Azerbaijan International

Winter 2006 (14.4)
Pages 54-57

Underwater Archaeology in the Caspian
Past, Present and Hopefully Future

by Zhenya Anichenko, Certified Scuba Diver

Zhenya Anichenko [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 1960s.

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 cultural resources.

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.

Ancient History
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 Darya
1 had ever flowed into the Caspian Sea2 and thus provided a navigable route to rich outposts of Central Asian trade located in Khiva3 and Bukhara4.

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.

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 Caspian
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 accounts.

Further south along the Caspian coast, the city of Derbent [Darband in Azeri]
9 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

Sabayil Castle
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 text.

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 Studies
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?

Viktor Kvachidze
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: June 2006

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 new perspectives.

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 its protection.

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 years.

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 underwater research.

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.

Restarting Underwater Research
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 new level.

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.

Left: 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 Seas.

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 and expertise.

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 archaeology.

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:

1. 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.

2. 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, p. 263.

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 25, 2007.

5. 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.

6. 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

7. Yu. A. Karpychev, "Variations in the Caspian Sea Level in the Historic Epoch," Water Resources, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2001, p. 5.

8. 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

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.


Back to Index AI 14.4 (Winter 2006)

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