Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -
Sakdrisi-Kachagiani is a grassy hill in southern Georgia’s Kvemo Kartli region, which is best known for the earliest hominid site discovered outside of Africa. But archaeologists claim the hill also contains the world’s oldest gold mine and its fate is now hanging by a golden thread as the site lies in a mining area licenced to Russian copper and gold company Rich Metal Group (RMG).
On December 12, RMG re-started excavations in the area following a decision from the Georgian Ministry of Culture to lift the protected status on the site, sparking fury among archaeologists and conservationists, and stirring a heated political debate on the country’s cultural and environment protection policy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili slammed criticism as “very irresponsible and groundless,” but on December 25 the parliament backed a proposal to launch an ad-hoc investigative probe into the launch of drilling activities on Sakdrisi-Kachagiani.
Although archaeologists claim the gold mine dates back to the 4th millennium BC, its recent history starts in 2004 when a group of German and Georgian researchers began excavating work there with funding from the Volkswagen Foundation. “We realized it was a pre-historic mine when we entered for the first survey,” says Professor Thomas Stöllner in a phone interview from Germany with bne.
Professor Stöllner heads the Institute of Archaeological Studies at Ruhr-University of Bochum in Germany and has been studying the Georgian site for over 10 years. “The walls clearly show fire-setting and crushing work with hammers, plus we found hundreds of typical mining tools like hammer stones. Successive analysis, including carbon 14, dated the finds to 3,000 years ago,” he marvels.
Stöllner, a leading archaeologist, believes the mine offers a new picture on pre-historic societies, as mining gold may have meant social prestige as far back as over 5,000 years ago. Alongside Georgian scientists, led by Irina Gambashidze, Stöllner unearthed hundreds of artifacts currently displayed at the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi.
The authorities at first shared the archaeologists’ enthusiasm. Two years after excavations started, Sakdrisi-Kachagiani was added to the list of protected heritage sites. But in March 2013 the Ministry of Culture removed it with then-president Mikheil Saakashvili's approval. One year later, the Ministry lifted the protected status of the archaeological site, paving the way for opencast mining activities by RMG to begin.
That decision was challenged in court by Tbilisi-based legal advocacy Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association (GYLA), and as an interim measure, pending final verdict, the court ordered in early June 2014 a suspension of any operations at the disputed site. Then in December, the green light was given for excavation work to resume.
Deputy Minister of Culture Levan Kharatishvili defends the decision to restart work, saying that part of the site has already been fully examined for archeological purposes and the remaining side of the hill is at threat of collapse, which makes it impossible to carry out any further archeological excavations. “It was not the ideal decision,” Kharatishvili, who heads the Ministry’s Cultural Heritage Strategy, admits to bne, “but it was the optimal decision in these circumstances, preserving what can be preserved in a nearby museum,” which will be financed by RMG in the nearby town of Bolnisi.
He also stressed that there is no evidence over the actual use of the site as a gold mine and that there is no agreement among the scientific community. “Our obligation is to protect and preserve the cultural heritage and do as much as possible to do so,” he says, adding that the company remains under obligation to stop digging in case of more archaeological findings and to report to the ministry.
According to Kharatishvili, assessments conducted by world leading specialists like Italian Claudio Margottini, who also advises Unesco on geological heritage, showed that the unexplored part of the hill is collapsing and could only be secured by concrete poles, “inevitably spoiling the site”. “The artifacts found prove the human interference in the site, not that it was a gold mine,” he explains. There is then “the argument to say that it is an important archaeological object and that’s why we have been so active in trying to balance all the interests here.”
Campaigners who formed the Public Committee to Save Sakdrisi claim the government has given in to economic interests. Certainly Georgia faces a dilemma. With investment lagging and unemployment at 16.3%, the $300mn so far invested by RMG and the 3,000 people that the company employs are a boon for the local community and the wider economy. Gold is one of Georgia’s top ten exports, bringing in $35.3mn in the first 11 months of 2014.
The controversy around Sakdrisi-Kachagiani has slowed down operations at RMG, whose products, according to the company’s website, include copper concentrates and gold alloys, and make up about 10% of Georgia's total exports. The company, whose board comprises several former government officials, did not respond to interview requests.
The contested hill takes up 9 of the 193 hectares that RMG is licensed to exploit. However, the company’s commercial director, Soso Tsabadze, said last year that Sakdrisi-Kachagiani is key for its operations, as 30% of the 14 tonnes of gold estimated in the area lie under the knoll.
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