The Museum of Georgia
National Museum (Rustaveli 3; www.museum.ge; Monday off; admission GEL3, inc admission to the Treasury, but you'll also have to pay GEL10 for a guide, required for security but well worth having anyway as long as she (usually) speaks a language you can understand)
Across the Rustaveli street from the Children's Palace in Tbilisi is the enormous S. Janashia Museum of Georgia, built between 1923 and 1929 to house the collection of the earlier Caucasian Museum, founded in 1852. This museum covers the entire history of Georgia, providing riveting testimony to the antiquity of Georgian culture and its tenacious evolution. It is the largest single repository of Georgia's treasures, housing more than 850,000 items. The most important part of the museum's holdings is displayed in the basement in the treasury. Here you must be accompanied by a guide.
This museum houses an amazing treasury of largely pre-Christian gold and silver, as well as ethnographic displays. Whereas the Greeks preferred filigree decorations and the Persians encrustation, the Georgians chose granulation (tsvara), with tiny lumps creating texture; they also set their jewellery with semi-precious stones, such as cornelian (found all over Georgia).
Extraordinary specimens of repousse work and jewelry from archaeological sites throughout pre- Christian Georgia will astound you with their beauty and level of artistry. Don't miss seeing the magnificent filigreed gold pendants of horses from Akhalgori (sixth to fourth centuries ВС) and the gold bowls and ornaments from Trialeti (first half of the second millennium ВС). Superb finds from Vani and Algheti complete the examples of workmanship of the sixth to fourth centuries ВС.
Objects and jewelry from the Iberian rulers of the first century AD show the technical virtuosity of Georgian gold and silversmiths of the period. Note the necklace with the amulet jar and the amethyst ram's head from Armazis-Khevi. Precious imports of gems and silver vessels from the classical world complete the collection and demonstrate Georgia's contact with Greece and Rome.
The ground floor contains archaeological findings up to the fourth century ВС. Arranged chronologically, stone artifacts from the Paleolithic period found in Georgian caves are next to cases of Neolithic and Bronze Age implements and ceramics. Noteworthy are the weapons and jewelry from the late Bronze Age (14th century ВС) to the early Iron Age (13th century ВС). Handicrafts and farming implements from the Kura-Araxes culture (4000-2000 ВС) are represented, as well as painted and glazed pottery, household implements, weapons, and objects of pre-cious metal from the barrows of Trialeti (1500 ВС). You'll discover cases of ancient coins found in Georgia, including some from Colchis in western Georgia which date to the sixth century ВС. Georgia's contacts with the Hellenistic and Roman worlds are seen in the Greek vases found in Colchis and Iberia, and from inscriptions on stone fragments: one found in Mtskheta in 1867 was sent from the Roman Emperor Vespasian in AD 75: "To King Milhradates of Iberia-Friend of Caesar and of the Romans."
Also on the ground floor are a room of carpets (Iranian, Azeri, Turkmen and Afghan) and a small room with a very modern display (sponsored by BP and including a film) of the earliest hominid relicts found outside Africa (at Dmanisi) including the skull of a toothless old man who survived for years after losing his teeth, suggesting care for the elderly and hence compassion and social structure.
The first floor covers the fourth century ВС to the 13th century AD. Archaeological excavations in centers of Iberian culture such as Urbnisi, Mtskheta, Samtavro, and Bolnisi reflect Georgia's conversion to Christianity. Manuscripts, coins, weapons, glassware, ceramics, stone fragments from churches, and housewares all tell the story of Georgia's cultural development and contacts with other parts of the world. Also displayed here are photographs of important basilicas, palaces, cave dwellings, and domed churches; political and cultural maps; reproductions of frescoes, and copies of valuable works that are stored elsewhere. Though not of intrinsic value, the items, arranged chronologically for narrative purposes, provide a more complete picture of Georgia's history.
The other rooms are devoted to Georgia's history from 1801 (the year of unification with Russia) to the present. Portraits of important Georgian and Russian figures are interspersed with the personal possessions of kings Herekle II and Solomon 11, among others. A comprehensive ethnographic display includes clothing, musical instruments, household implements, and native costumes. In the section displaying history from 1801 to 1921, one can find swords that belonged to Irakli II and to Napoleon, as well as other weapons used in the wars with Persia and Turkey. There's also the Georgian copy of the Treaty of Gurgievsk (1783) in a case with a bullet hole from the civil war of 1991-92. The next room covers agriculture, crafts and industry, with displays ranging from wine vessels to an oil pump from the Rothschild refinery in Batumi. The new Museum of Soviet Occupation covers the period from 1921 to 1991, with film and newsreel (in Georgian only) in the first room, followed by a disturbing walk up a long carpet to a Stalin-era desk from where you might learn your fate. There are images, documents and items depicting the brutal Soviet rule that led to 80,000 Georgians being shot, 400,000 deported and another 400,000 killed in the Great Patriotic War, with examples of prominent musicians, artists and poets lost in Stalin's terror.
The ethnographic displays are another flight up, the first room housing weapons, household implements, jewellery, ceramics and musical instruments from the first half of the 19th century. The second room has a display of textiles, including the range of natural dyes used, as well as reconstructed peasants' and nobles' houses, and the third room houses a wine press in an oak trunk, a sort of harrow used for removing the outer husks of corn, and a huge mill for pressing sunflower seeds.
The treasury contains 25 display cases in three rooms; the first 16 now have captions in English, but details follow here anyway. The first case displays very fine goldwork from Kakheti, made in the early Bronze Age; a tiny golden lion with an intricately worked mane, dating from 2600-2300вс, is one of the most remarkable pieces in the whole collection. In the second case is slightly more recent jewellery from Trialeti, including a king's sceptre, a silver cup with a frieze of religious ritual and hunting, and a gold bowl from about 1800вс encrusted with precious stones. The third case displays pieces from Vani, produced in the 5th century вс, including a superb diadem, earrings, and necklaces, including one with 31 tiny turtles (symbolising longevity) hanging from it, and others with swastikas. The fourth case is similar, with very finely granulated necklaces, bracelets and an enamelled pendant, the oldest in Georgia. The fifth case houses pieces of the same period from Racha and Vani: diadems, bracelets, signet rings, and coins imitating Greek and Roman originals. In the sixth case is jewellery from Iveria, also from the 5th century вс, including silver bowls and earrings and gold buckles and sheep's-head rings, and more of the same in the seventh case, including a lovely pair of gold pendants showing horses with a type of harness only used in Georgia, and a necklace of frogs (symbolising fertility).
The eighth case leaps forward to the 2nd century AD, and a tiny part of the Hellenistic-style Mtskheta treasure, such as the gold and cornelian signet of Asparuch, and a sheath for a gold sacrificial dagger. The ninth case houses jewellery from a queen's tomb at Mtskheta, from the same century, including a diadem of gold and garnet, a ring of gold and amethyst showing Actaeon's death, a necklace of gold, garnet and turquoise, and very sophisticated high-relief silver bowls from Greece. In the tenth case are some of the contents of the tomb of the same queens daughter, who died aged 21 towards the end of the 2nd century; these include a necklace bearing an amethyst sheep's head containing two of her milk teeth, as well as agate scent bottles.
By the early 3rd century, granulation was giving way to encrustation, and gold served mainly as a support for precious stones. The 11th case contains an assortment of silver bowls and gold jewellery from 3rd-century Baghineti, including two mystery items, perhaps metal covers for the feet of table- or chair-legs, made somehow from a single unseamed piece of silver. In the 12th case oak leaves from a king's funeral crown symbolise royal power; in the 13th case, from early 4th- century Kartli, there are more gold oak leaves, as well as rings, bracelets, coins, and a nereid and dolphin carved in one piece of agate and set in gold. The 14th case houses more leaves, earrings and bowls, and bracelets of jet and garnet, from the first half of the 4th century.
In the next room, the 15th case displays a huge pin of agate and gold, buckles bearing big blocks of cornelian, and a golden house from Svaneti with two musicians, and birds on the roof. The 16th case holds silver pitchers and unusual inlaid gold necklaces, and the first crosses in Georgian jewellery. The 17th shows evidence of Georgia's history as a crossroads of trade, with Persian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins going back to the very earliest days of coinage; the 18th has 11th- and 12th-century pieces including St George and the St George cross. In the 19th case there's a 13th-century icon of the Archangel Gabriel, showing the use of classical Greek-style colouring; the 20th case covers the 12th and 13th centuries, the heyday of Georgian national culture, with a silver jug and an imposing gold relief of God the Father, Mary and John the Baptist, both with inscriptions in Georgian.
In case 21 are the 15th-century silver bowl of Alexander I and a 12th-century silver jug with writing that modern Georgians can still read, telling how the jug was sacrificed as a token of esteem for their ruler. In case 22 are items such as silver bowls donated to clergy in hope of divine or practical favours; the late medieval items in case 23 show Persian influence (with hints of Arab and Mughal styles). Cases 24 and 25 contain coins, the first with Oriental and the second with Western influence, including French, German and Russian inscriptions, and from the Transcaucasian Republic of 1918-20.