Azerbaijan International

Winter 2006 (14.4)
Pages 58-65

Under the Sea
Hidden Treasures
First Expeditions Beneath the Caspian

by Dr. Viktor Kvachidze
(pronounced kva-CHID-ze)

And just what did ancient man think about this vast body of water that today we call the Caspian Sea? When we delve into old manuscripts, we discover that they were, indeed, very puzzled about the Caspian. Of course, today we know that it really is a lake and not a sea at all. The Caspian has no outlet into any ocean, so technically speaking, it isn't a sea at all despite its name.

People in ancient times wondered if the Caspian was somehow connected to oceans in the frigid north. Alexander the Great from Macedonia (356-323 BC) is said to have been curious to know if the Caspian Sea flowed into the Arctic Ocean. They say that he even attempted to organize an expedition to explore this possibility. However, the first known expedition to map the Caspian was actually carried out by the Russian explorer Patrokov (283-282 BC).

Even though he never succeeded in reaching the northern-most tip of the Caspian shores, he was the first person ever to attempt to measure this vast body of water. He found it to be 435 kilometers (270 miles) at its widest part, and 1025 kilometers (637 miles) long.

As the northern part of the Caspian becomes very icy in winter, this is probably the reason why Patrokov was not able to complete his mission pushing further north to understand if there were any relationships between the Caspian and other bodies of water. So he could not confirm whether or not it flowed into the Arctic Ocean.

Click on photos to enlarge:




Under the Sea
But it wasn't until Frenchman Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) invented the first scuba diving equipment known as the aqua-lung in 1942-1943 that serious exploration could be carried out beneath the surface of the sea. The aqua-lung enabled divers to explore underwater at significant depths for extended lengths of time.

Above: Getting suited up in preparation to make a dive. Eastern coast of Azerbaijan. Left: Gennadiy Pastumkov and Victor Kvachidze, 1972.

Cousteau captured the imagination of the world with his famous popular TV series, "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau". In the Soviet Union, we also watched. Cousteau's underwater explorations made such an impact on us as young people that some of us even tried to make diving equipment ourselves. Cousteau opened up a new world for us. It's to his credit that we were so determined to explore the Caspian.

Azerbaijan is an ancient land. As historians and archaeologists, wherever we turn, we see evidence of early history and culture. Because so much archaeological evidence in Azerbaijan can be found on the surface of the earth, I was convinced that there would also be an enormous body of evidence lying at the bottom of the sea as well.

Then in 1968 I had the idea to create an underwater archaeological expedition in conjunction with the Azerbaijani History Museum. Both Pusta Azizbeyova, Director and Academician, and Yanpolski, Head of our Department and Doctor of Historical Sciences, supported this idea. Also one of the German specialists in the sphere of underwater research was studying at the Higher Naval School and he also became interested in underwater archaeological research in Azerbaijan.

Our group was organized with the approval of the Committee on Science and Techniques of the Soviet Union. A special plan was worked out on the research of underwater archaeological monuments and coastal monuments in the waters of the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan's territory by the Ministry and the Presidium. But organizing such an expedition as well as training for it was not an easy task.

Maritime archaeology differs considerably from traditional archaeology. Not only does it require enormous depth and breadth in numerous fields, but underwater archaeologists must also have a vast knowledge about the sea and its currents and they must technically master diving equipment as well.

Examples of ceramics found in the Caspian sea. Click to enlarge:

Various examples of ceramics found in the Caspian sea. Many were painted with birds or animals and geometric shapes. Some are believed to date back to the 12th century. Archaelogists have identified three colorsmade from a combination of natural oxides to create the colors: green, purple and yellowish brown.

Photos: Blair/Ceramics from collection of underwater ceramics at Azerbaijan's National History Museum/Victor Kvachidze

Getting Started

We had many things to learn. First, we had to study what our own Soviet scientists knew about maritime archaeology. Then we had to learn about diving equipment, where to procure it and how to use it responsibly to prevent any serious accident or even death. Then we had to get all the official approvals for this kind of investigation. All these things were necessary to accomplish even before starting any expedition or project.

So several of us headed off to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Moscow to acquaint ourselves with the work of V.D. Blavatskiy (-1987), a professor of Historical Sciences and the first person in the Soviet Union ever to carry out underwater archaeological projects. Blavatskiy had explored the Black Sea and authored such books as "Ancient Archaeology of the North Black Sea Coastal Area" (Moscow 1961) and "The Towns of the Bosphorus" (Moscow 1952-1958). In addition, he had written numerous articles about his underwater archaeological expeditions. So that's how we got started.

The First Dive
Then we were faced with the question of where we should plan our first underwater investigation. The first dive was organized in 1969. From medieval times, a number of writers had observed that there were monuments submerged along the Caspian shores of Azerbaijan. For example, we have manuscripts that describe about the Bayil [sometimes referred to as Sabayil or Sabail] monuments belonging to a fortress or caravanserai in the Baku Bay. They had sunk sometime between the end of the 13th century and beginning of the 14th centuries [See: "Mystery of the Sunken Castle Sabayil: Many Questions Still Plague Archaeologists" by Sakina Nasirova, Azerbaijan International, 8.2 (Summer 2000). Search at Azerbaijan International's Web site].

Above: Variations in the coastline of the Caspian Sea from Bandavan Bay to Kur Delta (1841-1861). Also Fluctuations of the Caspian Seal Level in the 20th century, according to research by Zaykov in 1946.

Several medieval authors, including the Persian-speaking scientists Idrisi and Mahsudi, noted that certain towns and villages had been submerged in the estuary of the river Kur.

Other research led to the Venetian statesman and geographer Marino Sanuto who is sometimes referred to as Sanuto the Elder of Torcello (ca.1206-1338) [Wikipedia: "Marino Sanuto", February 10, 2007]. Sanuto had drawn a map of the Caspian noting the most significant towns and villages along our southern coastline that had been flooded and were submerged in the sea. So all these medieval manuscripts helped us tremendously in our own research. There is also mention of some of these flooded towns in the works of Abbasgulu agha Bakikhanov, Abdurrashid Bakuvi and others.

I was curious to study such phenomena. In the process, I believed such an investigation would reveal knowledge about ancient navigation and also provide information about how early people made use of the shoreline and what their coastal towns looked like.

But where were these hidden cities located? Where should we start diving? Where would the best location be to start our underwater investigation? We decided to ask the local fishermen and the people living along the coast to see if they could provide clues. So we described our project in local newspapers asking if anyone had seen any construction or monuments lying at the bottom of the sea.

The advice from fishermen was exceptionally helpful. They kept telling us that where they set their nets they often found a lot of ceramics under the water. So, we started our exploration there in the Kur River estuary that feeds into the Caspian, since this water way originates in Georgia and transverses the length of Azerbaijan. Both archaeological as well as historical literature suggested that at one time there had been a connection between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea via the Kur and Rioniya Rivers (the Georgian name for the Kur).

At first we explored nearby the seacoast, thinking there might have been a settlement nearby. Gradually, we moved out away from the coast. We were given the vessel of Volodya Dubinin from the Marine Technical School for the expedition. When we got out of the boat and approached to the coast, we could feel pieces of ceramic under our feet. At every our step, something broke under our feet. Had we had a truck there, I believe we could have completely filled it with pieces of ceramics.

Despite how exciting such diving expeditions might sound, we experienced countless difficulties. Even the mere task of acquiring scuba diving equipment during Soviet time was difficult. Finding scuba diving suits was a problem, too.
However, nothing could compare with our knottiest problem of getting compressors, which function to pump air into the aqua-lung equipment. More importantly, we had to make sure that they didn't break down on us. We had no compressors here in Azerbaijan so friends from Moscow brought them to us. But, frankly speaking, even these compressors were a big headache for us! Something always seemed to go wrong with this simple equipment. It was in a constant state of disrepair, which, of course, could have endangered our lives.

Our rudimentary equipment enabled us to dive for sessions of about 30-40 minutes. We still have this equipment that we used nearly 40 years ago. When the History Museum reopens, we'll put that old scuba diving equipment on display in a section devoted to maritime archaeology. [Currently, major repairs are going on in the Taghiyev Residence where the History Museum material is exhibited on the ground floor.]

Even though our equipment supposedly could have enabled us to dive to depths of 45 meters, we tended to be rather conservative in taking risks and didn't go deeper than 20 meters. Simply, we didn't have decompression chambers. We were always careful to follow the known rules related to decompression and diving safety when our divers resurfaced.

The decompression process is critical when diving. When a person surfaces after having been submerged for a significant amount of time, one's veins can burst from changes in the water pressure. In fact, scientists have even found bloodstains on animal bones at depths of merely three or four meters. So injuries can occur even in animals if they surface too rapidly.

For greater depths, divers need decompression chambers. Our team didn't have access to them. That's why we couldn't dive very deep. During our expeditions, we did find evidence of sunken ships but, unfortunately, we didn't have the capability to explore the wreckage. To this day, most of the shipwrecks have yet to be investigated. We did find one wreck located at a depth of 45 meters between Jilov and Pirallahi, the two largest islands of the Absheron archipelagos.

Another problem that we faced during our dives were the strong underwater currents. The Caspian can be quite unpredictable. Winds can whip up suddenly and separate the boat from the divers. But, in general, our expeditions were carried out without any major mishaps or life-threatening incidents. We were fortunate.

One of the unique aspects related to conducting maritime archaeology has to do with the influence of waves and underwater currents on the placement of submerged objects. With archaeology carried out on land, you can always count on coming back day after day and finding your object of study always there.

But with underwater archaeology, sometimes divers need to return to the very same location several times. It's possible not to find anything one day but then to return and dive again - sometimes even a few weeks later - and make valuable discoveries. That's exactly what happened with us once at Amburan [Absheron Peninsula] where we found many anchors after a storm. We had been diving in one specific place many times with nothing significant to show for our efforts. Then a strong northerly wind blew for about a week. We returned and went down exactly at the same location.

This time we discovered that the wind had pushed away much of the sand and exposed many anchors at the bottom of the sea. It was an amazing find. Our persistence paid off. Even today, Azerbaijan still does not have the necessary equipment to adequately explore underwater even in relatively shallow waters. Furthermore, there haven't been any underwater archaeological expeditions for the past 20 years in Azerbaijan. By 1987, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse and funding was completely cut off.

Then the Karabakh War started in 1988, so we couldn't carry out any expeditions. But we still went and made dives here and there, but such attempts were carried out only on a personal basis, not as official government-sponsored expeditions. Then the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991. The fact is that not a single maritime archaeological project has been carried out since we gained our independence.

We also had difficulties finding adequate transportation to take our team and equipment out to the various sites. Then there were the logistics of acquiring adequate supplies and the preparation of food while on location. As head of the expedition, I was always distracted by those problems. There should have been a special person who was assigned to take care of all these daily logistics.

Fortunately, we had very good people on our team; everybody was cooperative. We would assign two different people each day for these mundane, but necessary, tasks related to food preparation. Somehow, we always managed to have meals three times a day. And whenever anyone caught any fish at the end of the day, we would even enjoy a second dinner that evening.

Contributions to Science
Despite these struggles and difficulties, we did manage to make contributions to the science of maritime archaeology in the Caspian. In 1998 when the History Museum sponsored our 30th Jubilee of Maritime Explorations of the Caspian, we reflected on what we had accomplished. We could take credit for several major accomplishments. One is the investigation of submerged ancient cities that we discovered at Bandavan 1 and Bandavan 2 in the Kur estuary.

We consider Bandavan 1 to be one of the newer cities of the Middle Ages. This is the city of Gushtasfi (alternative spelling: Gushtaspi). This city seems to have come into existence after the 12th century. Many ceramic plates with illustrations of birds were found in this town.

Bandavan 1 is archaeological name of the city Gushtasfi (or Gushtaspi); Bandavan 2, for Mughan. The archaeological site called Bandavan 2 revealed a 9th century city called Mughan, which was located on the three branches of the Kur River. It was a strategic location and on a major trade route. We don't know what happened that the city became inundated. Did the river change its course? Were there cataclysmic events that made the inhabitants leave the settlement? Or did they just simply decide to move to Gushtasfi? We don't know with any certainty.

These discoveries also have contributed to our greater understanding of the fluctuations of the Caspian Sea that have been occurring for thousands of years. Every monument lying at the bottom of the sea provides additional evidence about the rise and fall of the sea. It helps us reconstruct a historical chronology of the sea's fluctuations. Such information assists us in charting both the highest and lowest points of fluctuation. [See "Fluctuating Levels of the Caspian Sea" by Mirzakhan Mansimov and Amir Aliyev, Azerbaijan International, Vol 2.3 (Autumn 1994). Search at].

Twelfth Century Ceramics
Another significant contribution was our discovery of ceramic pottery. We found many plates and bowls painted with birds. Most of them date back to 12th and the beginning of 13th centuries AD. This is the period of flowering of Muslim renaissance, the period of Nizami and the period of development of medieval Azerbaijani towns and with this the development of pottery. We can see the stamps of masters and sometimes their names on these plates. For example, there were names such as "Kasagan Yusif" (meaning, "Yusif", who created this), or "Ahmad".

Imagine, such artwork dates back to the 12th century. It means that these ceramics are older than canvases painted by Leonardo Da Vinci. Who can place a value on such rare artifacts? How would you price such an artwork if it were painted on parchment or canvas? Would you appreciate this? You would say "Ah, what beautiful artwork!" These artists were true craftsmen. And their colors are still vivid despite how many centuries these ceramics have been submerged in the sea. And our contribution is that we discovered these paintings and have worked to preserve them for posterity.

Many ceramics are painted with images of birds and various animals. From ancient times birds have symbolized happiness in both myths and legends. Birds symbolized the sky and, therefore, were considered to be sacred. There are a lot of paintings of doves; perhaps, they were considered holy. Deer symbolized the sun; its horns represented the rays of the sun. Fish represented abundance and goodness. There were also a lot of cheetahs ("leopard" in Russian). Poems were painted on some of them. For example, there is a poem of Saadi (Persian poet) on one of the plates: "Don't stand so proud in front of me, you Beauty. Once, I was also a flower in this garden."

However, as time passed, symbols changed but the tradition of painting these symbols remained. Artists didn't draw images of birds for their meaning but rather because it had merely become a tradition to do so. A close look at the plates on which birds are painted and you can see that they are quite stylized. And, in general, they always face towards the right, not left, direction. Still the artists manage to express their own individualism in each work.

The diameter of plates is up to 28-30 cm. and the cups measure between 12-18 cm. As we see all of the ceramics of this period are covered with a glaze consisting of a white material called "angob". This is a thin layer of clay which is spread over the surface of the ceramic object to intensify the colors, and make them look even brighter.

Three colors dominate these ceramics-green, yellowish brown and purple. These colors were created with oxides and today, the colors are still quite vivid. Green was created with copper oxide. Various shades of yellow and brown were made from ferric oxides. The violet color (which was used the least of all) was made from manganese oxide. Mainly artists used these colors and were so skillful in combining these oxides to create very colorful drawings on the pottery.

I compared the sketches of birds, animals that we found on ceramics at the Bandavan 1 site with found in other cities of Azerbaijan and also Armenia, Georgia, Iran. They are significantly different. There is something unique about the art work in Bandavan. You can sense the expression of independence and brilliance by the artist in their paintings.

How can one explain this? Perhaps, the local people who settled in this city were independent in character. The region was known for its rice plantations in ancient times and it attracted many migratory birds. It seems the artists were very observant which is characteristic of ancient people. Nature inspired them back then, just as it does today.

All archaeological artifacts are valuable in piecing together history. One of the most interesting finds, however, in my opinion is a small head carved from stone which dates back to the Bronze Era, about 2nd century BC. It is one of the oldest artifacts that we ever found during our underwater expeditions. It was discovered at Sangi-Mughan and bears resemblance in technique and features to other carvings that have been found in Siberia. We also found the remnants of pottery kiln there in Bandovan 1, equipment used in the oven during the pottery-making process and a lot of pottery, which had not yet been fired.

The Situation Today
Even though significant archaeological work was carried out during Soviet times, very little information was disseminated throughout the world. Few people knew about the valuable findings that we made here in Azerbaijan. One reason for this was that news primarily featured the greatness of Russia.

Today, now that Azerbaijan has gained its independence, we have more chances to contact museums and scientists in other countries and to share our findings and cooperate in research together. The major obstacle, however, is always financial. I hope that some day expeditions will start up again as there is much evidence of significant historical material lying at the bottom of the Caspian Sea.

Dr. Victor Kvachidze graduated from Baku State University with a major in History in 1956. Later he worked at the Naval School in the Chair of Political Economy of the Communist Party of Soviet Union. While completing military service, he also finished the School of Junior Specialists in Fargana, Uzbekistan, where he specialized as an aviation mechanic. Then he started working at a boarding school in Mardakan, near Baku, as a tutor and teacher. He later was invited to work at Azerbaijan's History Museum [housed in the residence of Oil Baron Taghiyev in downtown Baku] loacted at 4 Taghiyev Street.

Today, the museum is Victor's second home. He's been working there for 40 years, since 1967. In addition to his interest in History and Underwater Archaeology, he is also very interested in art and specifically African art. He enjoys carving masks and various objects from wood. He also enjoys painting.

Victor has recently completed exhibits for the Azerbaijan History Museum ranging from the Paleolithic period up to modern times, as well as artifacts, especially pottery found during underwater expeditions.

Ulviyya Mammadova and Gulnar Aydamirova were involved in the preparation of this article and photographs.


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