In the early 1980s, Soviet engineers drove a prospection tunnel into Sakdrissi hillock close to the small town of Kazreti, about 50 kilometers south of Tbilisi. Much to their surprise, they discovered that the hillock already bore a labyrinth of tunnels, and, as quickly became clear, these tunnels were manmade. An old gold mine had been discovered.
25 years later, a Georgian-German team of archaeologists excavated the site and reopened the ancient entrance to the mining complex. Inside the tunnels and around the entrance they found plenty of artifacts of the ancient miners, like stone picks, stone hammers, devices made from animal bones for cleaning the ore, and charcoal. Using the C14-method, the charcoal allowed for an exact age determination of the structure. It turned out that the gold mine was in operation breathtaking 5000 years ago. Not just a very old gold mine had been discovered, but the oldest gold mine of humankind. (The Egyptians started gold mining at the beginning of the second millennium BCE, about 1000 years later than the Georgians.).
THE ANCIENT MINERS
The legendary abundance of gold in the kingdom of Colchis inspired the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Many scholars interpret the Golden Fleece to be an allegory for a special kind of placer mining in which fur was used for filtering gold from water streams that flowed down from the placers. This hypothesis goes back to the ancient Greek historian Strabo (64 BCE - 24 CE). In his Geography, he writes about the prehistoric Georgians: “It is said that in their country gold is carried down by 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 — […] they call them Iberians, by the same name as the western Iberians, from the gold mines in both countries.” In the 21st century, the archaeological findings in Sakdrissi confirm what we read about Georgia in ancient sources.
5000 years ago, the Georgians pioneered gold mining, and they used techniques that were far ahead of their time. The charcoal found in the depth of the tunnels proves that the prehistoric miners used a technique for breaking up the ore that became known in the occident only thousands of years later. Georgius Agricola (1494-1555) describes the mining technology of his days in his book De Re Metallica. He reports for the first time that in order to detach the ore from the rock, miners set fires in the mines. When the ore had heated up, it became brittle and could be struck off the rock easily. This technique became obsolete just when explosives came up.
Fire-setting underground as depicted by Georgius Agricola in his 1556 book (source: Wikimedia Commons)
The charcoal and certain specifics of the tunnels provide strong evidence that this innovative technique was already used in Sakdrissi. For testing their hypothesis, the archaeologists set a fire in one of the tunnels of the Sakdrissi mine and succeeded to harvest considerable amounts of ore. In ancient times, this method was risky and often fatal, as the smoke of the fires filled the narrow tunnels and there was little air for breathing left. The archaeologists have reasons to believe that the ancient miners in Sakdrissi used bellows at the entrance of the mines for ventilation, another technical ingenuity.
THE MODERN MINERS
By all likelihood, the Sakdrissi mine will be destroyed within this year. In 2006, the hillock became a protected site due to its paramount archaeological significance. In 2013, however, the ministry of culture withdrew the protection status so as to allow RMG Gold Ltd. to extend their open cast mining activities to the Sakdrissi Hillock. Professor Thomas Stoellner, head of the Georgian-German team of archaeologists, wrote a desperate letter that summarizes the situation and gives some political background information (it can be downloaded here). In his letter, he states: “Georgia will lose one of its most important cultural heritage sites while archaeology and science will have never access again to this outstanding document.”
It is not difficult to imagine that the Sakdrissi mine has the potential to attract tourists. In the long run, one could establish a visitor center, and there could be guided tours through the tunnels. Children would love such a museum that would not only teach them about the life in prehistoric Georgia and about the engineering achievements of the ancient miners but let them walk through the very same tunnels that were dug 5000 years ago. Already now, Sakdrissi brought some fruits for tourism: there was a documentary about the Sakdrissi mine broadcasted by the major public German television channel. It can be seen on Youtube in German with Georgian subtitles. Such media reports build up the reputation of a country as a rewarding travel destination. Georgia, which is rather unknown in most parts of the world and largely ignored by tourists, is in dire need of such publicity.
In another article I wrote here some months ago, Maka Chitanava and I wrote about the economic reforms of King David IV. Ruling in medieval times, his economic policies were driven by insights that are usually attributed to 20th-century economics. Likewise, the findings of Sakdrissi contribute to a picture of Georgia that is much different from how Georgia is generally seen today, namely as a poor country with many problems in the periphery of the world. That the first gold miners of the world were Georgians, and that they employed groundbreaking techniques that were far ahead of their time, is a non-negligible achievement. And it is an achievement in which today’s Georgians, who are struggling with so many hardships, can take pride. If Sakdrissi will be destroyed, however, the fame of being the first gold miners will remain with the Egyptians. And in my personal opinion, a country that destroys its cultural heritage does not deserve the fame of its past achievements.
An online petition (in Georgian and English) for the preservation of Sakdrissi has been set up on the internet. Those who feel uncomfortable about the destruction of the world’s first gold mine can sign up here.