Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.11.24

Gocha R. Tsetskhladze, Pichvnari and Its Environs, 6th c BC-4th c AD. Annales Littéraires de l'Université de Franche-Comté, 659, Editeurs: M. Clavel-Lévêque, E. Geny, P. Lévêque.   Paris:  Presses Universitaires Franc-Comtoises, 1999.  Pp. 230.  ISBN 2-913322-42-5.  210FF.  

Reviewed by Balbina Baebler, University of Bern, Switzerland (c/o
Word count: 2835 words

Pichvnari lies on the southwest coast of Georgia. The area was settled as early as the Late Mesolithic Age, but, like other coastal towns of the Black Sea, the place became important above all in the period of Greek colonization. The book of Tsetskhladze (hereafter Ts.) begins with an introduction outlining briefly the history of Georgian archaeology and Western scholarship on Georgia. Chapter I (17-42) deals with the so-called city-site and the Hill Namcheduri, chapter II (43-72) with the Necropoleis, chapter III (73-97) with the environs of the place. The last chapter (99-124) is entitled "Colchis, the Greeks and the Romans: An historical overview".

The ancient name of Pichvnari is unknown, and the continuous rise of the Black Sea level over the last 200 years, which brought the life of the place to an end in the early 2nd cent. BC (29-34), has surrounded the territory with swamps, so that only partial excavations were possible. Nevertheless, a large amount of both Colchian and Greek material has come to light: pithoi made in Colchis, above all from the Hellenistic period, and other fragments of Colchian pottery; from the fifth cent. BC on a large number of pyramidal clay-weights which may point to a fairly developed textile production (19ff.); clay moulds for the production of metal items, and fragments of amphorae with Colchian stamps on their handles from the 3rd cent. BC.; Ionian and Attic pottery dating from the late 6th cent. on, as well as amphorae imported from all parts of Greece and Sinope (25ff.).

The hill "Namcheduri" nearby was inhabited for over 1500 years and provides a clear stratigraphy of six settlements (31-38). The excavator believed it to be the acropolis of Pichvnari; this Ts. vehemently denies, because according to him the wooden fortifications of the hill are a feature of every Colchian settlement. Since Western readers are unlikely to be able to check the Georgian excavation reports, certainty on this point is almost impossible; but in my opinion it is not so much the fortifications that favour the an identification of the site as an acropolis as its situation on a hill overlooking the city, which has numerous parallels.

Particularly important are the burials of Pichvnari; the excavator, A. Kakhidze, believes that one of the two burial grounds of the 5th cent., separated from the other by a distance of 150m, is essentially Colchian, the other Greek. Ts. at first seems to accept this distinction, since he treats the two necropoleis separately, as Greek (43-50) and, respectively, as "of the Local Colchian Population" (50-55); so it is a bit surprising when he comes to the conclusion (61) that it is "virtually impossible" to determine which burials are Greek and which Colchian. I agree with that, since all kinds of grave-goods (including Greek pottery and Charon's oboloi) are found in all graves, most of the graves are oriented to the East, and apparently the indigenous population became quickly Hellenized. Nevertheless, in expressing these doubts, Ts. is merely summing up D. Braund's very careful analysis of this question, so he should at least have mentioned Braund's work in a footnote.1

In chap. 3 Ts. describes five settlements within a radius of 30-45km of Pichvnari. One of the more important ones is certainly Tsikhisdziri (74-81), which became the fortress of Petra in the Byzantine period. There is no evidence of a Greek colony, but later on Greeks and Romans formed parts of the population. So far 317 burials have been excavated, mostly dating from the 6th to the 3rd cent. BC., containing Colchian and Greek pottery. Most noteworthy are the two Roman baths from the 4th cent. AD, and a hoard containing mostly golden jewellery dating in the 3rd cent. AD. To the south of Pichvnari, on a hill by the shore, there is Batumis Tsikhe ("Fort Batumi", named after the extant medieval fortifications), where much imported pottery of the 6th cent. BC has come to light (81-85). The fortress in the modern village of Gonio (87-97) has long been identified with the ancient Apsarus, where a large Roman fort that was part of the limes Ponticus, still stands in a very good state of preservation; the extant towers date from shortly before 300 AD, but did not belong to the earliest building stage. Again I do not understand here why Ts. did not at least mention Braund's description of the place and the fortress, especially since the map provided by Braund is of far better quality than his own. Ts. devotes most of his space (91-97) to the description of the so-called Gonio treasure, which was found in 1974 behind the fortress and probably dates from the 3rd cent. AD; it contains 36 items of gold, mostly jewellery. It may indeed be useful to have list of all the items, but Ts.'s claim that the treasure "has never been published in the West" is hardly cogent.2 The last chapter (99-124) deals first with Greek colonization of Colchis, i.e. the Western part of ancient Georgia (where Ts. distinguishes an Ionian and an Attic stage, then considers at length the Sinopian pottery, which appears from the first half of the 4th cent. BC onwards in all settlements), then with the Roman activities in Eastern Pontus, ancient Iberia. This seems to me the most problematical part of the book, since a reader who is not acquainted with the subject will often not be able to distinguish between well-founded facts and the author's personal opinions. Ts. never makes it clear when he is putting forward hypotheses (which he does quite often), and his rather pompous judgement of another author (" ...once again he assumes a great deal. I have nothing against hypotheses in general, but it is important that they should have at least some basis in fact" [108]) can be turned against him in a number of places. I mention only a few of them exempli gratia:

On p. 103 note 14 Ts. states that the Greek cities in Colchis were ordinary poleis; but on p. 35 he claimed that " ... city-sites have not been found and are not being excavated on the Black Sea coast of Georgia", and he harshly censures as "incorrect" the term "city-site" often used by Georgian scholars. What I miss here is a methodical approach or at least a clear definition of what the author calls a polis. In the same note he contradicts the communis opinio that the reasons for Greek colonization were largely economic: "We must bear in mind that Milesian colonization was obligatory [sic] and the colonists had no time to think about the natural resources of Colchis: they had to flee from Persian conquest and slavery." What about Herodotus 1,169,2, where it is recorded that the Milesians (in contrast to the other Ionians) had concluded a treaty with Cyrus and therefore were left in peace by the Persian army?

P. 102: "The fact that there were Ionians among the Greeks in this part of the world is reflected in the widespread cult of Apollo". Apollo is venerated in all parts of Greece, and a single cup of the 5th cent. BC from a burial in Pichvnari (p. 57) with the graffito of the god's name on it seems to me insufficient proof for a "widespread cult".

According to Ts. (p. 106), Greek burials of the 4th cent. BC are less rich than those of the 5th, which he explains as the result of Athens' economic decline after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War. But Athens was still a flourishing city in the 4th cent., which apparently even "needed" a law against excessively luxurious burials after 317. And how can we tell from the burials that the Attic population "virtually ceased to exist" after the victory of Macedonia over Greece in 330 when the author himself has explained (60f.) that there are no certain criteria for distinguishing Greek and indigenous burials?3 On p. 109 Ts. calls the luxurious Greek imports in rich Colchian burials "gifts" from the Greeks to the local élite;4 on the other hand (p. 121), he considers the hoards of Tsikhisdziri and Gonio to have been "gifts" of rich indigenous farmers to Romans, a highly problematical and totally unfounded hypothesis. No less dubious is his contention (p. 109) that "it was precisely in the hands of that élite that the natural resources were concentrated". There is no historical, archaeological or literary evidence for this, or for his claim (p. 112) that it was this "local élite and the king" who "invited" the Sinopian Greeks to produce tiles in Colchis, or for his opinion (p. 113) that "the ruling élite" owned pottery workshops. This picture of an indigenous "élite" reflects more a simplistic (and seemingly Marxist) interpretation of history than ascertainable facts about Colchian society in antiquity.

On p. 113 the conclusion that "bronze statues in Vani were cast by Greek craftsmen" is a matter of debate, to say the least. It is far from clear whether the famous golden jewellery in graves found at Vani and other places was fabricated by Greek goldsmiths or by indigenous ones who just imitated Greek examples.5 C. C. Mattusch has convincingly argued (on stylistic as well as technical grounds) that one of the most famous finds from Vani, the bronze torso of a youth, was the work of a Colchian artist.6

On p. 118f., quoting at length from an article of M.P. Speidel, Ts. states as a fact that a letter (found in Egypt) was written by a veteran at Apsarus and that this proves that "veterans of the garrison came to settle" there and that "cohors II Claudiana was stationed at Apsarus" (p. 119). But D. Braund (181) has argued convincingly that Speidel was inferring too much from a badly preserved papyrus of 12 lines which in fact are too damaged to see if "Apsaro" (3) and "C]oh. II Claudiana" are in any way connected and "that there is no particular reason to suppose that the document was written by a veteran of that cohort settled at Apsarus".

On p. 120 Ts. mentions a tile stamp found in Tsikhisdziri with the inscription VEX.FA. which he reads with Speidel as Vex(illatio) Fa(siana) and concludes "that the soldiers of the garrison were stationed in Phasis and were carrying out some kind of engineering work in Petra [i.e. Tsikhisdziri]." Yet Braund (op. cit.189; not quoted by Ts.) casts some serious and well-founded doubt on this interpretation. People interested in general in the history of Georgia in Antiquity should therefore go directly for Braund's book, where they will find a superior handling of all sources available, a clear distinction between evidence and interpretation and well-balanced discussions of both of them.

I cannot avoid some further remarks on weaknesses that irritate the reader throughout the whole book. There is an extreme sloppiness visible on almost every page that leaves one wondering if anyone bothered with proof-reading. I counted 105 misprints on 143 pages of text; other examples of carelessness are abundant. Literally every quotation of a German title contains errors and misprints, even those of Ts.'s own publications.7 Other examples of careless writing: The "well-known French scholar ... M. F. Brosset" (p. 10) is referred to by Ts. in note 4 as "Ead.", but in spite of his Christian name 'Marie', this orientalist was a man.8 On p. 49, Ts. states: " ... fish dishes, elsewhere encountered in such areas, were here also absent"; about 12 lines below he adds: "Finds of grey-clay fish dishes were also common". Similar confusion seems to reign on p. 121 ("The coastal cities of Colchis ... lost their former importance as economic centres for the population of Colchis as a whole ..."; cp. the end of the next paragraph: "The coastal cities of Colchis, despite their change of character, continued to be important as trading and craft centres: ...") and in this sentence on p. 118: "Apsarus, together with Sebastopolis is to be found ... in the "Tabula Peutingeriana", although larger fortresses such as Sebastopolis and the fortresses at Phasis and Pityus are not".

Even more annoying is Ts.'s handling (or rather mishandling) of ancient authors; every reference I checked was false. On p. 35, the "Drils" of "Anabasis 5.3.1-27" are in fact the Drilai of Anab. 5.2.1-3. On p. 38, the reference "Pseudo-Hippocrates 22" is pretty unclear (into which of the many Pseudo-Hippocratic works are we supposed to look?. On p. 85, Ts. discusses the possibility that the town of Batumi was called λιμὴν βαθύς (which he constantly misspells as λίμην Βαθύς) in Greek; for this he refers to Aristotle's "Metrology [sic!] 350A" and "351A". The correct references are Meteorology 1,13 p. 350a30f. and 1,13 p. 351a11f.; in the latter, the words τὰ καλούμενα βαθέα describe only the sea that is at that point infinitely deep. Pace Ts. "Pliny 6,12" does not mention "the name of the river Bates"; "Adrian [sic] 7" is Arrian PPE 7,5. On p. 88f., Ts. treats the plural castella six times as a singular (probably confusing it with castra). In the sentence (p. 88) " ... the Romans ... included Apsarus as a Roman frontier limes (the Pontic Limes)" his understanding of the word limes seems to be rather dubious as well. Note the number of factual, typographical and linguistic inaccuracies in this sentence on p. 87 (concerning the fortress of Apsarus): "According to the Ionian tradition passed down in the writings of the scholiast [sic] Apollonius Rhodius, the slaying of Apsarus [sic] took part [sic] on the shores of the Black Sea, but according to Stephanus of Byzantium, who mentiones [sic] the information given by Artemisios [sic] of Ephesus a writer of the 2nd century BC, described the city and the island of Apsirt in his "Concise Geography"." Apollonius Rhodius was no scholiast; instead of "Apsarus" read "Apsyrtos"; instead of "took part" read "took place"; Artemisios' real name is Artemidoros; the second part of the sentence is syntactically unintelligible. On p. 104, Ts. confuses the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (calling it "'The Athenian Politics' by an anonymous author linked with the school of Aristotle") with the Pseudo-Xenophontian (for he goes on like that: " This excerpt from a work written about 425 BC ...").9 On p. 107, Ts. quotes various sources dealing with the foundation of Sinope, among them "Argon., 2,955-956; 5,113,114"; the first quotation is from Apollonius Rhodius (the correct lines are 946f.), the second from Valerius Flaccus (108-113). Even a short glance into an edition of Apollonius Rhodius would have shown that there are only four books of his 'Argonautica'. "Strabo 12,3,11" does not mention Sinope. On the same page, below: "Strabo 6,4,3" (book 6 ends at 4,2); neither 11,2,14 nor 12,3,17 of the same author deal with the "fact that the borders of Colchis itself were subject to frequent changes". On p.117, "Josephus Flavius 2,156" does not reveal which of Josephus' works Ts. is referring to. At this point I stopped checking; I leave it to the reader of this review to decide whether Ts.'s knowledge of Greek, Latin and the basic facts of ancient literature and its authors are sufficient enough to enable him to write a book like this.

Two final problems. Since probably no Western scholar has the excavation reports of Prof. Kakhidze at hand, what are we to think of criticisms such as " ... the conclusions drawn by those leading the expeditions are often poorly substantiated or full of sweeping generalizations" (p. 38) or "For some reason in most of their publications the authors ignore the facts available and the real state of affairs and try instead to draw a great edifice of conclusions purely from the archaeological material, which often is not available at all" (p. 84f.). Since, one way or the other,10 this book would not exist without the works of Prof. Kakhidze, a modicum of respect for the excavator of Pichvnari would have been appropriate.11 Finally, at the top of his list of illustrations (p. 139), Ts. remarks: "The sources of the illustrations -- personal photographs, and drawings and plans -- can be found in the various publications of sites in the text." Since every chapter contains from 45 up to 70 footnotes, one could probably spend weeks searching for the right publication; but, since most of the "publications of sites" are Georgian, they are out of reach for the majority of Western scholars anyway. Prof. Kakhidze says that every illustration coming from his publications has been published here without his permission; so one may well wonder about provenance of many other pictures in this book.

The book certainly makes accessible much that is difficult to find even in the best-stocked archaeological libraries in the West. But then, much of it has already been treated by D. Braund in a far more competent manner. Given the author's disturbing incapability in handling ancient literary sources, and his prejudiced, one-sided, sometimes downright erroneous rendering of ongoing scientific discussions, one is left wondering if his treatment of the Georgian scholarly literature was any more competent.


1.   D. Braund, Georgia in Antiquity. A History of Colchis and Transcaucasian Iberia 550 BC-AD 562 (Oxford 1994) 113-117.
2.   O. Lordkipanidse, T. Mikeladse, D. Khakhutaishvili, "Der Schatz von Gonio", Georgica 4, 1981, 48ff. (a journal easily obtainable in numerous Western libraries); cf. also Braund op. cit. 186f.
3.   Also on p. 106, Ts. apparently takes "a rare coin from Amisus from the mid-4th century BC with the inscription PEIRA" as a proof that it "is well established that Sinope and Herakleia were dependent on Athens during the priod [sic] of Pericles and on his policy for the Black Sea coast". It is highly unlikely that PEIRA is an abbreviation of "Perikles"; and in "the mid-4th century BC" Pericles had been dead for about seventy years.
4.   He refers here to his book "Die Griechen in der Kolchis", where he repeats this assertion six times without any real arguments for it.
5.   For this discussion see B. Deppert-Lippitz,"Interrelations between Greek jewellery of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. and gold finds from the Black Sea regions", in: O. Lordkipanidse-P. Lévêque (eds.), Sur les traces des Argonautes. Actes du 6e symposium de Vani, 22-29 septembre 1990 (Paris 1996) 195-201, esp. 198.
6.   C.C: Mattusch, Classical Bronzes. The Art and Craft of Greek and Roman Statuary (Ithaca-London 1996) 206-216; already in his Die Griechen in der Kolchis (154-156) Ts.'s attempt to refute Mattusch is unsuccessful.
7.   On p. 26, note 29 and note 33 he quotes the same article in two different forms; his own book, Die Griechen in der Kolchis, which he refers to 12 times, he constantly misquotes as Die Griechen in Colchis, on which see my review in Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft 2, 1999, 1057-1069 (
8.   Cf. for example G. Buatschidse, "Marie Brosset und Teimuras Bagrationi", Georgica 6, 1983, 49-55.
9.   The same mistake appears in Ts.'s book Die Griechen in der Kolchis (see above n. 9).
10.   A. Kakhidze considers it to be a plagiarism of his own publications. On this subject see Vani IX. Archaeological excavations. Analytical bibliography: 1850-1995 (Tbilisi 1996, in English) 109, where it is demonstrated for half a dozen publications of Ts., page after page, from which monographs and articles of other Georgian scholars they were taken without acknowledgments. For information and useful material I have to thank friends in Tbilisi and Oxford.
11.   On page 108, note 30, Ts. reproaches the renowned English scholar J. Hind for not being acquainted with an article of I. B. Brashinkii that appeared in Russian in Tbilisi 1973; such criticism seems rather inappropriate, coming from an author who reveals his unfamiliarity with basic ancient texts on almost every page.

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