Friday, November 14, 2008


Darejan Kacharava and Guram Kvirkvelia; Jennifer Chi (ed.). Wine, Worship, and Sacrifice: the Golden Graves of Ancient Vani. Princeton: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World; In association with Princeton University Press, 2008. Pp. 215. ISBN 9780691138565. $40.00.
Reviewed by Dr. Eleni Konstantinidi-Syvridi, National Archaeological Museum, Athens (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

"Wine, Worship and Sacrifice", a publication presented in the frame of the homonymous temporary exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, is much more than an exhibition catalogue. It is the long awaited publication of the archaeology of ancient "rich in gold" Colchis and the extraordinary finds of the city of Vani, a most important centre with a life span from the 8th to the 1st centuries BC. The catalogue is the first comprehensive English-language publication about ancient Colchis and Vani. Beautifully illustrated, it succeeds in giving a complete picture of the archaeology of a culture in which we can trace the roots of ancient jewellery techniques and viticulture. The authors themselves, Kacharava and Kvirkvelia, are senior researchers at the National Museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, and the rest of the contributors are all experts in Black Sea archaeology.

The book starts with introductory letters by the Directors of the organizing institutes. The main core is divided into seven chapters, focusing on the history of ancient Colchis and especially the city of Vani, as well as the importance of metalwork and wine-making, as two of the major driving forces contributing to its development.

The first chapter deals with the myth of the Argonauts and seeks its traces in history. The tale of Jason's voyage with the Argonauts from Iolcus in Thessaly in search of the Golden Fleece finds its historical base in the importance of ancient Colchis' mines of gold, silver, iron and copper. Mines and metallurgical centres have indeed come to light in Georgia, dated from the second half of the 2nd millennium BC, contemporary with the Mycenaean period when the importance of the Black Sea to the Greeks is first recorded. Discoveries at Troy support the hypothesis that the Trojan War itself took place for the control of the Black Sea. After all, the participants of the Trojan war were the sons of the Argonauts as mentioned in Homer: they were the first to overcome the obstacle of the Clashing Rocks (Odyssey, Book 12) and open the way to the Black Sea.

Next comes a discussion of the identity of the Colchian people. Their country is mentioned in Near Eastern sources from as early as the 13th cent. BC, under the name of "Upper Sea". There is a brief mention to the Proto-Colchian culture, of the Early and Middle Bronze Ages (second half of 2nd millennium- beginning of the 1st millennium BC) that revealed bronze items, among which are the so-called Colchian axes, decorated with geometric ornaments, astral signs and representations of animals. The chapter concludes by mentioning the continuous contacts between Classical Greece and Colchis, attested archaeologically through Greek finds in Colchis and through Colchian objects in Samos (miniature bells, plaques and the statue of a female rider with a child).

The second chapter is a presentation of Vani and the history of the site's excavations. The settlement, located in the foothills of the Lesser Caucasus, to the south of the river Rioni, was probably called Leukothea in antiquity. Some scholars believe that Vani was a sanctuary city between the 3rd and 1st cent. BC, when according to the Roman geographer Strabo, it came to an end. This is the first extended presentation of these remarkable finds to the Western public, as all bibliography known so far was written in Georgian (sometimes with a summary in Russian).

The chapter continues by presenting all scholars who contributed to the development of research at Vani, like Alexander Stoianov who in 1889 conducted excavations there on behalf of the Archaeological Society of Moscow and found tombs of the ancient Greek period with gold objects, the Georgian scholar Ekvtime Takaishvili who in 1896 began excavations and soon came across unique finds, and of course Otar Lordkipanidze; thanks to his efforts and his expeditions the Vani Archaeological Museum was built in 1985. It is also due to his initiative that scholars of Black Sea archaeology from all over the world gather every three or four years since 1977.

The remains of Vani provide evidence for strong influences between ancient Colchis and Greece both in religion (i.e. cult of Apollo and of Dionysos and his company) and in the Hellenistic metalwork, influenced by Greek aesthetic rules. The presence of Dionysos' cult in particular gives the author the opportunity to talk about the origin of wine making and support the theory that wine was first made in Georgia, as shown by archaeological evidence. Grape pips of cultivated vines have been found in Georgia from as early as 7000-5000 BC, while a recent analysis made by the University of Pennsylvania Museum on the inner surface of some 8,000 year-old ceramic storage jars has shown that they contained resinated red wine from an area close to Tbilisi.

Next comes a brief presentation of the rich tombs at Vani during the 5th and 4th cent. BC (their contents formed the core of the exhibition). The dead were furnished with an abundance of gold and silver jewellery and their shroud was sewn with gold beads. It is interesting how the element of human and animal sacrifice is testified archaeologically, as it seems that the wives, the servants and horses of the nobles were sacrificed and buried along with them, a practice with parallels in the Scythian civilisation of the Greater Caucasus.

The chapter further presents the finds unearthed at Vani from 1947 to the present. After a brief introduction to the history of the site, which inevitably repeats some information from the previous chapters, there is a presentation of the four main phases, first identified by Otar Lordkipanidze, each of them characterised by certain economic activities, burial rites and external influences. An extended presentation of the architectural types, artefacts and innovations of each phase is given. The text is accompanied by comprehensive site plans as well as illustrations of typical artefacts for each phase.

Although emphasis is given to the local character of Vani, which it retained throughout its history, Greek imports are also discussed, especially the pottery of Phase II (end of 7th cent. BC- first half of 4th cent. BC) consisting of amphorae of Chios, Lesvos and Thasos and examples of painted Attic pottery, as well as Attic bronzes, archaic gems of Ionian manufacture and signet rings of Attic and West Greek origin. During Phase III which lasts to the first half of the 3rd cent. BC, new contacts are evident with places like Mende, Sinope, Thasos and Heraklea and a major Greek influence is seen on both building techniques and grave practises.

The next chapter is an essay on the exquisite Colchian goldwork, an art developed in the classical land of gold. Again, the author shows us how the local artistic metalwork melds? the traditions of the Near East and the Hellenic world: there is wide use of filigree and granulation on necklaces and pendants, along with the traditional forms of Colchian earrings that were used as offerings in temples, with fixed globular or bipyramidal pendants. The images of animals and birds adorning most pieces relate to the cult of the predominant Colchian goddess, the Great Mother. It seems that Vani jewellery attests to the existence of a local goldsmithing school in opposition to the Hellenistic koine. The theory is supported by the remains of a goldsmith's workshop that came to light with tools, unfinished jewellery pieces, slag and fragments of charred wood, together with a cult place functioning at the workshop.

As eye-capturing as the goldwork of Vani is, there is hardly anything more interesting and unique than the six odd-looking figures (three of iron, three of bronze) - together with a standard Hellenistic type of a Satyr- and the way they were buried with extra care, implying their ritual role. The presentation of that group is the subject of the next essay. The idols represent naked male figures with abnormally elongated bodies, adorned with a lot of jewellery attached to them, namely headdresses, spiral torques, earrings, pendants and bracelets, by which they are dated to the 3rd cent. BC. There are many theories for their use as part of a cult of the dead -as their presence is connected with cult buildings-, the most interesting being their use as substitutes for priests who in previous periods were sacrificed in unknown religious rituals.

The next chapter focuses again on the importance of Dionysus' presence in connection to the wine production in ancient Colchis and its role in social and religious life. Numerous objects connected with consumption of wine, like amphorae, as well as objects connected to Dionysus like masks of the deity himself, a terracotta mold of Silenos, all unearthed in an architectural complex on the central terrace of the site of religious character, imply the worship of Dionysus in late Hellenistic Vani. Among the finds there is evidence for furniture used in the preparation of food and drink.

The final chapter is the analytical presentation of four of the graves, the contents of which were displayed in the exhibition. They form part of a group of 28 "golden graves", dated from 450 to 250 BC, that contained large quantities of jewellery and other precious items. A brief presentation of grave construction (use of wood) and burial practises (evidence for human and animal sacrifice, death coins in the mouth of the deceased) is also made for each tomb separately.

A checklist of additional finds of the tombs giving their dimensions and the relevant bibliography concludes this valuable publication. All in all, it is a useful library addition, a necessary tool to the scholar of Classical and Hellenistic antiquity, as well as to all those who are interested in learning more about a culture so far unknown to the West, but with a significant role in metal and wine production from early antiquity. It is certain that this will stimulate scholars' interest and will gather many more attendees to the 2010 Vani Symposium that will focus on the graves presented here.

Medea's Colchis by Nino Lordkipanidze
Vani, Rich in Gold by Michael Vickers
The Archaeology of Vani
Religious ritual: Bronze and Iron figurines from Vani
Viticulture and Dionysos in Hellenistic Vani
The Golden Graves of Ancient Vani

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