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Wine, Worship, and Sacrifice: The Golden Graves of Ancient Vani at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston
Gold Phiale Mesomphalos, Vani, Achaemenid influence, 400-350 B.C. Georgian National Museum.

HOUSTON.- Just as Pompeii: Tales from an Eruption closes, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will open another show of treasures from antiquity that shed light on a long-forgotten culture. Wine, Worship, and Sacrifice: The Golden Graves of Ancient Vani, beginning June 21, 2008, presents exquisite jewelry, sculpture, pottery, and funerary items excavated from the principal sanctuary and four tombs in Vani, once a part of the ancient kingdom of Colchis—home of the Golden Fleece in Greek mythology—and now the modern-day Republic of Georgia. The exhibition will be on view through September 1, 2008 in the Caroline Wiess Law Building.

The exhibition comprises more than 100 objects, dating from the 8th to the 2nd century B.C., all uncovered during the last 60 years. The objects reveal the artistic ability of the Colchian craftsmen, who developed a metal working expertise even before those skills were evident elsewhere in Europe. The graves also contained a variety of goods from other lands offering proof that Colchis was a crossroads for many ancient peoples.

“Through this exhibition, visitors will get a glimpse into an ancient corner of the world where art and craftsmanship were so prized that their owners couldn’t bear to part with favored items even in death,” said Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFAH. “By taking these objects to their graves, residents of Colchis saved them from destruction and helped to further our understanding of man’s past. The museum is pleased to bring this show to Houston.”

Archaeologists have excavated about one-third of the ancient temple city of Vani, which functioned as an urban center from the 6th century B.C. until its destruction about 50 B.C. The burial sites there have yielded an abundance of golden jewelry, silver and bronze adornments, pottery, and luxury items. The earliest evidence of wine and wine-making also comes from Vani—drinking vessels, decorated cauldrons, and a shrine dedicated to the god of wine have been found—an indication that the land that was not only rich in gold and precious metals, but agriculturally fertile.

Highlights of the exhibition include a Colchian gold necklace with 31 pendant tortoises, a bronze torso in a 5th-century Greek style and pose, libation bowls of Persian style, and red-figure pottery from Greece. A number of objects illustrate how Colchian artists were influenced by cultural interactions: a polychrome enamel-and-gold pectoral is notable for its Egyptian, Persian, and Colchian decorative motifs; a silver belt shows scenes of banqueting and animal processions reflecting Persian and nomadic iconography; and a gold diadem in a uniquely Colchian design incorporates Near Eastern imagery.

“Evidence of the complex interrelations of ancient cultures shown in this exhibition is especially fascinating,” said Frances Marzio, curator of The Glassell Collections at the MFAH, who is overseeing the Vani exhibition in Houston. “Wealthy Colchians collected the art of faraway lands and Colchian artists incorporated their imaginative iconography in highly skillful works. The result is an array of stunningly beautiful objects.”

This exhibition was organized by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University; the Ministry of Culture, Monuments Protection, and Sport of Georgia; the Georgian National Museum; and the Vani Archaeological Museum. Generous funding is provided by Lynn Wyatt; Judy and Rodney Margolis; and Frances and Peter Marzio.

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