The Former City-site of Vani

Date: 01 January 1970 – 01 January 1970

The Vani former city - one of the major sites of the Classical period - lies in western Georgia (Colchis of Classical authors), near the confluence of the Sulori with the Rioni (the Phasis of Graeco-Roman authors). The ancient city was brought to light on a hill known as Akhvledianebis Gora, in the outskirts of modern Vani (the name stems from the Akhvledianis who settled here from Lechkhumi in the 18th century). The 200 m-high hill seems to be fairly convenient for settling, for it is naturally protected on two sides with deep ravines; at the same time it controls the entire Rioni valley and the trade routes crossing it; the plain at the foot of the hill is fertile, with pastures nearby in the mountains.

Ancient Vani has a fairly long history of study. The first report on its antiquities dated from the 1840s. Notices on discoveries in Vani appeared in the press. On 28 May 1876 the "Droeba" wrote: ‘There can be no rainfall without the freshet bringing down to the gates of the Akhvledianis from the hill gold coins, gold chains, seals and other things'. About these dsicoveries a paper was presented at the Archaeological Congerss held in Tbilisi in 1881. Information about  the Vani finds spread at once, drawing interst of amateur archaeologists and adventurers. The first scientific excavations were carried out in 1896 by Acad. Ekvtime Taqaishvili, who forecast major discoveries here. The world wars and Russian revolutions hampered further study of Vani. Systematic excavations began in 1947, when the Vani Archaeological Expedition was set up at the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography of the Georgian Academy of Sciences. The first head of the expedition was Nino Khoshtaria. From 1966 to 2002 the expedition was directed by Academician Otar Lordkipanidze. At present work on the former city site is continued by the Otar Lordkipanidze Centre for Archaeological Studies of the National Museum of Georgia.

As a result of multi-year studies diverse material has come to light attesting to continuous existence of the city for a fairly long period of time - from the 8th to the mid-1st century BC. Stratigraphic data and changes in various spheres of manufacture, burial customs and relations with the outer world allow to identify four periods in the development of the city.

The  earliest period covers the 8th-7th centuries BC. To this period belong cultic complexes on the central terrace and separate finds on the entire territory of the site. One of the complexes, excavated on the central terrace, holds an area of 90 sq. m and is distinguished for the multiplicity of pottery and small altars, as well as fragments of terracotta statuettes. Among the latter attention is especially claimed by figurines of fantastic creatures with heads on both sides of the body. The material found in this complex is exhibited in the Vani Museum. Vani of this period is presumed to have been the cultic centre of the region.

In the subsequent preiod (6th-4th centuires BC) Vani emerges as one of the administartive centres of the kingdom of Colchis. By this time the entire hill seems to have been built up. The material brought to light seems to be more diverse and larger in number as compared to the earlier period. This period is represented by a wooden temple-praying houses, rock-cut altars, rich burials, habitation layers with ample material. Yet items of goldsmithery are most significant in this period - predominantly personal ornaments (diadems, temple-pendants and earrings, necklaces, bracelets, finger-rings). Despite their diversity, the gold ornaments found at Vani are characterized by unity of style and technique, which clearly points to their belonging to a single school of art. Their local, Colchian provenance is indicated by the originality of forms, though the influence of contemporary goldsmithery of the Mediterranean and the Ancient East is obvious. It was these discoveries at Vani that proved the validity of the reports of Graeco-Roman authors on Colchis being rich in gold.

In the third period (second half of the 4th-first half of the 3rd century BC) the rulers of Vani, in conditions of the weakening of the kingdom of Colchis, maintained a measure of independence. To this period belong the monumental wall, complex built of cobble-stone, altars, clay embankment, rich burials, habitation layers. Special mention should be made of human figurines of bronze and iron - specially buried in sanctuaries or nearby. Continuity is found in the material culture of this period, similarly to the preceding ones, though certain innovations are noticeable in construction (emergence of stone architecture, tile roofing of buildings), artisanship (manufacture of amphorae and tiles), in burial customs (placement of coins for the deceased). The use of the Greek language and writing in local official document should be noted - in a templar legislative inscription and royal stamps on Colchian tiles. It should be said, however, that Greek influence was of superficial character, touching only the upper stratum of the society.

Drastic changes in the city site began from the mid-3rd century BC, when the settlement changes its function: it turns into a clearly defined cultic centre and practice of burying representatives of the elite within the bounds of the settlement is discontinued. The hill is fortified with defensive walls; structures connected with cult are built (temples, sanctuaries, altars, sacrificial platforms). On the basis of the material brought to light, Vani of the period under discussion is believed to have been a templar city. Quite a special place in this last period of the history of ancient Vani is held by a bronze collection (statues and statuettes, vessels, lamps, supports, personal ornaments). The bronze torso of a youth is the gem of the collection. It belongs to the so-called classicistic style of the Hellenistic period, oriented to the Severe Style. It is supposed that at least part of the bronze statues were made in Vani.  The point is that the foundry for casting bronze statues has been excavated on the city site. The lamps are also the beauty of the collection. They were buried is a rock-cut pit following the destruction of the city in the mid-1st century BC, along with a bronze basin, stands, kline leg coverings, and iron candelabra and spearheads.

Following the destruction of ancient Vani as a result of an invasion in the mid-1st century BC, the territory was not abandoned for good. As attested to by separate finds of the Roman period and the Middle Ages, life on the hill still continued, though the settlement lost its former significance.

There is a difference of opinions between scholars on the designation of the ancient city of Vani. Two views seem to be more accepted: Nino Khoshtaria's assumption on its identification with Surium/Surion, mentioned by Pliny (Natural History, VI, II, 13) and Ptolemy (Geography, V, 9, 6), and Otar Lordkipanidze's hypothesis on its identification with the Leucothea shrine, mentioned by Strabo (The Geography, II, 2, 17). The discovery of the place-name "Suris" on the Greek inscription found at the city site would seem to support the version of identifying Surium/Surion with ancient Vani; however, the fragmentariness of the inscription and the naming in it of one more (maybe two) cities renders difficult an unequivocal acceptance of such identification.

The region (‘country') of Vani is rich in sites contemporaneous with the Vani city site, among which are: the former settlement site of Saqanchia, the Mtisdziri settlement site, the settlement sites and burial grounds of Dapnari and Dablagomi.