The epic legend of Jason and his Argonauts, who sailed from Greece to the shores of the Black Sea over three thousand years ago in search of the Golden Fleece, has won legitimacy through the work of modern archaeologists. The ‘Golden Fleece’ was to be found in the ancient kingdom of Colchis on the south-east shores of the Black Sea, where rivers carried down alluvial gold dust from the high mountains of the Caucasus in what is now Georgia. The specks of gold were trapped in the wool of sheepskins that local gold miners spread in the beds of the streams. The technique is still understood by the mountain people of Svanetia in the high country of the Caucasus, reports Professor Othar Lordkipanidze of the Georgian Academy of Sciences.
The archaeological detective work by Professor Lordkipanidze reveals that the area of Colchis was rich in gold in ancient times and that, in the city of Aeetes, there was a palace of gold and the king had a golden helmet. Moreover, both there and in Greece there were strong beliefs in the ‘divine essence’ of the fleece. “A golden ram or lamb belongs to ancient strata of religion, a symbol of royal power and protection,” he says. “Whoever owned the fleece could reign.”
Now in Greece, Jason, the story goes, had been cheated of his throne by his half-uncle King Pelias. If he could secure the golden fleece he could win back the throne. This was the motive for his 2,400 kilometres (1,500 miles) voyage. Perhaps, in more real terms, if he came back with gold from Colchis he could finance an uprising to overthrow the King.
The practicalities of the voyage itself were also proved in 1984 when the explorer Tim Severin launched an expedition in a specially built wooden boat, designed on the lines of an ancient Greek galley, to row and sail from Greece across the Aegean, up through the Bospherus to the Black Sea and on to modern Georgia. The voyage was accomplished in just over two months, ending up at the mouth of the Rhioni river which, in ancient times, was known as the Phasis and along whose banks several bronze age settlements have revealed wonderful gold ornaments.
So the voyage of Jason and his Argonauts was feasible. Professor Lordkipanidze has excavated ancient communities in Colchis (although he is not sure which was the city of Aeetes) and uncovered wonderful gold diadems, rings and earrings. And he confirms not only what writers over two thousand years go said about sheepskins being used to trap gold, but has tracked down similar reports through the centuries. The geographer Strabo in the 5th century BC was explicit. “It is said in their country (Colchis) gold is carried down the mountain torrents and that the barbarians obtain it by means of perforated troughs and fleecy skins and that this is the origin of the myth of the Golden Fleece.” The Roman historian Appian was more specific, noting that, “many streams issue from the Caucasus bearing gold dust so fine as to be invisible. The inhabitants put sheepskin with soggy fleece into the stream and this collects the floating particles”.
The story was always the same. In the 19th century gold was being taken by skins from the Rioni and Tskhemnis-tsgadi rivers. And a report for the Georgian Academy of Sciences in 1946 said geologists were finding 5.3 grams (0.17 troy oz) of gold per one tonne (32,150 troy oz) of sand in the rivers. The description of recovery could have been written three thousand years ago. “Gold is obtained by means of sheepskins. A sheepskin, stretched over a board or flattened in some way, was placed in the river, fixing it so as not to be carried away by the stream, with the fleece on the upper side. The soaked fleece trapped the gold particles. After some time the skin was withdrawn and spread on the ground to dry; the dried skin was beaten to shake out the grains of gold.”
The technique that gave birth to the myth of the Golden Fleece has survived at least three thousand years unchanged. Jason and his Argonauts were ancient gold prospectors.