To those who have not been, the Bolnisi Museum, about an hour south of Tbilisi, is a gem worth visiting. Opened two years ago in the early months of the pandemic, the museum is the major exhibit for the archaeological site of Dmanisi, in which the first hominins outside Africa have been found. A first-class attraction, the museum is already a recipient of international acclaim, including nomination for the 2022 European Museum of the Year Award. And with its coverage of an extraordinary time span, the museum sparks thoughts that may be relevant beyond Bolnisi, too.
The museum succeeds in multiple ways – one being its location. There are obvious reasons to decentralize museums and draw visitors to an area that receives far less attention than Kakheti. Ask around in Tbilisi and you will see that many have not ventured to Kvemo Kartli in years. But this region, with its many extraordinary historical sites, should be a locale where citizens and schoolchildren can connect to their own past. The remarkable architecture, designed by Gaga Kiknadze of Architects.GE – an angular building with a metal structure jutting out on its left to proclaim prominence – does that intention justice.
The museum is the perfect size to engage visitors with four halls dedicated to various periods. The texts in Georgian and English establish context in ways that should be of interest for most visitors. Before venturing in, we had thought of this visit as a 20-minute raid but ended up staying for more than an hour. For an outing that most visitors will combine with other activities, that seems to be a sensible proportion, even if national museums in capitals may want to be more exhaustive.
A journey through time
The first hall shows Kvemo Kartli’s plausible claim to international fame. Excavations in nearby Dmanisi “have revealed an extraordinary record of the earliest hominid dispersal beyond Africa (1.75 million years ago)”, as the UNESCO list of tentative World Heritage Sites says. The formal summary for the Dmanisi entry, submitted in 2007, adds that “this is the richest and most complete collection of indisputable early Homo remains outside of Africa,” noting that it may have great potential for further finds.
A life-size drawing in the first room immediately draws attention: the hominid dwarfed by a giant ostrich, a rhinoceros, and an elephant, while surrounded by a saber-toothed tiger and other animals that look as vicious as some of Georgia’s contemporary sheepdogs. As one walks by, the original finds light coming up from behind, providing context for how the great illustration (done by the Spanish-Venezuelan paleoartist Mauricio Antón) draws on the bones that were found on site. As the lit-up bones in the back fade, you again look at the drawing and can contemplate the relationship of the parts to the whole.
The next hall offers a rich display of Stone, Bronze, and Iron Age tools arranged in luminous arcs for the visitor’s consideration. The texts explain the skill it took to drill an eye into a needle made from bone. For stitching fur or stringing berries together to dry, that minor development made a major difference. The cabinets arrange tools in neat categories, each unique and independently crafted, illustrating how early humans worked with and against material that they had not yet fully brought under control.
Significant space is given to Sakdrisi, one of the oldest gold mines that has ever been found in the world, also nearby (that Sakdrisi was blown up at the end of 2014 – one of the more dispiriting chapters in the story of how Georgia has dealt with its historic wealth – finds no mention). The exhibit shows what kinds of tools were used to search and extract gold before dynamite was invented.
Almost two thousand years are covered by the third hall: stones from churches; the first Georgian inscriptions; gravestones inscribed in Arabic from the medieval cemetery of Dmanisi to the “innocent deceased … Sherif Ed-Din,” reminding readers that “this world is momentary, so be meek.” Now, too, we see the first evidence of trade, with ceramics that are believed to originate from 13th century Persia.
The German settlement of Bolnisi from the early 19th century is the main focus of the fourth and last hall, showing the path of migration from Swabia along the Danube and the Black Sea. In 1816, the settlers set out in part due to climate change during the “year without a summer,” which followed a volcanic eruption that led to food shortages across Northwestern Europe, increasing pressure to leave. A rolling presentation – only in German – tells more about the settlers who brought their distinct half-timbered houses to “Katharinenfeld,” as Bolnisi was called then. Various objects and photos give a sense of a bygone era: choirs, cycling associations, wine-making, and a community that did not know, of course, that it would not last. After Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, all ethnic Germans were deported to Central Asia, with the exception of those married to other ethnicities.
The exhibition ends a tad abruptly, as one steps from this extraordinary journey through time right back into the foyer of the building. It is, literally, the longest local voyage through human history that anyone can have outside of Africa. Even secular-minded visitors may experience moments of awe.
Room to grow
Fans of Georgian archaeology may feel that the museum could perhaps have said a bit more about the discipline’s leading figures. Though one Austrian archaeologist is pictured meticulously excavating, other key luminaries of Georgian archaeology – Leo Gabunia, David Lortkipanidze, Abesalom Vekua, to name some who led excavations – are barely shown. Highlighting how quality scientific work often is based on both local competence and transnational collaboration may help schoolchildren imagine how they, too, could contribute to its further development. As it stands, one can have the impression that the museum landed here almost as if it was a spaceship (Perhaps the processes of archaeological discovery get more attention in the various guided tours that can be booked).
A closer look at websites and articles shows that a remarkable team was at work to create this museum. Next to the great staff of the Georgian National Museum, a broad team was engaged, starting with the Bogota-born artist, museographer, and independent curator Lina López, who designed the general concept of the exhibition. López has also played a major role in setting up other highly lauded exhibitions in Akhaltsikhe, Mestia, and Vani. This underlines that international collaboration often is part and parcel of making local heritage great again.
One hopes that guided tours can make the museum come alive for Azerbaijani and Armenian visitors, too. While a locally-made carpet and some musical instruments are showcased, friends report that Azerbaijanis living in Kvemo Kartli have said that they do not find their history reflected in the exhibit. The texts in Georgian and English may not be accessible to minority populations at a time when “language education needs much more government attention,” as a 2021 Carnegie Europe report on breaking down barriers to integration by Rusudan Amirejibi and Kakha Gabunia found.
The museum does have some flexibility. Its second floor is available for various exhibitions and contains “an art center, a creative space, a place of fun, and learning for children,” according to its webpage.
In practical terms, the museum – a recently arrived spacecraft comes to mind again – could benefit from advertising in all directions. While the reviews on Google are overwhelmingly positive, few people in Tbilisi know that this special location is in such easy reach. A bit of insider knowledge is also needed to be aware that there are two decent restaurants in Bolnisi, though one regularly hosts weddings on weekends. A call in advance can clarify whether one needs to hunt and gather one’s own supplies.
Kvemo Kartli in many ways is quintessentially Georgian: the longest of histories; bones, needles and carpets; a land of complementarity but also an area of strong tectonic pressures between ethnicities and empires. To look at the angles and refractions of the diamond this region formed, too, is reason enough to dedicate a day trip from Tbilisi to wander through more than a million years of human history.
Hans Gutbrod teaches at Ilia State University and regularly contributes to Investor.GE. Hans is on Twitter at @HansGutbrod.