EXTENDING THE SCALE OF OBSIDIAN STUDIES:
TOWARDS A HIGH-RESOLUTION INVESTIGATION OF
OBSIDIAN PREHISTORIC CIRCULATION PATTERNS IN
THE SOUTHERN CAUCASUS AND NORTH-WESTERN IRAN*
Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology, School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, University of New
England, Armidale, NSW, Australia and IRAMAT-CRP2A CNRS UMR 5060, Université Bordeaux
Montaigne, Pessac, France and Archéorient—Environnements et Sociétés de l’Orient Ancien CNRS UMR
5133, Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée, Lyon, France and Southern Cross GeoScience, Southern
Cross University, Lismore NSW, Australia
F.-X. LE BOURDONNEC
IRAMAT-CRP2A CNRS UMR 5060, Université Bordeaux Montaigne, Pessac, France
Archéozoologie, archéobotanique: sociétés, pratiques et environnements CNRS UMR 7209, Muséum
national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris, France
Laboratoire IDEES CNRS UMR 6266, Université de Rouen-Normandie, Rouen, France
IRAMAT-CEB CNRS UMR 5060, Université d’Orléans, Orléans, France
Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Tehran Branch, Tehran, Iran
Department of Archaeology and Archaeometry, Tabriz Islamic Art University, Tabriz, Iran
and C. MARRO
Archéorient—Environnements et Sociétés de l’Orient Ancien CNRS UMR 5133, Maison de l’Orient et de la
Méditerranée, Lyon, France
Recent archaeological research has highlighted the potential role of mobile pastoral groups in
the diffusion of raw materials and technological innovations between the southern Caucasus
and north-western Iran from the Neolithic onwards. Two successive projects, PAST-OBS and
SCOPE, were designed to explore this hypothesis through the study of obsidian consumption
*Received 17 February 2020; accepted 30 January 2021
†Corresponding author: email email@example.com
[Correction added on 18 April 2021, after ﬁrst online publication: The ORCID for authors Catherine Marro, Akbar Abedi, Damase
Mouralis and Bernard Gratuze have been added in this version.]
Archaeometry 63, 5 (2021) 923–940 doi: 10.1111/arcm.12660
© 2021 The Authors. Archaeometry published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of University of Oxford.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits
use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non-commercial and no modiﬁcations or
adaptations are made.
patterns from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age using a flexible analytical strategy that consid-
erably extends the scale of obsidian studies in these regions. By focusing on the exploitation of
obsidian at multiple levels—local, regional and interregional—we hope to unravel the com-
plexity of the obsidian networks under study. The aim of this paper is to present (1) a reassess-
ment of the work so far carried out by previous obsidian studies, with a view to homogenizing
and to clarifying the nomenclature in use; and (2) an introduction to the PAST-OBS and
SCOPE projects in order to initiate a discussion of our preliminary results.
KEYWORDS: CAUCASUS, IRAN, NEOLITHIC, CHALCOLITHIC, BRONZE AGE, OBSIDIAN
STUDIES, MOBILE PASTORALISM
The Caucasus, at the crossroads of the Eurasian steppes, Anatolia, Iran and Mesopotamia
(Fig. 1), is a region characterized by abundant natural resources—salt, metal ores, water and pas-
turelands—which developed as a focal point for mobile pastoral communities from the Early
Chalcolithic onwards, and perhaps even earlier (Marro 2019). Intense volcanic activity in this
area produced numerous obsidian outcrops, more than 20 of which have been identiﬁed so far
(Fig. 1). Between the Palaeolithic and the Iron Age, most of these outcrops provided relatively
accessible, high-quality obsidian for the production of a large variety of tools and weapons
(Badalyan et al. 2004). Obsidian had indeed a crucial role in the daily life of Prehistoric groups;
consequently, it was widely circulated. Owing to its geochemical signature, its distribution is
used as an excellent proxy for the study of past circulation networks and exchange systems
(Torrence 1986), and the identiﬁcation of economic hubs and ‘communities of practice’
(Carter 2014). In the long run, it may also be a useful tool for analysing overarching social struc-
tures and political processes (e.g., Moutsiou 2014).
Figure 1 Location of the archaeological sites mentioned in the text, survey areas and main obsidian sources of the
southern Caucasus and eastern Anatolia. [Colour figure can be viewed at wileyonlinelibrary.com]
924 M. Orange et al.
© 2021 The Authors. Archaeometry published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of University of Oxford., Archaeometry 63, 5 (2021)
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Caucasian archaeology gained a new momen-
tum and started to attract the attention of scholars working on the Near East. This impetus
favoured new collaborations between local and foreign researchers, thus adding a novel
international dimension to ongoing projects. When seen from the perspective of obsidian
sourcing studies, one can make a similar observation: until the 1990s, the obsidian sources of
the southern Caucasus had received little attention (e.g., Keller et al. 1996; Blackman
et al. 1998; Badalian et al. 2001; Barge and Chataigner 2003). The geological ﬁeld surveys
and analytical studies that had ﬂourished since the 1960s were mostly focused on the
Mediterranean and Near East (Williams-Thorpe 1995; see also Cann and Renfrew 1964; Keller
and Seifried 1990). Besides, the renewed interest in Caucasian archaeology gave rise to new
research programmes mainly focused on the study of obsidian assemblages within Armenia, es-
pecially from the Neolithic and Bronze Age (Frahm et al. 2014, 336). In north-western Iran, the
scale of obsidian characterization studies had remained limited to a handful of artefacts, while the
existence of potential sources was suspected, but rarely conﬁrmed.
Twenty years later, many new research projects had developed in the south Caucasus, along-
side a shift in focus in the scientiﬁc agenda of international research, which led to an increased
concentration of study on areas neighbouring Armenia. Projects in Georgia (e.g., Le Bourdonnec
et al. 2012; Neumann et al. 2015; Biagi et al. 2017), Azerbaijan (e.g., Marro et al. 2009, 2010;
Lyonnet et al. 2012; Helwing et al. 2017) and the north-western Caucasus (e.g., Doronicheva and
Shackley 2014) have thrived, with a strong emphasis on international and interdisciplinary
Despite this second upsurge, current efforts to reconstruct economic ﬂows and interregional
dynamics from the correlated analysis of provenance, quantity and use of obsidian still suffer from
the heterogeneous character of previous studies. This heterogeneity is present at several levels:
•In the sampling strategies, ranging from restricted to exhaustive.
•In the great number of analytical techniques in use and the occasional lack of standard refer-
ence materials, which prevents relevant comparisons between the available assemblages
•In the inconsistency of the nomenclature of the sources.
•In the incitement to undertake obsidian provenance studies in the ﬁrst place—as a means to an
end or as an end to itself (Freund 2013; Carter 2014; Orange et al. 2017).
•In the way researchers have approached sourcing studies and managed (or not) to integrate
sourcing data in the reconstruction of the chaînes opératoires (Orange et al. 2017; Campbell
and Healey 2018).
•In the disparity in focus between the different regions of the Caucasus and the periods
•In the uneven information available on the different sources, which may have had an impact
on their identiﬁcation.
Moreover, the nature of archaeological research has often led obsidian studies to be conducted
on a site-by-site basis, instead of considering a broader region from the onset (but see Maziar and
Glascock 2017 and Maziar in press for a larger scale approach on surveyed sites). Large-scale
‘synthetic’studies are thus often conducted post-hoc by ‘stitching together’the results emerging
from single-site studies.
In this paper, we present an innovative approach adopted in two recent research projects initi-
ated in the framework of the Mission Archéologique du Bassin de l’Araxe (MBA) in an attempt
to reduce these heterogeneity issues.
925Obsidian circulation in the Southern Caucasus and North-western Iran
© 2021 The Authors. Archaeometry published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of University of Oxford., Archaeometry 63, 5 (2021)
RESEARCH BACKGROUND AND HYPOTHESES
For years, international archaeological research on the emergence of socio-economic complexity
in Late Prehistory has focused on the rise of urban entities and city-states in the Near East (e.g.,
Forest 1996; Frangipane 1996). The Caucasus and other highland areas, on the contrary, have
often been considered as backward borderlands (Smith and Rubinson 2003), which major
technological and socio-economic innovations only reached in a second step.
But the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991 favoured the rise of several international mul-
tidisciplinary projects in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, which have considerably renewed
our understanding of past Caucasian cultural dynamics, which may now be analysed from a
much broader geographical, but also richer analytical, slant. The origin of several signiﬁcant
innovations in the Middle East has been reconsidered (i.e., extractive metallurgy; Gailhard
et al. 2017), and the agency of humble social groups, such as pastoral nomads, has been put for-
ward to explain the diffusion of knowledge, raw materials (Gailhard in press) and possibly the
circulation of goods towards the lowlands (Helwing in press). Among other consequences, these
ﬁndings have questioned the common view according to which complex hierarchical societies
had risen through mastering the art of metallurgy (Childe 1930; Wailes 1996).
The importance of the Caucasus partly lies in its wealth in natural resources—in particular,
obsidian, salt and metal ores, but also water and rich pasturelands—all crucial to Late Prehistoric
communities. A new era in the exploitation of these resources emerged from the rise of produc-
tive economies (the ‘Neolithic way of life’), which in the southern Caucasus developed with no
trace of a genesis c.6200 BCE, possibly in the wake of human migrations from north-western
Mesopotamia (Cucchi et al. 2013; Marro et al. 2019) or Iran (Lyonnet et al. 2012; Nishiaki
et al. 2015). The processes that led to the introduction of this new way of life into the Caucasus,
where Neolithic and Mesolithic groups seem to have co-habited for quite a long time
(Marro 2019; Nishiaki et al. 2019a), are still unknown. The climatic change prompted by the
8.2 ky BP event (Weninger et al. 2006) has been considered as a possible cause for the develop-
ment of the productive economies observed in the Caucasus c.6200 BCE (Sagona 2018). This
hypothesis, however, remains tentative, ﬁrst because the available data are still limited, and
second because the different mechanisms invoked to explain the cause-and-effect relationship
between climatic change and the rise of Neolithic economies have not been clariﬁed and even
appear to be contradictory (Marro 2019).
Recent data retrieved from the valley-settlement of Kültepe I in Nakhchivan (Marro
et al. 2019) demonstrates that specialized caprine herding was central to the Neolithic economy
of the Araxes basin from the onset, exactly as in the Zagros Mountains (e.g., Zeder and
Hesse 2000), thus reinforcing the migration-from-Iran hypothesis. In this case, what reasons
may have prompted Neolithic groups from Iran to settle in the Caucasus? As a working hypoth-
esis, we ﬁrst surmised that mobile pastoral groups from north-western Iran were involved in the
exploitation of raw materials, in particular obsidian, whose outcrops are concentrated in the
Caucasus near rich summer pastures.
With this idea in mind, we launched a new research programme focused on the role of mobile
pastoralists in the circulation of obsidian; this programme drew on the many Late Prehistoric
campsites that had been found in the Sirab region in Nakhchivan (Bakhshaliyev and
Novruzov 2010). The Sirab region (Figs 1 and 2) is located in the southern foothills of the Lesser
Caucasus; it is richly endowed with natural resources, in particular metal ores (Gailhard
et al. 2017, in press) and water sources. Moreover, this region is crossed by the centuries-old trans-
humance paths linking Urmiah Lake with the summer pastures of the southern Caucasus, some of
926 M. Orange et al.
© 2021 The Authors. Archaeometry published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of University of Oxford., Archaeometry 63, 5 (2021)
which lie close to important obsidian beds, such as those of the Zengezor mountain range (Syunik
outcrops). All these characteristics suggest that these sites may have been intermediary camps
used during the seasonal migrations between the plateaux of north-western Iran and the upper pas-
tures of the southern Caucasus. As such, they may have been part of a broader economic system
relying on the movement of mobile pastoralists, which stretched over the two regions.
Obsidian sourcing studies in South-Western Asia
Obsidian studies focusing on Late Prehistoric Caucasia are thriving, but they rely on an heterog-
enous background. The lack of homogeneity in the sources’nomenclature creates a certain
amount of confusion, whereas several sources remain difﬁcult to identify. This is, for example,
the case of the ‘3a’and ‘3c’groups (Renfrew et al. 1966), which are believed to correspond,
respectively, to Gügürbaba-Meydan and the outcrops of the Syunik range (Chataigner 1998).
Figure 2 Detailed map of the main sites investigated in Nakhchivan in the framework of the PAST-OBS and SCOPE pro-
jects. Map background: ©O. Barge. [Correction added on 18 April 2021, after first online publication: Credits for Figure
2 have been included in the figure caption.]. [Colour figure can be viewed at wileyonlinelibrary.com]
927Obsidian circulation in the Southern Caucasus and North-western Iran
The issues arising from these early data, which are difﬁcult to compare with more recent infor-
mation, were identiﬁed a long time ago (Chataigner 1998), but they sometimes remain an obsta-
cle to the exploitation of this otherwise valuable research.
Confusion also arises from difﬁculties in the characterization of the sources, in both the
Caucasus and the neighbouring regions. Geological studies are still underway: New outcrops
have been identiﬁed only recently (e.g., Frahm et al. 2017; Orange et al. 2020), while others have
been redeﬁned (Chataigner et al. 2014; Robin et al. 2016). In particular, the numerous sources of
eastern Anatolia present a high degree of complexity requiring further investigation. Other
sources remain somewhat enigmatic, the current geopolitical situation in the area preventing fur-
ther exploration. This is the case of the Kecheldağgroup, located north of the Syunik sources, in
the Nagorno Karabagh region (Blackman et al. 1998). A secondary obsidian deposit,
Bartsratumb, was also reported 30 km south of the Syunik outcrops (Karapetyan 1972), but very
few samples appear to have been collected and analysed (however, see Supplementary Data 3 in
the additional supporting information). The existence, precise location and knapping suitability
reported for the Iranian obsidian outcrops also remain uncertain, although recent ﬁeldwork has
started to tackle this speciﬁc issue in more detail (Niknami et al. 2010; Abedi et al. 2018a;
Orange et al. 2020).
Despite these limitations, over 5000 artefacts have been analysed in the last 50 years. For a list
of the data published in close to 30 selected publications, see Supplementary Data 1 in the addi-
tional supporting information. While this represents a large number of artefacts, it should be
noted that these data were obtained from no fewer than 96 sites, encompassing a long time span
(Palaeolithic to Iron Age), in a region where obsidian is omnipresent and has been used abun-
dantly. The proportion of the assemblages that have been analysed is rarely representative of
the whole industry—a parameter that can only be assessed when the total number of artefacts
is indicated. Although the analysis of complete assemblages is still not a general practice, a shift
towards exhaustive characterization studies has begun (e.g., Frahm et al. 2014; Nishiaki
et al. 2019b).
Obsidian movement and mobile pastoralists in the literature
The practice of transhumant pastoralism is often cited as a vector for the movement of obsidian,
which for some scholars can be seen as the ‘by-product of the pastoral lifestyle’(Chataigner
et al. 2010, 392). The Armenian obsidian outcrops are indeed located at high altitude, near the
much sought-after summer pasturelands. The excavation of the Chalcolithic levels of Godedzor
(Fig. 1) conﬁrms this hypothesis, since it yielded an abundant lithic industry that is almost
entirely made of obsidian (98%), together with some painted pottery recalling north-western Ira-
nian assemblages. Animal bones consist mostly of the remains of sheep and cattle, along with a
few goats and some game (about 10%); rare architectural remnants are also attested (Chataigner
et al. 2010). The authors thus interpret Godedzor as a possible seasonal village, where mobile
pastoralists coming from north-western Iran (the Urmiah Lake basin) would have camped on
their way to and from the obsidian outcrops during their summer migration to the highland
pastures (Palumbi et al. in press).
Further evidence was brought by the extensive geographical information system (GIS) work
carried out by Barge and Chataigner (2003), Chataigner and Barge (2008, 2010). They have
deﬁned time–distance models for the procurement of obsidian in Armenia, and created an initial
accessibility map based on the provenance of 400 artefacts. Their work identiﬁed several factors
that could have inﬂuenced the choice of deposit (see also Campbell and Healey 2018): the
928 M. Orange et al.
geographical context of the settlement, the distance to the sources (travel time and ‘cost’), the
quality and colour of the material, the transhumance routes (seasonal movements) and the axes
of communication, the diffusion of other materials (raw materials or ﬁnished objects), and the so-
cial, cultural and economic contexts (i.e., belonging to a speciﬁc network). According to their
models, the inhabitants of the Urmiah Lake basin, by following the Araxes valley and
Naxçivançay river through to Godedzor, could have reached the Syunik source in eight to 10
days on foot (Chataigner et al. 2010). The proposed route follows the centuries-old transhumance
patterns observed in these regions (Marro et al. 2019). Unsurprisingly, their study places
Nakhchivan at the crossroads of the east–west axis following the Araxes valley and the potential
north–south path linking north-western Iran to the Kura valley (western Azerbaijan).
Chataigner et al. (2010) suggested that, given the regular presence of Syunik obsidian in the
Urmiah Lake region from the Chalcolithic onwards, the two regions (the Urmiah Lake basin
and Vorotan valley) had speciﬁc ties over the long term (391). They also interpreted the rare pres-
ence of eastern Anatolian products in the southern Caucasus as evidence that the system involving
the circulation of the Syunik obsidian ‘was not integrated into the trade networks that crisscrossed
northern Mesopotamia and enabled the Lake Van obsidian to be widely diffused’(391). Accord-
ing to them, at least two different obsidian exchange networks would, therefore, exist in the wider
southern Caucasus/eastern Anatolia region between the late sixth and the fourth millennia BCE:
one would ensure the circulation of the south Caucasian obsidian towards the Urmiah Lake basin,
while the other would have transported the obsidian from eastern Anatolia towards western Iran
and the Iranian plateau, possibly through northern Iraq (see e.g., Blackman 1984; Darabi and
Glascock 2013; Barge et al. 2018) and, to a lesser extent, towards the southern Caucasus.
Beside Godedzor, some obsidian from Syunik has been identiﬁed in the Urmiah Lake area at
Hajji Firuz (in restricted quantity), Pisdeli Tepe and Yanik Tepe (Renfrew et al. 1966) (see also
Supplementary Data 1 in the additional supporting information), Dava Göz (Late Neolithic to
Chalcolithic) (Abedi et al. 2018b), Kul Tepe Jolfa (Chalcolithic to Iron Age III) (Khademi
Nadooshan et al. 2013; Abedi et al. 2018c), and on the sites of the Khoda Afarin and Jolfa plains
(Neolithic to Iron Age) (Maziar 2015; Maziar and Glascock 2017). The diversity of sources
attested in the archaeological assemblages of Kul Tepe Jolfa and Dava Göz, where both
Caucasian and eastern Anatolian obsidian have been found, suggests that these sites played an
intermediary role in the redistribution of obsidian towards the Urmiah Lake between the
Chalcolithic and the Bronze Age (Khademi Nadooshan et al. 2013; Abedi et al. 2015). In point
of fact, Kul Tepe Jolfa is located in the Jolfa Pass, a strategic position acting as a passageway
between Iran and Nakhchivan.
However, the evidence pointing to the involvement of mobile pastoralists in the circulation of
obsidian and, concomitantly, in the diffusion of technological innovations between north-western
Iran and the southern Caucasus (e.g., Thomalsky 2019, in press) is still very limited: to test this
hypothesis further, we have both increased the number of sites to be studied and implemented a
multi-approach analytical protocol that would make it possible to study obsidian artefacts either
in our laboratory or directly in the ﬁeld.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO OBSIDIAN STUDIES: THE PAST-OBS AND SCOPE PROJECTS
The ﬁrst aim is to trace back the circulation of obsidian artefacts in both areas, namely in
Nakhchivan and the Urmiah basin. We ﬁrst endeavoured to map the connections between the
929Obsidian circulation in the Southern Caucasus and North-western Iran
main Caucasian obsidian outcrops and known sites of the Neolithic, Chalcolithic and the Bronze
Age located in the Caucasus and Middle East in order to determine possible changes in interre-
gional dynamics over time. We aim at correlating these changes with the introduction of new
techniques, such as new subsistence strategies (Neolithic) or extractive copper metallurgy and
the production of wool fabrics (Late Chalcolithic). For example, did the introduction of extractive
metallurgy fundamentally change the intensity and overall structure of South-West Asian eco-
nomic networks between the Neolithic and Chalcolithic? Since major copper deposits are located
in proximity to both the Syunik and Gegham obsidian outcrops (Courcier 2010), a focus on the
exploitation of copper beds should emphasize the obsidian of Syunik and/or Gegham during the
Chalcolithic, at the expense of those not located near the copper deposits (e.g., Arteni).
Conversely, the development of wool fabrics during the Late Chalcolithic (Shishlina
et al. 2003) and the subsequent increase in pastoralism may have led to more diversiﬁed strate-
gies in obsidian sourcing (increase in multi-sourcing strategies), since obsidian outcrops and rich
pasturelands are attested virtually all over the southern Caucasus and eastern Anatolia.
With these questions in mind, the PAST-OBS and SCOPE projects were set up to analyse the
assemblages collected from the sites excavated by the MBA since 2006, but we also proceeded to
survey the mountainous areas in search for pastoral sites in the wake of the work initiated by
Bakhshaliyev and Novruzov in 2009. The interdisciplinary aspect of these projects relies on
collaborations with the Institut de Recherche sur les ArchéoMATériaux (IRAMAT), the Centre
National de la Recherche Scientiﬁque (CNRS) and the Université Bordeaux Montaigne in
France, the National Academy of Sciences in Nakhchivan, the Tabriz Islamic Art University,
and the German Archaeological Institute in Iran, as well as the University of New England
and Southern Cross University in Australia.
These research programmes stand out by the scale of their investigation programme: over 70
sites have so far been excavated or surveyed in Nakhchivan and north-western Iran, disclosing
several thousands of obsidian artefacts. These sites belong to different categories (e.g., sedentary
valley settlements, temporary campsites) and cultural horizons (Neolithic to Bronze Age). To the
best of our knowledge, the extent of this obsidian investigation programme is unprecedented in
this area. This is an exceptional opportunity to test our hypotheses, but also to gain an in-depth
understanding of the circulation networks and of the exploitation, diffusion and consumption
patterns of obsidian at the local, regional and interregional scales over the longue durée.
Several of the issues identiﬁed in previous studies have been addressed in this programme:
•Exhaustivity: Our multi-method strategy ensures the analysis of complete assemblages by
relying on several characterization techniques (Orange et al. 2017).
•Reconstruction of consumption patterns: We aim to reconstruct the chaînes opératoires of
each assemblage and each identiﬁed obsidian raw material to understand how it was worked
and used on different types of sites through time.
•Comparability of the results: The daily measurement of obsidian geological standards makes it
possible to evaluate the repeatability, accuracy and precision of the new results.
Addressing the heterogeneous data on the obsidian sources of the area
As a ﬁrst step, the incredible wealth of available data on the obsidian sources of the Caucasus and
eastern Anatolia had to be sorted out. While a considerable amount of information is summarized
in both the literature (e.g., Blackman et al. 1998; Poidevin 1998; Badalyan et al. 2004;
Chataigner and Gratuze 2014a) and online (Obsidatabase; Varoutsikos and Chataigner 2010), a
930 M. Orange et al.
certain amount of confusion is still perceptible when archaeologists refer to obsidian sources.
This confusion is mainly due to the variety of names used for each source by different authors
(e.g., the names ‘Choraphor’,‘Khoraphor’,‘Khorapor’,‘Vardenis’,‘Karnyjarykh’and
‘Karnyajarich’all designate the same source). Following the work of Mouralis et al. (2018),
we have set up a standardized nomenclature for the numerous outcrops located in the Caucasus
and eastern Anatolia, in collaboration with the GeObs team (https://geobs.univ-rouen.fr/). This
nomenclature is presented in Supplementary Data 2 in the additional supporting information with
an updated synthesis of the available information on the sources. We hope that this new frame
will serve as a reference for future studies and promote comparisons between obsidian sourcing
programmes region-wide, and also help clarify the resulting data for specialists working outside
The PAST-OBS and SCOPE projects also included the creation of an exhaustive geological
database in order to identify the provenance of the obsidian used in Late Prehistoric assemblages.
To that effect, we selected over 250 geological samples from the IRAMAT-CRP2A and
IRAMAT-CEB collections, which serve as a reference for identifying the provenance of obsidian
artefacts. These samples were analysed by laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spec-
trometry (LA-ICP-MS), as well as by portable X-ray ﬂuorescence (pXRF) when the size of the
sample made it possible to obtain reliable results (Davis et al. 2011). For the complete data from
these analyses, see Supplementary Data 3 in the additional supporting information.
So far, a total of 4835 artefacts has been analysed in the framework of these two projects, and
more analysis results are underway. This is almost as much as the quantity of obsidian artefacts
from the Caucasus analysed over the last 50 years. The preliminary results have revealed several
interesting trends, which are outlined below. Given the large number of analyses and the ongoing
nature of this programme, these results will be detailed further in a series of forthcoming
Nakhchivan In Nakhchivan, most assemblages reveal the use of several sources, for example,
the polysource model described by Badalyan et al. (2004). An exceptional diversity appears in
the material from the sedentary valley settlements of Ovçular Tepesi, Nakhchivan Tepe and
Kültepe I, with the last revealing the use of a dozen different obsidian raw materials during the
Neolithic. As in the case of Kul Tepe Jolfa (Abedi et al. 2018c), this diversity could be attributed
to the key position of these sites, which are located between the obsidian sources and the summer
pastures of the uplands, and the winter camps located on the plateaux of north-western Iran,
along the communication routes suggested by Chataigner et al. (2010).
As observed elsewhere (Badalyan et al. 2004), one obsidian type usually predominates in the
assemblages belonging to the polysource procurement model (three to six sources in simulta-
neous use, with one prevailing over the others). In Nakhchivan, initial results show that this main
source often corresponds with the closest, that is, Geghasar-Gegham for Ovçular Tepesi, and
Syunik on the sites of the Şahbuz, Culfa and Kengerli districts (Fig. 2). This pattern seemingly
conﬁrms the observations made by Badalyan (2010: 36) according to which ‘geological–
geographical realities’were the main drive governing the obsidian procurement system between
the sixth and ﬁrst millennia BCE (i.e., the main source exploited is often the closest). This
statement, however, is only partially true: it is not corroborated by the circulation patterns
observed at an interregional level during the Neolithic period, for instance, when communities
931Obsidian circulation in the Southern Caucasus and North-western Iran
located in Iran mostly ignore Caucasian outcrops and favour the obsidian from eastern Anatolia
In the corpus from Nakhchivan analysed so far, the obsidian from Syunik usually predomi-
nates (<50%), followed by that from Geghasar-Gegham (<35%) and Gügürbaba-Meydan
(about 5%), with the exception of Ovçular Tepesi (Chalcolithic, Early Bronze Age), where
70% of the artefacts were made of obsidian from Geghasar-Gegham. The same sources seem
to prevail in north-western Iran (e.g., Dava Göz and Kul Tepe Jolfa (Abedi et al. 2018b,
2018c) (see Supplementary Data 1 in the additional supporting information). A sporadic inﬂux
from sources located further west in north-eastern Anatolia (e.g., Erzurum, Pasinler, Yağlıca)
and Georgia (Chikiani) is also noteworthy, but the obsidian from each of these outcrops is
generally attested by <1% of the total number of artefacts.
Most importantly, these preliminary analyses have revealed an essential difference in obsidian
consumption patterns between the sedentary valley settlements, such as Kültepe I, Ovçular
Tepesi and Nakhchivan Tepe (Orange et al. in press), and the campsites of the foothills (e.g.,
Uçan Ağil, Bûlôv Qayasi, Çay Ağzi) (Fig. 2). While the former features the polysource procure-
ment model, the campsites reveal an almost exclusive use of the Syunik outcrops, except for a
few artefacts originating from the sources located in eastern Anatolia. These results highlight
the dissimilarity in nature and function between valley and mountain sites and suggest that valley
settlements may have acted as ‘economic hubs’that could have had a central role in redistributing
obsidian (Marro et al. in press).
While the presence at Ovçular of some obsidian from Chikiani (two artefacts identiﬁed so far)
conﬁrms previous hypotheses assuming the existence of contacts/networks oriented along a
north–south axis, additional east–west interactions are also attested by the non-negligible use
of eastern Anatolian products observed on many sites: at Kültepe I for instance, the obsidian from
Gügürbaba-Meydan represents up to 10% of the Neolithic assemblage analysed so far.
As concerns the means through which the obsidian from the highlands reached the valley sites,
it is still not clear whether this precious staple was brought down from the mountains by mobile
pastoralists, or if it was obtained by valley shepherds as they moved up the mountains on their
seasonal transhumance. As demonstrated by the work recently carried out in Nakhchivan, mobile
pastoralism was indeed practised during the Late Chalcolithic: the analyses of the intra-tooth se-
quential variation of oxygen (δ
O), carbon (δ
C) and strontium (
Sr) isotope ratios imple-
mented on the teeth of Chalcolithic sheep, goat and cattle from Ovçular Tepesi have shown that
part of the ﬂocks certainly had access to upland pastures during summer (Berthon et al. in press).
But it is not clear whether these ﬂocks actually ventured as far as the obsidian outcrops of
Syunik, since the bioavailable Sr isotope ratios (
Sr) in the Syunik area are so far unknown.
North-western Iran Compared with Nakhchivan, obsidian consumption in north-western Iranian
sites appears to have followed a somewhat different pattern. The analyses so far include the survey
assemblages of the Sarab (Orange et al. 2020), Lake Urmiah, and Salmas districts (which respec-
tively yielded only 11, 53 and 19 artefacts), as well as the excavated assemblages of Doozdaghi
Khoy (40 artefacts) and Tepe Silveh (80 artefacts). From the preliminary results, distinct patterns
emerge in the three surveyed areas: the sites located west of Lake Urmiah (Salmas and Urmiah)
have revealed an overall predominant use of eastern Anatolian obsidians (Nemrut Dağ,
Gügürbaba-Meydan), and a more limited use of the Caucasian sources (Syunik, Gegham). The
obsidian from Nemrut Dağ, however, is so far completely absent from the sites located east of Lake
Urmiah (Yanik Tepe and Sarab district), whose populations relied on the obsidian from Syunik and
Gügürbaba-Meydan, as well as on the local source of Ideloo revealed by recent surveys (Director
932 M. Orange et al.
A. Abedi) (Orange et al. 2020). Interestingly, while the obsidian from Syunik is usually attested in
every surveyed area, in the region of Salmas this outcrop is only represented by one artefact, found
at Qara Tepe. The obsidian from Gegham, on the other hand, was only used at Tepe Haghnazar and
Tepe Ahranjan (Salmas), and at Yanik Tepe (east of Lake Urmiah), but is absent from every other
The frequent occurrence of obsidian from the Nemrut Dağobserved west of Lake Urmiah, in
comparison with its rare distribution in the southern Caucasus, suggests that this obsidian was
brought over by the mobile pastoral groups circulating between Lake Van and Lake Urmiah,
possibly through the highland route of Chaldiran. In Nakhchivan, on the other hand, which is
located further north and where the main east–west circulation axes follow the Araxes valley,
the obsidian from Nemrut Dağis fairly rare and only illustrated by end-products (blade
But it must be pointed out that Nakhchivani late prehistoric groups made a steady use of the
obsidian from Gügürbaba-Meydan, as shown by the notable quantity of artefacts made of this
material on Nakhchivani sites, which might be explained by the relative proximity of
Gügürbaba-Meydan to the Araxes valley, since this source is located to the north of Lake Van.
The obsidian from Gügürbaba-Meydan certainly prevails in the region of Salmas, which indi-
cates close connections with Lake Van, probably through the Chaldiran route: Considering the
proximity of Salmas to the Gügürbaba-Meydan outcrop, the amount of obsidian from this source
in the western Urmiah region is, however, not surprising, although one might have expected a
larger representation of Caucasian sources, in particular of the Syunik outcrop.
It is clear that our conclusions on the obsidian consumption patterns in north-western Iran are
so far limited by the small number of artefacts analysed. Moreover, these artefacts mostly
originate from surveys; for this reason, they are difﬁcult to compare with those collected on
Nakhchivani sites, which come from surveys and excavations alike.
Obsidian sourcing studies in the southern Caucasus have long focused on the territory of modern
Armenia and produced a plethora of heterogeneous results that have been used to deﬁne obsidian
diffusion patterns in the wider region. These studies have laid provisional groundwork on which
obsidian consumption trends have been analysed and circulation patterns built up. These patterns,
however, may be reﬁned if we focus on other key regions of the southern Caucasus and increase
the scale and resolution of obsidian studies in the number of both artefacts and investigated sites.
In this regard, the multi-scale (local, regional, interregional), multi-period and exhaustive
approach implemented through the PAST-OBS and SCOPE projects has already provided sub-
stantial data for a renewed and detailed investigation of the obsidian networks in the Caucasus
as a whole. Our comprehensive analysis strategy has revealed the limited but consistent use of
eastern Anatolian obsidian in Nakhchivan, which brings to light a so far unknown east–west
circulation axis that had not been clearly identiﬁed as such because of the limited number of
artefacts previously analysed. In Nakhchivan, we highlighted a marked contrast in obsidian
procurement patterns between the sedentary valley settlements (high diversity in obsidian raw
material procurement), on the one hand, and the temporary campsites of the foothills (low diver-
sity), on the other: This contrast is most likely indicative of a difference in nature and function
between these sites. In particular, the sedentary valley settlements may have acted as ‘economic
hubs’through which a diversity of raw materials transited and were redistributed towards
neighbouring regions, such as north-western Iran, as illustrated by the omnipresence of the
933Obsidian circulation in the Southern Caucasus and North-western Iran
Syunik obsidian, attested as far as the southern shore of Lake Urmiah. The mobile pastoralists,
during their seasonal transhumance to and from the summer pastures, could have supplied such
hubs with Caucasian obsidian, while assuring its diffusion further south towards the winter
camps (e.g., Urmiah Lake region).
A detailed plotting of the available data on a map, together with more information on obsidian
circulation networks, in particular from north-western Iran, are needed before we may prove or
disprove the existence of these patterns, and compare them over time. This should be our task
in the near future. Our next endeavour will be to study the reduction sequences adopted for every
obsidian type identiﬁed to reveal the potential differences in consumption patterns for each
obsidian source material. We will then be able to compare the chaînes opératoires of the obsidian
assemblages of Nakhchivan and north-western Iran with those identiﬁed on contemporary sites in
the Near East (Levant, Mesopotamia) and Anatolia (a synchronic approach) and through time
(a diachronic approach). These comparisons will facilitate a renewed understanding of the move-
ment and use of obsidian within South-Western Asia, and help retrace the obsidian networks and
their evolution over the longue durée.
The MBA (2006–ongoing, Director C. Marro) is funded by the French Ministry of Foreign
Affairs (MAEE) and the CNRS. Archaeological operations in Nakhchivan are conducted by V.
Bakhshaliyev and C. Marro. The PAST-OBS project (Director F.-X. Le Bourdonnec) was
supported by the ANR (LaScArBx LabEx, ANR-10-LABX-52). The SCOPE project is funded
by the University of New England (UNE PDF scheme). The surveys led by A. Abedi in Iran
are part of a project conducted at the Tabriz Islamic Art University (no. 7938/1 and 1398/05/
01 and code no. 181); the authors thank this institute for providing the facilities and funding
for this research. This work could not have been possible without the support of M. Moore, L.
Weeks and P. Grave (UNE), and R. Joannes-Boyau (Southern Cross University). We are grateful
to the colleagues who provided, directly or indirectly, the geological samples included in this
study: G. Bigazzi, T. Carter, C. Chataigner, S. Nomade, J.-L. Poidevin, A.-K. Robin and S.
Shackley. For their technical support, we thank B. Spiteri (IRAMAT-CRP2A) and E. Watt
(UNE). We also thank N. Gailhard and G. Gadebois for their logistic support in the ﬁeld; and
V. A. Lebedev and E. Frahm for providing clariﬁcations on the source of Bartsratumb. We are
indebted to S. Shackley and two anonymous reviewers whose constructive comments have
helped to improve this paper. The data that support this study are available either online as
supplementary material (geochemical data on geological samples) or from the corresponding
author upon reasonable request (geochemical data on artefacts). The data not yet available
publicly will be published in a series of forthcoming publications. This study brought together
existing data from several different sources. These references are cited in the text and tables
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939Obsidian circulation in the Southern Caucasus and North-western Iran
Additional supporting information may be found online in the Supporting Information section at
the end of the article.
Table S1. Detailed currently-available provenance data from archaeological sites of the Southern
Caucasus and North-western Iran.
Table S2. Obsidian sources located in the Caucasus and eastern Anatolia and proposed standard-
Table S3. Geochemical compositions obtained by portable X-ray ﬂuorescence (pXRF) and/or
laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) on 267 geological
samples from Anatolia and the Caucasus.
940 M. Orange et al.