Greeks and "Georgians" in ancient Colchis, by Philip L. Kohl and Gocha R. Tsetskhladze

Ancient Greek coin from Colchis, Dioscourias (modern Sukhum). Late 2nd century BC.

Nationalism, politics, and the practice of archaeology, by Philip L. Kohl and Clare Fawcett (eds). Cambridge University Press (1996).

Nationalism in the classical archaeology of the Caucasus: Greeks and "Georgians" in ancient Colchis (pp. 162-168)

The interpretation of the later archaeological record in the Caucasus is also suffused with nationalist sentiments. The second part of this paper presents a detailed example of this practice: the denial of significant Greek influences on the local archaeologically attested cultures of western Georgia (ancient Colchis). Despite their historically checkered relations, Georgians and Greeks are not currently killing each other over conflicting ancestral claims. This case study represents neither the only, nor the most invidious example of nationalist archaeology in the later historical archaeology of the Caucasus. It does, however, nicely illustrate the pervasive extent of nationalist prejudice: implausible archaeological reconstructions, extolling the glory of all things indigenous while disparaging the influence of external contacts, dominate less partial, more sober and objective "readings" of the same rich body of archaeological and written sources.

In the West the term "classical archaeology" refers to Greek and Roman antiquities; in the former Soviet Union, the Russian word antichnaya is used for this period. Although use of this term typically is clear and unproblematic, it recently was suggested that the term antichnaya arkheologiya is inappropriate for the archaeology of Georgia and ought to be replaced by the term "Iberian-Colchian period" which extended in three sub-periods from the seventh century BC through the fourth century AD. According to the author, the reason for this substitution was that the term antichnaya arkheologiya is used in relation to Graeco-Roman sites, while in the territory of ancient Georgia only Greek and Roman trading colonies are to be found - there never having been a permanent Graeco-Roman population (G. Gamkrelidze 1985:123-6). This article did not elicit responses or commentaries from Georgian specialists in the field, though their lack of response does not mean that they did not agree with the author. Questions as to the presence of the Greeks in ancient Colchis, the Greek colonization of this region, and the influence of Greek culture on the indigenous inhabitants of Colchis are fiercely debated among Georgian archaeologists, and the only convincing explanation for controversy over what should be non-problematic is national pride.

Similarly, nationalist emotions predominate in the writings of local historians. In July 1991 an article appeared in a district newspaper in the town of Kobuleti about the name of the fortified settlement of Petra (Kontselidze 1991), one of the most significant archaeological sites in western Georgia. In the sixth to second centuries BC a Colchian/Greek settlement existed there; in the first centuries AD there was a Roman military settlement; and in the middle of the sixth century AD the Byzantines fortified the previously existing settlement and named it Petra. Kontselidze believes that this fortress should be renamed, since the name Petra is Greek and it had been built not by Georgians but by the Byzantines for themselves. He is distraught that professional archaeologists and historians are unable to find the Georgian name of this fortress.

The vast majority of Georgian (and some Abkhazian) archaeologists do not want to accept the Greek colonization of Colchis or the influence of Greek culture on Colchis. Some scholars even place the term colonization in quotes (e.g., Kaukhchishvili 1979:274). According to them, the Greeks did not found independent Greek colonies (poleis), but factoria for trade which did not have a chora (or agricultural hinterland). These factoria were under the control of the local Colchian rulers and either were small settlements or constituted districts of local towns. In order to substantiate these conclusions, it is argued that there existed a strong local state with a king in Colchis and that this state stood in the way of the emergence of independent Greek cities. Greek influence on the material and nonmaterial culture of Colchis is also denied (at least in the sixth to fourth centuries BC) by reference to the fact that Colchian culture was highly developed and did not need to accept anything from Hellenic culture which was alien to it (Lordkipanidze 1989:256-72).19 We shall not examine in detail the question of the Greek colonization of Colchis but attempt to paint a general picture of the eastern part of the Black Sea region in the sixth to fourth centuries BC (for more information, see Tsetskhladze 1994).

The problems of the Colchian state and royal power in Colchis

Most Georgian scholars consider that a strong local state had emerged in Colchis at least by the end of the sixth century BC. Herodotus' account seemingly supports this opinion:

The Persians live right up as far as the Southern Sea, known as the Red Sea [i.e. the Persian Gulf]; beyond them to the North live the Medes, beyond them the Saspiri, beyond the Saspiri are the Colchians, whose land reaches as far as the Northern Sea [Black Sea], into which flows the River Phasis. These are the four peoples whose lands stretch from one sea to the other. (IV.37) 

From this passage, the following conclusion is drawn:

Within this extensive territory the "father of History" [Herodotus] places only four peoples: the Persians; the Medes; the Saspiri; and the Colchians. It is well known that the states of the Medes and the Persians at that time were powerful, and the fact that the Colchians are mentioned in the same breath can probably be seen as an indirect indication of the fact that there also then existed a state of Colchis that was a large political entity. (Lordkipanidze 1989:220-1).

Such wishful thinking, however, is not really plausible. Mention of the Colchians alongside the Persians and the Medes need not indicate that the Colchians had a strong state-structured polity. If the same logic were to be followed further, one would be forced to assume that the Saspiri also had a strong state. More revealing is the note by the same scholar which refers to the Saspiri as "East Georgian [sic!] tribes" (Lordkipanidze 1989:221, note 20). In reality, Herodotus was simply listing these peoples according to their geographical location and not according to the extent of their population, nor to their control of large political states. Ancient authors are not cited for documenting royal power in Colchis; instead, we are informed that the descendants of King Aeetes ruled in Colchis and that later rulers inherited his throne (Lordkipanidze 1989:223-4). Scholarship here devolves into mythology.

Greek and Roman authors always showed an interest in Colchis, above all as the Land of the Golden Fleece and the home of Medea, and, for this reason, kept retelling parts of the myth of the Argonauts. There simply is very little reliable and concrete historical information about Colchis in the Greek literary tradition. One cannot reconstruct the social structure of the "erstwhile mighty Colchian Kingdom," as based, for example, on the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius (Lordkipanidze 1989:229), but only evaluate as critically and as objectively as possible the archaeological record and the more reliable historical sources.

Archaeological materials, primarily mortuary evidence, reveal marked social differentiation and the emergence of a local Colchian elite in the late sixth and early fifth century BC, and it is probable that a Colchian state, ruled by a king, existed at that time. The question then becomes: how centralized and powerful was this state? Written sources are helpful and indicate that Colchis was not a centralized state. Strabo, whose information on Colchis is always reliable, wrote that "the kings, ruling over a land divided up into skeptouchs, enjoyed a moderate degree of power" (XI.2.18). This passage testifies to the fact that Colchis was divided up into administrative/territorial units (skeptouchs) headed by skeptouchoi (a title based on the ancient Greek word meaning "scepterholder"), who were representatives of the local clan-based aristocracy. "Colchis" itself was not an ethnic but a political term; it was an alliance of numerous Colchian tribes and not a unified, centralized kingdom.

+ The value of the past: myths, identity and politics in Transcaucasia, by Victor A. Shnirelman
+ In Defence of the Homeland: Intellectuals and the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict, by Bruno Coppieters
+ Nation-building in the Post-Soviet Borderlands: The Georgian-Abkhazian confrontation, by  Graham Smith

The question of Greek colonization

According to the classical authors, three cities were founded by the Greeks in the region known as Colchis: Phasis, Gyenos, and Dioscuria. Admittedly, the archaeological evidence is problematic: Phasis has not been found; part of Dioscuria lies under the Black Sea and the rest is under the modern, now war-ravaged city of Sukhumi; and Gyenos has not been systematically investigated. Nevertheless, consideration of the relatively unambiguous and substantial historical record reveals that one cannot seriously question the existence of these poleis in Colchis, nor pretend that the Greeks only traded there.

We know that Phasis was founded by Milesians (Heraclides Ponticus, XVIII; Pomponius Mela, 1.108; Anon. PPE, 44; Stephen of Byzantium s.v. Ethnika). Written sources provide the founder's name - Phemistagoras of Miletus (Pomponius Mela, 1.108), the leader of the colonists. Pseudo-Scylax refers to it as an Hellenic city (81). A fragment of an "Aristotelian Constitution of the Phasians" (FGr Hist. II, p. 218) is a particularly important Greek source. Although the interpretation of this text and the translation of certain words are controversial, one fact is incontrovertible: the city of Phasis was a Milesian colony that had its own constitution, which attracted the attention of Aristotle, whose writings include descriptions of the constitutions of such poleis as Athens, Sparta, and Miletus. In Phasis the colonists were responsible for introducing the cult of Apollo, and a temple dedicated to that Greek god existed in the city. The city also minted its own silver coins - the so-called Kolkhidki (Dundua 1987:9-33).

Axe with a Dog and Geometric Pattern
Axe with a Dog and Geometric Pattern. Colchis Culture. 8th - 7th century BC. Found in the Village of Anukhva, Abkhazia (Hermitage).

Gyenos was also an Hellenic polls (Pseudo-Scylax, 81). The archaeological materials reveal that it too was founded by the Milesians. That same Greek city also founded Dioscuria, whose chora also has been documented. Appian (101), Charax of Pergamum (Frg. 36, 37 v), Pliny (Natural History, VI.61), Pomponius Mela (I, III) and Ammianus Marcellinus (XXII.8.24) link the name of the city "Dioscuria" with the name of the Dioscuri - Castor and Pollux - and are of the opinion that it had been founded in their honor. All the above-mentioned Greek cities were established in the middle of the sixth century BC, and they functioned as trading centers for the local tribes. Apart from these cities, there were also Hellenic settlements at Tsikhisdziri and Pichvnari (Tsetskhladze 1994).

It is difficult to understand why the local royal power in Colchis would have impeded the emergence of independent Greek poleis. The king and the local elite had every reason to be on good terms with the Greeks. The Hellenization of the elite began immediately, a process clearly reflected in the archaeological materials, most of which are found in Vani, a city-site inhabited by many nobles. It was precisely in centers such as these that craft production was concentrated, particularly in those spheres of production that provided for the needs of the ruling elite of Colchian society, such as, above all, the production of seal-rings as distinctive emblems of the elite. Greeks were working in the workshops - a fact universally accepted, even by nationalist-minded Georgian archaeologists. Although at present it is impossible to trace precisely and consistently the development of Georgian glyptics or to speak of a definite "Colchian" or "Graeco-Colchian" style in glyptics, systematic study of certain characteristic groups of intaglios has made it possible to pick out certain features and to distinguish preliminarily between Colchian and Graeco-Colchian seals.

+ “Colchean” Amphorae from Abkhazia by Sergey Yu. Vnukov
+ Amazon Warriors' Names Revealed Amid "Gibberish" on Ancient Greek Vases
+ Identifying the Tribes of the Eastern Black Sea Region, by Sujatha Chandrasekaran

The next "elite" branch of artistic craftsmanship that catered to the local rulers was goldsmithing. The written and archaeological sources together confirm that this type of craft production was not imported. It is difficult to say who was engaged in these gold workshops. The typology of the gold articles (e.g., earrings, diadems) shows that local craftsmen played the dominant role, but Greek influence is also evident. Granulation was widespread both in the classical world and farther east, and artistic analysis reveals Oriental influences (e.g., the depictions of fighting animals on diadems). The predilection of the ruling elite with regard to gold jewelry was the same everywhere. Some gold articles were gifts from the Achaemenid kings, and it is clear that others had been received by the local rulers as gifts from Greek merchants, a pattern also seen in the ornamental metal reliefs. Furthermore, the elite immediately began to use the Greek language; study of the graffiti reveals that the elite wrote in Greek (Tsetskhladze 1994; for more details on problems with the interpretation of Achaemenid materials, see Tsetskhladze 1992).

The influence of Greek culture on Colchian culture

Some Georgian authorities have maintained that there was no significant Greek influence on the material culture of Colchis in the sixth to fourth centuries BC, such as in craft production, building techniques, funerary rites, domestic life, and the like (Lordkipanidze 1989:261). Rather than considering all these manifestations of material culture, let us turn our attention to just one aspect: the funerary rituals practiced by the local population. This phenomenon is most revealing in that ideology and religion are always conservative forms of material and non-material culture; if the influence of Greek culture made itself felt here, then this strongly suggests that the Greek presence in Colchis was significant. 

Interesting materials have been brought to light by excavations of a Colchian cemetery dating from the fifth century BC which was discovered at Kobuleti-Pichvnari. The orientation of 103 of the 160 published burials has been established, and forty-two of these exhibit an orientation towards the east as was typical for the Greeks. We also encounter the "Charon's obol" ritual: forty-nine coins were found in nineteen of the 160 burials, one of them being from Sinope while the remainder were Colchian. Hellenic influence also serves to explain the presence of amphorae in six burials. The amphorae are from Chios and Phasos, apart from one which is proto-Phasian. One also must emphasize that similar materials from Tsikhisdziri show that the cemetery of Pichvnari is not the only place documenting the actual physical presence of the Greeks in Colchis.

Finally, while nothing is known about the local language, it has already been established that the official language for religious ceremonies and state administration in Colchis was Greek. This has been demonstrated by the find of official political and religious decrees written in impeccable Greek on bronze sheets in Eshera and Vani (Tsetskhladze 1994).

In short, what for all other people and states is seen as a source of pride - namely, direct contact between their culture and Graeco-Roman civilization - is unacceptable for certain Georgian archaeologists. Facts, however, should prevail over nationalist emotions. Scholars, who should serve Clio and not contemporary politics, must free themselves from prejudices that reflect nationalist feelings and current events. Today no-one doubts that a highly developed civilization existed in the first millennium BC within the territory of what is now western Georgia, a culture which at the same time enjoyed close political, economic, and cultural links with both the Mediterranean and the Eastern (particularly the Achaemenid Empire) worlds. Like any other highly developed culture, Colchis absorbed and refashioned the achievements of the Greek and Achaemenid civilizations. This should be seen as progress, not the opposite.

Full chapter: Nationalism in the classical archaeology of the Caucasus

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