At a recent meeting in Washington I was discussing the issue of chance archaeological finds with the World Bank’s regional safeguards co-ordinator. She commented that in Georgia you cannot put a shovel in the ground without finding something ancient. Very true. In fact, we had just recently uncovered a 7,000 year old burial site when excavating the new section of the East-West highway. While being inconvenient from a progress point of view, has yielded invaluable insights into ancient Georgia.
Before the World Bank agrees to finance a project we go through a very thorough review of the environmental and social impacts of a project. We have three ‘categories’ of projects, labelled A, B, and C. Depending on the impact of the proposed activities we put it into one of these categories and then take appropriate activities to address, and if possible mitigate, the environmental and social impacts.
A key element of the environmental management plan is what we call the ‘chance find procedure’. This is what we would do in the event that any cultural or historical artefacts are encountered during the works. I’ve never had to apply these procedures: the closest we came was a dinosaur egg site in China about 300 m from the project site. So I was pleased to learn that when they uncovered a burial site near Igoeti on the E60 East-West highway that the procedures has been triggered and properly applied.
Our project was constructing two new lanes to the north of the existing road. Igoeti, about 50 km west of Tbilisi, is a hilly area and the project was excavating the base of the hill and installing retaining walls. As they started excavations they found a burial site and immediately notified the Engineer managing the works, and the Roads Department.
This is a text book example of how such a situation should be handled. The Roads Department closed off that part of the site, and contacted several Georgian institutes getting quotes for them to undertake an archaeological excavation. They then hired one of the institutes and let them do their work. What they found was most interesting.
The burial site dates back some 7,000 years. They postulated that the village was located higher up the hill and said that if excavated they would find even more artefacts. Unfortunately for the team, the Roads Department is only worried about the 20 metres or so where we are encroaching.
I visited the site and watched them excavating some of the graves. A student was meticulously moving aside the earth and stones with a paint brush and scalpel. She was sunburned and sitting in most uncomfortable position, but spoke enthusiastically about what she was doing.
There was a man and a woman buried together, along with a small child. I was told that the couple was in their 20’s and were buried about 5,000 years ago based on the pottery included. It seemed a travesty to disturb them after so many years, but I was told that this site was unique in Georgia and yielding information on a pre-historical era. It was incredible that the bones were in such good condition, and the fellow had such good teeth. No sugar in those days.
When we first started we thought the site would be quite small and the works over quickly. However, so much has been found that the Roads Department has had to extend the contract. Below are some photos of the artefacts.
While they and the contractor are worried about the delays to the work, the Roads Department also recognizes the cultural importance of excavating the site properly. The site has now become quite famous and there have been several stories on it in the media.
It has become part of the standard ‘tour’ for those interested in World Bank activities in Georgia. They go and visit a resettlement camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the Russian invasion of South Ossetia in 2008, then our new highway, and the burial site.
It was nice to be thanked so profusely by the professor leading the excavation for the World Bank’s high profile support for this work. I look at it the other way – we are fortunate to have been involved.