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Gold, Wine and Culture Shift

Sackler Exhibit Documents Ancient Georgia

To the ancient Greeks, Colchis — now the country of Georgia — was well-known for its gold; Jason and the Argonauts of Greek mythology traveled there to acquire the Golden Fleece. And scholars think it may have been in Colchis that grapes were first fermented to make wine.

Both wine and gold feature prominently in a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery displaying items discovered in Georgian graves dating back to the eighth to second centuries B.C.

But that’s not the whole story behind “Wine, Worship and Sacrifice: The Golden Graves of Ancient Vani,” said Julian Raby, director of the Sackler Gallery. The items on display, unearthed from the graves of Colchisian aristocrats who lived between the eighth and second centuries B.C., illustrate ancient Georgia’s abandonment of ties with the Eastern world and an embracing of the West.

This cultural shift was what Raby, a scholar of Islamic art, wanted to emphasize. Many of the featured pieces were previously part of an exhibit that traveled through Europe and focused exclusively on golden artifacts. Raby expanded the scope — and left out some of the gold — to provide the historical context and get at the “real story.”

Georgia, Raby said, is at a “bottleneck of different worlds.” Located between the Black and Caspian seas, it has had numerous contacts with both the East and the West. The earliest items in the exhibit date back to before 600 B.C., when Colchis was closely aligned with Persia (present-day Iran). The exhibit spans about 500 to 600 years, and the most recent items show a clear shift to Greek cultural and religious influences.

The artifacts are ordered chronologically, so visitors can see the East-West shift. The first room houses an ax head and heavily stylized statuettes, among the oldest items in the exhibit. These bear the distinct signature of Persian-influenced workmanship, Raby said. Pieces of jewelry depicting the heads of rams and lions and found in graves are further evidence of early close ties with Persia.

“Rams were very common in Iranian royal imagery as beasts hunted by royalty,” Raby said. “Lions were considered the most prestigious animals for a king to hunt.”

But Greek influence spread through the conquests of Alexander the Great, and the most recent items in the exhibit are distinctly Greek in their design. The last room, for example, features a Hellenistic statue of a male torso. Greek religion had spread, too; the latest items in the collection were decorated with images of “a pantheon of Greek gods,” Raby said.

One aspect of Georgian culture, however, seems to span both sides of the shift: an appreciation for libations. Wine is still an important part of Georgian tradition, Raby said; conversation at traditional feasts is still today led by a head drinker or toastmaster, a highly respected role. A belt discovered in one of the graves shows a man reclining on a bench, while his servant waits behind with a drinking cup and ladle.

Georgian feasts could last a long time, Raby said, and Georgians made sure they had enough wine for everyone. The exhibit includes three amphorae, large clay jugs from Georgia and the Greek isles used to store quite a bit of wine. How much wine, exactly? A guest curator at the Sackler Gallery estimated 20 to 25 liters (about five and a half to six and a half gallons); another curator simply answered, “Enough to have a jolly good time.”

A bit of drinking-related trivia from the exhibit: Veterans of Washington’s think tank circles might be interested to know that “symposium,” according to the exhibit, comes from the Greek word for “drinking party.”

“Wine, Worship and Sacrifice” is on the S1 floor at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and will on display until Feb. 24.