A 3,000-year-old Armenian settlement believed they could predict the future by using sheep and cow bones – and what they revealed on one occasion caused them to suddenly flee their homes.
In a series of three Bronze Age shrines, archaeologists have found knucklebones of animals with certain sides blackened – like the markings on dice – as well as stamp seals printed onto pieces of dough, according to Daily Mail.
Experts believe the artefacts were used by diviners to help leaders plan political strategies – but they were abandoned in place moments before the inhabitants fled the region.
The reason for the sudden exodus remains unknown, but archaeologists believe the stones and bones suggested their demise was imminent.
The bones were marked with burns and other engravings, and were small enough to roll.
In one shrine, researchers found 18 pebbles.
These stones appear to have been selected for their smooth, rounded shape and their colour palette, which ranged from black and dark grey to white, green and red,’ wrote Professor Adam Smith, lead author of the study at Cornell University.
The shrines were discovered in a hilltop fortress on the Tsaghkahovit Plain of central Armenia.
Dice-like knucklebones used for osteomancy and coloured stones used for lithomancy were found deep within the ruins of the fallen citadel of Gegharot.
Aleuromancy is a likely explanation for grinding implements found in another of three shrines.
Aleuromancy was a practice in which messages would be baked inside of cakes or cookies, which would then be distributed to those wishing their fortunes to be told.
‘What is conspicuous about the grinding installation in the east citadel shrine is the lack of a formal oven for bread baking,’ Professor Smith wrote.
The shrine’s basin ‘was clearly used for burning materials and certainly could have been used to bake small balls of dough, but it is unlikely that it would have been used to cook loaves of bread.’
The stamps may have been used to seal messages within the dough.
The Tsaghkahovit Plain was sparsely populated until around 1500 BC when a nameless group of people began to build strongholds and new institutions of rule there.
‘It was a time of radical inequality and centralized practices of economic redistribution,’ Professor Smith added, ‘and the political leaders were scrambling to hold on to their power.
‘Knowing what the future held was critically important.’
During the time these shrines were active, a written form of language had not yet emerged in this part of Armenia so there are no written records of its local rulers.
The diviner, Professor Smith continued, would have been a kind of an early risk analyst, assessing strategies and advising on politics and finances.
‘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,’ Professor Smith explained.
‘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 shrines were in use for a century until the area was destroyed by conflict. The group that controlled Gegharot was likely wiped out as a result.
The Bronze Age in Armenia
The Bronze Age in the Caucasus region can be divided into two parts – the Middle Bronze Age from around 2,500 to 1500BC, and the Late Bronze Age from 1500 down to 900 BC.
The earlier part is famous for its rich burials from localised cultures. In the later Bronze Age a far more homogenous culture came into being.
The Late Bronze Age also saw an increase in the number of hillforts sites. These had begun in the Middle Bronze Age and reached their peak in the early Iron Age.
Their divination paraphernalia, meticulously unearthed by the archaeologists, looks as if it had been abandoned in place.
Professor Smith added that without Bronze Age mystics to interpret the bones and stones, it’s hard to know whether the citadel’s demise was presciently foreseen.
‘It doesn’t appear to have been reoccupied,’ said Professor Smith.
‘It was probably attacked by one of its neighbours…but these practices probably went on in neighbouring areas.
‘We’re now trying to figure out what exactly happened to these ancient people.’
Elsewhere, the archaeologists uncovered clay bowls filled with smaller ash and ceramic artefacts in these shrines.
The researchers suspect that, as part of an ancient ritual, local rulers would reach an altered state of mind by drinking wine and burning substances.
‘Our best evidence of this comes from pollen washes,’ Professor Smith told MailOnline.
‘We take the pottery and wash with distilled water. We then capture the run off. From this we found residues of grape, and something similar to Ephedra which is a stimulant.’