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31 March 2015
Bronze Age bones evidence of political divination

Coloured stones and dice-like knucklebones used for divination were found deep within the ruins of the fallen citadel of Gegharot, a hilltop fortress on the Tsaghkahovit Plain in central Armenia. Implements discovered in one of three shrines also point to another form of fortune-telling: 'Aleuromancy' refers to divination with freshly ground flour.
     Cornell archaeologist Adam T Smith, a professor of anthropology, studies the role that the material world plays in the political lives of ancient and modern people, and offers an interpretation of the evidence from those 3,300-year-old Bronze Age shrines.
     Excavations conducted at Gegharot since 2002 have turned up a variety of ceremonial, iconic and fortune-telling objects, including censers and basins for burning aromatic plant materials that could induce a trance state, covered clay storage containers where pollen analysis found evidence of wheat, drinking vessels, sculpted clay idols "with vaguely anthropomorphic features and hornlike protrusions", stele which "likely served as focal point for ritual attention", grain-grinding implements and stamp seals to make impressions in dough, dozens of knucklebones of cattle, sheep and goats with certain sides blackened like the markings on dice, and polished stones in colours ranging from black and dark grey, to red, green, and white.
     The Tsaghkahovit Plain was sparsely populated until around 1500 BCE, when a nameless people began to build strongholds and new institutions of rule there. "It was a time of radical inequality and centralised practices of economic redistribution," Smith says.
     "We call them 'shrines' because of two distinctive qualities of the spaces: They were quite intimate in scale, with not much room for public spectacle," Smith explains, "yet they appear to have been religiously charged places, designed and built to host esoteric rituals with consecrated objects - secretive rites focused on managing risks by diagnosing present conditions and prognosticating futures."
     The Bronze Age people who rolled those bones appear to have abandoned the site after about three centuries, around 1150 BCE, leaving their divination paraphernalia in place.

Edited from PhysOrg (13 March 2015)

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