Ian Colvin is a historian specialising in the late Roman and Byzantine history of the Caucasus regions. He studied classical and modern Georgian after receiving his MST in Byzantine studies, and has devoted himself to excavations at the site of Nokalakevi.
Beginning his foray into both academia and archaeology with an undergraduate thesis that developed into a doctoral dissertation, Ian Colvin now specialises in the late Roman and Byzantine history of the Caucasus regions. He studied modern and classical Georgian as part of his doctoral studies at Oxford and worked as Director of the archaeological expedition to Nokalakevi in 2001, a project with which he has continued. During this role, he has introduced around 200 archaeological volunteers to Georgia and its heritage, and his main research interests are the South Caucasus in Late Antiquity as well as the Late Roman classicising historians.
What first sparked your passion for archaeology?
Archaeology is a key source for historians of my period (Late Antiquity & Byzantium), adding enormously to our ability to understand and reconstruct the world of the past. When I began my doctorate on Roman-Persian rivalry on the Eastern Frontier it was clear that I would need a strong grasp of the archaeology of the South Caucasus, the Eastern Frontier and the wider world of Antiquity. It was nevertheless a surprise to me, when in 1999 I found myself invited to establish an Anglo-Georgian collaboration on one of the most important archaeological sites in Georgia—the Byzantine-Laz fortress of Archaeopolis in the modern village of Nokalakevi. My experience setting up and helping run the dig over the following two decades has confirmed my belief in the immense value of archaeologists and historians working closely together.
What does archaeology mean for you?
For anyone who seeks to understand the past, the process of investigating its physical remains is an invaluable activity. It brings one directly into contact with the material residue of the cultures we study, and sometimes into contact with the direct effects of the political history that historians more usually concentrate on. It is one thing to read about the dispatch of a Roman officer to the eastern Black Sea coast to improve the fortresses there when war with the Sasanians threatened—it is quite another experience to excavate in the shadow of, and on one occasion through, those fortifications erected under the direction of Thomas Guzes. The experience provokes all sorts of helpful reflections on the society and thought-world in which our literary sources were produced and on which so much of our understanding of history depend. Our discovery and excavation of the ‘lost’ fortress of Onoguris at the nearby site of Khuntsistsikhe is a direct and exciting contribution to ‘new’ historical knowledge.
Thus, although I’m a historian by training, I consider my involvement at Nokalakevi to be one of the most important of my varied jobs and roles. As a collaborative activity, requiring a daily team effort, it provides a welcome contrast to the more solitary day-to-day work of the historian. The physical exertion is also a pleasant contrast to the excesses of book and screen time that occupies much of the rest of the working year. And one must not underemphasise the importance of working alongside others of a different culture and language: the opportunity to immerse oneself in a Georgian and Orthodox Christian context, and in the life of an agricultural village, provides a salutary reminder of how different our present lives are to those of the people and cultures we study.
What is your favourite archaeological site?
Nokalakevi-Archaeopolis in western Georgia. It is a multi-period site with layers going back to the Bronze Age and impressive standing remains of my own period, Late Antiquity (4th-7th centuries AD). The fortified administrative site has been the focus of intensive excavations every summer since 2001 by a joint-team of British and Georgian archaeologists and is the longest-running foreign excavation in Georgia.
How many tours have you led for Andante?