Pilot survey and selection of geoarchaeological records and metal-ore processing sites in the high elevation Svaneti region of the Caucasus for potential paleoclimate and macro-economic reconstructions from Ice Cores

Expedition Location: Svaneti, Georgia

Expedition Dates: July 2023

Field Team Members:

Lizi Gadrani 1,2*, Mikheil Elashvili3, Anca Dan4

1Climate Change Institute, University of Maine

2School of Earth and Climate Sciences, University of Maine

3Cultural Heritage and Environmental Research Center, Ilia State University, Tbilisi, Georgia

4CNRS, École Normale Supérieure, Paris, France

Funding Support: The Robert and Judith Sturgis Family Foundation


Background & Study Area:

The glaciers within the Greater Caucasus serve as unique repositories of regional environmental changes, encompassing climate fluctuations and historical anthropogenic pollution (Shahgedanova et al. 2009). The accelerated pace of global climate warming in the last two decades has amplified the rate of glacier melting across the Caucasus range (L. Tielidze et al. 2022; Zemp et al. 2019). Natural paleoclimate and pollution records preserved in glacial layers offer an opportunity to reconstruct the regional human occupation history and its reactions to contemporary challenges. It is crucial to underscore the importance of recovering and studying these glacial archives and also identify past historical centers of pollution, Establishing the region’s potential for archaeological sites and paleoclimate records, e.g., lake, peat, and ice cores, will further enrich our understanding of its historical and environmental significance. Our fieldwork research had two components: first, to identify potential new sites for future exploration, and second, to apply a system for tracking archaeological data from the region with a possible ice core project in the future.


Georgia’s Svaneti region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site listed as one of the highest-elevation continuously inhabited areas in Europe. Its landscape has kept much of its medieval character and hides incredible historical and cultural details of past Mediterranean civilizations. Currently, prevailing winds facilitate the transport of desert dust, volcanic material and anthropogenic pollutants from the central-eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East to the Chalaadi Glacier. In addition, the Chalaadi Valley showcases well-preserved Little Ice Age moraines, with ancient coniferous forests. Over the last 200 years, the area of the Chalaadi Glacier (fig.1) has decreased by 34%, from 14.9 km² to 9.9 km²( Tielidze et al. 2020).


Figure 1. Glacier Chalaadi

Many of the historical sites in Svaneti are not well-documented, and currently there is a very limited understanding of its archeologic potential. The main goal in the pilot site survey project was to create an inventory and a map of potential regional archaeological sites, especially those connected to metal-smelting. This work is important for planning future archaeological research in the area. Because of the mountainous terrain and outdated topographic maps, the pilot study first focused on field reconnaissance activities. The field team visited potential sites (fig. 2) and took detailed notes about each site, including their geomorphological settings, land features, where they were located in the landscape, any affiliated geological settings, and exposure to geohazards. We carefully looked for indicators of historical metalworking, such as landscape alterations, tailings from ore mining and smelting, and the presence of organic material in the deposits suitable for radiocarbon dating.

Figure 2. Study area. Locations we visited during our exploration trip.

We set up a series of protocols to gather and document information: determining GPS coordinates (fig.3), recording detailed descriptions of the landscape, taking photos, and writing about the geology of settlements and nearby areas connected to historical metal extraction.


We focused on important regions like Ushguli and Chazhashi in the Enguri gorge in Svaneti. In Ushguli, there are many tower-houses that go far back to between the 9th and 12th centuries. In the village of Kala, there is a place called Lagurka, which is historically significant because it has a church with valuable icons from the 10th and 11th centuries that are important in religious, historical, and cultural terms worldwide. We also visited villages of Bogreshi, Lakhami Chuberi, and more, which date back to before the Common Era (fig.4).


Figure 4. List of visited sites

The most significant discovery was made in the village of Lakhami (fig.5), where we uncovered circular pits approximately one meter deep and roughly 70 centimeters in diameter, located on private land. These pits, often appearing in pairs or groups of four, seem to be part of a bloomery system utilized for smelting copper and iron. They contained fragments of metal ores, charcoal, and ceramic pipes (tuyeres) used for air supply in the production of metal bars. Future analysis of these findings has the potential to provide insights into the ore mining and metal production history of the Caucasus.  It opens an opportunity to study the environmental impacts of smelting processes, reconstruction of major production chronology using an array of paleoenvironmental media, such as lake, peat and ice cores, as well as reconstruction of trade networks and cities occupation chronologies for this part of the Black Sea region. While other visited sites also exhibited promising signs of archaeological artifacts, further investigation is required for a comprehensive understanding of preserved archeological artifacts.

Figure 5. Lakhani ore processing-archeological site.

The established new archeological framework will be used to refine past historical pollution, and to create a link with the climate changes in the upper Svaneti region.



We would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to the Robert and Judith Sturgis Family Foundation for their invaluable support, which made this research project a reality. Their critical funding played a pivotal role in enabling us to explore and document the archaeological treasures of Svaneti.



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