The Caucasus mountains have had, for millennia, a legendary association with gold. Tucked between the Black and Caspian Seas, the region was on the edge of the Greco-Roman world, giving it an air of mystery only enhanced by its misty, snow-capped mountains and dense forests. According to the myths recounted by Greek and Roman writers, the legendary hero Jason was sent on an impossible quest to seek the Golden Fleece, a task so difficult his usurper uncle assumed he would never return.
Accompanied by the Argonauts and favoured by the gods, Jason travelled to Colchis, a kingdom on the edge of the Black Sea, to retrieve (or, rather, steal) the Golden Fleece. In his successful quest for the Fleece, he won glory and the love of the Colchian king’s daughter, Medea, but left a trail of mayhem that captured the imaginations of Classical authors and playwrights for centuries.
The Roman author Strabo and others even suggested that the Golden Fleece was inspired by real-life mining practices. The use of sheep fleeces to trap heavy gold particles by placing them in streams is a technique that was reported in the region even in recent ethnographic accounts. The story of Jason, the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece is a myth, but, like many myths, it contains an element of truth.
All that glitters
If you were to travel to the dimly lit basement of the National Museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, and walk into the treasure room, you would see precisely where those myths come from. Case after case of gold and silver objects, dating from the Bronze Age to the Medieval period, line the walls. Many exceptional pieces belong to the Classical and Hellenistic period (5th-1st century BC), the era when Apollonius of Rhodes composed his Argonautica, one of the most famous accounts of Jason’s mythical quest and the fabled gold wealth of Colchis.
But an attentive visitor would notice something odd in the corner – a gap in the sequence, where a display of Middle Bronze Age (c.2500-1500 BC) gold sits directly next to one containing Iron Age (c.800-500 BC) objects. This is not curatorial oversight. There are indeed very few gold objects from the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (c.1500-800 BC) in the region. According to Classical chronology, Jason made his voyage about a generation before the Trojan War, ironically placing it at just the time of gold’s decline in much of the South Caucasus. We can call this apparent abandonment of goldworking the Golden Fleece paradox.
Of course, we would not expect the mythical chronology to match the archaeological record perfectly, and there is ample evidence for Colchian gold wealth at the time the Greeks were writing these myths down. In a larger sense, though, there is something paradoxical about a society developing a complex tradition of gold metallurgy and then, apparently, giving it up.
This gold gap suggests a case of ‘technological discontinuance’, a situation where a technology stops being used after a period of adoption. Archaeology shows how innovation and technological change do not follow progressive linear sequences from simple to complex, or from less useful to more useful. Humans are complicated. The choices we make about what technologies we use are determined as much by the social context as any ‘objective’ measure of their effectiveness. The archaeological record is filled with examples of new technologies not being adopted, or cases where the consequences of an innovation bear little relationship to the original reasons for its adoption.
At the same time, the nature of the archaeological record makes analysing discontinuance and rejection difficult. The processes of burial and deposition mean that the objects we find are not a perfect representation of those used by a society. Does the absence of a technology mean that it was lost or rejected, or simply that we cannot ‘see’ it in the record of that time? The result is that rejection, especially after a period of adoption, is not well understood. Potential cases of technological discontinuance are interesting because they go to the heart of why people choose to use available technologies (or not to use them) and tell us about the factors that might influence these decisions.
To understand what happened to goldworking in the Caucasus, we need to look closely at the societies of the Bronze Age Caucasus, and how they used gold. The earliest gold in the region dates to the early 4th millennium BC. These are not the earliest gold objects ever found – that distinction goes to the Balkans in the mid-5th millennium BC – but nevertheless the peoples of the Caucasus were among the earliest gold metalworkers. The oldest well-documented gold mine, dating to c.3000 BC, was found in the South Caucasus. Excavations by a German-Georgian team starting in 2004 showed that miners used an elaborate labour-intensive process to extract gold from hard quartz veins.
By the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, gold appears in increasing quantities around the same time that people in the South Caucasus began to adopt a new way of life. Abundant villages and settlements of the Early Bronze Age were largely abandoned, and most scholars believe that mobile pastoralist patterns of life best characterise the period between 2500-1500 BC. Certainly, settlements of the period are rare, and most archaeological sites consist of burial mounds, known as kurgans. Some of these kurgans reach enormous proportions, and many contain elaborately constructed burial chambers filled with objects, including food, cloth, carved wooden items, wheeled carts, and, frequently, gold. The focus on constructing large burials for elite individuals signifies a major shift: an increase in inequality and the development of social hierarchy.
Gold and other precious metal objects play a key role in these burial rituals. We see the development of new ways of working gold, including techniques such as granulation and filigree. Granulation is a process of covering a surface with tiny spheres to produce a shimmering or glistening effect, while filigree involved the use of fine, delicate wirework as a decorative technique. Shaped pieces of gold sheet suggest that it was used to gild organic materials, possibly wooden items. There is even evidence of gold casting, in the form of a lion figurine from a kurgan in eastern Georgia. The most complex gold objects, such as a goblet from a kurgan in Trialeti (a region that today lies in southern Georgia) incorporate carnelian and other costly materials into the design. These masterworks represent some of the finest goldwork in the world at the time, matching the skill and complexity of better known goldwork from the urban centres of Mesopotamia, hundreds of kilometres to the south.
Around 1500 BC, this social order breaks down, transforming life in the South Caucasus again. Settlements return in large numbers, and fortified strongholds, some with massive stone walls, dot the landscape. The rise of these fortresses, which served a variety of functions as centres of population, religious practice, and craft production, is still not well understood. Did the elites of the Middle Bronze Age decide to settle down and invest in a permanent built apparatus of control, or are these fortresses a reaction against those very same mobile pastoralist elites? Whatever their origin, burial practices changed as well. While thousands of burials are known from this period, large elaborate kurgans mostly disappear. People still bury the dead with weaponry, pottery, and items of personal adornment, but the past focus on glorifying the exalted elite in death seems to dissipate. It is also at this time that, across a large section of the South Caucasus, goldwork disappears.
A disappearing technology
To analyse what happened to Caucasus gold technologies systematically, I gathered published data on quantities, types, and dates of gold objects from Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan from the earliest gold (early 4th millennium BC) to the beginning of the Classical era (c.500 BC). In all, I compiled information about more than 4,500 objects from 89 sites, using reports stretching back into the late 19th century, some detailing excavations that were among the first systematic archaeological projects in the region. The results, published last October in the journal Scientific Reports (see ‘Further reading’ on p.23), allow us to test different hypotheses about how and why gold technologies disappeared.
This database offers the first comprehensive look at where and when gold is found in the South Caucasus. The lack of Late Bronze and Early Iron Age gold warranted occasional comment by excavators over the years, but it was unclear whether this was purely a local phenomenon, or something occurring at a regional scale.
When plotted spatially and chronologically, the numbers of gold objects capture the shape of this technological abandonment. After appearing in small quantities in the Late Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age (4000-2500 BC), there was a major increase in both the Kura and Araxes River valleys in the Middle Bronze Age (2500-1500 BC), with object numbers in the thousands. The Late Bronze Age decline, however, was most precipitous in the middle reaches of the Kura River valley, the area with the world’s earliest conclusive evidence of gold mining, and some of the most complex and elaborate Middle Bronze Age gold metallurgical traditions. The shift here is particularly sharp, with the total number of objects dropping from more than 1,200 to fewer than 30. The complexity of goldwork also declines, with none of the few gold objects from 1500-800 BC approaching the sophistication of the most elaborate goldwork of the previous era. Considering gold’s prestige, which in a broader global perspective has made it a prime candidate for heirlooms and recycled objects preserved and deposited centuries after they were originally crafted, this shift is even more striking. If gold continued to be valued, one might expect a more gradual fall-off in the archaeological record, even if production ceased abruptly.
Surprisingly, however, areas further south, including the Araxes valley and adjacent highlands, maintained a relatively stable gold metallurgical tradition in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age. This pattern of technological survival is more puzzling, given that many aspects of material culture in the Araxes area, including ceramics, fortresses, and metalwork other than gold, are shared with its gold-abandoning neighbours to the north.
The synthesis of available information on Bronze and Iron Age gold in the Caucasus raises many questions. Why did societies in the Kura River valley stop using gold? Did they lose access to gold resources, either through the exhaustion of mines or the collapse of trade routes supplying gold from elsewhere? Or did people choose to stop using gold, leading to the rejection of this technology?
Before analysing these patterns and answering these questions, a first concern is whether this apparent case of technological discontinuance is ‘real’, and not simply a reflection of what has survived for archaeologists to find. The archaeological record is affected both by where archaeologists tend to look, and by the ways in which artefacts end up in the ground. In the case of the Bronze Age Caucasus, the overwhelming majority of gold artefacts come from burials, which are by definition intentional depositions subject to the selective decisions of the people burying the dead. Nevertheless, there are several reasons why we can be confident that the lack of gold artefacts from the Late Bronze Age in the Kura River valley is a reasonable approximation of what metals were circulating in life.
First, thousands of graves from the period have been excavated here, so it is not as if the absence of gold has to do with a lack of archaeologically visible burials, or a lack of archaeological research. Second, there do not appear to have been any cultural prohibitions against grave goods during this period. True, graves are smaller, but many still contain a wide array of weapons, ceramics, and items of personal adornment. Metalwork other than gold continues to be deposited in graves, suggesting the reason for gold’s absence is something specific to that material. Third, gold is also absent in non-mortuary metal deposits in the period, further suggesting that it is not simply that gold was deemed unsuitable for burials. Graves are sometimes looted, both in antiquity and today, but it is hard to imagine that Late Bronze Age burials would be systematically targeted. On the contrary, Middle Bronze Age kurgan burial mounds are often more visible in the landscape, yet gold survives there.
Having convinced ourselves, to a reasonable degree of certainty, that the drop in gold is a genuine reflection of a decline in gold metallurgy in the middle Kura River area, we can now turn towards possible explanations for the Golden Fleece paradox. One possibility is that these areas were cut off from a source of gold, either through the exhaustion of mines or through the breakdown of trade networks. Securely dated evidence for Bronze Age gold mining is quite limited, with the mine excavated by the German-Georgian team being the best and, so far, only thoroughly investigated example. Many areas of the Caucasus have traces of early mining, but dating these remains difficult, and determining the type of ore extracted requires intensive investigation. Later mining, whether modern or historic, often destroys more modest Bronze Age traces. Even more challenging, one of the most common forms of gold mining – panning for gold in sediments – leaves little archaeological trace.
Since we do not have a full picture of exactly where gold mining was and was not practised over the course of the Bronze Age, geological maps of ore deposits are the next best thing. While not all these deposits were viable using ancient mining methods, the 5000-year-old mine investigated by the German-Georgian team showed that Early Bronze Age miners were highly proficient, boring deep underground and extracting gold from difficult-to-process quartz veins. It is hard to assess when and if key gold deposits became exhausted. However, given the availability of numerous deposits in the region, one might ask why a society with such proficient mining technology – indeed, one which continued to prospect, mine, and smelt other metals – did not seek out other available gold sources nearby.
Examining maps of gold deposits in the South Caucasus, we see that the middle Kura zone, where gold use declined so sharply after 1500 BC, contains a number of gold deposits. Analysing the data further, I looked at the relative and absolute decreases in gold against a measure of how accessible the nearest gold deposit was, taking into account topography and distance. If access was a major factor, one would expect to see the biggest declines in areas furthest from gold deposits. That is not the case. Consider the Trialeti plateau in southern Georgia. It is close to major gold deposits exploited as early as 3000 BC, and produced some of the most spectacular gold finds of the Middle Bronze Age. Yet it still experienced a precipitous decrease in gold usage after about 1500 BC.
If limited access is implausible as the main reason for the decline in goldworking, what about social factors? Could changes in social demand – the rejection of gold as a desirable material – explain the abandonment of gold technologies in the Kura zone? Our current picture of the social transformations in the Kura valley roughly 3,500 years ago supports this interpretation. Gold was a fundamental component of elite display in the Middle Bronze Age. Burial traditions emphasise elite individuals, with considerable effort required to construct and furnish large kurgans.
By contrast, burials of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age, for the most part, do not approach the size of the preceding periods. Monumental constructions of the Late Bronze Age, such as fortresses and shrines, lack the same emphasis on individual status and authority, suggesting an emphasis on institutions over individuals. This does not mean that these institutions were egalitarian or lacked any elite social strata – the shift is one of style and outward expression.
Whether or not the Late Bronze Age social transformations reflect an actual decrease in hierarchy, or simply the way in which it was expressed in terms of conspicuous display, the changes in material culture were substantial. Given this backdrop, gold might have been rejected as an appropriate means of display because it was too closely associated with the preceding order. To put it another way, the negative connotations that now came with using gold could have made it a socially unacceptable way to signal status. Once the demand for gold went into decline, craftspeople probably turned to other metals to apply their mining and metallurgical skills. Bronze production, for instance, expanded in both quantity and complexity in the Late Bronze Age.The human factor
So, what does it mean that social and political factors lie at the heart of the curious case I call the Golden Fleece paradox? Instances of technological discontinuance, rejection, and abandonment reveal human choices, and ultimately tell us about how successful innovations spread. When technological systems break down, we understand more about how they work, a statement as true for the study of ancient innovations as it is for a broken-down car or a buggy piece of computer code today. From the case of Caucasus gold, we learn that technologies can be rejected not just during the initial encounter, but after centuries of widespread adoption and highly skilled development. We also see that technologies do not disappear only during periods of broader societal collapse, but during times of relative prosperity and innovation, too. Complex crafts are fragile technical systems – they must be actively maintained and transmitted from generation to generation.
Careful assessment of ancient innovation and its inverse, discontinuance, may carry important lessons for understanding technology today. This research demonstrates that the history of technological development is not a linear sequence of ever improving technologies. Such choices are highly dependent on the social context of a technology, and measures of value, efficiency, and effectiveness are inevitably and unavoidably interpreted through a cultural lens.
For the Greeks and Romans writing
about Jason, the mythical accounts of the Golden Fleece, Medea, and Colchis served as a way of making sense of the gold-rich lands they encountered at the edge of their world. Through the retelling of a myth set a thousand years earlier, The Argonautica reveals much about the late-1st-millennium BC societies of the eastern Black Sea shores. In the same way that Classical-era accounts of Jason’s mythical voyage reflected contemporary knowledge about the Caucasus, so too does the archaeological investigation of innovation and rejection help us make sense of our present-day experience of technology.
Paradoxically, myths illuminate both past and present, and so can the archaeological record.
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