How to Make Sense of Treasure

By James, N. | Antiquity, March 2009 | Go to article overview
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How to Make Sense of Treasure

James, N., Antiquity

Treasures in themselves are fetishes. Only the admirer can make 'treasure' of a find in isolation; but to wonder about it as treasure opens apt questions about why the thing was valued, by whom and under what conditions. It was worrying, then, when the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University's art collection, took in an exhibition of striking ancient finds returning to the Georgian National Museum from the USA (Smithsonian Institution and New York University). For the usual focus on the intrinsic qualities of fine art sits awkwardly with archaeological concern for context. The Fitzwilliam did tend to isolate the exhibits; but, here, that yielded an advantage as well as a difficulty.

Mounted from October 2008 to January 2009, with a design and a title of the Fitzwilliam's own, From the Land of the Golden Fleece: Tomb Treasures of Ancient Georgia comprised nearly 150 finds from Vani, dated to c. 450-250 BC. The Museum displayed, at the same time, 155 coins and money pieces from around the Black Sea, mostly from its own collection, ranging from c. 500 BC to the 200s AID. Considering the recent war in Georgia, visitors will have recognised Golden Fleece as an appeal to the West.


Vani was an aristocratic centre in Colchis, fabled destination of Jason the Greek and his Argonauts. It has been investigated more or less consistently since 1947 (Chi 2008: 31-2). Periodic meetings on the results began in 1977, and next year's is expected to assess the funerary assemblages (Chi 2008: 32, 126). Golden Fleece opened with a sketch of Colchis's history and pictures of Vani and the region. The first group of finds illustrated living, worship and, indeed, war. It also demonstrated Colchian smiths' superb skills. In the middle stood the life-size torso and thighs of a young man in bronze--Greek in form but not in the technique of casting. The shapes and iconography of ceramic, bronze and silver vessels (kantharoi, situlae) and attachments seemed to confirm the taste for wine; there were little ornaments in gold and semi-precious materials, recovered from graves; and there were coins. Apparently specially buried in or beside a building interpreted as a shrine were vernacular iron figurines and a Hellenistic bronze figurine, each fitted with gold ornaments. There was also the head of a battering ram.


The rest of the exhibition was given over to five others of the 28 tombs excavated so far. They seem to have been associated with dwellings. Grave 11 yielded silverware and an astonishing array of gold and silver adornments, including items from both the Pontic area and Persia. The principal interment (we are told) was a woman, accompanied by three other corpses and, 'outside' the tomb, a horse (Chi 2008: 129).

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