This week: Gold in the Caucasus

Painting, housed in the Palace of Versailles, depicting Jason and the Argonauts arriving at Colchis. IMAGE: Coyau / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

It remains one of the best known of all Greek myths – not least, for a certain generation, because of the lurid 1963 Hollywood film adaptation (which featured memorable special effects, including a terrifying squad of skeleton warriors, created by Ray Harryhausen, the acknowledged master of stop-motion animation).

But if the story of Jason and the Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece continues to grip the popular imagination, the question of how far it is based in reality is also one that fascinates historians, classicists and archaeologists alike.

According to the ancient Greek author Apollonius of Rhodes, whose epic poem Argonautica contains the definitive version of the story, Jason’s epic journey aboard the Argo took him to Colchis, a remote and mountainous region of the South Caucasus, hidden away between the Black and Caspian Seas.

As we discover this week on The Past, this mysterious kingdom (part of present-day Georgia) was indeed fabled in ancient times for its wealth in gold – and it may even be possible that the legendary fleece for which our hero was searching was inspired by the real-life practice of using sheep’s skins to trap precious gold particles in streams.

But while it can be fun, and often instructive, to make such connections, recent study in the region has also pointed up an unexpected anomaly: a dramatic decline in the use of gold by some societies there between c.1500BC and 800BC – the very period during which Jason is said to have made his journey.

In the new issue of Current World Archaeology magazine, and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast, Nathaniel Erb-Satullo asks: what on earth caused gold artefacts to disappear from the record for seven centuries in the South Caucasus? And what does this ‘Golden Fleece paradox’ tell us about the gap between myth and reality?

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we’ve also been delving into the archives to discover more about Greek myths: we travelled to Troy to see where the inspiration for Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey came from; we got lost in the labyrinthine ruins of Knossos to find out where archaeology ends and mythology begins; and we returned to Georgia (via the FitzWilliam Museum, Cambridge) to catch up on more treasures from the ancient kingdom of Colchis.

And finally: if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is also focused on Greek myths. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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