Episode 34. Tiffany Earley-Spadoni: Urartu and digital public engagement: transcript

0:00 JT
Hello. And welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.

0:31 JT
This episode we go somewhere that very few people have heard of: Urartu. From the 9th to the 7th century BC, Urartu was a large and powerful kingdom in the mountainous lands beyond Assyria, their famous neighbour and rival. Their history was inextricably tied to that of Assyria. Some aspects of Urartian culture look similar to what we know from there. There are shared artistic motifs, for example. And they borrowed cuneiform writing, although the language they wrote was very different from what was spoken in Assyria.

1:11 JT
Urartu was a profoundly different place, however. We know about life there from both Urartian and Assyrian sources. The Assyrian letters containing reports from spies in Urartu are especially vivid and exciting. But we also learn a lot from the archaeology of the kingdom itself. Fortresses play a major role.

1:36 JT
Our guest is an expert in Urartu, and has worked extensively on its network of fortresses. She is also strongly committed to public engagement. She makes good use of digital technologies to develop a more inclusive form of history.

1:54 JT
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.

2:07 JT
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.

2:11 TES
Hi, I’m really excited to be here today.

2:14 JT
Can you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?

2:19 TES
My name is Tiffany Earley-Spadoni. I am a digital historian and an archaeologist of the Ancient Near East. I have a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the Johns Hopkins University. I work as an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida, which is in the United States. The University of Central Florida is the largest university in the United States by student enrollment, and we have more than 70,000 students. I teach a variety of classes here. I teach classes on Ancient Near Eastern societies, Mesopotamian history, digital storytelling, and I also teach graduate seminars in digital history and spatial history.

3:01 TES
In terms of different methods that I employ for my research, I work in the area of digital history. So that’s applying high-tech approaches to studying the past. And I specifically work in an area called spatial history, which focuses on Geographical Information Systems. So these are geographical ways of looking at and approaching history. So I focus on the space of history rather than just the time or the chronological approach to history, although obviously I do that, too. In terms of topics that I study, I study fortresses in the hilly and mountainous territories that flank the flat places in Mesopotamia, where ancient cities first developed.

3:48 JT
One of your areas of expertise is ancient Armenia, once home to the Iranians. Many people won’t have heard of them. Could you give us a brief introduction to Urartu and the Urartians, please?

4:01 TES
I somewhat jokingly, somewhat not, say that Urartu is the most important empire that you’ve never heard of. I guess what I mean to say is that Urartu is a really important phenomenon that–rather shockingly–most people have never really heard of. Just to set the stage for you a little bit, at the end of a widespread collapse at the end of the second millennium BCE, we have a period in which a lot of the empires that existed in the second millennium BCE like the Hittite Empire or the Mitanni Empire … a lot of these states dissolve and we never hear from them again. Instead, in the early first millennium BC, the Assyrian state is able to regroup and the neo-Assyrian empire forms. And they expand to create a large empire that encompasses almost the entire Ancient Near East. Now Urartu seems to have been a confederation of kingdoms, in the north, that united under a single banner to confront and oppose the Assyrian menace in the ninth to seventh centuries BCE.

5:10 TES
I will sometimes say that Urartu was the Carthage to the Neo-Assyrian empire’s Rome. Now, this analogy under close scrutiny will fall apart. But the important thing to understand is that Urartu was arguably the most important enemy to the Neo-Assyrian state. It was an important other that was used to create cohesion among the people in the neo-Assyrian empire. In terms of where Urartu was, it was in the hills and mountains in the north and east–so in eastern Anatolia, Iran, and modern day Armenia. In terms of its size, it was approximately five times the size of the modern day state of Switzerland. Urartu was also a very unusual state. Unlike the empires of Mesopotamia, which had an important urban component, so that there were large cities that formed a patchwork of centres of power upon which the empire was constructed. Instead, the Urartian empire seems to have been aggressively non-urban instead centred on these fortresses.

6:22 TES
And sometimes to communicate what these places were like, I will make a comparison to the Lord of the Rings. One good comparison that you could make is that Assyria is like the urban empire of Gondor. Whereas Rohan is more like the land of Urartu. So when I imagine Urartu, I’m always imagining these fortresses dotted all over the countryside. Meanwhile, you have these horse lords galloping about the countryside, going about their business. That’s the sort of place that I imagine that Urartu was.

6:57 TES
So you may wonder how historians or archaeologists know anything about the ancient state of Urartu which was almost entirely lost to time and history, save a few references to Urartu that occur in the Hebrew Bible. However, we have been able to recover and sort of restore a lot of what we know about Urartu through careful historical as well as archaeological work. So how do we know what we know? From historical sources of Assyria, we see both in their historical annals, as well as in their letters of administration, many references to the ancient state of Urartu. And Urartu was a hated enemy that certain kings would obsess over. You see this obsessive interest in the state of affairs of Urartu in the letters of an Assyrian king named Sargon the Second, and from Urartu itself, we also have historical sources. The Urartians wrote their own inscriptions, these large stone cut inscriptions, oftentimes cut into living stones, so into a, you know, a stone face, at the base of a fortress, that sort of thing. And they made hundreds of things all over the empire.

8:13 TES
And they also know about Urartu through archaeology. There have been a number of fortresses that have been excavated, that allows us to know something about this ancient state. However, one sort of big question mark about Urartu … and you asked me to tell you both about Urartu as well as Urartians. Here, I assume that you really want to know about people living in Urartu. That’s something of a mysterious point for us in our understanding about this ancient empire. While there is a clear opportunity to excavate houses of people who live in, for example, Mesopotamian cities, we don’t have a clear idea of where the inhabitants of Urartu lived for the most part, because we assume that they were dispersed throughout the countryside outside of these fortresses. But we haven’t really found many houses of everyday people. There was a late king named Rusa, son of Argishti, sometimes called Rusa the Second in the seventh century BCE, who built large fortresses with lower towns. But this doesn’t appear to have been typical. In the previous couple centuries of Urartian history, we don’t know a lot about where everyday people lived.

9:36 JT
For the last few years, you’ve been leading a project investigating these fortresses. Could you tell us about that project, please?

9:40 TES
The name of the archaeological project is the Vayots Dzor Fortress Landscapes Project. Now that first part of the name–Vayots Dzor–is the region in Armenia where we are working, and that region is located in southern Armenia. And the project was initiated in 2017. It’s directed by myself and my Armenian collaborators, Arthur Petrosyan and Boris Gasparyan. And the purpose of this project is to take a broad regional perspective in understanding how fortresses were organised across this landscape.

10:19 JT
In terms of why this particular region, that’s an interesting story in itself. When I was a doctoral student researching for my dissertation, which was also about fortress networks, I had this wonderful pocket of survey data to the north, near lake Sevan in Armenia. And then I had this really rich data set in northwest Iran. And I always wondered exactly what one might find between these two areas. Because at that time, very little was known about the Vayots Dzor region, which is essentially an important corridor that connects these other two very well-known regions. And so when I had the opportunity to go work in this area, I certainly jumped at it, because it had been something that had sparked my curiosity for a few years. Another thing that this valley has, which is incredibly interesting, is that in addition to having this period of fortification that happens in the late Bronze and early Iron Age–which is a period that overlaps with the Urartian occupation of this valley–there’s also a later medieval fluorescence, or rise of fortress culture, that happens as a part of the sort of broader medieval Silk Roads.

11:45 TES
In this project, we have done extensive surveys–so that is looking in a broad way for the important features in the landscape–as well as intensive surveys–and that’s when we bring teams of people out, and we look very closely for smaller, less visible features in the landscape, let’s say–as well as soundings at fortresses. And a sounding is a sort of miniature excavation in which we are digging, perhaps a two meter by two meter excavation unit, down to the point at which we don’t find anything anymore–which we call virgin soil–in order to understand exactly what the occupation at a particular fortress looks like. And this project isn’t obviously just me and my two Armenian collaborators, but it involves a large group of Armenian graduate students, of undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Central Florida, as well as specialists in various archaeological disciplines. And we have also had collaborators from the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, etc.

12:56 JT
Your team has been looking at this network of fortresses. What have you found out about how they’re organised and why that’s important?

13:05 TES
Right. And so one thing that we have discovered for both the late Bronze Age / early Iron Age fortresses–and that those will include the fortresses of Urartu–as well as the medieval fortresses, is that fortresses were not one off constructions. Instead, they were imagined as being part of a network that would provide various functions in the landscape. These networks didn’t just consist of fortresses either. I’ll step back a second to define what a fortress is. And here, what I mean by fortress is a sort of larger multi-use structure. So it might act as a stable or certain Urartian fortresses also had temples inside. So this is going to be a larger structure, it’s not a tiny thing. Forts on the other hand, can be smaller structures. There were also fortified settlements, watch towers and wall segments. And so all these little pieces were situated throughout a landscape and can be considered part of the building blocks of these fortified regional networks of fortresses.

14:12 TES
In the Ancient Near East, we tend to get two basic groupings, or kinds of fortresses … or not fortresses, but fortifications rather … we see massively fortified cities and that’s what we’re going to see a lot in the Syro-Mesopotamian sphere, where we have these large urban cities. But in the countryside in the Ancient Near East more generally, including in Urartu, the hinterlands are defended as well as conquered through the construction or the taking over of regional or rural systems of fortresses, forts and other satellite structures. In Urartu and in other mountainous places, they would build a lot of these fortified structures along roads. And the reason why they would do this is because if you control the road in a mountainous territory, you essentially control that territory. Because in mountainous environments, there are relatively few ways in or out of the valley. So by controlling these in and out points, you essentially can control the territory.

15:16 JT
Part of your work has been looking at these fortresses as fire beacon stations. That function obviously relies on how well stations can see each other. What does your work tell us about the intervisibility in the network?

15:33 TES
Oh, yes. It seems that I failed to mention perhaps one of the most exciting and as well as interesting components of this research, which is the use of these forts and fortresses and watch towers as parts of fire beacon signaling networks. And a lot of people are familiar with fire beacon signaling networks, from different sci-fi sorts of approaches, as well as more historical approaches to the past. So people have seen these very dramatic fire beacon sequences in the Lord of the Rings movies, or perhaps in Mulan, in conjunction with the Great Wall of China.

16:08 TES
Fire beacon signaling seems to have been an important function of these fortified regional networks. We can tell that this is the case by investigating the intervisibility of fortresses, forts and towers. So when we look at them and how they’re organised, we see that they don’t just see one other fort or fortress in a network. They seem to be situated so that they can see various other points at the same time, so that if one signals to another, it will be seen by various forts or fortresses. This redundancy or doubling up of intervisibility means that you can create a better network. But we don’t just have, let’s call it circumstantial evidence for fire beacon networks.

16:51 TES
We also have historical evidence for these functioning as such. And the earliest known use of fire beacons in the historical sources is actually attested in cuneiform tablets excavated at the Syrian site of Mari. And these letters date to approximately 1800 BCE. In these letters, some of them are–as many Mesopotamian letters are–they can be complaining or whiny. And so you’ll have one official complaining that even though he lit one fire beacon, no one came to his aid. So next time, he’s going to light two fire beacons, so maybe someone will come to help him. That sort of thing. French teams have also done some really extensive work and intensive surveys in Syria as well in northern Syria, and have like the work that we’ve done in Armenia, been able to identify these networks of highly intervisible sites.

17:51 TES
And the most for me compelling of all these different kinds of evidence of fire beacon networks in the past comes from an Assyrian text, which is sometimes called Sargon’s Eighth Campaign, in which the Assyrian king Sargon the Second goes on campaign in Iranian Azerbaijan or modern Iranian Azerbaijan, to confront the Urartians on their home territory. And one of the most memorable sequences in this particular text is Sargon’s description of the Urartians lighting their extensive fire beacons, which are situated in the hills. So that really is an interesting textual find, and was actually the thing that got me interested in looking at intervisibility among Urartian fortresses and forts in the first place.

18:42 JT
You mentioned that digital tools and techniques are part of your research toolkit. One of those tools is something called “digital storytelling”. What is that?

18:54 TES
Digital storytelling is relatively new as a kind of way of engaging with people about history. And digital storytelling has become a big thing in recent years in public history and public archaeology. And what I mean by public history is that some decades ago, historians all got together and they decided, hey, we are doing a great job of telling each other about what happened in the past. But we are not doing the best job of telling an interested general public about the really important critical work that we do about the past. And they will be so incredibly interested to hear what we are up to. So the field of public history and public archaeology were born.

19:42 TES
And now there are academic historians, who traditionally would have written long what the general public might think of as boring tomes for each other. Now sometimes our work is instead engaged in telling people about what we’re doing. Because they are incredibly engaged in this. So on a very basic level, digital storytelling can mean the new kinds of stories that we can tell with new digital media. So things like online videos on YouTube, or something like podcasting. And I see it as a way to use history or data driven stories to interests the next generation of potential investigators, people like me, or as a way to enrich the lives of an interested public who supports our scholarly activities. A lot of us–me included–work at public universities. And I consider it as a part of my duty as a professor at a public university to engage the general public in the dialogue of the historical research that we’re doing.

20:50 JT
You also use something called a “deep map”. What is a deep map? And what potential does it have for archaeology and heritage?

21:01 TES
Thanks, Jon, what a great question. I’m really glad that you asked it. People have been making maps for a long time. And old school maps, as you know, have quite a long history. In fact, archaeologists have discovered Assyrian and Babylonian maps are in fact recognisable as maps. However, new digital technologies give us novel ways to model the world. Enter what we can call the deep map. So in terms of what a deep map is, it is a layered digital map that can support various kinds of content, including 3D models, videos, various layers, additional annotations. So unlike a traditional flat map, a deep map can be interacted with. And very often is can be interacted with, with the general public. And so it’s another kind of public history approach that historians have begun to use to engage with people about the histories in the places that they live, or the places that they’re interested in throughout the world.

22:08 TES
The RICHES project at the University of Central Florida here in our history department is a great example of a deep map. You can, for example, search for early postcards about the citrus industry–we’re here in tropical Central Florida–and the map interface will suggest other related archival content by topic as well as location. But my particular favorite thing that deep maps can be used for is storytelling. Very often people will think of maps as this sort of static thing, this unchanging view of the world. Whereas I like to use maps as ways to tell better stories about the past. And so there are a variety of different interfaces that you can use. You can put these online and show a series of maps, and you can see change over time. You can annotate them, you can include short videos. And this is a way that you can bring the geographical understanding that you have as a researcher to life by telling the stories that you see embedded there.

23:16 JT
The engagement of communities is something that comes through strongly in your work. Do you have suggestions for how field researchers might best engage local communities with their work?

23:29 TES
Right, I do think it is important that when international teams of scholars go to other countries, that we engage with the scholars in those countries in a responsible manner. And a part of our responsibility is working hand in hand with our local partners, and making sure that the local communities and the places where we are working, is engaged in the research conversation. Along these lines, those of us involved with the VDFLP have been engaged in digital storytelling workshops. And we call this effort infinite Armenias. And it points to the infinite number of stories we think are possible about the past about Armenia. And the way that we have done this is through a digital storytelling workshop approach.

24:23 TES
And in 2018, we set up a series of digital storytelling workshops in which we invited local cultural heritage professionals as well as activists more generally–because digital storytelling is very often used as a way of promoting, you know, a point of view or promoting something that you would like to happen in the world or in society. And so we basically invited all of these people as interested stakeholders to come and learn with us about the histories of Armenia. What we provided in that context was the digital support, as well as some very basic information about how stories work. And we encouraged our participants to tell their own stories in their own words. We provided, as I said, technological support to creating the short first person videos. And the topic of the video was disappearing cultural heritage of Armenia. So whatever that meant to them, they could tell a story about it. Because what we didn’t want to do is go there, and co-opt their stories. We wanted to give them a place and a space to tell their own stories in their own words.

25:37 TES
Our participants told a variety of really interesting stories. Some of them on a very basic level talked about what an archaeologist does anyway. Because they find that when they go into rural areas in their own country, that there can sometimes be very little awareness of what it is that practicing archaeologists do. Other participants talked about things like disappearing cultural heritage. One had a surprising topic, and that was, she was interested in disappearing statues from the Soviet era. You might think that there would be little love lost, but she had a great scholarly interest in their fate and talked about them. As for us, American archaeologists, we told stories of why we were so interested in Armenian history in the first place. And it really opened up new conversations between us and our collaborators about why we do what we do, and why we feel motivated to do this, and really strengthen the feelings of community that we have with our partners in Armenia. So it was certainly a worthwhile experience that I would recommend to others,

26:50 JT
Have these kinds of engagement activities shaped your research or changed its direction?

26:56 TES
I wouldn’t say that it has shaped the research or changed the … well, actually it has, because these workshops had the unintended consequence of strengthening the relationships and building the spirit of the team. It has resulted in various new avenues of research. For example, one of the students who was involved in this program is now pursuing a PhD with one of my colleagues at Hong Kong University. I have been working with my collaborators in Armenia to do more soundings at our fortress sites. And I really think that this renewed interest and the improvements in these relationships resulted in closer working relationships when they could understand what motivates us and why we’re so interested in studying their past.

27:52 JT
What’s next for you and the project? Presumably things have been a little bit disrupted by COVID?

27:58 TES
Right, to say the least. But we are hoping to have a field season in 2022. For now, we are proceeding as if that is what is happening. But as you say, obviously very much is dependent upon world events. Provided that we’re able to go out on the field in 2022, we would like to do more soundings at the fortress sites in the region. We would like to do more regional surveys. And we would also like to continue our digital storytelling project. Perhaps this time, aimed at Armenian college students who are considering careers in history, museum studies, cultural heritage, management and preservation more generally. What we would like to do is support and inspire the next generation of public historians and archaeologists in Armenia.

28:51 JT
How can we follow your work?

28:53 TES
Our work can be followed on Facebook. We have a Vayots Dzor Fortress Landscapes Project Facebook page, which is public. All you need but do is join. And I can also be followed on Twitter. My handle is @tiffanyspadoni. And that’s S P A D O N I.

29:13 JT
Thank you very much.

29:15 TES
Thank you.

29:17 JT
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30:14 JT
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30:54 JT
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