Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media

by Andrea Kapsaski

Scene4 Magazine-reView

february/march 2009

In May 1876, residents of the hilly area of Vani, in what is now the Republic of Georgia, found a collection of beautifully crafted, ancient gold jewels lying in the muddy streets. The discovery of these intricately worked bracelets and earrings, head ornaments and necklaces, which had been washed down from tombs and sanctuaries, quickly attracted the interest of archaeologists. On and off, they have been excavating there ever since.

Now some 140 of the artifacts, many of them recent discoveries, were the focus of a recent exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. ("From the Land of the Golden Fleece: Tomb Treasures of Ancient Georgia").The pieces of gold and silver jewelry, all of exceptional charm and sophistication, are a revelation. Few outside Georgia have seen them, indeed not many outside the archaeological profession have been aware of their existence. The exhibition catalogue is the first time this hoard has been written up in detail in English.


The objects were fashioned between the fifth and first centuries BC. The region was known then as Colchis. The name of Colchis first appears in Aeschylus and Pindar. The earlier writers only speak of it under the name of Aea (Aia), the residence of the mythical king Aeëtes.

The main river was the Phasis (now Rioni), which was according to some writers the south boundary of Colchis, but more probably flowed through the middle of that country from the Caucasus west by south to the Euxine, and the Anticites or Atticitus (now Kuban). Arrian mentions many others by name, but they would seem to have been little more than mountain torrents: the most important of them were Charieis, Chobus or Cobus, Singames, Tarsuras, Hippus, Astelephus, Chrysorrhoas, several of which are also noticed by Ptolemy and Pliny. The chief towns wereDioscurias or Dioscuris (under the Romans called Sebastopolis, now Sukhumi) on the seaboard of the Euxine, Sarapana (now Shorapani), Phasis (now Poti), Pityus (now Pitsunda), Apsaros (now Gonio), Surium (now Surami), Archaeopolis (now Nokalakevi), Macheiresis, and Cyta or Cutatisium (now Kutaisi), the traditional birthplace of Medea. Scylax mentions also Mala or Male, which he, in contradiction to other writers, makes the birthplace of Medea.

In the 13th century BC, the Kingdom of Colchis was formed as a result of the increasing consolidation of the tribes inhabiting the region. This power, celebrated in Greek mythology as the destination of the Argonauts, the home of Medea and the special domain of sorcery, was known to Urartians as Qulha (aka Kolkha, or Kilkhi)

The name Urartu comes from Assyrian sources: the Assyrian king Shalmaneser I (1263-1234 B.C.) recorded a campaign in which he subdued the entire territory of "Uruatri." The Shalmaneser text uses the name Urartu to refer to a geographical region, not a kingdom, and names eight "lands" contained within Urartu (which at the time of the campaign were still disunited). The kingdom's native name was Biainili, but by the end of the 9th century they also called their now united kingdom "Nairi". Scholars believe that Urartu is an Akkadian variation of Ararat of the Bible. Indeed, Mount Ararat is located in ancient Urartians territory, approximately 120 km north of its former capital. In addition to referring to the famous Biblical mountain, Ararat also appears as the name of a kingdom in Jeremiah 51:27, mentioned together with Minni and Ashchenaz.

The Greeks referred to Colchis as "polychrysos", meaning "rich in gold". On the eastern shore of the Black Sea, the region lay on a trade route that stretched to India. It is believed to be the land to which Jason and the Argonauts set sail in pursuit of the magical Golden Fleece. Not only was gold mined there, it was found in rivers too, where the gold particles were collected using lanolin-rich sheepskins.

Thus the Golden Fleece is associated with the wealth of Colkhetian culture, which, according to the Greek legend, was no less interesting and attractive to the culturally advanced Greeks than their own.

Although only a third of the site has been studied, it has produced an astonishing number of artifacts: imported Greek luxury items, including silverware and bronze work; exquisite golden jewelry unique to Colchis, including outstanding examples of gold granulation; and Greek and Colkhetian pottery.


Among the exhibition's highlights are also the contents of a grave unearthed in Vani in 2004. It contained elaborate Colkhetian hair ornaments made of gold and appliqués for clothing; a Persian silver bucket, ladle and libation bowls; and Greek wine amphorae and red-figure pottery—evidence of the importance of wine in ancient Georgian culture. The exhibition also features a spectacular bronze torso in a fifth-century Greek style; Greek silver drinking cups; a magnificent Colkhetian gold necklace with 31 pendant tortoises, each decorated with tiny granulation; and a gold pectoral, inlaid with carnelian and turquoise figures and influenced by Egyptian, Greek and Achaemenid jewelry.


A great deal of mythology exists in regard to the turtle. In the Far East, the shell was a symbol of heaven, and the square underside was a symbol of the earth. The turtle was an animal whose magic could help you unite heaven and earth within your own life. A symbol of the turtle was an invitation for the blessings of both heaven and earth.


The turtle is a shore creature, using the land and the water. All shore areas are associated with doorways to the Faerie Realm. The turtle is sometimes known as the keeper to the doors. Turtles thus were often seen as signs of fairy contact and the promise of fairy rewards.

Could the gold necklace with 31 pendant tortoises have belonged to Medea herself?

Most probably not, but I like to believe so.

Prior to its arrival in Cambridge, the exhibition toured major museums in Europe and the United States, including the Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin; the Musée des Arts Asiatiques, Nice; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; the New York University Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The exhibition will now travel to the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece (20/01/2009 - 06/04/2009) and then to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.



©2009 Andrea Kapsaski
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Andrea Kapsaski
Andrea Kapsaski is a writer and producer
and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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