Three shrines, dating back about 3,300 years, have been discovered within a hilltop fortress at Gegharot, in Armenia.
Local rulers at the time likely used the shrines for divination, a practice aimed at predicting the future, the archaeologists involved in the discovery say.
Each of the three shrines consists of a single room holding a clay basin filled with ash and ceramic vessels. A wide variety of artifacts were discovered including clay idols with horns, stamp seals, censers used to burn substances and a vast amount of animal bones with markings on them. During divination practices, the rulers and diviners may have burnt some form of substances and drank wine, allowing them to experience "altered" states of mind, the archaeologists say. [See Images of the Divination Shrines and Artifacts]
"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," write Adam Smith and Jeffrey Leon, in an article published recently in the American Journal of Archaeology. Smith is a professor at Cornell University, and Leon is a graduate student there.
The fortress at Gegharot is one of several strongholds built at around this time in Armenia. "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," write Smith and Leon.
Smith believes that Gegharot would have been used as an occult center for the rulers. "I would think that this is probably a cult center largely specializing in servicing the emerging rulers from the ruling class," he told Live Science in an interview.
At the time, writing had not yet spread to this part of Armenia so the name of the polity, and its rulers, are unknown.
Predicting the future
Smith and Leon found evidence for three forms of divination at Gegharot. One form was osteomancy, trying to predict the future through rituals involving animal bones, in this case the knucklebones of cows, sheep and goat.
The knucklebones, which were covered in burns and other markings, would have been rolled like dice in rituals attempting to predict the future, Smith said. "You would roll them and depending upon whether the scorched side or the marked side came up you would [get] a different interpretation," Smith said.
Lithomancy, trying to predict the future through the use of stone, also appears to have been practiced at Gegharot. Inside a basin at one shrine, archaeologists found 18 small pebbles. "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," Smith and Leon write. How exactly these unmarked stones would have been used in rituals is unknown.
Flour for the future?
At one shrine, on the fortress' east citadel, the archaeologists found an installation used to grind flour. Smith and Leon think that this flour could have been used to predict the future in a practice called aleuromancy. [The 7 Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds on Earth]
"What is conspicuous about the grinding installation in the east citadel shrine is the lack of a formal oven for bread baking," Smith and Leon write. The shrine's 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."
Stamp seals found at the shrine would have allowed people to punch a variety of shapes into dough. "One possibility (admittedly among many others) is that the stamps marked the dough that was then used for aleuromancy."
The shrines were in use for a century or so until the surrounding fortress, along with all the other fortresses in the area, were destroyed. The site was largely abandoned after this, Smith said.
At the time, there was a great deal of conflict in the south Caucasus with a number of regional polities fighting against each other, Smith said. The polity that controlled Gegharot seems to have been wiped out in one of those conflicts.
Although the rulers who controlled Gegharot put great effort into trying to predict and change the future, it was to no avail — their great fortresses being torched in a cataclysm they could not avoid.
Excavations at the shrines are part of the American-Armenian Project for the Archaeology and Geography of Ancient Transcaucasian Societies (Project ArAGATS).
The west terrace shrine was excavated in 2003, the west citadel shrine in 2008, and the east citadel shrine in 2010 and 2011.