Photo: Abandoned hotels dating from the period during which Armenia was part of the Soviet Union in the gorge of the River Hrazdan, near Arzni. On the gorge sides are outcrops of basaltic lava flows – PAGES is mapping and these outcrops and correlating flows in order to understand the stratigraphy of the Hrazdan valley.
'Where is Armenia?' said most of my friends when I told them a few months ago that I had a new job working as a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant (PDRA) on the PAGES project at the University of Winchester. Cue numerous Google sessions in pubs going through maps, lists of famous Armenians, places of interest, etc – all before I stepped foot in the country.
Arriving in Yerevan for my first trip of many over the next 2.5 years (also my first day as a PDRA, plus without my baggage, stress levels were pretty high!), the first thing I saw was the impressive snow-capped Mts. Aragat and Ararat, and knew that I was going to enjoy being spending time in this country. Now, after being here for three weeks – I love it.
The Armenian people are welcoming and generous, with many people offering us coffee and local apricots as we passed during our day's mapping, asking us where we are from and what we are doing. The food is fantastic – fresh fruit and veg, dolma and lavash, with my personal favourite being Armenian BBQ, khorovats (especially when eaten next to a palaeosol-tephra sequence outside the town of Hrazdan after a morning of visiting potential cave sites for archaeological excavation).
But the thing that has given me the most lasting impression of Armenia is the landscape, in which millions of years of this country's prehistory have been recorded, spanning from the early hominin occupation, recorded most notably at the archaeological site of Nor Geghi, Armenia's pre-Christian and Christian heritage, evident by the hundreds of tiny churches and monasteries nestled in valleys, and the abandoned hotels in the Hrazdan Gorge at Arzni, relicts of Armenia's Soviet past.
The aspect that I am most interested in as part of the PAGES project is the Pleistocene history of the country, focusing on two river valleys – the Hrazdan and Debed. As a PDRA on the project, I have three main roles – first, to understand the stratigraphy of these two valleys through geomorphic mapping of lava flows and the interbedded lake and riverine, sediments and the ancient soils that developed within them. Second, to understand the depositional and climatic history of these strata, through detailed sedimentological and palaeoenvironmental study. Third, integrate these data with the chronology produced by 40Ar/39Ar dating of basaltic lava flows and tephra horizons, mapping and geochemical data from proximal volcanic deposits, and detailed information from the key archaeological sites, to create a project GIS which can be used to understand the Pleistocene history of these two valleys.
Of course, I'm not alone in doing this – there is a large team of researchers involved in this project, most of whom I met on my first day in Yerevan, sleep deprived and sans baggage (cue even higher stress levels!). Being welcomed into this team has been the highlight of my first trip to Armenia. The team consists of a wide range of researchers, all at different stages in their careers, from across the globe (USA, Israel, Turkey, the Netherlands, UK, and of course Armenia), and all have their specific research interests, whether it is understanding biface variability, sourcing obsidian flows, or investigating the geochemistry of palaeosols. I've been able to learn about all the different strands of research and how they all link, both through days in the field and over a few beers in the evening, and now after three weeks, feel fully part of the team.
I am looking forward to being able to build upon the work already done in Armenia during my time as a PDRA, and spending the next few field seasons with these researchers being able to improve our understanding of the chronology and palaeoenvironmental context of hominin occupation in Armenia and the rest of the Southern Caucasus.
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About the author
Dr. Jenni Sherriff is a postdoctoral research assistant on the PAGES project, and is based at the University of Winchester.
Read more about Dr Sherriff's work here