Legendary Colchis lives on in the Republic of Georgia.
We're looking for Namarnu. Can you help us?
The wizened, kerchiefed woman looked up from her garden, eyeing our red van. “Namarnu, Namarnu,” she repeated slowly, as if it were an incantation, “Namarnu.” She shook her head.
“Medea's city,” the driver offered, “Namarnu.”
Hearing the name of the Colchian princess who helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece, the woman smiled. “Ah, Medea!” She pointed her finger toward the gutted remains of a nearby collective farm, framed by a vast expanse of barren fields and the rapidly setting sun. “Out there, past those buildings.”
We inched the van down the dirt mad pocked with potholes that could easily swallow one of the many water buffalo that watched us from the nearby riverbank and stopped far behind the farm. In the distance, several small, treed hillocks rose from the plain.
“It's been 12 years since I've been out here,” muttered Guram, my guide. “I think that's the site, but in this light, I can't tell.” The sky was birdless and still and turned inky black in what seemed to be a single moment. To the Greeks, Colchis lay at the fringes of the inhabited world. That night, I had to agree.
There are two sides to every story, but in the case of tales told by the ancient Greeks, by triumph of their early literacy and our later biases, usually only their side has survived. It was the pursuit of that other side of a favorite Greek tale that took me last summer to Georgia, a small former Soviet republic the size of South Carolina, wedged between the Caucasus Mountains and Russia to the north and Turkey to the south. Here in the country's western half, a region bordered by the Black Sea, is where Greek legend says Jason sailed up the river Phasis and stole the Golden Fleece from Aeetes, king of the Colchians.
Our earliest complete description of Jason's travels to Colchis, the Argonautica, was composed by Apollonius Rhodius in the third century B.C. The Hellenistic poet charmed his audiences with the tale of Jason and his crew aboard the Argo, determined to fulfill a seemingly impossible task demanded by Jason's uncle in exchange for Jason's rightful place upon his father's throne: to return to Greece the fleece of a golden ram that had long ago carried a young Greek prince across the Black Sea to safety on its eastern shore. The Argonauts enjoyed a series of minor Mediterranean adventures—including a quick retreat from an island of lusty women—before surviving a treacherous passage through the Bosporus and into the Black Sea, eventually anchoring along the marshy shores of Colchis. The potions of Aeetes' lovelorn sorceress daughter Medea enabled Jason to rise to the king's challenge and steal the fleece from its serpent guardian. Jason and Medea returned to Greece with the fleece and reclaimed the family's throne. (Other ancient authors provided this epic its unhappy ending, in which Medea poisons her children and Jason's new wife.)
Apollonius Rhodius' poem was not the first to celebrate Jason's adventures; the legend of the Argonauts' voyage is among the earliest of the Greek world. Homer alludes to it in both the Iliad and Odyssey, describing some participants in the Trojan War as the sons and grandsons of the Argonauts, which would place the arrival of the Argo on the eastern shores of the Black Sea some time in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1700–1100 B.C). While the archaeological record does not support a voyage at such an early date, there is plenty of evidence for Greek trading centers in Colchis from the mid-sixth century B.C. on. In their quest for gold, precious stones, and fine cloth, intrepid traders were lured to the farthest reaches of their known world, where, according to Greek writers, women practiced witchcraft, deadly creatures lurked in rivers, and unfortunate interlopers were flayed alive.
How did the Colchians, farmers and metallurgists who had lived in the region since the third millennium B.C., view the treasure-seekers who appeared on their shores? What sort of relationship did they develop with these strangers? Did they embrace the mythical legacy of cooperation between the two peoples that the Greeks brought with them to Colchis hundreds of years after the arrival of Argo? Georgian archaeologists have been working for more than a century to answer these questions, and their work continues despite the dismantling of their once-primary funding source, the Soviet state, despite civil wars, breakaway republics, and a near collapse of basic services.
In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, I met Guram Kvirkvelia, an expert in Colchian archaeology at the Georgian Academy of Science's Center for Archaeological Studies, and Bato, our driver. Bato was particularly pleased to be associated with the trip; he hails from the western Georgian district of Mingrelia, whose population claims a direct descent from the Colchians.
We made our way west from Tbilisi over the Surami Mountains, which divide the country into eastern and western regions. For millennia, the Surami also divided the country culturally, with the eastern kingdom of Iberia maintaining closer ties to the Assyrian and Persian empires, while the Colchian west looked more toward the Mediterranean world. From the Surami, lushly wooded hills tumble down into and around fertile, subtropical lowlands that end on the marshy eastern shores of the Black Sea.
Our first stop was the temple city of Vani, the most significant Colchian administrative and trading center yet discovered. Far from the sea, on a strategic hilltop overlooking the plain where the Phasis (modern Rioni) and Sulori rivers meet, it is in Vani that the Colchian's legendary golden wealth is best demonstrated.
Unlike many other regions around the Black Sea, where the Greeks established colonies to exploit rich agricultural land, Colchis came within the sights of Mediterranean traders because of its abundant natural resources. The Greek geographer Strabo wrote about the lush forests that provided excellent shipbuilding materials, while the historian Herodotus mentioned the fine linen woven from local flax. The availability of gemstones in the region was reflected in a Greek belief that the first gem set into a ring was fashioned from the Caucasian mountain to which Prometheus was chained after stealing fire from the gods, but Colchis was best known for the rich deposits of copper and iron ores and gold.
Since antiquity people have speculated about the nature of that infamous fleece: Was it truly golden, truly a fleece? Or a symbol for something else? The most common explanation was put forth by Strabo and the Roman author Appian, who described how natives of the Caucasus hung sheepskins in mountain streams to collect gold dust suspended in the water. Other ancient authors contended that the golden fleece was a book on how to obtain gold by means of chemistry, or a technique for writing in gold.
Vani was founded in the eighth century B.C., a century during which Colchis witnessed a population explosion, most likely caused by significant innovations in iron production. The settlement atop the hill consisted of a collection of log buildings, the standard form of shelter in heavily wooded Colchis. From its inception, Vani appears to have been a center for cult activity, evidenced by caches of fantastic multiheaded clay animals buried there.
By the sixth century, Greek colonists from Miletus had established emporias along the sea coast to trade directly with their Colchian neighbors. Here in the hinterland, however, they preferred to trade only with local rulers, ferrying imported luxury items up the Phasis and its tributaries to exchange for raw materials. Rivers were the primary highways for trade, demonstrated by the fact that Greek pottery finds decrease in proportion to their distance from rivers. Profits from this trade created a Colchian elite at Vani that, while adopting Greek writing and monetary systems, resisted a more encompassing Hellenization for centuries. Local pottery styles, with wavy lines and chevrons, persisted; buildings retained the log-cabin design used in the region since the Bronze Age; human and horse sacrifice accompanied the most elite burials; and the jewelry remained beautifully and uniquely Colchian, a careful balance of Greek composition and Achaemenid Persian themes, together with a local fondness for animal forms, expressed in fanciful combinations of granulation and filigree.
By the Hellenistic period, the increasingly wealthy cult center of Vani may have appeared as a Greek city to an outsider, but closer inspection would reveal that Greek-looking stone temples lacked Greek-style interiors and Greek gods. Male figurines cast in iron and bronze and adorned with gold earrings and necklaces were buried in the foundations of buildings. A fragmentary inscription on a bronze plaque records, in Greek, local religious legislation; it is perhaps the only Colchian text that remains with us today: “Helios, Gala, and Man [deities of the sun, earth, and moon] have witnessed this, and if anybody does not obey, the gods will.…” Seals, grafitti, and stamped roof tiles reveal names written in Greek that are neither Greek nor Persian, but Colchian: Dedatos, Arsans, Melabes, Oradzo, and Khorsip.
As the city's altars and temples, and accompanying treasuries, increased in number, so did its fortifications. Vani's wealth may have led to its downfall. Strabo writes that the city was lundered twice, and archaeologists have uncovered evidence—including a battering ram on display at the Vani museum—of two destructions, most likely committed by Bosporan king Pharnaces and Mithridates VI in the first half of the first century B.C.
Life at Vani today reflects the general political and economic crises facing the republic. Nonetheless, its archaeologists are suprisingly resilient. Guram, who has worked for many years at Vani, recalls the 1992 excavation season, when rebel forces loyal to deposed president Zvaid Gamsakhurdia attempted to seize Tbilisi and were stopped only miles outside of Vani. The archaeologists continued to excavate while shells exploded in the distance. Nowadays, energy supplies in the country are so limited that the electricity comes on for only a few hours at night, but Vani's museum remains open and its employees, who haven't been paid in many months, and aren't expecting a paycheck anytime soon, still come to work in a building that houses a treasury of gold coins and jewelry. No one here would dream of taking a single obol.
Preeminent Georgian archaeologist and Colchian specialist Otar Lordkipanadze, who has directed excavations at Vani since 1966, would later explain the reverence that Georgia's citizens hold for their history: “Colchian culture marked the beginning of Georgian statehood,” he told me back in Tbilisi. This was a deceptively simple statement. Georgia is a country that has been at the crossroads of powerful empires—Assyrian, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Russian—for millennia, but has stubbornly resisted assimilation. Georgians are proud that they have retained their language, alphabet, and culture in light of so many trying circumstances; the concept of the Georgian state is a sacred one.
Even though it was June, up in the hills the air was cold and damp, permeating our clothes and lodging in our bones. So on our last afternoon at Vani, while our photographer was attempting to take pictures in the unlit exhibition hall, Guram and I huddled around the museum's acrid kerosene heater and discussed Vani's more recent history. Excavations have been going on here for over 100 years, ever since word spread of fantastic golden objects spilling out of the hillsides after heavy rains. I asked Guram how much of the city still lies beneath the farms that ring the hilltop. He shrugged. “During Soviet times, our expedition received over 40,000 rubles a year, and we excavated over seven sites in Vani each season. When the Union collapsed, all of our money disappeared. Now, we depend on the few foreign volunteers that come to Vani. If we have two, three, four people paying about $900 each to dig, that's enough to keep some excavation going. Not that I want the communists back,” he adds quickly, nudging the kerosene heater with his foot, “Not for any reason.”
For the past few years, the laying of an oil pipeline from the Caspian shores of neighboring Azerbaijan across Georgia to its central Black Sea coast provided funds for the Center for Archaeological Studies to excavate just ahead of construction. Oil industry money still trickles in, in support of salvage operations in areas where additional infrastructure is being built for an offshore oil terminal. The excavation of the Colchian settlement of Khulevi, at the mouth of the Khobi River on the Black Sea coast just north of the Phasis, is the latest beneficiary. The existence of a Colchian settlement at Khulevi was first established through test trenches dug in the 1970s, but a full excavation began last April, funded by a multinational venture that is building a harbor for oil tankers. Excavation director Rezo Papuashvili gave us a tour of the site, shouting over the combined mar of a stormy sea and, more ominously, the enormous earth-dredger eating its way into the riverbank.
To live comfortably on the marshy coastal plain, Colchians created artificial hillocks, often clustered or arranged in concentric circles separated by moats, on which they built their log houses. At Khulevi, the largest settlement yet found from the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.—the period of the Colchian population explosion—the five-acre hillock is encircled by a 90-foot-wide defensive ditch, with some smaller undefended settlements surrounding it. Papuashvili pointed out fragments of oak walls that stick out from trenches dug down below sea level. The Black Sea has risen considerably since the time of the Colchians, and Papuashvili speculated that a significant portion of the settlement may now lie off the coast. His team has yet to locate the town's necropolis, generally located on the outskirts of a settlement.
From the second half of the eighth century to the end of the sixth, local burial practice involved hanging the dead from trees until bodies were completely defleshed, a practice described in the Argonautica, when Jason and his crew sneak off the Argo into Colchian territory at night: “Here osiers and willows stand in rows, with corpses dangling on ropes from their highest branches.” At some point—perhaps on a specific day of the year or when a certain number of dead had been reached—the bodies were gathered together, burned and buried in collective pits along with grave goods including beads, weapons, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figurines, and agricultural implements such as hoes and scythes. Some collective burial pits have contained remains of over 250 individuals. Guram noted that such secondary burials still occurred last century in the republic's northern district of Abkhazia—but, oddly enough, only for people killed by lightning.
Perhaps the strangest fact regarding Colchian burial practices is that, although their settlements date back well into the second millennium B.C., not a single burial has been found that predates the eighth century B.C. Archaeologists seem reluctant to speculate why. “Maybe in earlier times they put their dead in the rivers or the sea,” said Guram, “but that is very hypothetical at best.” As contacts with the Greeks increased from the sixth century on, Colchians began to bury their dead, curling them up in a fetal position or interring them in large pots.
Papuashvili had until the end of the year to finish work at Khulevi. “We've known about this settlement for a while,” he said, raising his voice as an oil company bull-dozer lumbered by, “but only the oil money gave us the possibility to excavate it.”
Highway travel in Georgia is consistently hindered by the traffic police, who always manage to find some offense that can be easily remedied by cash. Driving from Khulevi to Poti, a port city on the coast near the mouth of the Phasis River, we were pulled over (for an imagined infraction) below a large sign featuring an image of the Argo. It was near Poti that the Argo first entered Aeetes' kingdom, and reminders of the Argonaut legend appear everywhere. A monument to the “Colchian Mother” stands in the center of town, and a fiberglass rendition of the Argo until recently served as a harborside café where one could purchase ice-cold bottles of Argo beer. Relatively quiet since Soviet naval forces left the port (taking with them everything they could and blowing up what they couldn't), Poti is pinning its hopes on the oil pipeline and trade with new regional partners. A promotional brochure for the city touts its long history as a trading center, beginning with the ancient city of Phasis.
According to Greek tradition, a colony was founded at Phasis by the Milesians, who at first thought of their Colchian neighbors as cannibals who “stripped the skin off men”—perhaps a misunderstanding of their burial practices. The colony, believed to have been established around the mid-sixth century B.C., soon became a major trading center for the two cultures. The actual site of Phasis has yet to be positively identified, although many archaeologists believe it now lies beneath the murky waters of nearby Lake Palaeostomi. At a mid-sixth- to mid-fifth-century Colchian settlement 12 miles up the Phasis River from the coast, excavations yielded gold jewelry and imported Greek pottery in the remains of the Colchians' humble log cabins.
While kings named Aeetes were known to the Romans as late as the sixth century A.D. and the Roman writer Arrian claimed that the Argo's anchor was on display in Phasis, oddly enough there is no reference to the expedition of the Argonauts in any Colchian or Greek material found in the territory of Georgia, with the exception of a Greek colony named after the Argonaut twins Castor and Pollux, brothers of Helen of Troy who were known as the Dioscuri.
The site of Dioscurias is located on the northwestern coastal fringe of Colchis, in the region of Abkhazia. Much of this area, rising above the marshy plains of the central coast, attracted larger and earlier Colchian settlements that were influenced by Scythians living north of the Caucasus. The Greeks had arrived at Dioscurias by the fifth century, and archaeological evidence shows that they lived in close proximity to their Colchian neighbors. Parts of Dioscurias now lie beneath the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi, while a significant portion of the ancient city has fallen victim to the rising waters of the Black Sea. Excavations in the area have revealed Attic bronze helmets, amphorae from Chios, Attica, and Sinope, a statuette of Demeter, and a Greek funerary stele. South of Dioscurias is Gyenus (modern Ochamchire), the third Greek colony in Colchis, along with Phasis and Dioscurias, mentioned by ancient writers. Like Khulevi and Phasis, Gyenus was established on the coast at the mouth of a navigable river. Considerable Greek influence, reflected in large amounts of Ionian pottery, appeared here in the sixth century, but more excavation is needed to determine the extent of Greek settlement in the area.
Unfortunately, thc closest most archaeologists can get to Dioscurias and Gyenus these days is the Enguri River, which marks the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Between 1992 and 1993, ethnic nationalist Abkhaz forces attempted to separate from the rest of the republic and fighting ensued. Abkhazia's status remains in limbo, its territory occupied by Russian and UNOMIG (United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia) peacekeepers. Sukhumi and Ochamchire remain inactive war zones; the coast is littered with mines.
Zugdidi, the largest town on the Georgian side of the Enguri River, lies within the 12-mile security zone maintained by peacekeeping forces on either side of the border. On our way to see the Colchian collection in the Zugdidi Museum, we passed into the zone, marked by a tank with a drowsy Russian soldier sitting atop, resting his elbows on the Kalashnikov assault rifle lying across his lap.
We were met at the museum by director Ilya Antelava and made small talk in his office while waiting for another official to escort us to the collection, a typical Colchian assortment of bronze and iron weapons, farming tools, and ornaments. Zugdidi is a city of refugees, its only industries UNOMIG and a Snickers factory, and the despair was obvious even here in the museum. Antelava, who is also head of the Mingrelian Scientific Center of the Georgian Academy of Sciences, spoke of his historical research. “I have no idea what's going on a half kilometer away,” he said, gesturing towards the river, “so how am I supposed to know what happened there 500 years ago?” Hoping to break the uncomfortable silence that followed, I asked him if he agreed that the Mingrelians are direct descendants of the Colchians. Antelava smiled a sad smile. “Yes. That's the only true thing around here.”
After our tour of the collection, we headed back to the van. “Bato asks if you want to see the border,” said Guram. “Sure,” I replied immediately, although I wasn't sure if the decision was fueled more by curiosity or the bravado resulting from numerous shots of chacha (Georgian moonshine) foisted on us by our host at breakfast that morning.
The border itself was a makeshift assortment of wood and barbed-wire barriers blocking a bridge across the Enguri. Armed Russian soldiers in bullet-proof vests walked in slow circles, occasionally pulling the barriers aside to let military vehicles and some cars and horse-drawn carts driven by Abkhazian citizens pass. A sign on one of the barriers read in Russian: “Stop. Or we will shoot you.”
We stood there for a while and stared across the river at the verdant, unexpectedly quiet hills. “You know, there's a very interesting site right across the river there,” Guram said, pointing from behind the barricades. “Pichori. It was occupied from the end of the third millennium until the fourth century B.C. Huge site, right near the sea. I identified it back in 1979, and we excavated there from 1981 until the war.” He went on to describe the 25-acre Colchian city, consisting of a hill about 200 feet around and 15 feet high, surrounded by a moat and encircled by another ten settlement hills, surrounded again by another moat and another ten hills. Bronze-making workshops and a necropolis were also found, as well as a system of moats and a river connecting Pichori to two other nearby settlements. All together, this Colchian city covered almost 25 acres in size. Systematic excavations at Pichori, like at Dioscurias and Gyenus, stopped with the fighting.
A soldier began to shout at us for taking too many photographs. As we walked away from barricades, Guram took a final look over the river. “This is all so stupid,” he sighed, “Before this damn war, we didn't have these problems. Abkhaz, Georgian, who cares, that didn't matter when you were excavating.”
Ever since Vani, Guram had been talking about a “very interesting charioteer” in a provincial museum that I absolutely had to see. I had no idea what exactly this “charioteer” was, but was eager to get out of thc misery of Zugdidi. Soon we were humming down a straightaway when we heard the now-familiar shrill of a traffic police whistle. Bato rolled his eyes and pulled over, and a corpulent cop, hand on his gun, sauntered over and stuck his head in the van window to better survey our luggage and camera equipment. “Your turn signal is broken,” he drawled. Guram translated and I tried to supress a laugh. The last turn we had made was three miles back.
Bato tried a line he was having some success with: “There's an American journalist in the van.”
The cop looked over at me. I smiled, raising my notebook.
His face reddening, the cop turned back to Bato. “I'll stop you again on the way back,” he growled, “and then I'll fine you a hundred dollars!” And with that, the cop yanked on the brim of his Soviet-era hat, complete with hammer and sickle, spun on his heel, and marched away.
Thanks to the cop, we arrived at the museum just after closing time, and Givi Elliava, the 82-year-old museum director, was reluctant to let us in. “Please,” pleaded Guram, “this lady has come all the way from America to see your charioteer!” Elliava frowned. “Come back in 45 minutes,” he replied.
When we returned, the director was cradling a small cardboard box in his hands. Beaming, he removed the top, and inside I saw a small bronze figurine of a man, hands extended to clutch the reins of a chariot, maybe one-and-a-half inches high. It was found in 1975 during the excavation of a Colchian necropolis at a nearby village. The necropolis, dated to the second half of the eighth century—first half of the seventh century, contained standard collective burials featuring typical zoomorphic ceramics, beads, weapons, and bronze animal figurines.
“This charioteer is really unusual,” Guram said. “Nothing like it has been found in Colchis or anywhere around it. But it is very much like Geometric Greek (eighth century B.C.) charioteer figurines from Greece. Professor Lordkipanadze believes that it may be a Greek import, maybe the earliest one in the entire Black Sea area.” This came as a surprise to me—the general belief among scholars is that the first archaeological evidence for Greek contact with peoples living around the Black Sea did not occur until almost a century later, in the last quarter of the seventh century.
I asked Lordkipanadze about the possibility of Greeks in the Black Sea as early as the eighth century. “There was active contact during the eighth century, at least with the Colchians,” he replied. “There are bronze bells and figurines from the eighth century found on the Greek island of Samos. They are definitely Colchian, and we have found the same items here. Greek fibulae and pottery forms and designs characteristic of Geometric art—these appear in Colchis in the eighth century. I believe there is a connection between the multi-headed animal figurines at Vani and very similar ones found at Olympus. And look at the literary evidence: already in the eighth and seventh centuries, the Greeks mention Colchis, they mention Phasis. The legend of the Argonauts is very popular at this time; the Greeks were very interested.”
Did the Greeks actually travel across the Black Sea in the Late Bronze Age, as Homer would have us believe? Lordkipanadze smiled. “Of course, there is no archaeological evidence yet for such a trip. But I believe the myth of Jason and the Argonauts reflects the earliest Greek exploration. Troy wasn't a fantasy to the Greeks.”
Our final destination was the southwestern region of Adjara, which had declared itself an autonomous republic within Georgia and festooned the main crossing point into the district with large concrete barricades and equally large “border patrol” officers who demanded our passports. A couple of miles past the checkpoint, an enormous Soviet-style statue of a bearded, cloaked man holding the reins of two equally enormous horses rose up from the side of the road. Guram pointed to it. “There's King Aeetes, and right behind him is Pitchvnari.”
Although not mentioned in the ancient literature, the site of Pitchvnari had a considerable Greek community from the second half of the fifth century to the end of the fourth century, featuring the only Greek necropolis found so far in Colchis. Excavations at the necropolis have revealed the finest Athenian pottery, including a magnificent red-figure krater. Archaeologists have discovered the associated Greek settlement, but its waterlogged location—near the sea at the confluence of two rivers—would make its excavation an extremely expensive prospect. An enormous Colchian settlement existed nearby, and finds at its necropolis, only 300 feet away from the Greek one, show that the Colchians at Pitchvnari adopted some Greek funerary practices, including placing a coin under the tongue of the dead to pay Charon, the ferryman who carried their souls over the river Styx.
The finds at Pitchvnari tell a story of Greek colonization that is unusual for the Black Sea region. Outside of Colchis, particularly along the northern and western coasts, the Greeks exploited enormous areas of land and established powerful city-states, like Chersonesus in modern-day Ukraine, to regulate trade and local populations. The Greek “colonies” of Colchis, however, appear to be no more than small-scale trading posts whose presence did not radically alter the traditional life-style of the region. With the exception of the Vani aristocracy, Colchians continued to live in their log cabins, producing their traditional weapons and pottery and worshiping their local deities. Although Herodotus claims that the Colchians assisted Xerxes in his invasion of Greece in the fifth century B.C., there is no evidence of conflict between the native population and Greeks in Colchis.
We met Amiran Kakhidze, the director of excavations at Pitchvnari, in the Adjaran capital of Batumi. He showed us the new Batumi Archaeological Museum, of which he is also the director. Workers were busy renovating the building, a former Soviet cultural center, with funds provided by Adjara's leader, who refuses to turn over tax revenue from Batumi's busy port and its border crossing with Turkey to the central Georgian government. A large room houses the collections from Pitchvnari and the nearby site of Tsikhisdziri, where fifth-century burials have revealed large amounts of Attic red- and black-figure pottery and terra-cotta animal figurines. My eye fell on a small, blue basalt statuette of an Egyptian pharaoh, and I was immediately reminded of Herodotus' assertion that the Colchians were descendants of Egyptian soldiers who, following a campaign in the northern Black Sea, were unwilling to make the long trip home. “Yes, the pharaoh,” Kakhidze smiled, “he was found during the construction of a house in a nearby village. Perhaps some Greek settler brought him here.” What about Herodotus' idea of the Colchian's Egyptian origin? Kakhidze dismissed the question with a wave of his hand. “He was probably drinking too much wine when he wrote that,” volunteered a bystander.
The Colchians themselves had a long-standing wine-drinking tradition well before the Greeks arrived on their shores. Some archaeologists suggest, only half in jest, that relations between Colchians and Greeks were cordial because of their mutual respect for the grape. Kakhidze extended an invitation to sample the local product at a traditional Georgian supra, or feast, he was hosting in the Apsaros fortress.
A couple of miles south of Batumi, the fortress was the perfect place to finish our expedition: a symbol of the beginning and end of the Colchian saga. According to Greek tradition, after Medea helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece, they fled on the Argo, only to be pursued by a Colchian fleet led by Medea's brother Apsaros. Medea invited her brother onboard, whereupon he was killed, chopped up, and thrown into the sea. The Colchians collected his remains and buried them, according to Roman writers, at this site. Perhaps this was an attempt by Rome to claim an association with the Argonauts; during the Third Mithridatic War (74–63 B.C.), Pompey routed Mithridates in Colchis and annexed the region, building forts along the coast and bringing Colchian rule of the region to an end.
The fortress was established by the Romans in the first half of the first century B.C., and successive Byzantine and Ottoman forces enlarged and fortified the 11-acre complex. Its impressive walls and towers still stand, and during Soviet times its interior served as a citrus farm, growing oranges and lemons for party elite in Moscow. Today, parts of the fort are being excavated, revealing elaborate Turkish baths and Byzantine and Roman barracks.
It was on our way back to Tbilisi that Guram suggested we take a look at Namarnu, described as the “great barbarian polls” by a fourth-century B.C. writer and often referred to as “Medea's city.” The 30-acre site, founded around the beginning of the first millennium B.C. between the Phasis and Pichora rivers, has been excavated only intermittently.
The site lies very far off the beaten path, and as we trundled along the rutted dirt roads, eliciting stares from those on the occasional horse-drawn cart, I began to review our trip, trying to align the mythical adventures of the Argonauts—their encounter with a barbarian king and his sorceress daughter, serpents guarding golden fleece in outdoor sanctuaries, dark swamps festooned with corpses—with the reality of life for the true Argonauts, trading painted pots and amphoras of food and drink from their small coastal settlements in return for metals and wood, quietly coexisting with the local “barbarians.”
I was still trying to reconcile this when we finally stopped the van and peered out at the collection of hillocks said to be Medea's hometown. It wasn't until the last feeble rays of sun disappeared behind the hills that I realized how infinitely far away the Greeks must have felt from their own world, out here on the dark Colchian plain, with only the gleam of gold to light their way.
PHOTO (COLOR): This golden diadem with a scene of two lions attacking a bull takes a popular Persian theme and renders it in a Greek-style composition.
PHOTO (COLOR): A necklace of turtles and bull-headed bracelets, facing page, reflect Colchian fondness for animal themes in jewelry, while a golden bowl is distinctly Persian in design.
PHOTO (COLOR): Partially reconstructed remains of a Hellenistic temple in a sacred precinct of Vani, a Colchian city in the Georgina interior
PHOTOS (COLOR): Bronze decorations from a bowl found at Vani depict a satyr and Pan, while a third century B.C. inscription records Colchian religious legislation.
PHOTO (COLOR): A 12th-century B.C. axhead and hundreds of hoes from a collective burial highlight the importance of agriculture and metallurgy in the Colchian economy.
PHOTO (COLOR): The construction of an oil pipeline from the Capsian shores of Azerbaijan to Georgia's Black Sea coast provided much-needed funding for archaeologists.
PHOTOS (COLOR): Givi Elliava, with grandson Dato, has been a museum director for nearly 50 years. The bronze charioteer, left, may be the earliest-known Greek import.
PHOTOS (COLOR): Fifth-century B.C. Colchian left, and Athenian, right, ceramics were found in neighboring cemeteries. Excavations continue at the Roman fortress of Apsaros, where the murdered brother of Medea is said to have been buried.
By Kristin M. Romey
Kristin Romey is assistant managing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY. She would like to thank Otar Lordkipanadze, Vakhtang Licheli and the members of Tbilisi's Center for Archaeological Studies for their inestimable assistance and generosity.