy. King Tiglatpalasar of Assyria (1117‑1080 B.C.) does not list any iron among his Armenian booty. But a later king, Assurnazirpal (884‑859), tells of carrying away from Armenia articles of iron, bronze, copper, tin, silver and gold.

The Iron Age appeared in Western Asia after the twelfth century B.C. The contents of the tombs of that era in Armenia are of two classes, some representing a geometric style of art, the others a new naturalistic trend. The bronze belts, displaying human and animal figures, are the first naturalistic experiments. Some resemblance between this style and "Hellenistic" art has been traced, setting the date of such specimens forward to the period of the kingdom of Urartu, beginning in the ninth century B.C. The bronze shields of King Rusa II of Urartu (680‑645 B.C.) and of King Rusa III (605‑585 B.C.), are excellent samples of this naturalistic style.

Dawn of History

With the Iron Age we enter what we may call the historic period — though the history is still considerably colored with legend, and we must even take with a grain of salt the boasting of kings in their tablets and inscriptions as to their heroic deeds and conquests. The small states of the age of Tiglatpalasar were eventually united to form the Urartuan empire of the ninth, eighth and seventh centuries before the Christian era.​a No tomb with a date between this and the beginning of our era has been discovered. This may be attributed to the abandonment, under the Mazdeian influence, of the practice of interment. Most of the graves that have been examined were built towards the end of the Bronze Age and have the following characteristics; as the sojourning place of the soul during the transition from earth to the beyond, the grave was a constructionº of large stones, set together without mortar. There were also under­ground houses, provided with pottery utensils in a great variety of size, form and color. The cells also contain small spoons  p12 and huge jars of black, red or gray-greenish hues. The garments of the deceased were short, bound with a belt, and included baggy, flowing trousers and leggings.

Jewelry and Weapons

Jewelry and other adornments were held in high esteem by both men and women. The body of one woman was literally covered with bijouterie — earrings, finger-rings, necklaces, bracelets on wrists and ankles and a bronze belt with pendants, one in the form of a bell, the other representing a swan. Variously shaped beads and glass trinkets, mirrors of bronze and pendants were necessary to the feminine ensemble. The tiara, a bronze band narrowed as it neared its extremities, was a headdress reserved to princely persons.

The large numbers of weapons found in graves indicate the warlike character of the population. Hunting was a common occupation. Agriculture, cattle-breeding and metallurgy were reaching a high degree of proficiency. No records of the social and political life of these ancient eras have been found, but the people were probably divided into classes and tribes, groups of which, during certain periods, were joined in federations. A lesser unit coming into being was the family.

Objects found in the tombs indicate that the dead were believed to live and to need food after they passed from this life. Huge stone figures testify to the existence of unknown religious cults in remote antiquity.

Enigmatical signs which may be a system of writing, engraved on stones discovered in the region of Garni, on the walls of a cave in the neighborhood of Talin and other places, were sculptured before the rise of the Urartean Empire, and probably contain some interesting bits of history, if they could be deciphered.

Racial origins

Human skulls discovered in excavations and tombs may shed further light on the question of the racial origin of the people of the land. Most of the 59 skulls collected in a certain area of Russian Armenia between 1887 and 1908 had slowly dried to such a state that they fell into dust at a touch. The ones buried in sandy soil were in a better condition of preservation.

One of the classifications of human beings has to do with the shape of their skulls — the brachycephalic folk being those with most  p13 nearly round heads, while the dolichocephalic have heads much longer than they are wide. Measurements of the discovered skulls prove that the inhabitants of Armenia in those early ages belonged to the latter category. The Italian anthropologist, Sergi, believes that the Mediterranean world had been inhabited by a dolichocephalic race, whilst Asia Minor was peopled by folk more nearly round-headed. The British scientist, W. Ripley, claims, however, that the earliest ethnic stratum in West Asia likewise belonged to the dolichocephalic type, and represented an offshoot of the Mediterranean race. He applied the same theory to the whole of Europe. It is an interesting fact that the domination of the dolichocephalics in Armenia coincides with the Bronze Age, while the succeeding period, that of Iron, is the era of dominance of the brachycephalic peoples, to which those of Nairi and Urartu belonged.

Thayer's Note:

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Page updated: 10 Dec 16