Last Saturday we visited Ara Ler, one of the many extinct volcanoes in Armenia. While I had been around volcanoes and excavated on their flanks, I had never before been in one. Ara Ler has a caldera which has, at one point blown out towards the Southwest point. That must have been some event; the entire Southwest side of the mountain is gone. Some of the (younger…) people on the team went on a hike around the caldera wall to reach the summit. Suren and I climb up the inside of the caldera, but eventually did not reach the top. The inside of the caldera is partially overgrown with shrubs, bushes and small trees and that is exactly the kind of place the bears of the Lesser Caucasus like to use to pass the day. “It’s okay,” Suren says, after telling me a story of an American archaeology student being attacked by a bear on this same mountain just weeks ago. “Armenian bears are not very big; like that.” he says, while pointing at a rock the size of a small car.
I heard that story only days earlier from Hayk, another Armenian archaeologist, who was witness to the attack. A group of them stumbled upon the bear, which ran away, unfortunately right into the path of the girl, who had stayed behind. Startled by this ‘ambush’, the bear lashed out at her and then tried to bite her in the head. Even though she had been injured by the first attack, she looked up and straight up punched the bear in the face. The bear, apparantly not expecting this, turned and did a runner. Hayk had to carry the girl down the mountain on his back. Regardless of how terrible such an attack is, she has won bragging rights in her circle of friends for years to come!
Our ascent ends on a rocky promontory surrounded by two converging gullies full of trees and bushes. Even though Armenian bears are obviously only the size of a small car, I think Suren and I both felt things were becoming a little beary. Circumnavigating the beariness would have meant going all the way back down and circling around, so we count our blessings and stay where we are, having an excellent few hours before descending back down.
Later in the week we excavate a test trench on the flanks of Hatis, another volcano in the area. The panorama to the South is gobsmacking, with Yerevan and Ararat all but hidden from view.
The heat is virtually unbearable, and while Early Palaeolithic artefacts are passing through my hands and I am choking on the dust in the trench, all I can think of is how tragically cruel it is, that I have to be so far away from the woman and dog I love so much, to be here in Armenia and do what I love more than pretty much everything else.