Model of a Neolithic flint mine

Miners in Iberia 5,300 years ago had high social status and rich burials

(Read the article on one page)

Stone Age Iberian miners of both sexes 5,300 to 4,300 years ago are believed to have had important status in their community near what is now Barcelona, Spain, as some of their dead were entombed in mine shafts with valuable objects. Research conducted at the prehistoric mines of Gava, Spain, has advanced knowledge of social contexts of early mining in Europe, transforming the belief that mining was only undertaken by the lower echelon of society.

“These results have contributed essential information for reconstructing the lifeways of the miners themselves, providing responses to many questions raised about the Neolithic community that lived, worked, died and was buried in the mines,” they wrote.

The miners shaped the mineral variscite into ornamental beads and pendants and traded 375 km (233 miles) north into France and Italy and to the west and south.

Variscite objects in a burial chamber at the prehistoric mines of Gava, Spain.

Variscite objects in a burial chamber at the prehistoric mines of Gava, Spain, include faceted fragments (a), broken beads (b), a complete necklace (d), faceted and polished fragments and bead preforms (c), and a series of perforated beads, pendants, plaquettes and a medal (e). ( Antiquity photo)

The miners dug shafts 15 meters (49 feet) to extract the variscite. After they dug cross-shafts and mined them, they buried some of their dead with vessels, jewelry made of minerals and coral and tools made from flint and other minerals mined elsewhere and apparently obtained by trade. The people sealed the tombs with limestone slabs, but some were apparently looted and the bodies desecrated.

The researchers wrote in the journal Antiquity:

Mining has commonly been thought of as hard manual labor undertaken by the lower echelon of a hierarchical society, but was this always the case? Recent excavations of the variscite mines at Gav`a have revealed burials contemporary with the peak of mining activity that represent a community of miners exploiting the subterranean resources for trade and manufacturing variscite beads with a nuanced symbolism. Skeletal evidence demonstrates the physicality of mining while grave goods reveal a community that worked collectively to mine, manufacture and trade goods, with miners themselves benefiting from the fruits of their labors …. The variscite mines of Gav`a are the first evidence for a mining community where the manual labor is not the occupation of an underclass while others enjoy the benefits, but rather a collective effort of the group.

They said the rich objects found in the mine shafts were a sign that the deceased miners had good social status.

The figure-vessel has a swollen belly, sun-shaped eyes, a nose, a comb-shaped necklace and is marked with relief and fine incisions of body parts and adorntments.

The researchers said the discovery of the Gava Venus indicates mines were special places for miners. The figure-vessel has a swollen belly, sun-shaped eyes, a nose, a comb-shaped necklace and is marked with relief and fine incisions of body parts and adorntments. (Photograph: J. Casanova, Museu de Gav`a)

An examination of two skeletons found in a mine shaft/tomb, one a female, showed the humerus bones of the upper arm were highly developed. Larger bones are a sign of robustness that anthropologists associate with repeated use of muscular force. In other words, the researchers tentatively concluded the miners worked so hard and were so strong that the bones of their arms, which were “considerably more developed than the lower limbs,” became larger. The experts concluded the enlarged upper limbs, especially the right arm, are consistent with mining work. They said though that they’d need to examine more skeletons at Gava to draw solid conclusions about whether the people buried in the mine shafts were miners, mine owners or others.

A reconstruction of mining activities from the researchers' article in Antiquity

A reconstruction of mining activities from the researchers’ article in Antiquity (Drawing by F. Borrell)

Many of the bones of the two skeletons were broken after death, apparently by grave robbers, who also filled in parts of the burial chambers.

Anthropologists found disorders or traumas and occupational musculoskeletal signs typical of hard with the hard labor of mining, including, digging, transporting and shaping the variscite into objects.

“This, together with the rest of the data from the archaeological contexts, indicates that the individuals buried in the mines worked there with certain intensity and regularity during a prolonged period of time, and that both genders took part in the work,” they wrote. The buried people may have been part of group of miner specialists doing the hard work that was so dangerous it left trauma on their bodies. The knowledge and skill of mining the variscite and manufacturing the beads was possibly handed down within the community for several centuries.

Cross-section of a stunning rock containing variscite

Cross-section of a stunning rock containing variscite (Photo by Tony Hisgett/ Wikimedia Commons )

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Human Origins

Map of sites and postulated migratory pathways associated with modern humans dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene.
Most people are now familiar with the traditional "Out of Africa" model: modern humans evolved in Africa and then dispersed across Asia and reached Australia in a single wave about 60,000 years ago. However, technological advances in DNA analysis and other fossil identification techniques, as well as an emphasis on multidisciplinary research

Ancient Technology

Detail of a star chart dating to the Middle Kingdom.
The calendar is one of mankind’s most important inventions. Calendars allowed societies to organize time for religious, social, economic, and administrative purposes. The calendar, or rather, two sets of calendars, were invented by the ancient Egyptians. One of these was a lunar calendar, which was used mainly for the organization of religious festivals.

Ancient Places

Smuts house
The farmstead of General Jan Smuts on the outskirts of Pretoria, is reputed to be one of the most haunted private homes in the country, according to Mr Mark Rose-Christie, raconteur and social scientist, who regularly takes brave visitors on a tour of haunted sites on his mystery ghost bus.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article