Pay Dirt


Ancient Graves Offer Wealth of Knowledge on Georgia’s Wine, Culture

Over the years, Georgia and wine have become practically synonymous. The Caucasian nation’s fertile valleys produced some of the world’s first wines, and they still produce some of the best. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery offers new insight into Georgia’s rich wine culture as well as its archaeological history with “Wine, Worship and Sacrifice: The Golden Graves of Ancient Vani.”

The exhibition examines the ancient archaeology and artifacts of Colchis, a region first identified in Greek mythology that represents modern-day Georgia. The more than 100 items create a dazzling display of gold, silver and ceramic vessels, intricate jewelry including bracelets, necklaces and earrings, as well as Greek sculpture and glassware, all of which indicate that the region imported heavily from Greece and neighboring Persia.

Contents from tombs in the sanctuary city of Vani, ranging in date from the fifth to the third century B.C., are the true highlights here. Vani was an urban center that came into being in the sixth century B.C. and continued in existence until it was destroyed in the later Hellenistic period around the mid-first century B.C.

The tombs have been continually unearthed in archaeological digs since the 1960s. Only about a third of the site has been studied to date, but the work has yielded a treasure trove of valuable history. Sackler’s curators smartly use wall text to not only explain the significance of the opulent objects, but also to help visitors imagine the excitement that must have accompanied each new discovery.

For example, in 1975, scientists wanted to excavate near the central terrace at Vani, which was covered by three meters of dirt and a chicken coop. An elderly man who owned the coop wouldn’t go quietly, but “after seemingly endless discussions,” he finally agreed to allow his precious chicken coop to be removed—in exchange for what turned out to be one very unreasonable demand.

“The old man who owned the coop agreed to the excavations—on the condition that everything would be rebuilt after the digs were completed,” the wall text reads. “The discoveries proved too numerous and too important to be covered again by a henhouse.”

A complicated architectural complex on the southern section of the central terrace contained what is believed to be a shrine to the god of wine production and viticulture. A warm hue of gold infuses this section of the exhibit, with necklaces, earrings, diadems, beads, rings and figurines—each testifying to the significance and prominence of the deceased.

A Vani tomb uncovered in 2004, meanwhile, contained elaborate golden Colchian hair ornaments; a Persian silver bucket, ladle and libation bowls; Greek wine amphorae; and red-figure pottery, which suggest the importance of wine in ancient Georgian culture.

“The furnishings of an aristocratic drinking party in the ancient Mediterranean world can be reconstructed with the help of objects unearthed at Vani,” the wall text informs us.

Another interesting historical insight offered in the exhibition is that ancient Colchians weren’t hesitant to include actual golden items in the tombs of the dead, unlike rich Greeks or ancient Etruscans, who would typically use ceramic copies of silver and gold-feasting implements in their loved ones’ tombs.

Luckily for us, the Colchians’ well-preserved historical treasures persevere, offering viewers of this succinct yet dramatic exhibition an immediate connection with an intoxicating past.

Wine, Worship and Sacrifice: The Golden Graves of Ancient Vani through Feb. 24 Arthur M. Sackler Gallery 1050 Independence Ave., SW For more information, please call (202) 633-1000 or visit

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.