Humboldtians in Focus

Archaeology Without Borders

By Barbara Wieners-Horst

Back in the days of the Iron Curtain, joint research was hardly possible. Now, archaeologists like the Georgian Joni Apakidze work hand in hand with their colleagues in Germany.

Joni Apakidze really appreciates beautiful things – especially if they are a few thousand years old. And especially if he has discovered them himself: clasps made of bronze, beads made of semi-precious stones, and ceramics with spiral patterns or handles that look like animals’ ears. Even as a student he got excited about bronze axes, halberd blades and spearheads – they allowed him to take a peek at times long gone.

Apakidze is an archaeologist and expert on the culture of Colchis, the ancient, legendary kingdom that stretched from the west of Georgia as we know it today to north eastern Turkey. There is nothing he does not know about the prehistoric finds in the Black Sea region. And he is also acquainted with the strikingly similar Bronze Age finds archaeologists have discovered in northern Italy and the Danube Basin.

In the days of the World Wide Web, when product designs are shooting around the globe and may turn up anywhere at the click of a mouse, such parallels in décor and ornamentation may not seem particularly spectacular. But at the end of the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, the period from the 18th to the 12th century B.C., the question is: What sort of contacts existed between northern Italy and the Black Sea region, two and a half thousand kilometres to the east?

Excavations at the Neolithic hill settlement Aruchlo I: Joni Apakidze (left) and the head of the dig, Svend Hansen (right) from the German Archaeological Institute, with visitors.
Excavations at the Neolithic
hill settlement Aruchlo I:
Joni Apakidze (left) and
the head of the dig,
Svend Hansen (right) from
the German Archaeological
Institute, with visitors.
Foto: privat

Joni Apakidze had a fellowship from the Humboldt Foundation from 1997 to 1998, which he spent in the libraries and museums of Tübingen, Berlin, Modena, Reggio Emilia, Parma, Verona and Rome investigating Colchis’ foreign relations. This was a very special period of his life: After the end of the East-West conflict it was the very first time that a specialist in the culture of Colchis was able to study the original archaeological material of the contemporary Italian Terramare culture.

Cross-border research collaboration of this kind had been prevented by the Iron Curtain. Certainly, it was generally known that there had been close links between the ancient Hellenic World and the bordering Black Sea region, but the route that Jason is supposed to have taken to the Kingdom of Colchis on his quest for the Golden Fleece was blocked to researchers in both directions.

A new methodological departure

Hardly had the countries of the Southern Caucasus regained their political independence at the beginning of the 1990s, when archaeologists in Georgia and Germany grasped these new opportunities to work together: Joni Apakidze, who was then in his early thirties and an archaeologist at Tbilisi University, found a mentor and host in the person of the famous Tübingen archaeologist Manfred Korfmann. The specialist for the Bronze Age in neighbouring Anatolia suspected what might be awaiting archaeologists in the field in Georgia. As head of the international excavation project at Troy, Korfmann invited the Georgian Colchis expert to take part in five digs at Troy where Apakidze was able to learn and use the newest methods in his field: magnetic prospecting, for example, for determining the total area of a settlement, the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) in surveying, the radiocarbon method that revolutionised dating in the middle of the last century and the utilisation of modern data processing in archaeology.

Engraved Colchian axes from the burial grounds at Tlia.
Engraved Colchian axes from
the burial grounds at Tlia.
Foto: privat

The early 1990s also saw the start of projects the other way round, with major German excavations in Georgia at Aruchlo and Tachtiperda, Didi Gora and Udabno involving close cooperation with Georgian archaeologists and their students. 

The finds at the burial grounds at Tlia, the hill settlement Naochvamu, the craftsmen’s settlement O├Ęchomuri and other sites threw a new light on the chronology of the Colchian Age. This meant Apakidze could tackle his next major project in 2003 and 2006: new, scientifically-sustainable dating of the Colchian culture in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages.

The research stays sponsored by the Humboldt Foundation in Tübingen and at Berlin’s Humboldt University, with Bernhard Hänsel, allowed him to take time out from his frequently stressful daily life in Georgia, which is still channelling a great deal of energy into building a democratic social and economic system.

Nowadays, Apakidze has a professorship in prehistoric archaeology and recently took on the position of rector of the newlyfounded Sokhumi State University in Tbilisi. With an eye to Georgia’s European perspectives, he wants to align the institution with the Bologna Process. He has long been a successful academic, but in the course of the last few years he has also become a dedicated networker. Acutely aware of all the catching up to be done in academia in his region, he intensively uses the support offered by the Humboldt Network: As secretary general of the Georgian Humboldt Club he put his heart and soul into initiating and organising two Humboldt Kollegs in Tbilisi, managing for the very first time to bring together and network specialist academics from all the countries bordering the Black Sea.

But the archaeologist is still drawn to field work. In 2008, he is co-directing a German-Georgian excavation project in the west of the country. What secrets will the Colchian earth reveal to him?


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Joni Apakidze Joni Apakidze

Professor Dr. Joni Apakidze teaches archaeology at Sokhumi State University, Tbilisi, Georgia and spent several research stays as Humboldt Fellow in Tübingen and Berlin. His two-volume monograph, “The Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages in the Western and Central Caucasus. Chronological Studies on Colchian Culture, 1600 – 700 B.C.” will be appearing shortly.

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