Three different sources confirmed to RFE/RL that on September 20, in the evening hours, employees of the General Inspection of the Ministry of Culture and the National Museum visited paleontologist Nika Vanishvili at his home.
They had information that the scientist kept with him an important historical artifact found in the village of Orozmani – a 1.8 million-year-old tooth. According to Radio Liberty, the artifact was removed from the scientist’s apartment, and Nika Vanishvili himself was interviewed by the staff of the General Inspection.
How could a tooth be found in a scientist’s house?
Paleontologist Nika Vanishvili, in whose house the artifact was probably kept, is an employee of the National Museum, a participant of the Orozmani archaeological expedition and one of the discoverers of this monument together with Giorgi Bidzinashvili. Giorgi Bidzinashvili was fired from the National Museum in the spring of 2022 along with dozens of other colleagues due to the ongoing reorganization – the scientists themselves then accused the Ministry of discriminatory approach and appealed the dismissal orders to the court. It was Nika Vanishvili, Giorgi Bidzinashvili, and the head of the expedition, Jumber Kopalian, who presented the discovery of Orozman to the public on September 8. The son of the head of the expedition and archaeologist Giorgi Kopaliani and another archaeologist, Nika Tsikaridze, were with them.
The head of the expedition, Jumber Kopaliani, tells RFE/RL that he brought the archaeological material from Orozman to Nika Vanishvili on September 19, but he was unable to attend the signing of the documentation for the handing over of the artifacts to the National Museum funds on the same day.
“I delivered all this to Nika Vanishvili, but yesterday they did not have time to hand it over to the museum, they had to sign the acceptance-handover protocol and I am waiting [when they will give it to me]. The day before yesterday [September 19 – R.T.] they took it to the museum and I didn’t know if they were taking it to Paleobiology [Institute of Paleobiology – R.T.] or where. This paleobiology is also part of the museum. My boy also worked in this expedition, he called me and told me that he took [archaeological material] from there for inspection. No one from the General Inspection has contacted me, I don’t know the details, where was what,” Jumber Kopalian told us.
As it is clear from the narrative of the head of the expedition, the scientists brought the stone age human tools, animal remains and human teeth found in Orozman to the building of the Institute of Paleobiology after the end of the expedition. Although this institute is part of the National Museum, it is far from the administrative building, on Mtatsminda. Jumber Kopalian told us that the Ministry considered the building to be insufficiently protected and therefore transferred it to the Orozman Archaeological Expedition Museum. This is probably when it was discovered that the artifacts were missing a hominid tooth.The Ministry of Culture, which has not yet responded to the Orozman discovery, decided to inspect Orozman’s archeological material when it learned that the artifacts had been moved from the field to the Paleobiology Institute and visited the building on September 20.
Various sources tell RFE/RL that Nika Vanishvili took the tooth home from the Institute of Paleobiology on September 20 to show it to the foreign participants of the international scientific conference held at Tbilisi State University on September 21 and then returned it to the museum space.
The scientific conference “Dmanisi-Olduvai: a bridge between Africa and Europe” at TSU, where Nika Vanishvili wanted to present a tooth, opened on September 20 and will continue until September 24. The organizers of the conference are the general director of the National Museum, the head of the Dmanisi project, academician Davit Lortkipanidze and the leaders of the Olduvai project, professors of Indiana University, honorary doctors of Tbilisi State University, Keti Shiki and Nick Toti.
The scientist himself, Nika Vanishvili, who was contacted by Radio Liberty, does not comment.
What standard protects cultural heritage?
According to the law of cultural heritage, the archaeological monument is the property of the state. The General Inspection of the Ministry , which was interested in the discovery of the Orozmani archaeological monument, is a service loaded with many functions and directly subordinated to the Minister. Among its tasks are:
- Control of strict adherence to museum rules;
Checking and discovering the existence of the fact of violation of law, official misconduct and/or actions inconsistent with the goals of the Ministry in the agencies subordinate to the
- Ministry, as well as determining their causes and contributing factors and implementing preventive measures;
- Official control of discipline and legality in the system of the Ministry;
- Drawing up a protocol of administrative offense regarding the ongoing works on the cultural heritage monument or archaeological site without permission or in violation of the permission;
- Request-receipt of all necessary information, explanations and documents in the process of activity;
Where is the tooth now
Radio Liberty does not know where the ancient human tooth is at the moment, which, as the most important world discovery, came under the attention of Georgian and foreign media two weeks ago. The tooth may now be kept in a museum or held as a key piece of evidence by an investigation.
It is difficult for the scientists working in the archaeological expedition of Orozman to say where the tooth is now, the Ministry of Culture and the National Museum do not answer this question.
The Ministry of Culture also does not answer the question whether the incident is being investigated internally by the museum inspectorate, or law enforcement agencies have started an investigation.
The Prosecutor’s Office does not confirm, however, two different sources from the National Museum told RFE/RL that the Ministry’s General Inspection has handed over the case to the Prosecutor’s Office for investigation.
Later, the National Museum of Georgia issued a statement saying that one of the members of the expedition took the tooth home. The General Inspection of Cultural Heritage Protection of the Ministry of Culture removed the artifact and handed it over to the National Museum of Georgia.
“Regarding the given issue, materials are being prepared to give appropriate proceedings, including to be sent to the Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia,” we read in the statement.