Silver Mines Within an Ancient Town Shed New Light on the Rich History of Greece
Thorikos, an ancient town in Attica, was the site of a network of 5 kilometers (3 miles) of silver mines right underneath the town’s acropolis. Researchers believe slaves did the hard work of chipping into the bedrock and extracting the precious lead-silver ore, which in later years contributed to ancient Athens’ wealth.
Evidence of pottery and stone hammers made of volcanic-sedimentary rock show the site was first mined about 3200 BC.
Before the find of the silver mines in Thorikos, researchers had thought the town profited from mines in the Laurion region but did not have its own mines.
The excavations and analysis of the mines, part of more comprehensive archaeological research at Thorikos, is led by Denis Morin. Professor Roald Docter of Ghent University heads the larger project under the auspices of the University of Utrect, the Belgian School at Athens, and the Ephorate of Eastern Attica.
Morin told Heritage Daily :
‘Today, it is difficult to imagine the extreme conditions in which the miners had to work in this maze of galleries. A smothering heat reigns in this mineral environment. The progress of the underground survey requires a constant vigilance in this stuffy space where the rate of oxygen must be permanently watched. Tool marks on the walls, graffiti, oil lamps, and crushing areas give evidence of the omnipresent activity of these underground workers. The hardness of the bedrock and the mineralizations show the extreme working conditions of these workers, for the greater part slaves, sentenced to the darkness and the extraction of the lead-silver ore […] Mapping these cramped, complex and braided underground networks, the ramifications of which are sometimes located at several levels, represent a real challenge in scientific terms.’
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The mines are at the foot of the Thorikos Acropolis, which overlooks the harbor of Lavrio, and consist of a network of chambers, shafts and galleries. Many of the subterranean network’s ceilings are no higher than 30 centimeters (12 inches).
French mining archaeologists have to crawl through cramped tunnels to excavate the site. Some ceilings are no higher than 30 centimeters (12 inches). ( Ghent University )
Modern archaeologists do the difficult and precarious work of exploring the mine shafts using alpine caving techniques. They’ve found that some of the galleries have not been visited for 5,000 years. Others are now walled off and banked up by later mining activities.
They are the largest underground mining network yet found in this region of the Aegean. The area was the site of many silver mines going back before Grecian Antiquity.
“Already exploited since the 4th/3rd millennium BC, by the 5th and 4th centuries BC these silver mines constituted the most important mining district of Greece, laying at the basis of Athens’ domination of the Aegean world,” says the article in HeritageDaily.
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After the Peloponnesian War of 434-401 BC, the region was largely empty of people, according to the site of The Thorikos Fieldwork Project . In the 300s BC, the Laurion region shifted from commercial and residential activity to the production of silver. “At that time Athens held a firm grip on the metallurgical exploitation of the Laurion as the corpus of 294 mining leases on the Athenian Agora shows (dated 367/66-307/6 BC),” the project site states.
Thorikos is one of the oldest cities of Attica, one of 12 settlements that the ancient Greek hero Theseus unified, according to legend. The site was inhabited continuously from about 4500 BC to the 1st century BC, says the website Greek Travel Pages.
Remnants of the silver-processing facilities in Thorikos remain. In this facility, workers separated lead from silver. ( Alun Salt/CC BY SA 2.0 )
Over the years, archaeologists have excavated parts of the prehistoric settlement plus the historic era’s homes, cemeteries, a theater, and industrial section. The mines eventually became exhausted, and Roman general Sulla destroyed Thorikos in 86 BC, after which it was abandoned again. Then people re-inhabited it during the Roman era until the 6th century AD, when Slavs overran Attcia, and it was abandoned yet again.
Featured image: Slaves delved and worked the mines right underneath the acropolis of Thorikos. The mines were just discovered by archaeologists and are rewriting the history of the silver-mining Laurion region. Source: Ghent University
By Mark Miller