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Model of a Neolithic flint mine

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

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 )

The mining community and the variscite itself in the fourth millennium BC helped develop an economy in the western Mediterranean that allowed social interaction between other communities in the northeastern Iberian Peninsula, southern France and northern Italy, the authors wrote.

The researchers, Ferran Borrell, Josep Bosch and Tona Majó, wrote the article for the February 2015 edition of Antiquity.

Featured image: Model of a Neolithic flint mine

By Mark Miller

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