The Late Antique Period Grave from Gudabertka

Archaeological valley Gudabertka is located in 7 km north-east from Gori, on the left bank of the river Tortla, between villages Sveneti and Akhalsheni.

  Besides the settlements of the Early Bronze, Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages, the graves of the Late Antique period were discovered on archaeological valley Gudabertka in the 60s-70s of the 20th century. However, they have not been published yet.

Our special attention is paid to the Late Antique pit-grave, in which was discovered one deceased laying on the right side in embryonic pose  -  the head directed to the west. 

The grave comprised: the figure of a deer made from clay (Tab. 3); the jug made from clay (Tab. 2); the round mirror fragment made from bronze and ornamented in the following way: the edges of the mirror are bordered with semi-arched incised crossing lines (Tab. 1; Pic. 3); the miniature statuette of the wild goat, which stands on four rings (The face of the animal is stylized. The head of the statuette ending with two horns (probably, used as a pendant). The length of the statuette is 4,5 cm, while the height is 2,4 cm. (Tab. 1; Pic. 1)); the miniature bell – conically shaped, made of bronze (Its height is 2 cm, diameter of the rim - 1,2 cm (Tab. 1. Pic. 2)); the golden ring with the cornelian bead; the disk-like button made from glass; the cornelian and agate beads (Tab. 1. Pic. 4)[1][2].

  The pottery figure (a drinking vessel) of the dear is a subject of our special interest. It is fired in reddish-brown and is characterized by the elongated cylindrical body. The end of the body is flat. The figure inside is hollowed. The hollowed body is connected to the mouth of the deer with the very narrow duct for fluid. There is the round orifice for pouring the liquid on the back of the vessel. The small flat handle is fixed on the orifice and at the end of the body of the figure. On the upper part of the handle is fixed the small knob. There is the small projection at the end of the handle, which stylistically creates the tail of the deer. The figure stands on four small projections, which symbolized legs. There are stylistically depicted eyes, ears, nose and mouth on the head of the figure. The head ends with two horns. The hollow is connected to the mouth with the very narrow channel. Apparently, when the figure was filled with the liquid, it dropped from the mouth of the deer. 

The figure is wheel-made – there are traces of a wheel on the surface and on the inner side. The figure is slightly asymmetrical. It is made of a well-washed and a well-fired clay. The dimensions of the vessel are: the length - 25,5 cm; the height - 16,2 cm; the largest diameter of the belly - 10,7 cm; the diameter of the end of the body - 8 cm; the diameter of the mouth – 6,3 cm; the height of the back legs -  3 cm; the height of the front legs - 3,9 cm (Tab. 3)[3].

  The jug (table-ware) fired in reddish was also found in the grave. The surface of the jug is red-painted and polished. It is characterized with the round out-turned rim with the high cylindrical neck, the high oval-shaped body and the flat bottom. The handle is fixed on the rim and on the shoulder. There is the small knob on the upper part of the handle. The neck of the jug is ornamented with the relief rib. The jug is made of a well-washed and a well-fired clay. The dimensions of the jug are: the height - 22 cm, the diameter of the body - 12 cm, the diameter of the bottom - 7 cm (Tab. 2).

Gudabertka grave is well dated by the above mentioned jug with the rib on the neck. Its characteristic morphological signs developed in Eastern Georgia only from the second half or from the end of the 3rd century A.D.

During the 1st-3rd  (the first half) centuries A.D. the jugs with ribs were characterized by low proportions. They had a wide bottom, a low body and a low neck. From the second half of the 3rd century A.D., morphological signs of the jugs changed significantly and a leading position was occupied by jugs with high proportions – a neck and a body turned noticeably higher. At the end of the 3rd century A.D., appeared the tendency of fixing the upper parts of handles on a rim, while in the 1st-3rd cc. A.D., upper parts of handles were fixed on a rib (on the centre of a neck) [Mirianashvili, 1983:49].

  The jug found in Gudabetka grave had parallels in many burial sites of Eastern Georgia, which date back to the end of the 3rd century or to the beginning of the 4th century A.D. Such types of jugs were found on Zguderi cemetery (Dzama Gorge) [Nemsadze, 1991:125], Akhali Zhinvali cemetery [Ramishvili, 1983:104;114], Aragvispiri cemetery [Robakidze, 1982:86], Urbnisi cemetery [Chilashvili, 1964:60-83], Grakliani Gora cemetery, grave No 2, where the jug with similar morphological signs was found [Kvirkvelia… 2011:53].

The group of jugs, which formed after the second half or after the end of the 3rd century A.D. totally replaced the jugs and jars having low proportions. On the threshold of the 4th century, high proportions of jugs dominated in Eastern Georgia. The jug from Gudabertka grave belongs to the group, which formed at the end of the Late Antique period.

The miniature statuette of the wild goat found in Gudabertka grave is very important (Tab. 1; Pic. 1). Along with a deer, in the Caucasus and in many other countries, there was a widespread cult of a wild goat. Therefore, archaeological findings represent a great number of different images of this animal. A wild goat as a symbol of reproduction, fertility and incarnation of the deity of wild animals was widely spread in the mountains of Western Georgia. However, archaeological findings prove that it was known even in Eastern Georgia [Ramishvili, 2007:15].

In Georgia the ancient samples of statuettes of wild goats date back to the 14th -12th cc. B.C. In the Late Bronze Age, figures with pendants of wild goats were met in the Southern and Northern Caucasus.

  Apparently, the figures (pendants) with the images of a wild goat or a deer were  increasing met in the monuments of the Late Antique period (in Mtskheta, Jinvali cemetry, Aragvi basin, Liachvi Gorge, Lechkhumi).

 Similar figures found in the graves of the 2nd - 4th (the first half) centuries seem to be the final of such type of the imagery - neither of them were found in the graves of the Early Medieval period as well as in the cultural layers of settlements [Ramishvili, 2007:18].

The conical miniature bell from Gudabertka grave (Tab.1; Pic. 1) had the parallels of the Late Antique period found in the cemeteries of Eastern Georgia. The similar bronze miniature bells were found in Jinvali cemetery (in the graves of the 1st - 4th cc. A.D.) as well as in Samtavro, Kldeeti, Karsniskhevi, Ertso. etc. [Chikhladze, 2015:209]. In Samtavro cemetery the Bronze bells were met in the graves of  the 3rd - 4th (the first half) centuries A.D. [Manjgaladze, 1985: 101-107].

The bronze bells were mainly discovered in the archaeological complexes dated to the Antique period. Most of them were found in cemeteries. The miniature bells consist of three parts: a tang, a body and a tongue. As usual, they are moulded with a tang. They are mainly made from bronze. The tongues of bronze miniature bells are made from iron, which easily oxidized. Therefore, iron tongues have not survived [Chanishvili, 2005:19] (The bronze miniature bell, which was discovered in Gudabertka grave, had not got a tongue. It might be made from iron).

Apparently, conical miniature bells existed for a long time in Eastern Georgia. They were attested in archaeological complexes dating from the 8th -7th century B.C. to the 3rd-4th centuries A.D.

  The miniature bells were ritual objects and they might have the function of an amulet. It is also suggested, that they were used as objects of a symbolized link between the sky and the earth.  The sky was a hemisphere form of a miniature bell. Its connection with the earth was similarized with a tongue [Apakidze...1996: 32-33].

If this suggestion is correct, we should assume that the miniature bells were used for the ritual purposes and presumably, symbolized the transformation of a deceased’s soul from this world to the heaven.

The Late Antique period round mirrors made of bronze were rarely found in the archaeological complexes. They were mainly attested on the territory of Kartli, especially in Mtskheta, in the graves dated to the 2nd-4th  cc. A.D. [Manjgaladze, 1985:101-107].

  The bronze mirror was also found in the archaeological site of „Grakliani hill“, in the grave, which belonged to a young man. He was 16-22 years old when he died. The grave dates back to the 3rd-4th cc. A.D. [Kvirkvelia… 2011: 53].

   Accordingly, on the basis of the parallels, the grave from „Gudabertka“  dates back to the end of the 3rd century or beginning of the 4th century A.D.

Among the grave materials, a special importance acquires the deer-shaped figure, which has no exact parallels among the synchronized archaeological sites of Georgia, but the rhytons with the images of a deer or other animals are presented in the monuments of material culture of Georgia and the Middle East.

  Deer-shaped or stag-shaped pottery figures are also attested on the territory of Abkhazia, in „Akhacharkhu“ [Шамба, 1970:64-65] and „Abgidzarakhu“ [Трапш, 1971:205] cemeteries. They date back to the first half of the 4th century A.D.

 As it seems, in Eastern Georgia the tradition of producing animal-shaped pottery figures (rhytons) began in the Late Iron Age. In the cemetery of Treligorebi, in the kurgan-type graves, were discovered an ox-shaped and a ram-shaped pottery figures dated to the 8th – 7th cc. B.C. [Abramishvili...1975:19-20]. These figures were donated to leaders of tribes and presumably, were related to a certain ritual.

Animal-shaped pottery figures have been known from the archaeological complexes of the Near East since the Late Neolithic period [Mellaart, 1961: 66].

The archaeological data prove that a deer (or a stag) was considered as a sacred animal and was an object of the worship for a long time in Anatolia. The earliest ceramic rhytons with the images of deer, lions and oxen appeared in the Late Neolithic period.  As it seems, their  production increased in the Late Bronze Age. Rhytons were produced in Cyprus, in Mycenae and in the Aegean world [Cline, 1991: 134]. Similar figures were found on the territories of Iran and Azerbaijan, where they were regularly produced from the second half of the 2nd millennium B.C. to the Parthian-Sasanian period [Haerinck, 1983].

  The figures with the images of a ram (and other animals) and with a spout centred on the back of the figure were discovered in Northern-Western Iran, in Ardabil Province, in the archaeological sites of the Parthian period. These figures date back to the 1st c. B.C. - the 2nd c. A.D. [Haerinck, 1983].

  The archaeological Museum of Tehran exhibits the clay rhytons with images of various animals dated to the Parthian period. Among them, we are able to find the deer-shaped figure fired in reddish. The head ends with two horns, with the spout centred on the back of the figure. It was found on the territory of Azerbaijan.

  Such kind of figures were known from the archaeological complexes of the Eastern Europe [Клейман 1982: 267]. 

  The archaeological findings show that the cult of a deer had quite old and deep roots in Eastern and Western Georgia.

  The cult of a deer occupied an important place in the oldest religions of the Georgian and Caucasian peoples. The Georgian ethnographic and folkloric materials prove that a deer was related to hunting, fertility and the revival of nature (a deity).

  In the Georgian folklore a deer is often represented as a supernaturally talented creature associated with the universe. The connection between the deities of the wildlife and fertility is clearly visible. The deer is also the symbol of the land and is related to the Great Mother’s Cult [Surguladze, 2003:33].

The horns of a deer, as their main special marking sign, were especially emphasized in the folk oral speech and in fine arts. People’s imagination and historical materials prove, that horns had a great importance. The horns of a deer also symbolized vine or any shoot. They were often associated with the tree of life [Surguladze, 2003:33].

 According to the archaeological findings, the existence of the cult of a deer on the territory of Georgia was evidenced from the Chalcolithic period. The oldest images of a deer were known from Lower Kartli.

  It is supposed that a deer was associated with the agrarian cult of fertility and symbolized the development of farming at the end of Chalcolithic period and in the beginning of the Early Bronze Age [Kikvidze, 1976: 190-191].

A deer actively circulated in Georgia from  the Chalcolithic period to the Antique Age.

The cult of a deer was widely spread in the Late Antique period. Its images were depicted on seals, ships, belts, buckles, diadems. Deer-shaped pendants were also created.

   Besides the archaeological artefacts, the Georgian written sources depict an important role of the cult of a deer in the Georgian pagan pantheon. According to „The Life of Kartli“ (“Kartlis Tskhovreba”), first Iberian king Parnavaz hunted on a deer before founding the kingdom of Kartli. „The Life of Parnavaz“ mentions that he discovered the treasure, became a king and founded the Kingdom of Iberia. The deer led Parnavaz to the treasure [Leonti Mroveli, 1955:21-22].  The source depicts the strength of the cult of a deer in Georgia of the Antique Age.

  Hunting on a deer was always associated with certain rituals and beliefs. This motive was preserved for a long time among the Georgian tribes inhabiting the Georgian territory. This is seen from the archaeological materials of different periods.

  The cult of a deer seems very strong - even the Christian religion was not able to ignore it. It was transformed into the Christian symbol and became one of the most important pre-Christian symbols [Digmelashvili, 2010:68].

The transformation of a deer from the pagan cult into the Christian symbol is well depicted in „St. Nino’s life“, which is inserted in “Moktsevai Kartlisai”. According to this source, king Mirian sent his carpenters for making crosses. The carpenters cut the magical tree, which cured the injured deer [Moktsevai Kartlisai, 1963:159].

  The magic tree, mentioned in the source, may be related to the pagan life tree (the pagan life tree is transformed into the  Christian cross), whose fruit was considered to be life-giving. Therefore, the plot of the source depicts how the pagan cult (which in this case is associated with a deer and the life tree) was Christened [Digmelashvili, 2010:66].

According to the above mentioned, the deer-shaped pottery figure from Gudabertka (as well as the figures of a deer discovered in Abkhazia) is a ritual drinking vessel or a special vessel for storing a pure liquid.

This supposition is stipulated by the fact that such figures are very rarely attested on the territory of Georgia of the Late Antique period. Such kinds of vessels were not serially produced. They were produced only for special (presumably, for ritual) cases.

Supposedly, the meaning of the figures of a deer found in the graves was the accompaniment of a deceased’s soul in the heavenly world, because in the imagination of Georgia’s population, a deer was a leader of souls into the heavenly world.

The discovery of the figures of a deer in the graves may indicate to patriarchal religious beliefs. After the death of a head of a family, a figure of a deity-animal was put in his grave. The deity-animal should be worshiped by the family (in this case, a deer) [Шамба, 1970:65]. Such ritual had a long tradition in Georgia, which is proved by the archaeological materials.

  While discussing the cult of a deer spread on the territory of Georgia, foreign factors should also be considered, in particular, cultural and political influences of the Near East, where a deer had been a sacral animal and worshiping its cult had a long tradition.

The close political-economic and cultural relations with the Near East (which deepened during the Antique period with Achaemenid Iran, Parthian or Sasanian Empires, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia) significantly influenced the local religious beliefs. The archaeological and written sources prove that in the Late-Antique period the influence of Iranian culture on the Georgian pagan pantheon significantly increased [Dundua...2010].  A clear evidence of such influence is the strength of fire-worship or the popularity of the cult of Mithras on the territory of Georgia.

Thus, the Iranian world could be one of the sources of a wide spread of figures of a deer and any pagan deity or religion rituals connected with them on the territory of Georgia of the Late-Antique period.

  The influences of the neighbouring regions made no significant dissonance in the beliefs of the local population, because during this period they knew Iranian pagan deities, religious beliefs and ritual objects connected to them (It should be mentioned that Zoroastrian inhabitants lived in the majority of the cities of Eastern Georgian. It is also suggested that Georgian pagan deities (Gaim, Anina, Armaz) derived from the Iranian pagan gods (Mitra, Anahita, Ahura Mazda). It can be said that the deities of Iranian origin created the main triad of the Georgian pagan pantheon [Dundua...2010:77]).

  However, despite the above mentioned, it should be taken into consideration that the cult of a deer occupied an important position in the local pagan pantheon for quite a long time. Therefore, the rituals dedicated to it should have a long tradition.

The deer-shaped figures found in Gudabertka and Abkhazia represent the materials of  graves, but presumably they were not produced for the graves. Supposedly, the figures of a deer were used by their owners during performing religious rituals (of course, the usage of such kind of vessels in daily life is excluded). It is possible that deer-shaped figures were utilized during celebrating festivities dedicated to the Great Mother’s Cult, which should also be associated with farming.

  Based on the nature of the pagan pantheon, we can suggest that in the Late Antique period in Eastern Georgia each village or settlement should have its deity and therefore, should perform some pagan rituals dedicated to it.

 Archaeological discoveries reveal that the pagan rituals associated to the cult of a deer had to be conducted by pagan priests in whole Iberia or in its particular villages and communities.

  During performing such rituals, an important attribute should be figures (pottery rhytons) of a deer made from clay (or other materials). It seems that during these rituals, miniature bronze statuettes of a wild goat or a deer and miniature bronze bells had an important function.

  The discovery of the above mentioned materials in one grave may indicate to the fact that they were related to the same pagan ritual and were used by the deceased during the cult ritual.  

Therefore, the ritual objects  - the clay figure of a deer, the miniature bronze statuette of the wild goat, the mirror and the miniature bell – should  be put in the grave of a person who used them for carrying out rituals dedicated to the cult of a deer. Consequently, the excess of ritual objects found in the grave indicate that it should belong to the pagan priest. 

All the above mentioned indicate that the dead person (found in Gudabertka archaeological valley and dated to the 3rd-4th cc. A.D.) had a special role in the society.  Moreover, the figure of the deer discovered in the grave is a very important archaeological artefact. Its significance is increased by the fact that the figure is unique and does not have any analogues among the synchronous archaeological sites of Georgia. Therefore, it is difficult to determine an exact functional purpose and significance of the deer-shaped figure, but we hope that future archaeological discoveries and scientific researches will clarify the issue.


[1] The grave materials were given to  Gori Historical-Ethnographical Museum in 1973.

[2] We thank to Zviad Sherazadishvili – a collaborator at Gori Historical-Ethnographical Museum, for helping us during the work on the grave materials.

[3] Graphic tables of the grave materials belong to Rusudan Beridze – a collaborator at Georgian National Museum.


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