The misty and mountainous valleys of the south Caucasus have been host to human activity continuously for thousands of years, but only recently has the Western archaeological world had access to them.
From the cave in which researchers found the world’s oldest shoe and the oldest winemaking facility, to traces of an Urartian city with hundreds of wine-holding vessels buried in the ground, the last four decades have witnessed extraordinary interest from scholars and tourists alike in the smallest republic in the former Soviet Union. None, however, are as quite as tantalizing as the 4.5 hectare archaeological site whose name is as contested as its mysterious origins.
Located in Armenia’s southernmost province, Zorats Karer, or as it is vernacularly known, Karahundj, is a site which has been inhabited numerous times across millennia, from prehistoric to medieval civilizations. It consists of a prehistoric mausoleum and nearby, over two hundred neighboring large stone monoliths, eighty of which have distinctive, well-polished holes bored near their upper edge.
In recent years, to the dismay of local scientists, the monoliths have garnered the interest of the international community after some pre-emptive research emerged drawing comparisons between the astronomical implications of Zorats Karer and that of the famous Stonehenge monument in England. Many touristic outlets responded to the comparison by branding Zorats Karer colloquially as the ‘Armenian Stonehenge’ and the resulting debate between the scientific community and popular culture has been a fierce one.
The first scholarly account of Zorats Karer took place in 1935 by ethnographer Stepan Lisitsian, who alleged that it once functioned as a station for holding animals. Later, in the 1950s, Marus Hasratyan discovered a set of 11th to 9th century BCE burial chambers. But the first investigation which garnered international attention to the complex was that of Soviet archaeologist Onnik Khnkikyan, who claimed in 1984 that the 223 megalithic stones in the complex may have been used, not for animal husbandry, but instead for prehistoric stargazing. He believed the holes on the stones, which are two inches in diameter and run up to twenty inches deep, may have been used as early telescopes for looking out into the distance or at the sky.
Intrigued by the astronomical implications, the next series of investigations were conducted by an astrophysicist named Elma Parsamian from the Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory, one of the main astronomy centers of the USSR. She and her colleagues observed the position of the holes according to an astronomical calendar and established that several of them aligned with the sunrise and sunset on the day of the summer solstice.