Nestled by the picturesque river Tekhuri, on the northern edge of the Colchian plain in Samegrelo, western Georgia, lie the impressive ruins of Nokalakevi (Figures 1 & 2). Occupying some 20ha, the site was known to early Byzantine historians as Archaeopolis, and to the neighbouring Georgian (Kartlian) chroniclers as Tsikhegoji, or the fortress of Kuji — a semi-mythical Colchian ruler or 'Eristavi'. The fortress is located 15km from the modern town of Senaki on the Martvili road, and would have commanded an important crossing point of the river Tekhuri, at the junction with a valuable strategic route that still winds through the neighbouring hills to Chkhorotsqu in central Samegrelo. Nokalakevi-Archaeopolis played a pivotal part in the major wars fought between the Byzantines and Sasanians in the South Caucasus during the sixth century AD. It was one of the key fortresses guarding Lazika (modern Samegrelo) from Sasanian, Persian and Iberian (East Georgian/Kartlian) attack. During the war of AD 540-562, the Persians' failure to take Nokalakevi-Archaeopolis from the Byzantines and the Laz eventually cost them control of Lazika (Procopius History of the Wars 8.14; Dewing 1928).
The early Byzantine defensive fortifications of Nokalakevi-Archaeopolis (Figure 3) take advantage of the site's position within a loop of the river Tekhuri, which has carved a gorge through the local limestone to the west of the fortress. Furthermore, the steep and rugged terrain to the north of the site made the citadel established there almost unassailable (Figure 4). A wall connected this 'upper town' to the 'lower town' below, where excavations have revealed substantial stone buildings of the fourth to sixth century AD. Beneath these late Roman period layers there is evidence of several earlier phases of occupation and abandonment, from the eighth to second centuries BC (Lomitashvili 1993, 2003).
Modern study of the site began in the decades after the Russian annexation of Samegrelo, with a visit by the Swiss philologist Frédéric Dubois de Montpéreux in 1833-4. He identified the ruins as the Archaeopolis of Byzantine historians and argued that the site was Aia, the ancient Colchian capital of the Greek Argonaut myth (Dubois de Montpéreux 1839; Lomouri 1981). This, unsurprisingly, stimulated much scholarly interest, which culminated in the 1920s with proposals for an archaeological excavation. In the winter of 1930-31, a joint German-Georgian team, led by Dr Alfonse-Maria Schneider of Freiburg University, traced the line of the walls and excavated about 40 survey trenches and one of the towers, as well as what they erroneously believed to be the agora in the 'lower' town. Their findings — including an impressive hoard of gold solidi of the Emperor Maurice (AD 584-602) — confirmed Dubois de Montpéreux's identification of the site with Archaeopolis, without settling the question of Aia (Schneider 1931). Most scholars continued (and continue) to prefer the traditional identification of Aia with Kutaisi.
The political upheavals of the 1930s and the onset of war interrupted further archaeological excavation. Nevertheless interest in Georgia's history continued to grow, prompting various scholarly visits and articles about Nokalakevi from the 1930s (Qaukhchishvili 1936) to the 1960s (see Lomouri 1981 for a discussion of previous work at Nokalakevi). Finally in 1973 a major state-sponsored expedition was set up, headed by the late Parmen Zakaraia. This expedition undertook major excavations and conservation work at Nokalakevi until the early 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union and the civil disturbances of Georgia's early years of independence brought a halt to funding and serious damage to the expedition's infrastructure (Zakaraia 1981, 1987, 1993; Zakaraia & Kapanadze 1991).
Large-scale excavations were resumed in 2001 with a collaborative project, headed by Professor David Lomitashvili, of the S. Janashia State History Museum (now the Georgian National Museum) and the newly formed Anglo-Georgian Expedition to Nokalakevi (AGEN).
In the ten years of its existence, AGEN has trained over 100 archaeology students from nine different Georgian and British universities, plus volunteers from the United States, Australia, Poland and the Netherlands. Work has concentrated on 2 trenches, A and B, revealing deeply stratified deposits documenting a long sequence of occupation, punctuated by episodes of abandonment and colluvial deposition. The lower town was the location of a settlement dated to the early Hellenistic period, consisting of rectangular clay and timber buildings with walls constructed on top of lines of limestone blocks. These stone wall bases were laid directly on the ground surface, rather than within a foundation cut, and would have provided an invaluable waterproof sill in the semi-tropical climate of Colchis. This settlement was later abandoned for another location and the crumbling walls provided the setting for a cemetery. Burials from this period — 30 of which have been excavated in Trench A since 2001 — vary in type from typical Hellenistic-style crouched burials adorned with copper alloy bracelets and glass beads to inhumations contained within amphorae and dergi (a cooking pot);cremations were also present. The south of Trench B has focused on the corner of a predominantly Christian cemetery, and has produced 39 burials from just this small area. The density of burials and the fact that many intercut appear to demonstrate the longevity of its use from its origins in the late Roman period. The north of the trench has provided further information on the Hellenistic settlement and excavation of the pre-Hellenistic phases of occupation continues in both trenches. Recording methods are largely those introduced by the British collaborators, though not confined to single context recording only, as phase plans are also used to show the relationship between multiple contemporary contexts. Training forms an important element of this joint venture, as Georgian colleagues were keen to learn techniques employed in Britain. The process of teaching Georgian students in the field in Nokalakevi is further supported by placements with archaeological organisations in the United Kingdom. AGEN intends to continue to develop this training so that Georgian specialists can respond effectively to future threats to the Georgian cultural heritage, posed by the growing amount of development and infrastructure work in the country.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the work of the many archaeologists who have worked at Nokalakevi since 1930, in particular the late Parmen Zakaraia. We express our great thanks to a number of current members of the expedition, notably Dr Besik Lortkipanidze, Dr Nino Kebuladze and Nikoloz Murghulia, of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi, Dr Jane Timby, Adam Slater, Laura James and, last but not least, Nick Armour who was instrumental in establishing the Anglo-Georgian Expedition in 2000.
* Author for correspondence