Pipeline to the past is a gift from oil to archaeology

Sep 19, 2001 02:00 AM

by Staton R. Winter

In the ancient delta of the Kura River in south-western Azerbaijan, Viktor Kvachidze was crouched low, peering at the fine silt left centuries ago when the river changed course.
"Look, look!" he called out as he stood up, holding something aloft in one hand and waving with the other. As the archaeologists gathered round, they saw the object of Mr. Kvachidze's excitement -- an inch- long cylindrical bead, reddish pink and looking too delicate to have survived the centuries. The bead was made of carnelian and probably came from India, where the semi-precious stone is described in mythology as having protective powers.
A thrill rippled through the small group. They quickly renewed their own searches, brushing away the thin layer of dirt with their hands. More shouts came as shards of fine green-glazed pottery, red ceramic bangles, fragments of bitumen, used to waterproof boats and other objects, and the remains of a bread oven were uncovered.

The site, about 70 miles south of Baku, the capital, appears to be the remains of a village from the 11th or 12th century. It is where the Kura meandered its way to the Caspian Sea a millennium ago, and its discovery heartened the team trying to redraw history's greatest trade route, the Silk Road. The archaeologists hope to find evidence proving that the Silk Road ran through Azerbaijan and Georgia, from the Caspian to the Black Sea.
From ancient China to the Roman Empire, the Silk Road stretched for 5,000 miles, crossing some of the most inaccessible lands on earth. Scholars have long debated its exact location, and most agree there was no single route. Few, however, have put Azerbaijan on its map.
Now, the oil business and archaeology appear to have come together in an unlikely alliance that will bring research into new areas. Scientists hope to work alongside construction crews laying the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline from the capital of Azerbaijan through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, on the Mediterranean.
"Azerbaijan is going to be crucial in understanding how trade expanded through this region in medieval times and how much-earlier Bronze Age settlements here spread as far as southern Iraq and Israel," said Jennifer R. Pournelle, program manager for the international archaeology project of the University of California at San Diego.

The 1,000-mile pipeline, if given final approval as expected next year, will run through some of the least-investigated and potentially richest historical areas of the Caucasus. BP, the oil giant managing the pipeline project, has already devoted months of study to the historic and environmental aspects of the proposed pipeline.
Experts hired by BP and from the government-affiliated Institute of Archaeology have already identified nine potentially important sites along the route. BP officials said they plan to have archaeologists accompany construction crews and "swat teams" on call in case of major archaeological discoveries when work starts in the spring of 2003.
Ms. Pournelle and her associates want to tag along, using the protection of the pipeline to explore areas that had largely been closed to archaeological excavation because of political sensitivities and security problems. In return, she told BP officials recently that the group can provide additional expertise for anything uncovered in construction. "We can help you avoid a nasty surprise at the edge of a bulldozer blade," she said.

The group's overall goal is to develop a new understanding of the historic relationship of the Caucasus to the rest of the world and a new view of the relationship between climate and society over a long period of time. Ms. Pournelle is program manager for the University of California at San Diego's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, which assembled the project. The team includes marine archaeologists, led by Ezra Marcus from the University of Haifa in Israel, experts from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and experts from Azerbaijan's Institute of Archaeology.
Cave dwellings dating to 12,000 BC have been discovered in Azerbaijan and its earliest inhabitants are credited with domesticating grapes, cherries and apples. Some believe that horses were domesticated here 5,000 years ago. But much of the region's ancient history has been unexplored.
Azerbaijani archaeologists and a few others from outside the country think that the country had a thriving civilization in the Bronze Age, dating to about 2,500 BC, and that its traders and herdsmen eventually migrated to Mesopotamia and beyond. The theory is not accepted by all the experts, but the archaeologists hope to find evidence to support it on excavations along the pipeline route, which runs across Azerbaijan and into remote regions of Georgia before heading across eastern Turkey.

The carnelian bead in Shirvan Steppe was the first small discovery in what Mr. Kvachidze and his colleagues hope will lead to an eventual answer. In the days that followed the discovery in early September, the archaeologists visited numerous locations south of Baku, both near the Caspian and inland along the pipeline route.
Near the huge Sangachal terminal, which will mark the start of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, they found ancient rock carvings. Farther south, also near the coast, they discovered what appeared to be a Bronze Age spear and large amounts of pottery, indicating a possibly major port settlement. During the Soviet era, little money was spent on exploring these and other sites in the region. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, archaeologists have not had the resources to start the work. Ms. Pournelle and her colleagues said they hope that their piggyback explorations along the pipeline will change perceptions of the Caucasus' place in history.

Source: The New York Times
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