The Mystery of the Sakdrisi Mines

02 June 2014
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Research > Irina Ghambashidze

The world's oldest gold production site has been discovered In Sakdrisi, Kvemo Kartli in southern Georgia, where archaeological research has produced sensational results. This is the world's oldest known gold production site, dating from the 4th millennium B.C. Over 15 tunnels and mining platforms were discovered in this site where extracted gold ore underwent preliminary treatment.

Scientific cooperation with the German Mining Museum in Bochum (DBM) began in 1996, and since that time several important archaeological projects have been implemented. Between 2001 and 2003 an exhibition entitled "Georgia - Treasure from the Land of the Golden Fleece" was organized in the German cities of Bochum and Wiesbaden where 756 copper, bronze, antimony, lead, iron, gold and silver artifacts demonstrated the uninterrupted history of Georgia's ancient metalwork.

A Georgian exhibition in Germany in 2003 resulted in two educational and scientific projects implemented in cooperation with DBM, the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) and the University of Frankfurt (IMUF) with funding from the Volkswagen Foundation (Germany). The first was entitled "Stepping up interdisciplinary research and introducing new methods of mining archaeology and archaeometallurgy in Georgia" and the second, initiated in 2007, is entitled "Gold in Georgia". The goal of the projects are to study ancient metallurgy in Georgia using both social and natural science research to learn how raw materials were extracted and processed in the Caucasus in ancient times.

The archaeometallurgical study of ore mines on Georgia's territory includes that of ancient metal artifacts. It has involved Master's, Doctoral and Post-doctoral students from Georgia and internationally and has contributed to the preparation of a course of lectures in Georgian, and courses in Caucasian archaeology. There have been workshops held in archaeology and archaeometallurgy.

Within the framework of the project archaeological excavations started in the mining tunnels of the Sakdrisi mine, which had been discovered in 1987 in the southern region of Kvemo Kartli near the town of Kazreti. Geological works meant excavations could be carried out as deep as 25 meters below the surface.

The densest cultural layers in the mining tunnels were found at 1.5-2.4 meters where fragments of earthenware were discovered ,,in situ" along with charcoal, stone, bone and obsidian tools. Marks indicating the use of stone hammers could be seen clearly on the smooth walls, indicating their archaic origins. The ancient mining tunnels followed the gold veins, leaving no doubt that the mines were used to extract gold. Over 10 000 stone mining tools were discovered over the territory of Sakdrisi, proving that the primary treatment of gold likely took place on location.

The discovery of clay items typical of the Kura-Araxes culture which were found in the cultural layers of the mines played an important role in the preliminary dating of the monument. Radio-carbon dating later confirmed this upon examination of charcoal discovered in the same layers. The period of works in these mines was determined at 3 330-2 580 B.C. Thus gold mining in these tunnels continued for 750 years. Due to the sensational archaeological research results in Sakdrisi the site was identified as the oldest monument of gold mining in the world. In 2006, Sakdrisi entered the list of Georgia's Cultural Heritage Monuments.

It became clear during the course of the research, that at the same time other ancient civilizations like Egypt were extracting gold by sifting through sand along river beds, societies in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains were already acquainted with complex underground mining technologies - detecting almost invisible gold in ore mines with the naked eye, using stone tools to separate it from rock, then crushing, washing and smelting it.

 To carry out more complex research it became necessary to find an ancient mining settlement. After archaeological reconnaissance work the remains of a settlement and burial grounds were found, that covered over 62 hectares on territory adjacent to today's village of Balichi. This is currently considered the largest archaeological remains of any settlement of the Kura-Araxes period in the South Caucasus.

 Inside the buildings stone tools for processing ore occupied a key place, along with Kura-Araxes ceramics. One of the buildings was a workshop where a smelting furnace was found; around it were small stone hammers, pounders, crushers, grinding boards, and crushed ore. Inside the furnace, a slag-covered clay cubicle to melt ore was found. Based on these discoveries, the site was identified as a settlement of miners, where gold ore from Sakdrisi underwent secondary treatment and smelting, at the turn of the 4th and the 3rd millennia B.C. The burial grounds were mostly collective, with clay items as the main burial accessories.

Through interdisciplinary projects, analytical research began in parallel to archaeological research. Samples of gold from Georgia's mines and from ore-bearing sands along riverbeds were collected for comparison using chemical and isotope analyses. Samples were sent to laboratories at the DBM Institute of Archaeometallurgy and the Institute of Mineralogy the Goethe University of Frankfurt, where they were analyzed with participation of Georgian and German Doctoral and Master's degree students.

 This research will provide information about where the gold from Sakdrisi went, as results of the analysis of gold artifacts and ores discovered in Georgia are summarized. The archaeological study of Caucasian, Mesopotamian and Anatolian gold artifacts will be completed. Importantly, it has already been shown that at the turn of the 4th and 3rd millennia B.C., underground mining and processing gold in the South Caucasus was taking place locally.

In 2009, a long-term memorandum of mutual cooperation was signed between the Georgian National Museum, DBM, RUB and the DMT. In 2013, a new stage began in the relations between the Georgian National Museum, the German Mining Museum Bochum and the Ruhr University Bochum. The German Research Foundation (DFG), the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the French National Research Agency (ANR) have funded a new project, "Salt, Copper and Gold- the Oldest Mining Production in the Caucasus" with participation of the Archéorient - Environnements et Sociétés de l'Orient Ancien (Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée, Université de Lyon, France), the Georgian National Museum and the Nakhchivan branch of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan. The project is interdisciplinary, with over 50 research scientists participating from several institutions.