Icon of Neolithic technology given enhanced protection by UNESCO
The Neolithic flint mines at Spiennes in Belgium, which cover more than 100 hectares, are the largest and earliest concentration of ancient mines in Europe and reflect an extremely high level of human technological development for the era. The people who dug the mines, some 6,000 years ago, are regarded as the oldest miners in the world, and the flint production they undertook occurred on an almost industrial scale with thousands of shafts and pits bored into the earth.
The flint mines were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2000 for providing exceptional testimony to early human inventiveness and application, marking a major milestone in cultural and technological development, and providing an outstanding example of Neolithic mining of flint. However, last month the importance of the site was given further recognition by being granted UNESCO’s “enhanced protection” status.
The granting of such protection can be made under three conditions: that the site be of the greatest importance to humanity, that it be protected by adequate domestic legal and administrative measures recognizing its exceptional cultural and historic value and ensuring the highest level of protection, and that it not be used for military purposes or to shield military sites.
The flint mines of Spiennes were actively used from 4,400 BC to 2,000 BC, with extraction carried out in open quarries and pits. A large diversity of methods were employed to extract the flint by open quarries, pits and networks of underground horizontal galleries. Vertical tunnels range from 30 to 40 feet deep. Shafts were sunk through the chalk layer vertically with galleries radiating out from the shafts. Unique to Spiennes, when the flint was exhausted above the bedrock, the rock layer was penetrated to reach the chalk layer below. This feature shows the mastery these Neolithic humans had of their local geology!
Mines were dug with only the aid of antler picks and bone shovels demonstrating an incredible feat based on the expansiveness of the site. Despite the miners' knowledge to leave pillars in the horizontal galleries for roof support, skeletons of workers have been found in collapsed shafts at Spiennes.
Flint is found in layers within beds of chalk and is an easy to shape material with sharp edges. From the early beginnings, humans used flint tools for personal use, for example, to make robust axes (to be used by hand or with a wooden grip). Axes were used initially for forest clearance during the Neolithic period, and for shaping wood for structural applications, such as timber for huts and canoes.
The flint mines at Spiennes show that Neolithic man was anything but primitive, and that our ancient ancestors achieved a lot more than they are typically given credit for.