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Georgia: Bank Team Supports Archaeological Dig of 7,000-Year-Old Silk Road Find

September 10, 2009

  • A World Bank-financed road repair project in Georgia recently unearthed one of the most unique and important archaeological sites of the Caucasus region
  • A key objective of the project is repairing and modernizing the “East-West Highway” by converting it from two to four lanes
  • The project triggered Bank policies for avoiding and/or minimizing impacts on identified cultural properties

September 10, 2009 — Since the World Bank works in more than 100 countries, the projects it supports often come along interesting cultural treasures. But road construction in Georgia recently unearthed a “chance” find along the route of the old fabled Silk Road that have been described as one of the most “unique and important” archaeological sites of the Caucasus region.

In May, workers repairing the country’s main east-west highway artery struck a treasure trove of urns, tools, and spearheads dating back to the Paleolithic Age of 300,000 years ago and up to the Late Hellenistic Period of the 1st century BC. In one part of the complex, workers found a Mesopotamian cylinder seal used for stamping legal agreements in 300 BC and in another, tiles from the same era reveal the existence of a temple with a ritual hearth, podium, and bread-baking oven.

On one hand, the archaeological find does not come as a surprise. The site lies on the route of the Silk Road, which carried goods, slaves, silk and spices between Asia, Europe, Africa and the Mediterranean for millennia and gave rise to some of the great cities of ancient times. On the other hand, though, the treasures lying under the hillside of the small town of Igoeti might have gone undiscovered had it not been for the repairing of the East-West Highway, says Vakhtang Licheli, Prof. of Archaeology, Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology at the Tbilisi State University, who is heading the excavation works.

" If it were not for the road upgrading works financed by the World Bank, this unique archeological site might be found years and years later, or might not be found at all. Owing to its location, richness and cultural diversity of finds, and wide chronological limits, Grakliani Gora seems to be one of the most unique and important archeological sites of the Central Transcaucasus. On this hill, we can actually trace back economic, cultural, commercial development of society and their relations to other regions during the course of 7 000 years. "

Vakhtang Licheli

Back in 2004, when the Georgian government first discussed the Bank’s support for repairing and modernizing the “East-West Highway” and converting it from two to four lanes, the Bank triggered its policy on “Physical Cultural Resources,” or known in Bank parlance as OP/BP 4.11. Among other things, the project stipulated the possibility of such a find in the vicinity of the Igoeti By-pass and Igoeti-Sveneti section of the highway, owing to the fact, that both run near important archaeological sites and monuments. The Environmental Impact Assessment report in August 2007 “outlines measures to avoid and/or minimize project impacts on identified cultural properties and will include procedures for managing chance finds during construction works.”

Today, the World Bank is offering support to the Georgian government to ensure the cultural resources discovered in Igoeti are being taken care of. The road construction activities were halted to give archaeologists enough time and space to properly care for the gravesites and ancient treasures, and facilitating the excavation process. They resumed few days ago after the archaeological work had been completed.

Asad Alam, the Bank’s Tbilisi-based regional director for the South Caucasus, said during a recent visit that he was “absolutely fascinated” by the richness of the culture reflected in the artifacts found. “It is extremely important to make sure that the excavations are done properly, and these cultural finds are preserved for history,” he said during a recent site visit. “Construction of the road will take place in due course, but it is important to pause, to stop, and to provide the necessary time and resources, and space that the archeologists need in order to protect this particular find properly.”