In antiquity, Colchis was described by commentators as “rich in gold” (πολύχρυσος), a label long thought to have been due to the wealth of gold mines in the area. However, the excavations of ancient Colchian sites (especially Vani) have brought to light many beautifully-wrought examples of the goldsmith’s art that have challenged previous views, and show that ancient Colchis was rich in craftsmanship as well as raw materials.
The ready availability of precious metals (gold and silver) was a driving force in Colchian gold working. Other factors include a long-standing tradition of artistic metalworking, as well as cultural and economic contacts with the Hellenic and Near Eastern worlds.
Three chronological stages of stylistic development in gold working have been identified as a result of the Vani excavations: a) about 500 BC – 350 BC; b) about 350 BC – 300 BC; c) about 300 BC – 1 BC.
The graves at Vani have yielded many examples of gold work from the earliest chronological phase. The gold diadems with fighting animal scenes from graves 6 and 11 (Cases 13 and 20 respectively) are typical of this period. This style of diadem is confined to the territory of Colchis, but the fighting animal scenes clearly show the influence of Near Eastern as well as Greek art.
Colchian gold work changed greatly during the second half of the 4th century BC. The earlier diadems with rhomboid plaques disappeared to be replaced by new forms, such as the diadem made up of pendants in the form of horsemen, birds, beads and tubes from grave 9 (see Case 11). However, despite the changes in style, the imagery still has much in common with older engraved representations, such as the Colchian axe from the 8th century BC displayed in Case 1.
The most dramatic changes in the goldsmith’s art occurred in period (c), with the introduction of new artistic trends from throughout the Hellenistic world. A new style of gold working emerged in this period incorporating ideas such as polychromy, dynamism and an increased ornateness. This was sometimes used in imitation of Hellenistic styles, but despite this the objects always retained a distinctive Colchian character.