The fight to save the ancient gold mine of Sakdrissi
In 2004, German archaeologists from Ruhr-University Bochum discovered the gold mine in Sakdrissi. Dated to the third millennium BC, it is one of the oldest known gold mines in the world and has been deemed the most important prehistoric mining site in Europe. Using stone hammers and antler picks the Bronze Age miners worked the mine to obtain the precious metal.
The nine-hectare site, called Sakdrisi-Kachagiani, lies several kilometres from Dmanisi, a small village in the Kvemo Kartli region of Georgia. The mine is a staggering 150 feet below the surface and the walls clearly show fire-setting and crushing work with hammers. Research has determined that it was in use for 600 years between 3,400 BC and 2800 BC. A remarkable array of finds within the mine allowed a detailed understanding of how the ore was mined, processed and prepared for use over 5000 years ago.
Bone tools found in the gold mine. Photo credit: T. Rabsilber, Bochum
The initial excavation at the gold mine was complemented by work on an Early Bronze Age settlement and the nearby area of Dmanisi is a significant site for the study of human origins. Early human fossils discovered at Dmanisi, dubbed Homo georgicus, were found between 1991 and 2005. At 1.8 million years old, H. georgicus may have been a separate species of Homo, predating Homo erectus, and represent the earliest stage of human presence in the Caucasus. The hominid remains are the oldest found outside of Africa. Then, last year, archaeologists made another dramatic discovery , a fifth skull which prompted scientists to hypothesise that all Homo species may not have been multiple human species at all, but instead variants of a single species.
Early human skulls found in Dmanisi. Photo source .
Although the site had been given protection according to Georgian Heritage laws in 2006, the election of a new government saw pressure put on the ministry of culture. A commission was set up at the beginning of June 2013 to remove the status of Sakdrissi as a protected monument . A gold mining company called RMG Limited have now obtained the mineral rights. Its proposed opencast gold mine will swallow the area of prehistoric mining.
The head of the Institute of Archaeological Studies at Ruhr-University of Bochum, Professor Thomas Stöllner has started a desperate bid to bring this proposed destruction to the attention of an international audience, and has made pleas for people to petition the government to allow, at the very least, enough time to carry out a thorough investigation of the site, which has only been partly explored. But the company that holds the mining rights to the site is more interested in seeing its investment pay off.
In a letter to the Georgian government, Professor Dr Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and German Association of Archaeology, said: “Sakdrisi is the oldest gold mine worldwide and therefore a unique heritage site not only of Georgia, but of mankind. It should not be sacrificed to pure economic interests.” He added, “not just Georgia, also Europe, will lose one of its most important prehistoric mining sites forever.”
Archaeologists, geoscientists, and botanists have been excavating and studying the area since 2004. Photo credit: German Mining Museum
There have also been clear attempts at undermining the archaeological importance of the site. Commission member and geologist, Aleksandre Tvalcheridze, made the outlandish claim that gold was never mined there in the Bronze Age and no evidence has been found to prove that gold was extracted at the site. This is despite uncovering a plethora of tools dated to the Bronze Age that were used to extract the gold in the mine. Tvalcheridze dismissed the findings as “scientific nonsense”.
Although Sakdrisi still ranks as an official archaeological site, RMG now does not allow archaeologists to visit the area. Unfortunately, it represents another case of corporate greed winning over the advancement of knowledge.
Featured image: Researchers make measurements inside the Sakrisi-Kachagiani ancient gold mine. Photo credit: German Mining Museum