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How a piece of Georgian prehistoric rubbish won a research prize   

8 July 2024

3 minutes to read

How a piece of Georgian prehistoric rubbish won a research prize   

August 5th sees the launch of our Images of Research Competition for 2024. The annual competition, run by the Researcher Developer and Research Culture, team enables Early Career Researchers to practice key skills in communicating their research to a non-specialist audience. In addition to greater exposure of their research through exhibitions, the winners also gain an addition to their CV as well as a prize!

For our colleagues and student community – as well as members of the public – the resulting exhibitions provide a fascinating insight into some of the great research undertaken at our university. 

2023 saw 10 years of Images of Research at Exeter. Taking second place in the competition was Peter Leeming, with his image “Light on prehistory (Paravani rock shelter, southern Georgia).”

Peter tells us more about how the photo came about:  

“The photograph was taken during recent fieldwork for an ongoing project between the University of Exeter and the Education Department of the Georgian National Museum (GNM) in Tbilisi. Our collaboration was designed to address structural issues of inequality and difficulties accessing educational provision in a country which was one of the richest areas in the former Soviet Union, but which has found itself in a very different situation since that empire disappeared overnight in 1991. There are further complications in that there are frozen conflicts with two regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – which have broken away with Russian assistance. Additionally, there are ongoing tensions with the neighbouring countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan, with substantial ethnic minorities from both existing within Georgia itself. 

How can archaeology help with these tensions? In prehistory there were obviously no modern nations or ethnic groupings, but there are common heritages in the prehistoric peoples having had the same culture across the current political divides. Part of this was the use of obsidian, a natural volcanic glass, which can be shaped into very sharp stone tools by knocking shards off large pieces of obsidian. 

Obsidian flake

The piece of obsidian under normal light.

Museums are, of course, about learning, but traditional methods of display can unintentionally be a hindrance. Obsidian reflects light in different ways, but if a piece is displayed against a board in a dimly lit room it is unlikely to display the qualities it was prized for in prehistory. I showed my winning photo (at the top of the blog here) and the piece of obsidian to schoolchildren on a museum tour organised by the GNM. In this way they were better able to see the different properties of the obsidian and understand why ancient humans prized it so highly. 

Akhaltsikhe museum

The image itself was a moment of serendipity. At a rocky outcrop which had been used as a shelter in prehistoric times, I found a small piece of obsidian in loose stones by the roadside. I remembered being shown some beautiful Neolithic obsidian arrowheads in the Museum by Prof. Ioulon Gagoshidze, one of the curators. He encouraged me to pick one up and hold it to the light to see that it was transparent, explaining that this quality seemed to be highly prized in Neolithic times in Georgia.  

At the rock shelter I held my discovery up to the sun and took a snapshot. The sun was so bright I couldn’t see the colour of the flake or anything on the phone screen. It was only later, back in the car, that I was able to see that this was mostly transparent with two black streaks running across it. The ripples and ridges across the surface of the piece are results of the blow which separated it from a larger chunk about six thousand years ago. It is beautiful, but it is prehistoric rubbish!” 

“I entered this competition as a means to giving the project I was working on some more publicity. Winning a prize was the icing on the cake!”

Professor Krasimira Tsaneva-Atanasova, Vice President and Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research and Impact) talks about the Images of Research competition and the benefits it brings to our Early Career Researchers.

For more information please contact:

Becky Euesden, Research and Communications Officer, Researcher Development and Research Culture



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