II. Epos and Economic Potentialities

For the historical economist the next question is obvious: “Is the trade relationship –purple-dyed Thessalian fleece sold in Kolchis for gold — more or less consistent with economic potentialities, or is it purely fictional.

A. Did the Kolchians have Gold?

Let us begin by considering whether and when there were “Kolchians” and whether they might have had gold to give to the Greeks.

It is well documented that in the early second millennium BCE Assur in Assyria exported tin and woolens overland to Anatolia and took in return silver and sometimes gold (Silver 1995: 82). In roughly the middle of the second millennium, gold in nontrivial quantities is listed in the Hittite royal inventories (Kempinski and Košak1977: 90). In fact, gold is geologically available in Anatolia (Maxwell-Hyslop cited by Stech and Pigott 1986: 48). Again, in the Iliad(18.268-92), Hektor laments that once, that is before the Greek war of attrition, Troy was spoken of as “a place with much gold and bronze” (Lattimore 1951; Graves 1960, 2:303). Moving closer to Kolchis, Cyzicus, a city situated on a large island close to the southern shore of the Propontis, had access to gold, as is demonstrated by its famous “white gold” coinage of the later sixth century BCE (Wallace 1987)

Strabo (11.2.19) says that Colchis possessed gold mines in the course of suggesting a motive for the mythical voyage of the Argonauts but, as Braund (1994:62) points out, “he seems to have in mind the mineral wealth of Colchis is his own day.” However, modern scholars inform us that according to the geology of the region Kolchis itself did not have rich gold deposits (Tsetskhladze and Treister cited by Muhly 1998: 321). Braund (1994: 24) adds that “Colchian gold is only found in any quantity from the fifth century BC: before the seventh century there is almost nothing.” In the fifth century BCE Greek goldsmiths became very active in the area. Indeed we have frequent mention in Greek literature of the second half of the first millennium BCE of “Golden Kolchis” (Lordkipanidze cited by Tuplin 1987: 35). But if, contrary to Strabo, Kolchis did not have gold mines of its own, where did the Colchian goldsmiths get their gold? Surely gold must have been near at hand.

Boardman (1980: 245) notes that  The search for metals had probably inspired the [Greek] foundations along the southern shores of the Black Sea and in the east, where the resources of the Caucasus and of Armenia might be tapped. … There was gold at Phasis, and remoter sources might also have been exploited.27

There does seem to be direct evidence of gold mining in the Caucasus. Strabo mentions the existence in his own day of gold mines in Iberia in eastern Georgia. Pliny, indeed, makes a royal descendant of Aietes responsible for the beginning of mining in western Georgia; he is said to have extracted a large quantity of gold and silver in the land of the Suani, that is, the mountains of Svaneti [in northwest Georgia]” (Braund 1994: 61, citing Pliny NH. 33.52). Barnett (1956: 221) reports that the ninth- to sixth-century inscriptions from Urartu (central Armenia)  frequently refer to the kingdom of Kulhai. This is the land of Kolchis and the recent Russian excavation of burials rich in gold and silver at Trialeti in central Caucasus, belonging to the late Bronze Age, shows that the Golden Fleece need not be considered all a figment of the imagination.[Prof. Dr. Giuseppe Del Monte informs me (ANE, January 28, 1999) that the identification of Qulha (modern reading) with Kolchis seems sound.]

Hittite tablets of the fourteenth century BCE mention wars with peoples inhabiting the Armenian plateau (Suny 1988: 7). In the thirteenth century an Assyrian inscription records a campaign in the highlands around Lake Van against peoples designated collectively as Uruatri (Urartu). Somewhat later the population of this region are referred to as Nairi. Then, in the later twelfth century, an inscription of Tiglath-Pileser I (1115-1077) records a campaign in the lands of the Nairi which, Piotrovsky (1969: 43-4) explains:

was directed not against the region to the southeast of Lake Van … but against the whole western part of the Armenian highland area, from north to south. … The Assyrian annals describe the campaign in the following words: “The god Ashur, my lord and master, sent me against the lands of the distant kings who dwell on the shore of the Upper Sea (i.e., the Black Sea), owning no master; and thither I went. … Sixty kings of the lands of Nairi, together with those who came to their aid, did I drive my spear as far as the Upper Sea, I captured their great cities, I carried off their riches and spoils. (Emphasis added)

Among the peoples defeated by the Assyrians are two, Mushki and Tabal, known for their metallurgy (Suny 1988: 6).

So it clear enough that the Black Sea region possessed ample gold and a significant urban civilization no later than the twelfth century BCE. It seems clear that “Kolchis” was the name of a significant civilization in the Black Sea region no later than the early first millennium.

B. When did the Greeks have gold?

Next, was there a time when the Greeks accumulated relatively large stocks of gold from unaccounted for sources? The Mycenaean era comes immediately to mind. The Iliad 7.180; 11.46) describes Mycenae as “rich in gold” and, despite centuries of looting, the graves are justly famous since Schliemann for gold objects of all kinds.

One of more than 700 gold roundels from the “Women’s Grave” at Mycenae

The Linear B tablets from Pylos in Messenia mention gold relatively frequently and in significant quantities. Orchomenos in northern Boeotia is, of course, famous for its so-called “Treasury of Minyas” and Homer (Il. 9.379ff) compares it to Thebes in Egypt as a city “where the greatest possessions lie up in the houses” (Lattimore 1951). Nilsson (1932: 137-38) takes note of the  rich finds from the Mycenaean age in the neighborhood of Iolcos. At Kapakli quite near Iolcos Dr. Kuruniotes excavated a tholos tomb which was almost untouched and yielded rich finds, especially gold objects.

In Thessaly the excavations (presumably) at Iolkos in Magnesia, the city where the Argonauts received their commission, revealed, indeed, a Mycenaean palace:

It lies on a 25-acre hill within the periphery of modern Volos, its site marked by twenty feet of deposit. It flourished from 2500 to 1200 B.C. … The excavators note a copper crucible of 2200. Iolkos increased in importance in Late Helladic I and II (1500-1400), perhaps under Minoan influence or at any rate through sea-borne commerce: vessels are figured on the pottery. In Late Helladic III (1400-1200) kylikes, many local, some from the Peloponnese [Mycenae?] abound, bespeaking a palace, as at Pylos. (MacKendrick 1981: 30).

[We may site here a report in The Timesof May 16, 2001 that Greek archaeologists have, they believe, found the site of Iolcos: “The archaeologists found the remains of two parts of a building, covering about 7,000 square yards, and traces of a wide thoroughfare, during excavations on the purported site of the city, a promontory opposite the modern port of Volos. Vasiliki Ardymi-Sismani, of the Ministry of Cuture, said: ‘We believe that this building was a palace, not only because of its size, but also its complexity.’ The palace appears to have been a manufacturing and trading centre, with areas for the storage of food, pottery making, a jeweller’s workshop and a weapons factory.”] In a recent article in the Athens Annals of Archaeology (Vol. 32-34, 1999-2001), Dr. Adrymi-Sismani illustrates Linear B signs on a stone object and a kylix sherd from Iolcos.
Note (below) the gold flower from Volos.

Mycenaean sherds depicting ships with many rows. From the archaeological museum of Volos. Some believe that a fish is depicted, not the bow of a ship. I cannot see a fish here, however.

Where did the Mycenaean gold come from? In the absence of significant production within Greece, it must have been of foreign origin (see Chadwick 1976: 45). However, neither the Linear B texts nor archaeology pinpoint the foreign source(s). However, it is reported that about 20 percent of the analyzed Mycenaean gold is of the tin-and platinum-free type also found in the rich gold found at Varna on the Bulgarian coast of the Black Sea (Muhly 1983: 3-4, citing Hartmann). Outright plunder no doubt made a contribution, but more or less peaceful trade cannot be excluded as a major source. Specifically, Thessaly’s exports of cloth to the Black Sea region (Kolchis) may have made a significant contribution. Perhaps Pylos earned a share of the Kolchian gold by exporting oil to Thessaly.28 Mycenaean interconnections are demonstrated by finds of labeled Cretan stirrup jars at Mycenae, Tiryns, Thebes, Eleusis, Kreusis and Orchomenos (Hallager 1987: 179).

C. Did the Kolchians Value Purple-dyed Fleece?

The best that can be done in answering this question is to examine the preferences of their neighbors, including the Hittites. Cultural connections and similarities between the Hittites and the peoples of the Black Sea region are at least hinted by the excavation of Hittite-style pottery at various sites including Dundartepe near Samsun on the Black Sea (Macqueen 1986: 104). Rubinson (1977: 241-43) has noted several parallels between the metalwork of central Anatolia and objects found at Trialeti in Georgia.

The texts of the Hittites are not silent concerning the “fleece”. At their religions center Zipplanda they celebrated a “Voyage of the ‘Sacred Fleece’ (kuškuršaš) in the Winter” (Singer 1984: 108, 120). “In the myth of the god who disappears [Telipinu] the kursa of a sheep is hanging from an evergreen tree [eyan-tree or pole] filled with all good things like ‘sheep’s fat, (abundance of) grain, (wild) animals, and wine, cattle and sheep, long lifetime, and progeny'” (Güterbock 1989: 115; cf. Hoffner and Beckman 1990: 17). (We also find “the gentle message (sound) of the lamb” [Watkins 2002: 171]). Clearly, the eyan-tree is a symbol of wealth/prosperity (Westbrook and Woodard 1990: 649).

A scene depicted on a Hittite silver rhyton in the Metropolitan Museum depicts a seated deity and a bag suspended by a loop from a tree. The  bag has been identified with the kurša.

(Recall that in one version of the Argonaut Epos the Golden Fleece is draped over an (evergreen?) oak tree [Ap.R. 4.122-25].) Hittite texts disclose the existence of a spring festival in which the kurša or “Sacred Fleece” was carried from one city to another (Haas 1975: 228). We also find the phrase “the fleece of Inara”. This Inara, the mistress of waters, was the possessor of a “house” or “house of the wave[?]” (Haas 1975: 229-30; Puhvel 1981: 354).

Morris (2001: 431) takes the kurša to be a kind of bag and she adds that “In etymology and in meaning its relatives include the Greek word bursa [my transliteration], both a leather bag and a source of wealth, and the modern purse, French ‘bourse’, or Italian ‘borsa’.” She relates the kurša not only to the Golden Fleece but to “the device which decorates the breast of Artemis as a series of leather bags, and Athena, in the shape of a scaly aegis” (Morris 2001: 431). In this connection Watkins (2002: 172) cites the formulaic similarity between Iliad 2.447 wherein Athena is pictured “holding the precious aegis, unaging, undying, whose 100 tassels all in gold flutter in the wind” and Pindar (Pyth. 4.230-231): “Let him bring the imperishable coverlet, the gleaming fleece tasseled in gold.”

Hittite administrative texts refer to a “house of fleeces” (Mendenhall 1973: n. 35, 43), delivery of a “ball of red wool and a ball of blue” by the “man of the storehouse” (Singer 1984: 113), and “blue purple (ZA.GÌN, Hittite andara-, amdaramt-) (woolen) garments of the finest quality” (Finkelstein 1956: 103). Unfortunately, the texts do not disclose the origin of these precious commodities. However, I am informed by Itamar Singer (personal correspondence dated October 30, 2004) that Hittite texts refer to purple-dye industries in western Anatolia and Lesbos, an archeologically attested center for murex processing (see below).

It is not known whether the sheep of Hittite Anatolia and the Black Sea region had the fine white fleece suitable for purple-dyeing (H.B. Carter 1969: 15). Carter (1969: 15) surmises that the appropriate breed of sheep “may have been known in some early form to the Minoan civilization of Crete or Mycenaean cities of pre-Achaean Greece.” In fact, the purple dyeing of wool (or cloth) is mentioned in the Linear B texts. It is known of course that Anatolia imported woolen garments and mašku_ šapa_tim “woolen fleeces” (literally “hides with wool”) or mašku_ šapi_u_tim [“hides thick (with wool)”] from Assur in Assyria in the early second millennium (Veenhof 1972: 132). Moreover, the documents of this Old Assyrian trade refer to sa_mun “red” and šinu_m “dyed” wool and cloth (Veenhof 1972: 131-33, 188).

Roof of Assyrian model house dated to the second half of the third millennium. The seated animal is a sheep with a heavy fleece.

It may be assumed that the Hittite festivals noted above served as markets (ancient religious festivals were at the same time trade fairs) and quite possibly sanctified the trade channels which brought them the mundane counterparts of the “Sacred Fleece”–that is, wool, cloth, and garments–especially purple dyed. We know that in the Hittite Old Kingdom the opening ceremonies of the KI.LAM festival included a procession of various cult symbols, including the “Fleeces” (kuršaš (Singer 1983: 89-91). (There is no definitive evidence regarding the season of the festival.) Now in Mesopotamian texts KI.LAM equates with Akkadian machi_ru “market.” In Hittite texts KI.LAM is a “pseudo-ideogram” standing for Hittite [c]hilammar “gate building” (Gary Beckman, ANE “Hittite KI.LAM festival,” May 12, 1999; cf. Singer 1983: 121-4). Nevertheless, Singer (1975: 93) does cite two combinations in which “it is not clear whether KI.LAM should be translated as ‘market’ or ‘gate-house'” and, in one of these combinations, “The context in which GAL KI.LAM occurs in Bo 73/173 — with the merchants of Kaniš(!)– might point to a connection with the market.”

In any event, the connection between markets and gates (Akkadian ba_bu_ or abulla_ti) is well established. Moreover, in the Cappadocian texts ba_b machi_ri has the meaning “market gate.” Singer notes that

K.R. Veenhof brought together the evidence for ba_b machi_rim in the Cappadocian texts. He also adduced a Nuzi text where the term ašar machi_ri ina Nuzi (“on the market in Nuzi”) replaces the usual formula that a document has been drawn up ina ba_abullim (“at/in the entrance of the city-gate”). He concludes: “This underlines the role played by the city-gate not only in juridical, but also in economic matters.”

To complete the circle we should note that the Hittite “House of Fleeces” has a (c)hilammar! (Singer 1975: 79)

Based on this indirect evidence it seems reasonable to conclude that the Kolchians would have placed a significant value on purple-dyed fleece.


Morris Silver

Economics Department

City College of New York


27Besides gold the only significant product ascribed to Kolchis in the ancient literature is linen, worked in Egyptian style. According to Herodotus (2.105): “The Colchian linen is called by the Greeks Sardonian [from Sardina?] but that which comes from Egypt is called Egyptian” (Grene 1987). Strabo (11.2.17) adds, “Their linen industry has been found far and wide; for they used to export linen to outside places” (H.L. Jones 1932).

28For the little that is known about the Pylian involvement in the oil trade, see Shelmerdine (1985: 148-53; 1998b).

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