The Gold in the Fleece: Remembering Lost Knowledge

Myths, as the name implies, are not real, nor are they necessarily reputed to be accurate accounts of real events – but there is always at least a figment of reality that a myth is borne from. Sadly, unless there is a major archeological discovery, we might never know what the Golden Fleece really was or what it looked like, or whether the epic journey of the Argonauts truly took place (spoiler tags: The dragon wasn’t real, after all!), but there are underlying facts that we can be certain of.

First, The Kingdom of Colchis, one of the progenitor’s of modern Georgian ethnos, was an advanced civilization that even Greeks, avid explorers and colonizers that they were, marveled over. Georgia was a civilization, that, among other things, was in possession of the coveted knowledge of “distilling” gold from the depths of the Fasis River, presumably by using sheep hide as some sort of filter for miniscule gold nuggets.

A less glamorous fact that a scholar can deduce from this myth is that to have been “masters of gold”, the Colchis first needed to be masters of sheep, as, in order to sustain a sizable “gold-distilling” industry (which, once again, was impressive enough for those much-travelled Greeks) they would need an impressive supply of sheep hide, too.

For the Golden Fleece myth to emerge, sheep herding must have been a Georgian practice for millennia. Cradle of wine that it is, Georgia holds a claim to also being one of the earliest of “shepherding peoples”.

Fast-forward a few dozen centuries to medieval times- the 13-24th centuries to be precise. Sheep have become one of the staples of the Georgian economy, especially in the mountainous regions. Documents mentioning wool as a product have become common, which serves as an indication to an already well-developed shearing and wool-manufacturing local industry.

It is during this time that the endemic Tushetian sheep developed through selective cross-breeding. Of small size but robust, it is well-adapted to the harsh conditions of the land it got its name from, and the nutrient qualities of Tushetian sheep’s dairy output and meat are well-known. The annual route to Kakhetian grazing fields kept Tusheti economically sustainable for centuries with sheep and wool the key to maintaining the livelihoods in Tusheti and other highland regions.

And that setting proved to be extremely durable throughout the centuries. When Georgia became part of the Soviet Union, sheep and wool manufacturing gained an additional organizational boost. Wool was turned into an item of export and was produced en masse. In 1976, for example, 52 thousand tons of wool was produced in Georgia. The cooperative system, while having its obvious flaws, transformed shearing procedures into a mechanized process, increasing both quality and output.

After the fall of the Soviet regime, one would think that with the breeze of the free market economy, wool production would only expand further, but it was not to be- the organizational structure fell through with a government unable to replace or upgrade the Soviet-style cooperatives, the customary (and artificially made) export destinations suddenly disappeared, and the mechanized process of shearing was slowly abandoned.

It’s fair to say that the Georgian sheep industry has a long way to go yet towards full recovery. In 2009, there was a temporary increase of export dimension: the combination of good quality and cheap prices and transportation costs was hard to resist for countries like Iran, Azerbaijan, Oman, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE, where Georgian sheep meat replaced its Ukrainian and Brazilian competition. But the increasing demand brought about increased prices and taxation from the State, and struggling to maintain a balance between this and quality (misgivings about sanitary precautions proved to be extremely costly), the Georgian sheep had to concede its place to even cheaper competition.

An even sadder fate had befallen Georgian wool production. While theoretically eligible for the huge European market under the coveted spot of animal origin products (the same applies to meat, which could vouch for the in-demand bio-food niche), the volume of sales has been progressively negligible. The problem can be narrowed down to a triple-head dilemma: the primitive level of shearing and wool manufacturing, a cost-ineffective local market and limited export capabilities. The latter two stem from the first as the primitive shearing techniques, mostly by hand and mechanical scissors, result in poor quality wool which many herders prefer just to throw away than to toil with.

“Shearing became not a means of acquiring wealth, but a way of disposing of unwanted rubbish,” says Evzen Divis, the regional manager of Caritas Czech Republic, a humanitarian aid and development cooperation that has recently launched a series of shearing trainings in Tusheti, spearheaded by shearing pros from countries with a proven track record in quality wool production. “It’s a regrettable situation, really. The prices fell to such a low that it is no longer worthwhile to process the wool, so most sheep owners just throw it away. Additionally, the manner of primitive shearing results in low quality goods that cannot compete on any market, be it international or domestic. We want to share the know-how: teach the locals how to use modern equipment and show them proper shearing techniques, too. The way they shear now results in fiber, with all the important part of quality wool being too short. There is also a distinct lack of any sort of organizational structure. So, the Czech Development Agency purchased the necessary equipment and entrusted it to our partners, a local shepherd cooperative. With the new tools, they’ll be getting a higher quality end-product and actually see some profit from it,” Divis concludes.

The point is echoed by the shearing guru himself, a Slovakian professional shearer by the name of Milan Smolenak, who, together with project manager Alec Sumbadze, embarked on a journey to Vashlovani National Park to provide some shearing master-classes for locals, an experience he later assessed as “very satisfying”.

“When it came down to practice, the beginnings were hard,” he said, as he found out that his “apprentices” lacked both in knowledge of practical application and also that of wool processing nuances. What they lacked in knowledge, however, was soon to be overcome through their motivation. “Initially, participants kept making mistakes which resulted in the wool being unusable. However, once they understood the shearing technique properly, it was reflected in really good wool quality, which I was very satisfied with,” Smolenak admitted, hailing the “fortitude” and “humbleness” of Georgian people living in “adverse conditions.”

“I feel quite happy about the training impact,” he mused. “The best trainees had very good results, the fleece they produced was of sufficient quality.” A quality that, provided with equally scrupulous processing, could see Georgian wool on European markets in “the near future.”

The sentiment is shared by Alec Sumbadze, the Caritas Czech Republic project manager, who is adamant that, with effort, Georgian wool can find its place on shelves abroad.

“It’s doable,” he says. “And that’s the only way to get this industry going again – broadening the export area to include Europe. Obviously, that would also solve the aggravating transportation problem – with 1 kg of unprocessed wool costing 60 Tetri, sometimes transportation costs exceed the sales margin. Tushetian wool was taken to London for testing and, though obviously there were some shortcomings, in general they were satisfied with its quality. If the processing chain improves, we can sell wool in Europe. This change won’t happen overnight, but with steps like these, it’s bound to come eventually.”

Objective, yet driven, Mr. Sumbadze’s calculations seem well-founded. And apparently, our European partners also find them agreeable: just recently, Georgia was added to the list of third countries that can sell unprocessed wool on the European market. According to the latest bit of news, two Georgian wool production companies were deemed as meeting the required standards by EU quality control structures. And while it’s still early to talk about any sizable volume of exported goods, in the gargantuan task of restoring Georgian wool manufacturing to its former glory it’s those initial small steps that matter most – the basic, forgotten knowledge, remembered now.

Vazha Tavberidze

26 April 2016 11:09