Spirit of Georgia
In Search of the Lost Capital
Publication: 3 March 2023
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Did the archaeologists from the Polish-Georgian project come across the remnants of an ancient settlement hailed in the Argonautica? Of course, we can never be certain until we find a road sign that says “Aea”.
Kutaisi is a city in the west of Georgia, sitting over the picturesque Rioni River, located about 200 metres above sea level in the easternmost end of the Colchis valley, mentioned in numerous myths and stories. It is the third-largest city in Georgia and the capital of the Imereti region. It has a population of nearly 150 thousand inhabitants, proud of the province’s history. Over the years, the city had been known by several names: Cytaea (Propertius), Kutaia – Κύταια – (Stephanus of Byzantium), and Kutaisi – Κουτατίσιον – (Procopius, also the chronicles of Georgian King David the Builder from the early 12th century). Yet the most interesting fact is that many scientists, as well as the inhabitants, believe Kutaisi to be the ancient city of Aea (Αἶα), known best from the Greek poem Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes. Some researchers argue the city was located somewhere in the east of today’s Turkey. However, some insist that Aea was, indeed, a city in modern-day Georgia, but much closer to the Black Sea. I shan’t dwell on the disputes around this issue but I would like to point out another, much more serious issue. Until recently, there was no archaeological proof to confirm that any settlements existed in Kutaisi during the Bronze Age, not to mention any larger city or proto-urban structures. This was also the main argument that Kutaisi could not be the mythical Aea, the “capital of Colchis”.
But what was Colchis? It is the ancient name of a region covering the valley of the Rioni River (which many archaeologists and historians identify as the ancient Phasis), as well as the areas in western Georgia, between the two mountain ranges of Greater and Lesser Caucasus, such as Imereti, Mingrelia, Guria, Adjara, or Abkhazia, all of the west coast of the Black Sea, and partially, the territories of today’s Turkey, covering the north-western part of the country from the mouth of the Chorokhi River to the city of Trabzon.
The Greek name Colchis (Κολχίς, Κολχίδα) was first used to describe this geographical area in the works of Aeschylus and Pindar. Many Greek writers described Colchis in great detail: its mythical king Aeëtes (Αἰήτης) and the royal city, the famed golden capital of Aea. Thanks to Greek mythology, Colchis is mostly associated with the Argonauts quest to find the Golden Fleece. It was also known as the homeland of sorceress Medea, the land of untold riches, precious metals, and sorcery. Unfortunately, the Greek myth does not mention any additional information on the social organisation of the region or any interesting details about the city itself.
Historically, the legendary fame of Colchis came mostly from its extraordinary wealth and its function as a transit area for the network of trade routes. The region was known for its very important resources considered luxurious in the ancient world, such as gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, wood, honey, and linen. It was most likely at the turn of the 8th and 7th century BC that Greeks from Miletus probably colonised the west coast of today’s Georgia for the first time to expand their area of influence and began trading agricultural produce and ship-building materials such as wood, tar, and wax, as mentioned by Strabo, for example. After the 6th century BC, Colchis fell under the nominal rule of the Persian Achaemenid Empire and later, in the 1st century BC, it was taken over by Mithradates VI Eupator, King of Pontus, thus becoming part of the Roman world for a while.
Sadly, the earlier history of Colchis is hardly known to us. The information on the Bronze Age and early days of the Iron Age (the 2nd millennium BC, and the turn of the 2nd and 1st millennium BC) is scarce, therefore the times of the possible reign of the mythical King Aeëtes, and the aforementioned Argonauts were finding their way to the eastern coast of the Black Sea, are shrouded in mystery. This is not only due to the state of research on the ancient and protohistoric past of western Georgia but also because of the lack of any written sources from this area. According to our best current knowledge, it is most likely that the local community of that time was not using any kind of writing system at all. The only written accounts available to us come exclusively from the empires south of Colchis. All descriptions dated before the 7th century BC are very terse and refer only to the southwestern part of the region, never mentioning the areas deeper into the valley of Colchis, home to Kutaisi – the city that remains at the centre of our interest.
Using the term “Colchians” when speaking of the inhabitants of that region, and archaeologists mentioning the “Colchian culture” only leads to more persistent questions: who were Colchians? Did they establish a state? Were they a single tribe or a whole group of tribes? Did they develop a kind of organised society back in the Bronze Age already? The oldest academic works on Colchis describe it as the first Transcaucasian proto-state in which several tribes united into one. Those works are also commonly uncritical of the aforementioned poem by Apollonius. Most often, however, they mention the classical Colchis from the first centuries before Christ. David Braund explains in a reader-friendly way how in archaeology, the term Colchians is used as a collective noun to describe all early proto-Georgian (proto-Kartvelian in more academic terms) tribes that lived along the east coast of the Black Sea during the Classical antiquity. Archaeological data confirms Braund’s interpretation and points to the generally consistent material culture dating back to the Bronze Age, reflected in architecture, metallurgy, and pottery, remaining uniform until the Greek colonisation.
Therefore, historical accounts of Colchians from the Bronze Age until the time of Early Classical times were provided exclusively by foreigners: the Urartu, Assyrian people, Greeks, and Romans. This means we could only ever see Colchians from the outside perspective.
The earliest mention of the proto-Georgian tribes comes from the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243–1207 BC) who noted the existence of the “forty kings of the Upper Sea”, as the Assyrians called the Black Sea. Royal chronicles of the next ruler, Tiglath-Pileser I (1114–1076 BC) include a report from a long campaign in which the king faced two tribe federations in the north. According to the written sources, the Assyrian army walked across numerous lands, crossed the Euphrates, and then was said to have fought the armies led by the “kings of twenty-three countries”, including the rulers of proto-Georgian tribes. According to the latest historical discoveries, it was a loose federation of tribes that served under one leader only during the time of war. Once Tiglath-Pileser I defeated the coalition, he was faced with another group of enemies, the ones that ruled over the land reaching southwestern Colchis. However, the strength and power of the Assyrian army were unparalleled, and the final blow to the second coalition fell close to the mouth of the Chorokhi River, not far from today’s Georgian city of Batumi.
Urartu sources use the word Qulkha several times in their accounts. What’s important, the word is preceded by a determinative meaning the land that belongs to someone – in this case, to the Colchians. The first mention of the Colchian land comes from the war campaign of the Urartu king Sarduri II (764–735 BC). Some war accounts of the Urartu lead us to believe that their nearest neighbour was a group of tribes we know little about. This group also included proto-Georgian tribes, and beyond their area, there was the land that belonged to the Colchians. Unfortunately, sources do not mention the lands even more northbound, beyond the Lesser Caucasus range, as the imperial rulers mentioned before never ventured that far. Therefore, our sources say nothing of the area of today’s Kutaisi.
Even in the Classical and Roman times, the history of western Georgia was that of tribal fragmentation that gave way to unity only in times of conflict. Dioskurias (now Sokhumi, the capital of occupied Abkhazia) was an important city of Greek provenance, as mentioned by Strabo. The Greek historian noted that members of many Colchian tribes would arrive in the city in the summer for trade. People from over 70 local tribes would come over to sell their goods and buy salt in the main market square. Pliny the Elder noted that the Colchis city of Dioskurias was inhabited by nearly 300 local tribes who spoke so many languages and dialects that it took 130 translators to facilitate trade during the market day. Therefore, written proof hardly confirms the existence of a centralised Colchian kingdom with its golden capital, be it in the earlier or later period in history. Still, it does not rule out the existence of Aea itself. Unfortunately, no reports include any mentions of the cities other than those located at the very coast of the Black Sea.
As for the Colchian culture, ancient sources and archaeological proof show the general similarity of material culture across all of Colchis. Therefore, it seems that even if many different tribes inhabited Colchis, they had a shared ideology, social identity, and material culture, which confirms the archaeological findings belonged to an overarching Colchian culture as a homogeneous archaeological culture.
To sum it up, were we to draw our conclusions exclusively from ancient sources as well as the uncertain, non-historical information included in Greek poems and myths, we would learn very little about the Colchis valley and the uncharted land of today’s Kutaisi in the Bronze Age. Without any archaeological findings, we certainly cannot expect a swift conclusion to the scientific argument over the precise location of the mythical capital of Colchis.
Fascinated with this question, wanting to solve the mythical riddle once and for all, Polish and Georgian archaeologists decided to run excavation works in Kutaisi.
And so, in 2017, the Krukowski Polish-Georgian Interdisciplinary Research Center and The National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia signed an agreement to jointly organise an archaeological project named Kutaisi Archaeological Landscape Project (KALP). The purpose of this endeavour is to discover the ancient secrets of Kutaisi and its adjacent areas, as well as to find definitive answers to several questions that still puzzle historians today.
Of course, the main tools for collecting information in the project are excavation works and non-invasive research methods. Some are carried out to save the archaeological findings: most of the research is conducted in a developing city where the land suffered serious and often irreversible changes as a consequence of renovations and new investments.
From the very start, the Polish-Georgian project took on an interdisciplinary approach, combining archaeology with many other scientific disciplines. It makes use of geoarchaeological data, paleoenvironmental analyses, chemical analyses, ceramological research, examination of building materials, and radiocarbon examination to provide the most precise dating of the newly unearthed artefacts.
The year 2018 turned out to be a breakthrough moment for the project’s future. In that year, excavation works began around two hills: Gabashvili and Dateshidze, both located at the very heart of the city. During the excavation in the hills, working between the Orthodox church site and a school, we came across a very large structure that turned out to be the remains of a very large moat. Many of us were surprised by its size, as it was 10 metres wide and a staggering 5.75 metres deep. According to our research team, the finding is an absolute breakthrough: for the first time in the history of Kutaisi, it was possible to confirm the existence of an object that was once an integral part of an ancient settlement. The news of the finding was widely commented on in the largest and most important Georgian and Polish media, and the research site was even visited by the president of Georgia, further confirming the extraordinary character of the discovery for the country’s citizens.
Another important step was to try dating the moat. Pieces of pottery found in the moat belonged to the Colchian culture, but the long tradition of similar pottery shapes and decorations made it impossible to date the finds more precisely. However, discovering the moat opened up new possibilities for archaeologists. Anaerobic conditions therein preserved the so-called ecofacts, that is organic material that landed in the moat in ancient times. Radiocarbon tests allow researchers to date ecofacts with a high level of precision – up to 20 years. Using sieves of various net sizes we sifted the soil found in the moat and managed to find pieces of wood, burnt grains, coals, or fig and grape seeds. Lab results were astonishing. The analyses showed that even the late layers are older than we assumed, coming from the 11th century BC, and the earliest was established to come from the turn of the 14th and 13th centuries BC – traditionally assumed to be the time of the potential arrival of Argonauts in Colchis.
During just one year of research and expert analyses, we managed to discover archaeological evidence of the previously uncharted Bronze Age settlement in the centre of Kutaisi, dating as far back as 1400 BC. In the moat, researchers also found remnants of local metallurgic activity, such as moulds or pipes from metalwork furnaces. Similar discoveries point to the existence of metallurgical workshops in the area, further confirming the hypothesis that there used to be a vibrant settlement right there in ancient times. In another part of the moat structure we uncovered, there were traces of agricultural activity, such as a well-preserved wooden plough.
The next excavation season also turned out to be fruitful as it confirmed the existence of an ancient settlement in the area of today’s Kutaisi. During excavation works, we discovered a collapse containing building material and construction wood that, after specialist analyses, allowed us to partially reconstruct the looks of the building. It turned out to be remnants of a two- or even three-story structure. In Colchian culture, buildings this tall were either grain silos or watchtowers. Considering the moat line running near the discovery site, the uncovered building was probably a watchtower.
Moreover, during the 2021 excavation remnants of a Colchian house were found – collapsed wall fragments mixed with burnt beams and other wooden construction elements, as well as floorboards with waste pits underneath, filled with broken Colchian pottery and other artefacts, such as loom weights. Parts of a stone workshop, located within the house area, were also found. Among the findings were stone sickle inserts, little knives, arrowheads, semi-finished products, and raw pre-processed stone, mainly chalcedony and flint.
Another place of interest was the area surrounding the early-medieval Bagrati Cathedral, the main tourist attraction in Kutaisi. There, we also unexpectedly came across some Bronze Age artefacts – another collapse of construction materials and foundations made of stone which was once carried several dozen metres uphill straight from the Rioni River. Among the findings, there were also clay animal figures. Local archaeologists believe that both the figures and stone foundations, used rarely in the Colchian culture, could be traces of religious buildings. This would mean that Ukimerioni Hill in Kutaisi, home to the Bagrati Cathedral and ruins of a minaret, has been used by various cults – pagan, Islamic, Christian – for over 3000 years.
All those findings confirm that in the area of today’s Kutaisi there once was a vibrant Bronze Age settlement, perhaps with a religious cult site nearby. The settlement produced pottery, stone and metal objects, weaved and sewed goods, as well as farmed produce. It was safeguarded by a cliff from one side, and the other by the moat and probably also a watchtower system. The missing part of the dispute over the potential location of the mythical Aea – that is, remnants of the Bronze Age settlements in the area of today’s Kutaisi – was unearthed, and the chronology was confirmed with scientific methods.
Did the archaeologists from the Polish-Georgian project come across the remnants of an ancient settlement hailed in the Argonautica? Of course, we can never be certain until we find a road sign that says “Aea”. However, we can be sure it was a Colchian settlement, and that – thanks to our discoveries – an uninterrupted 3400-year history of Kutaisi can be confirmed, which makes it one of the oldest cities inhabited by humans without disruptions.
It is also worth mentioning that in 2020, during archaeological research interrupted by the pandemic, KALP efforts focused exclusively on surface research around the city. Thanks to this activity, we now know that the so-called archaeological landscape of Kutaisi consists not only of the aforementioned archaeological sites around the city but also several dozen others within a 30-kilometre radius from the city centre. All of them are small settlements from the Bronze and Iron Ages, fortified with a system of moats and ramparts. Some are connected by ancient channels that probably also served as water travel routes. All of this leads us to believe there is still a lot to discover in the Colchis valley. Bronze Age artefacts and sites await archaeologists interested in the region. Perhaps the time will come when we can confirm the existence of the ancient city of Aea, just like the mythical Troy was discovered. Time will tell.
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano
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