The ancient kingdom of Colchis – which now forms part of the Republic of Georgia – was the land to which Jason, that great hero of Greek mythology, led the Argonauts in his search for the Golden Fleece.
Over the years, many have tried to rationalise the legend. Some cite an ancient system used for extracting gold dust from rivers, whereby sheepskins were left in streams in order for their lanolin to attract specks of the precious metal; others trace its origins to Colchis’ undeniable wealth of natural resources.
Wherever the truth lies, the current exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK, shows that though the history of Colchis may be cloaked in myth, its treasures are real enough. From the Land of the Golden Fleece brings together a collection of 2,000 year-old grave and temple treasures in gold, silver and bronze from the remarkable site of Vani.
The splendours of Vani
Colchis lay to the east of the Greek world, to the north of the Assyrian and Persian empires, and southeast of the nomadic Scythians. With ready access to the sea and protected by the Caucasus Mountains to its north, the region provided a trade route between Greece and Central Asia, continuing even beyond that to India. At its heart was Vani, and it is the splendours of Vani that make up the greatest part of the new exhibition.
Vani was a rich and influential city that was both a crossroads for ideas, art and techniques and an area with a strong independent identity. Its complex and intriguing interrelationships with other cultures, its peculiar burial practices and its religious life make Vani the primary site for the study of Colchian history. Its exceptional archaeological importance was first hinted at in 1876: ‘every time it rains the water brings into the yards…so many pieces of jewellery, so many gold chains, so many coins and all sorts of other objects,’ declared the front page of a Tbilisi journal; ‘who knows what the entrails of this extraordinary hill still guard?’
Excavations over the last 60 years – begun by Georgia’s first female archaeologist, Nino Khoshtaria, and continued from the 1960s by Otar Lordkipanidze – have fulfilled that early promise. The wooden houses of the Colchian aristocracy have long perished, but graves of the Vani nobility have been found all over the site. Items from these graves – 140 diverse artefacts of jewellery, sculpture, pottery and other funerary material – fill much of the exhibition. All date from the early 5th to the 1st centuries BC and all are breathtaking. Highlights include an exceptional bronze sculpture of a youth, and a remarkable gold necklace complete with no fewer than 31 pendant tortoises. The astonishing collection of headdresses, brooches and earrings all show the groundbreaking expertise of the Colchian metalworkers, who developed their techniques before such skills were evident elsewhere in Europe. The wealthiest graves also included art from faraway lands, while many foreign styles were incorporated into Vani’s own iconography: the bronze torso – its pose familiar from Greek sculpture of the 5th century BC – shows how the figural arts in Vani became Hellenised in later periods, and fighting animals on some of the jewellery highlight the influence of Near Eastern as well as Greek art. Highly-prized in life, these objects were equally precious in death and Vani’s richest dead were laid to rest wearing a vast array of jewellery and shrouds sewn with innumerable small appliqués, roundels and beads of gold. Household slaves or servants and horses were often killed and buried with them; there was no question of going alone into the next world.
In addition to the burial items, the exhibition also features material from daily life from across the social spectrum and from various other social and ceremonial occasions. I was fascinated by the wealth of drinking vessels, ladles and cauldrons, all testifying to the importance of wine-making in the social and religious life of the city. Also on show is a series of bronze heads in high relief – appliqués from a vessel – that represent members of the circle of Dionysus – Ariadne, satyrs, Pan. These, too, were found at Vani, and the prominence of the wine-god is entirely appropriate in the land where wine is believed to have been invented. The claim is a credible one: grape pips from cultivated vines dating back to 7000 BC have been found in Georgia and, even today, there are more than 500 grape varieties known.
With Georgia recently in the news for far more troubling reasons, there is an additional poignancy to this beautiful and absorbing exploration of its past. However, one thing you will not find in this exhibition is the Golden Fleece itself – but archaeologists have excavated just one-third of the wonderful site of Vani to date, and who knows what other treasures are still to come?
Nicola Upson is a writer based in Cambridge specialising in the arts. and literature.
More information From the Land of the Golden Fleece: Tomb Treasures of Ancient Georgia runs until 4 January 2009; for more information, visit www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk