Archaeology in the Caspian
Present and Hopefully Future
by Zhenya Anichenko, Certified Scuba Diver
[pronounced "a-ni-CHEN-ko"] was so captivated by legends
that described submerged monuments in the Caspian that in the
summer of 2006 she made her way from Alaska to Azerbaijan in
quest of learning more.
Zhenya, a certified scuba diver,
came in search of the Viktor Kvachidze who had initiated underwater
archaeological exploration and research in the Caspian in the
Fortunately, she succeeded in finding him - a historian and maritime
archaeologist who for the past 30 years has been working with
Azerbaijan's History Museum under the auspices of Academy of
Science. Unfortunately, she discovered that underwater archaeology
had come to a grinding halt with the collapse of the Soviet Union
15 years earlier.
Zhenya dreams of the day when research will start again and Azerbaijani
scientists will have the equipment and training to pursue their
quest in unlocking some of the mysteries that lie at the bottom
of the sea.
She dreams of becoming involved as well. She's convinced that
the technological basis for such maritime research might be readily
available in the region especially since oil companies possess
sophisticated equipment for survey of underwater natural resources,
some of which she is convinced could also be used for locating
She believes that cooperation between these two sectors could
lead to the establishment of a Center for Underwater Archaeological
Research and Cultural Resources Protection. If such a center
could be established, it would be the very first submerged heritage
center in the entire Caspian region.
Located on the periphery of European civilization, the Caspian
Sea has, for centuries, been veiled in mysteries and legends.
Assyrians believed that this vast body of water was the home
of the sun from whence it rose every morning and to which it
returned to rest at night.
Ancient Greek geographers argued about whether the Caspian was
a land - locked body of water or a gulf of the Northern Ocean.
Medieval authors spared no ink describing the fierce local tribes
of Gog and Magog, who had been defeated and locked behind iron
gates by Alexander the Great until Doomsday when they would return
to destroy the world.
In the 19th century, heated scientific discussions arose around
the issue of whether the great Asian river Amu Darya1 had ever flowed into the Caspian Sea2 and thus provided a navigable route
to rich outposts of Central Asian trade located in Khiva3 and
Today, we know a lot more about the Caspian Sea. Its geography,
hydrographic characteristics and natural resources have been
the topics of thorough research for decades. Still the sea has
not yielded up many of its mysteries. Lost ships and forgotten
cities still lie submerged beneath Caspian waves, awaiting explorers
to reveal their secrets.
The Caspian is the largest inland body of water on Earth. It
extends from the marshy delta of the Volga River in Russia in
the North to the coast of Iran in the south, from the mountain
ranges of the Northern or Great Caucasus of Azerbaijan in the
west to the Turkmen and Kazakh deserts in the east. Essentially,
some would argue that the Caspian is the world's largest lake.
Long and relatively narrow, it extends 1,200 km (745 miles) north
to south and 320 km (210 miles) east to west.
Shallow along the northern shores,
the sea deepens towards the south, reaching its maximum depth
at about 1,025 meters (3,363 ft). Its north-south orientation
and the significant depth variation create rich and diverse ecosystems
and contribute to the wealth of the sea's biological resources,
which have attracted people to settle along its shores for millennia.
Names Through History
Throughout history people living along the coasts of the Caspian
and the foreigners who came to the region either by trade or
military exploits have referred to this great body of water by
various names: Hirkanian, Khazarian, Khvalynian, Caspian, Mare
Corvzum and Mare de Bachu.5 Each name bears historical reference
to a country or nation that once flourished there. An early region
of habitation for man, the Caspian coastal plains are lands where
many ancient civilizations originated, mingled and sometimes
even clashed with one another.
The sea was generous to the
people. It provided an abundant source of seafood, salt and oil,
not to mention one of the most convenient modes of transportation.6 It also contributed to the rise of
local economies and cultural exchange. However, these benefits
came with a price tag.
Sea Level Fluctuation
Isolated from the world ocean, the Caspian is known for its dramatic
fluctuation in water level. Its current level is 28 meters below
absolute sea level.
Analysis of geomorphologic and
historic data over the period from the first century AD to the
beginning of the third millennium shows seven periods of significant
Caspian sea level rise, each followed by a regression. According
to Yu. A. Karpychov, levels of the Caspian Sea peaked during
the 1st, 3rd, 6th, 9th, 14th, 17th and 19th centuries AD.
The time lapse between periodic sea level peaks averaged between
200-280 years. These variations dramatically affected the history
of local states. Like an invincible invader, the quiet power
of the sea conquered fortresses and cities without the use of
a single arrow or bullet. One of the longest sea level regressions,
for example, lasted more than 400 years, only to reverse itself
at the close of the 15th century and rise nearly seven meters
higher than the high level recorded in 1999.7
Though not a flood of Biblical proportions, this course of natural
events brought about significant changes for the people living
along the seacoast. Advancing waves claimed many coastal communities
and put an end to a half-millennium old pattern of habitation,
giving literal meaning to the expression "the tides of history".
Legends of the
The unique cyclical pattern in the variation of the sea level
of the Caspian has fostered numerous legends, historical accounts
and theories regarding the inundated sites of the territory.
Many believe that countless mysteries of the region are located
at the bottom of the Caspian Sea.
For example, according to some people, off the coast of Northern
Dagestan lies the third and last capital of Khazar Khaganat,
the fabled city of Itihl, which flourished from the 9th to 12th
centuries CE, and then mysteriously vanished from historical
Further south along the Caspian coast, the city of Derbent [Darband
presents another enigma.
According to some medieval chronicles, one of its walls stretched
300 meters into the sea. Why and how it was built remains a subject
of discussion. Legends credited its construction to giants. Historians
argue whether it was an element of harbor fortification, a medieval
marina, or just a city wall claimed by the rising sea
Down along the coast of Azerbaijan, similar discussions surround
a site in the Bay of Baku, known as Sabayil Castle or Bayil Rocks.10 This 14th century structure, whether
a fortress, castle, caravanserai or, perhaps, even a residence
belonging to the Shirvan Shah, now lies completely submerged
and has prompted many interpretations. But its mysteries caught
my imagination for a different reason.
Quite accidentally, I chanced upon a description of Sabayil published
in a 19th century issue of Naval Digest. Like all true passions,
this new obsession to understand more about underwater archaeology
in the Caspian was extremely untimely as it took place in the
fall of 2003 when I was on a research expedition to St. Petersburg,
looking for the materials about a Russian-American Company sailing
ship called Kad'iak.
The scientists with whom I was working at the time had discovered
the shipwreck just a month earlier, and we were preparing for
the first archaeological season on site. It was to be the first
underwater archaeology project undertaken by the state of Alaska
where I was working at the time.
But it wasn't just Sabayil Castle that became a consuming passion
but the very thought of getting a chance to investigate submerged
lands and their archaeological potential for the Caspian and
the history of the region.
Excited and overwhelmed with the sense of responsibility for
this research in Russian literature, I had only two weeks to
sieve through countless archival records and old publications
in search of construction details for the ship, the crew's personal
records and any other potentially useful information.
Yet, despite the heavy workload, I could not stop thinking about
the material that I had accidentally read about Baku's Sabayil
Castle. The article was a matter-of-fact description of the 14th
century "caravanserai" that lay submerged beneath the
sea in the Bay of Baku. Several drawings had accompanied the
By that time, I had been certified as a scuba diver for three
years. A few months earlier I had completed my Master's degree
in Underwater Archaeology at East Carolina University in Greenville,
North Carolina, which is one of only three universities that
offers such a program in the United States.
No Caspian Maritime
My curriculum had included many classes on the theory and history
of Underwater Archaeology and Maritime History throughout the
world. We had examined projects in many countries and discussed
the potential of underwater archaeology around the globe. However,
the topic of the Caspian Sea had never arisen in any of these
discussions. Yet, my very first, quite accidental, encounter
with the topic made it clear to me that the investigation of
submerged cultural heritage in the Caspian Sea was very important,
not to mention, so tantalizingly promising.
Searching for information about underwater research in the Caspian
Sea proved to be difficult. None of the major Underwater Archaeology
Bibliographies or on-line databases provided anything on the
topic, and none of my American and European colleagues could
help me in this search. When researching the literature written
in Russian, I came across many books and articles on the history
of lands around the Caspian, but very few of them dealt with
the history of seafaring.
It took such a long time before I found anything about underwater
Caspian research. I began to wonder if it really could be that
the ever-growing diving community was simply not aware of the
Caspian Sea's potential with its unique physical characteristics
and rich historical legacy. Might the Caspian be the last sea
in the world that had not yet been discovered by maritime archaeologists?
I found that hard to
believe, and one lucky day my skepticism was rewarded. I discovered
that the Caspian, indeed, had its own Underwater Archaeologist.
It was Viktor Kvachidze [pronounced kvah-CHID-zeh] who had been
working at Azerbaijan's Museum of History in Baku for more than
30 years, many of which had been dedicated to underwater diving
expeditions and research.
Once I had identified
his name, my search suddenly became much easier.
Left: After extensive research on the
Internet, Zhenya Anichenko (left) a maritime archaeologist and
scuba diver who lives in Alaska finally got the chance to go
to Baku to meet Viktor Kvachidze, archaeologist and historian
who organized the first underwater archaeological expeditions
in Soviet Azerbaijan in the Caspian in the late 1960s. Photo:
From on-line newspapers and magazines, I learned about some
of Kvachidze's fascinating projects, which included archaeological
sessions related to Sabayil and the inundated medieval settlements
of Bandovan, surveys of the Absheron Peninsula near Baku, an
investigation of Stepan Razin's camp on Svinoi Island and much
more. As pioneering work, each of Kvachidze's projects was an
important breakthrough. Each one opened new horizons and offered
Because of Kvachidze's research, we now possess knowledge that
the coastal waters of Azerbaijan are, indeed, rich with submerged
sites and ancient material culture.
This very knowledge provides the impulse for the development
of Underwater Archaeology, not only in Azerbaijan, but also in
other countries that border the Caspian.
This is especially important now that the Caspian states are
re-emerging after the collapse of the Soviet Union [late 1991],
and are making decisions regarding the common use of the sea's
rich resources, especially petroleum and caviar from sturgeon.
Viktor Kvachidze's work is an essential contribution towards
a more secure future of fascinating underwater sites of Azerbaijan,
both those which have been identified and those yet to be discovered.
His research and enthusiastic articles make people aware of the
importance of the country's submerged cultural heritage, which
is the first and, perhaps, the most important step towards ensuring
During the Soviet period (1920 - 1991), laws governing the use
of the Caspian basically had to be resolved between two countries-the
Soviet Union and Iran. Today, five countries must sign off on
them: Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran.
So joint cooperation is much more cumbersome.
Just like any other biological and natural resource, the submerged
cultural heritage is fragile and irreplaceable. This cultural
heritage needs consistent and thoughtful protection because coastal
and maritime industries, which are the cornerstones of many Caspian
states' economies, are so vulnerable.
Journey to Baku
Very few people in the history of the discipline of Underwater
Archaeology can claim the achievements of such monumental importance
as can Kvachidze. It takes courage, erudition, curiosity, charisma
and, above all, tireless persistence to pioneer in a field of
human knowledge. Kvachidze, as I came to realize during my short
visit to Baku in June 2006, was the embodiment of all these traits.
His generous attention made my trip unforgettable.
There I was, having arrived in Azerbaijan - an unknown country
to me - full of great expectations along with advice for "worst-case
scenarios". My friends and relatives, who were both horrified
by the perspective of my traveling alone to Azerbaijan as well
as puzzled about my motives, had liberally proffered all kinds
of cautious advice. It's easy to understand their concerns, given
the fact that at the time I was currently residing on a small
island off the coast of Alaska.
The trip to Baku proved difficult: it required five connecting
flights and three days of travel just to meet a person whom I
only knew from reading academic publications. My reasons, I thought,
were quite justifiable. Here was a chance to meet the man who
had initiated the study of Underwater Archaeology in the region.
Finally, I would have a chance to ask him questions face to face.
And, at last, I would be able to visit the country I had been
reading about during every spare moment over the last several
Those 10 days this past summer 2006 in Azerbaijan far exceeded
my expectations. Walking through Baku's Old City and traveling
throughout the countryside with Kvachidze offered a superb introduction
to the history of Azerbaijan and to the current situation in
I learned that Underwater Archaeology in Azerbaijan had gotten
off to an exciting start in the late 1960s, but that after several
decades of steady work, it had nearly fizzled out. With Azerbaijan's
independence from the Soviet Union, suddenly they had been cut
off from adequate funding to continue carrying out the underwater
expeditions. In reality, as a consequence, qualified personnel
in Underwater Archaeology have been deprived of the chance to
carry out scientific fieldwork since 1986.
More importantly, the younger generation of local Underwater
Archaeologists have not yet emerged or even been trained. Azerbaijan,
like all of the former Soviet Union republics, with the exception
of Ukraine and Estonia, has no university program in this discipline.
Starting such a program is an enormously difficult task in a
country where, until recently, there has not even been a single
recreational dive shop. The cost of equipment, lack of the faculty
with appropriate credentials, and the concerns regarding whether
such a program would attract a sufficient number of students
are all valid considerations that have put the creation of such
a program on hold. Yet, there is hope that the study of Azerbaijan's
submerged cultural heritage will be able to reach an exciting
Kvachidze's work in the past demonstrated that many cultural
and research institutions of the country, including the Azerbaijan
Academy of Science and the Ministry of Ecology have recognized
the value of underwater research. While these organizations might
lack funds and necessary technology, they provide an academic
context and are in a great position to continue advocating further
research and protection.
The technological basis for such underwater research might also
be readily available in the region: oil companies possess sophisticated
equipment for survey of underwater natural resources, some of
which could also be used for locating cultural resources.
Early maritime archaeological expeditions carried out by Victor
Kvachidze near the Shulan Bay (northern coast of Absheron), 1969
An ideal situation would foster the cooperation between these
two sectors, which could result in the establishment of a Center
for Underwater Archaeological Research and Cultural Resources
Protection, which would be the very first submerged heritage
center in the entire Caspian region.
The experience of other countries shows just how important such
a center could be for the development of maritime research.
The Maritime Museum of Bodrum
in neighboring Turkey, which was founded about 20 years ago,
has developed into one of the most popular museums in the country.It
also has become a research center providing a center for many
famous underwater discoveries in the Black and Mediterranean
Establishing an efficient and comprehensive program for the research
and protection of maritime cultural resources will take time,
commitment, effort and funding. A task of such magnitude is not
likely to be possible without the cooperation between many national
and international institutions. It would take a tremendous effort
to launch such a project but the benefit would be enormous in
reawakening an awareness of history of the region.
There are countless secrets that only the sea can yield to modern
historians, ecologists and archaeologists from the pattern of
early medieval coastal settlements to the medieval traditions
of Caspian shipbuilding and ancient maritime trade. There is
so much hope that the great achievements of underwater research
in Azerbaijan can, indeed, be re-established. The time is now
since those who have made initial explorations in the Caspian
like Viktor Kvachidze are still here with us to share their knowledge
Zhenya Anichenko has a Master's
degree in medieval history (Central European University in Budapest,
Hungary). On her honeymoon, husband Jason took her to Belize
where they got certified in scuba diving. She found the warm
water coral reefs with their 200 feet of visibility so appealing
that she wondered how to combine her love for the Middle Ages
with her new passion for diving. Maritime archaeology seemed
to be one way.
That led her to pursue a Master's degree in Maritime Archaeology
at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, which
offers one of three programs on underwater archaeology in the
United States. In the end, Zhenya successfully found a way to
combine the three passions of her life - history, maritime archaeology
and Jason, who also has made a career for himself in maritime
Last summer 2006, Zhenya made an exploratory trip to Baku to
try to understand the possibilities of maritime research in Azerbaijan.
In the future, she hopes that underwater archaeological projects
will again start up in the Caspian. The sea, she says, holds
so many secrets yet to be revealed. Contact Zhenya: email@example.com.
Amu Darya is the longest river in Central Asia with a length
of 2,400 km (1,500 miles) of which 1,450 km (800 miles) are navigable.
Historical records state that in different periods, the river
flowed into the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea or both. Source: Wikipedia:
Amu Darya, September 8, 2006.
V.V. Bartold, Mesto prokaspiiskikh oblastei v istorii musul'manskogo
mira [The Place of the Caspian Region in the History of the Muslim
World] in Kaspiiski Transit [Caspian Transit], Moscow, 1996,
3. Khiva, a city in Uzbekistan, was described
by Muslim travelers in memoirs written in the 10th century. Archaeologists
assert that the city dates back to the 7th century. Wikipedia:
Khiva, September 8, 2006.
4. Bukhara is located in present-day
Uzbekistan. The historic center of the city is listed by UNESCO
as one of the World Heritage Sites. It contains numerous mosques
and "madrassas" [Islamic schools]. Wikipedia, January
L. Bagrow, "Italians on the Caspian," Imago Mundi,
Vol. 13 (1956), p. 2. According to Dr. Farid Alakbarli of Baku's
Institute of Manuscripts, the word Caspian derives from the name
of the Kaspi tribe, who lived in what is now southeast Azerbaijan
prior to the Christian era. Khazar (Khazar Danizi) is the Azeri
term for the Caspian Sea. In old Persian sources, it was sometimes
referred to as Hirkan (Hirkanian) Sea, a name designating the
vast forested region of Lankaran, which is located in southeast
Azerbaijan along the borders with Iran.
Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002), the well-known Norwegian explorer
and archaeologist, was convinced that early Scandinavians originated
from the Caspian region and found their way via water routes
to northern climes. See "The Azerbaijan Connection: Challenging
Euro-Centric Theories of Migration," by Dr. Thor Heyerdahl
in Azerbaijan International 3.1 (Spring 1995). Search at AZER.com.
Yu. A. Karpychev, "Variations in the Caspian Sea Level in
the Historic Epoch," Water Resources, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2001,
Mamedov, M.G. "Istoriya Dagestana s drevneishikh vremyon
do kontsa XIX veka" (History of Dagestan from Ancient Times
until the End of the 19th Century), Makhachkala, 1997, pp. 121-122.
9. Derbent is a city of the Republic of
Dagestan, Russia. It is the southernmost city in Russia and used
to be an Azerbaijani khanate, thus, today it is primarily populated
by Azerbaijanis. It claims to be the oldest city in the Russian
Federation with settlements dating back to 8th century BC.
10. Sabayil Rocks [sometimes spelled "Sabail"].
See "The Mystery of the Sunken Castle Sabayil: Many Questions
Still Plague Archaeologists" by Sakina Nasirova. Azerbaijan
International 8.2 (Summer 2000). For photos of the castle frieze
on display, see "The Shirvanshah Complex: The Splendor of
the Middle Ages" in the same issue. Search at AZER.com.
See additional articles in this
issue by Viktor Kvachidze's underwater archaeological explorations
of the Caspian Sea.
Early maritime archaeological expeditions carried out by Victor
Kvachidze near the Shulan Bay (northern coast of Absheron), 1969.
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