Kura-Araxes implicated in the transformation of regional trade in the Near East

Craft production at Köhne Shahar, a Kura-Araxes settlement in Iranian Azerbaijan, by Alizadeh et al. J Anthropol Arch (2018) 51:127-143.

Interesting excerpts (emphasis mine):


Kura-Araxes communities first emerged throughout the southern Caucasus in the mid-4th millennium BC (Sagona, 1984; Rothman, 2005; Kohl, 2009) or possibly earlier in Nakhchivan (Marro et al., 2014; Palumbi and Chataigner, 2014: 250; Marro et al., 2015; Palumbi and Chataigner, 2015). By the late 4th-early 3rd millennium BC, their characteristic material culture, particularly hand-made black burnished pottery, spread throughout much of Southwest Asia after 2900 BCE (Fig. 1). The widespread dissemination of this material culture, along with the small size of most sites, the ephemeral nature of their architectural remains in these smaller sites, and their presence in both fertile lowlands and seasonally-inhospitable highlands, have been used to portray Kura-Araxes communities as small, egalitarian communities of mobile pastoralists or sedentary agriculturalists; economically undifferentiated and socially non-hierarchical (Smith, 2005: 258; Frangipane and Palumbi, 2007; Kohl, 2007: 113; 2009: 250). Limited evidence for craft production and trade among Kura-Araxes communities has further strengthened the argument that Kura-Araxes economies were dominated by domestic and subsistence-related activities (Palumbi, 2008: 53). With some rare exceptions (Marro et al., 2010; Stöllner, 2014; Simonyan and Rothman, 2015), Kura-Araxes settlements lack any evidence of craft production, mining, or resource extraction.

Distribution of Kura-Araxes material culture in the Near East (modified from Wikimedia).

Kura-Araxes communities, however, are also implicated in the evolution and transformation of regional trade in the Near East. Cause and effect of the spread of Kura-Araxes material culture beyond the Caucasus “homeland” and the establishment of diaspora is hotly debated. Among proponents of emigration, the strongest arguments for movement out of the Caucasus include the presence of strong pull factors, notably productive activities like meat and wool production, viticulture, and metals and metallurgy (Rothman, 2003). Kura-Araxes populations primarily inhabited mountains and intermontane valleys of the highland zone surrounding Mesopotamia. Kura-Araxes communities had access to metals, precious and semi-precious stones, stones for tool making, wood, and animal products; resources that were abundant in the mountain zone, yet critical to the evolution of Mesopotamian societies. The frequent appearance of simple bronze and copper objects at temporary camps of Kura-Araxes herders suggests that mobile agropastoralists engaged in metallurgy and trade in metals, especially with societies of the Upper Euphrates (Frangipane et al., 2001; Hauptmann et al., 2002; Rothman, 2003; Connor and Sagona, 2007; Frangipane, 2014). Wool and textiles products from sheep herded by mountainous communities may have been major exports of the mountain zone to Mesopotamia (Anthony, 2007: 284; Nosch et al., 2013; Breniquet and Michel, 2014).

It is argued that by the second half of the 4th millennium BC (Surenhagen, 1986; Algaze, 1989, 2004, 2007), Uruk polities of southern Mesopotamia established colonies across northern Mesopotamia, southern Anatolia, and western Iran to better control regional trade. Although the nature of these colonies and local developments is still debated (Stein, 2002, 2014), co-occurrence of the sudden abandonment of these colonies and regional expansion of Kura-Araxes communities by the end of the 4th millennium BC has led some scholars to argue that Kura-Araxes communities were emergent competitors of Mesopotamia whose economic activities possibly contributed to the decline and eventual collapse of the Uruk system (Algaze, 2001: 76; Kohl, 2007: 97–98; Lamberg-Karlovsky, 2008: 10).

Major Kura-Araxes sites in the Caucasus region and location of Köhne Shahar (modified map from wikimedia.org).


The abundant evidence of craft specialization at Köhne Shahar clearly shows that Kura-Araxes communities were not all homogenous and undifferentiated. Excavations and a geophysical survey at Köhne Shahar demonstrate that multi-craft production activities were practiced at a community-level inside the citadel at the site, and that a large portion of the population may have engaged in this specialized, extrahousehold craft economy. The possible involvement of a political apparatus with a specialized craft economy at Köhne Shahar may have necessitated control over various aspects of production such as labor, commodities, resource procurement, exchange, and grain storage. As Adam Smith (Smith, 2015: 106) argues, all of these point to complex labor coordination at Köhne Shahar.

Although excavations exposed a limited area, the scale of craft production at Köhne Shahar and the scarcity of finished products may suggest that consumers of finished goods were not necessarily residents of Köhne Shahar, but instead occupied other areas on the landscape. Communication between these nodes of production and consumption necessitated a network of exchange and interaction. The miniature sumptuary container at Köhne Shahar points to possible interaction with regions of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, while the bitumen used to mend vessels points to interaction with northern Mesopotamia or the Zagros mountains in western Iran. It is possible that long-distance interaction brought Köhne Shahar chiefs into contact with other complex societies in the region, connecting them to a larger inter-regional exchange and trade network.

Archaeological and geophysical evidence for community-level production documents Köhne Shahar’s emergence as a regional economic center. The extent of Köhne Shahar’s regional engagements and ambitions, however, have yet to be fully understood. Köhne Shahar’s economic focus on production may have enabled its producers to contribute to regional transformations. When trade became a significant part of the economy of early complex societies in the Near East in the second half of the 4th millennium BC (Surenhagen, 1986; Algaze, 1989, 2004), Kura-Araxes communities like Köhne Shahar may have emerged as a primary center of specialized craft production in the late 4th/early 3rd millennium BC. Alternatively, Köhne Shahar’s economic success may have been due to its ability to satisfy regional demand (highlands of NW Iran, eastern Anatolia, or northern Mesopotamia) by filling a supply vacuum created following the collapse of Uruk colonies. Political and entrepreneurial ambitions of Köhne Shahar chiefs may have also provided the impetus for the selection of the site’s naturally defensible area and the construction of a large and defensive fortification wall; two barriers intended to safeguard the production machinery of the citadel from the onset of the site’s occupation in the late 4th millennium BC (Alizadeh et al., 2015).

I don’t have much to add to what I recently wrote about potential intrusive steppe admixture in the Caucasus.