BMCR 2023.04.07

Two cemeteries at Takhtidziri (Georgia): late Achaemenid-early Hellenistic and late Hellenistic-early Roman

Iulon Gagoshidze, Michael Vickers, Darejan Kacharava, David Gagoshidze, Two cemeteries at Takhtidziri (Georgia): late Achaemenid-early Hellenistic and late Hellenistic-early Roman. Trans. N. Gabunia. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2022. Pp. 302. ISBN 9781803272436.



In 1994, the Prone river in eastern Georgia altered its course, cutting away its left bank near the village of Takhtidziri and revealing parts of two ancient cemeteries: one of the valley’s elite of the mid-4th to early 3rd century BCE, the other of ordinary folk of three centuries later.[1] It was a time of severe economic hardship and lawlessness for Georgia; many graves were plundered and their contents lost, despite the efforts of the eminent Georgian archaeologist Iulon Gagoshidze, who learned of the finds as he was directing excavations elsewhere in the region. But Gagoshidze persisted. Begging for funds from the local government and, ultimately, the Georgian Academy, and gathering a volunteer team of archaeologists, he mounted three brief campaigns of excavation in 1996 and 1997. A Georgian-language monograph appeared in 2020; the English version under review now makes this remarkable material available to a wider audience.

Gagoshidze himself is the chief author in this shared enterprise. His succinct Introduction summarizes Georgian geography, the history of the Prone valley, and the archaeological sequence at the site of Tsitelbegebi, the settlement to which the cemeteries belong, closing with a preview of the principal grave goods from the earlier cemetery. A first chapter recounts the discovery of the site and Gagoshidze’s struggles to rescue it.

The full account of the earlier cemetery fills Chapter 2 (10-238). The graves number about 23, though the nature of the burial practices, ancient disturbances, and modern plundering sometimes made it difficult to define individual interments. The deceased lay in pits, some with wooden roofs upon which offerings had been placed, some marked by a stone circle. Bodies were flexed, with their heads to the north; four lay within wooden coffins. Three graves contained two or more skeletons, with a primary individual distinguished by position or grave gifts. The others were apparently servants, sacrificed at the time of burial. Other sacrifices included harnessed horses and dogs, all consistent with contemporary practice as seen at other Georgian sites. Food offerings—bovine heads, pigs’ legs, fowl—were also common. Two-thirds of the graves held the bodies of children, often with traces of small caskets containing small objects near their hands (discussed by N. Gogiberidze), and they may be part of a much larger cemetery that was particularly reserved for the young. A gold stater of Alexander the Great had been placed in the mouth of a child buried in the richest grave (no. 8), occasioning a discussion by D. Kacharava of “Charon’s obol” as an index of Hellenization present in both the western and eastern parts of the region.

The grave gifts were diverse and abundant, running to 561 catalogued items. The principal types are discussed category by category: pottery, glass, metalware, horse trappings, toiletries, signets, jewelry, bells, and coins. Although the collection does not rival the spectacular finds from Vani, which is probably the best known of the Georgian cemeteries, they are of the same ilk. This was clearly the burial place of the elite of the valley, lower ranking than those at Vani but part of the same cultural horizon.

The chief aim of the discussion is to situate each object-type within Georgian archaeology, which is achieved by the citation of extensive parallels. This section could serve as an index of the material culture of elite Georgian burials of the period and constitutes an invaluable entry into the bibliography, which is almost exclusively in Georgian and thus not well known to a western audience. The clear links within the region, both east and west of the Likhi range that divides the country, and the absence of many of the objects outside this area, witness a distinctive and homogeneous culture and, Gagoshidze maintains, also a unified political entity at this time. The presence of Greek graffiti and the use of Charon’s obol point to the beginnings of Hellenization in the Achaemenid period, while for the Persians, this “first Georgian state” (117) took on the role of a buffer, defending the passes through the Caucasus against nomad incursions.

The pottery is mostly of local manufacture, and it provides some of the main evidence for dating, as discussed by T. Chanishvili. Plain jugs are the most common gift, but there is also a beautiful polished light-ground ware decorated with red painted triangles and of a very high standard of manufacture. Imports are few but striking: two black-glaze bowls and three kantharoi (Attic or close imitations), two of them bearing Greek graffiti (discussed by M. Nasidze). Local imitations of a rhyton-amphora of a form familiar from the Persepolis reliefs and a slender Achaemenid cup, both in a finely polished black ware, attest that these quintessentially Persian shapes were known to local potters. Three kohl tubes from northern Iran further demonstrate eastern contacts. Of particular interest among the metal vessels is a bronze patera, found together with a bronze mug probably used as a pouring vessel, likely evidence for the western custom of hand-washing before dining and ritual occasions. Among indicators of elite status are decorated gold or silver discs fitted with wooden handles, found in three graves near the heads of the deceased. These too find parallels in other Georgian cemeteries and are interpreted as insignia of rank. Agricultural and household tools outnumber weapons among the metalware, but of particular interest is a short-bladed sword of Greek design (a machaira), though of local manufacture. Horse trappings, some of them on sacrificed horses, include elaborate Akhalgori-type bits, and a collection of 354 pierced animal phalanges probably represents an unparalleled example of equine chest armor. Earpicks are common toiletries, and the rich grave no. 8 included a strigil, accompanied by an unguentarium and aryballos, more indicators of Hellenic customs. This grave also included the only imported gems (discussed by K. Javakhishvili): two white glass gems with gold inlay, possibly from Alexandria, and a chalcedony seal featuring goats flanking a tree of life, a 5th-century heirloom originating in Babylon. Signet rings (mostly silver and bronze) were found in 16 graves, always associated with the principal skeleton and emphasizing the elite status of these individuals, even when in one case the deceased was an infant. Other jewelry (discussed by N. Gogiberidze) includes a diverse collection of earrings, necklaces, torques, rings, fibulae, pendants, and hundreds of beads of gold, silver, stone, and glass, including many eye beads. Over a third of the graves contained bronze bells (a total of 118, discussed by T. Chanishvili), some associated with horse trappings, but also with children; they may have played an apotropaic role, as did a handful of other items, such as pierced animal teeth and phalanges. The numerous eye beads may also fall into this category. Most intriguing are two flat bronze pendants pierced with multiple lines of 10 holes and interpreted as lunar calendars. Closely similar objects have been found in other Georgian graves, but outside of the region they are known only in the Levant, and much earlier. The two coins (the stater of Alexander and a Colchian triobol, both from grave 8) are discussed by M. Sherozia. This section is illustrated with excellent and large-scale color photographs of most of the objects and of the graves themselves.

A lengthy and detailed catalogue of the graves and their contents follows, coauthored by Gagoshidze and Nana Gogiberidze (118-229) and illustrated by excellent drawings of both graves and objects. Each entry includes a detailed description of the grave, a catalogue of its contents, and analysis of their chronology with reference to dated parallels, from which a date for the interment is extracted. The earliest graves can be placed in the first half of the 4th century, but most date from the middle to the end of the century. Burials continued into the first half of the 3rd century, however, with the richest (grave 8) falling at the turn from the 4th to the 3rd century. This interment had been badly disturbed but seems to have been the tomb of a child, laid in a wooden coffin and sent into the afterlife with three other individuals, a harnessed horse and a dog, food offerings, and no less than 182 inventoried items, including some of the most lavish and interesting within the cemetery.

This section ends with a catalogue of six objects from stratigraphy outside the graves, the most striking of which is a fine rhyton in the shape of a harnessed horse, featured on the volume’s cover; and of nine objects recovered from looted graves before fieldwork began.

David Gagoshidze contributes Chapter 3 (239-280), on the less spectacular later cemetery, encompassing ten graves furnished with objects ranging in date from ca. 100 BCE to the middle of the 1st century C.E. All but the earliest were concentrated in an area about 50 m. downstream from the earlier graves. It appears that the settlement had expanded, covering the earlier cemetery, so the later graveyard moved to its outskirts. Although culturally linked to the earlier graves, these are the burials of ordinary people. The simple pit burials were closely packed, many of them near the surface; later graves impinged on earlier ones, and some had been damaged by ploughing. As in the earlier cemetery, bodies are flexed, but orientation is not uniform. Each grave is described in detail and its objects inventoried, with analysis of objects integrated into the catalogue entries. Dating is based on comparison of grave goods with those in other cemeteries, further supported by six silver coins, mostly Parthian issues of Orodes II (57-38/37 BCE) and Mithridates III (57-54 BCE) that had been placed in the mouths or hands of the deceased. A single coin of Artabanus I (128-123 BCE), probably from a disturbed grave, hints at an earlier phase in the cemetery. Pottery and beads predominate among the grave gifts, with some simple jewelry. A blown glass unguentarium possibly from northern Italy is a rare import. The graves are illustrated by color photographs and, in some cases, drawings, the objects by both drawings and color photographs.

A final chapter, by Nino Kalandadze and Nino Kebuladze, reports the chemical analysis of 23 of the metal artifacts from the earlier cemetery. The book ends with a lengthy bibliography.

The labels of the title—Achaemenid, Hellenistic, Roman—are chronological rather than cultural. Readers expecting to find the usual items associated with these tags—like rhyta and Achaemenid cups, fusiform unguentaria, Roman red ware—will be largely disappointed. Instead, there is a diverse panoply of regional production, only minimally and occasionally influenced by either East or West. The authors paint a rich picture of Georgian material culture and funerary archaeology, particularly valuable to western readers who may not be very familiar with it. For such readers, it is unfortunate that the only map does not locate many of the commonly cited sites and that its labels are in such a small font as to be almost illegible.

The authors do an exceptional job of describing the graves and their contents and situating them culturally and chronologically. Interpretations of some of the more puzzling objects, like the “calendars” and horse armor, are carefully and convincingly argued, based on a profound knowledge of Georgian and Near Eastern archaeology. It is unfortunate that the skeletal material did not receive a similar high degree of attention, even though, from the photographs, the bones appear to have been well preserved. Estimates of age are often very general, and gender is only sporadically recorded. One naturally wonders about the relationships among the individuals in the earlier, elite cemetery. Gagoshidze raises this question and the possible use of genetic analysis in search of answers, but then comments “this is too late in the case of Takhtidziri” (116), suggesting that the skeletal material is perhaps no longer available for study. Whatever the case, is it frustrating that more information about the human remains and their pathologies was not included; insights into the health and life experiences of these individuals would have added much to our picture of the people of the Prone valley.

This is, nonetheless, a beautiful book and a very useful one. Translator N. Gabunia is to be congratulated for producing a clear and idiomatic English text, assisted by Michael Vickers, who is credited with proof-reading the whole, which is remarkably free of errors. The photography is first-rate and beautifully reproduced, and the scholarship impeccable. Iulon Gagoshidze and the team he assembled not only saved the site, but in this English edition they have provided western readers with an inviting pathway into the world of Georgian archaeology.



[1] Three Bronze Age graves were also excavated; they are published elsewhere (M. Jalabadze and G. Palumbi, “Kura-Araxes Tombs at Takhtidziri,” in A. Sagona and M. Abramishvili eds., Archaeology in Southern Caucasus: Perspectives from Georgia, Ancient Near Eastern Studies Suppl. 19, Leuven/Paris/Dudley MA 2008: 117-123.