Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Lecture 7.  Gathering Material Resources

Ancient Greek Mines

The ancient Greek silvermine of Laurion near Athens was described by one observer as "a Hell on earth" for the slaves who worked it.  By the sixth century BCE, the mine's surface seams were depleted, so tunnels were dug with bronze picks to locate new ones.  After years of digging, they finally reached a rich layer of high grade silver-lead ore and set up a large-scale ore processing operation near the mine entrance to extract the valuable silver on the spot.  In the fifth century BCE, the Athenians used the wealth gained from the Laurion mine to finance the building of the naval vessels they used to win the war against the Persians.  But by the third century BCE, the Laurion mines were spent.

The renowned Athenian natural philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote down his views on the nature of stones:

  • minerals, like living organisms, grow underground
    • marble taken from quarries will gradually be replaced
    • crystals, like salt, grow
    • stalagmites and stalactites increase in size over time
    • some stones exhibit embedded plant-like patterns
  • less precious metals mature into purer metals
    • silver turns to gold, e.g.
    • ores are mixtures of metals in various stages of development
  • heat and solar rays cause exhalations in earth's interior which act to produce new metals and minerals

Roman Mines

The Romans derived considerable wealth from their success in locating productive mines in Southern Spain, North Africa, the British Isles, and the Middle East.  They developed sophisticated methods of mining, including the construction of large underground galleries supported with wooden beams, lit with oil lamps, and ventilated with specially dug air shafts.

In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), described three types of mining in common use by the first century CE:

  • "placer" -- mining of metal found above ground usually in river beds
    • no digging
    • extraction methods rely on panning or filtering water flow
    • metal often in its natural state, requiring no additional processing
  • "shaft" -- mining of metal found underground
    • vertical shaft is dug to level of metal or ore location
    • gallery is created at bottom of shaft as rock is removed
    • extraction methods include use of fire to aid picks and hammers
    • metal more often found as ore, requiring some metallurgical processing to extract the desired metal
  • "deep vein" -- mining of metal found underground
    • horizontal tunnels are dug to follow horizontal veins
    • complex network of shafts and tunnels connecting many galleries

Pliny viewed placer mining as the only proper method of gaining access to precious metals.  He argued that the Earth naturally yields its resources in quantities with which humans should be satisfied.  According to Pliny, digging into the Earth to gain more wealth is simply greedy.  Like any good parent, Nature will punish those who take too much.  As proof of this, Pliny cited the untold deaths from choking underground vapors, landslides, floods, and cave-ins.

Mt. Sandaracurgium [near the Black Sea] is hollowed out in consequence of the [arsenic] mining done there, since the workmen have excavated great cavities beneath it.

The mine used to be worked by publicans, who used as miners the slaves sold in the market because of their crimes; for, in addition to the painfulness of the work, they say that the air in the mines is both deadly and hard to endure on account of the grievous odor of the ore, so that the workmen are doomed to a quick death.

What is more, the mine is often left idle because of the unprofitableness of it, since the workmen are not only more than two hundred in number, but are continually spent by disease and death [hence the necessity of purchasing other slaves to replace them]....

--Strabo (c. 63 BCE-21 CE), On Geography, Book XII, ch 3

Mines:  500-1250

After the Fall of Rome:

  • loss of technical knowledge and organizational skill
  • coinage virtually disappeared
    • salaries paid in land
    • rise of subsistence farming
    • institution of a feudal economic, social, and political system

Ninth century:

  • rule of Charlemagne
  • revival of interest in metals and mining in Northern Europe

Mines:  1250-1550

"Little Ice Age" marked by:

  • colder, longer winters
  • cooler summers
  • increased glaciation
  • high rainfall
Too much cold and rain:
  • caused a series of disastrous harvests throughout Europe
    • crippled cultivation of cereals and grapes in north
    • washed away topsoil
    • killed seedlings
    • gave advantage to weeds
  • hindered the production of salt by evaporation
    • made meat preservation difficult
  • created ice floes
    • blocked northern sea traffic

Famine years:  1272, 1277, 1283, 1292, and 1311

Accounts of the Great Famine of 1315-1317

from Flanders:
...on account of the torrential rains and because the fruits of the earth were harvested in difficult conditions and destroyed in many places, there was a dearth of wheat and of salt ... the human bodies started growing weaker and disabilities developed....

So many people died every day ... that the air seemed to be putrefied ... miserable beggars died ... in great numbers in the streets, on dunghills....

--Abbot of St. Martin of Tournai

from England:
In the year of our Lord 1315, apart from the other hardships with which England was afflicted, hunger grew in the land....  Meat and eggs began to run out, capons and fowl could hardly be found, animals died of pest, swine could not be fed because of the excessive price of fodder.

A quarter [8 bushels] of wheat or beans or peas sold for twenty shillings [four times the cost in 1313], barley for a mark, oats for ten shillings.  A quarter of salt was commonly sold for thirty-five shillings, which in former times was quite unheard of.  The land was so oppressed with want that when the king came to St. Albans ... it was hardly possible to find bread on sale to supply his immediate household....

...The dearth began in the month of May and lasted until [September].  The summer rains were so heavy that grain could not ripen.  It could hardly be gathered and used to bake bread ... unless it was first put in vessels to dry....

Bread did not have its usual nourishing power and strength because the grain was not nourished by the warmth of summer sunshine.  Hence those who ate it, even in large quantities, were hungry again after a little while.  There can be no doubt that the poor wasted away when even the rich were constantly hungry....

Four pennies worth of coarse bread was not enough to feed a common man for one day.  The usual kinds of meat, suitable for eating, were too scarce; horse meat was precious; plump dogs were stolen. And, according to many reports, men and women in many places secretly ate their own children....

--Johannes de Trokelowe
from Italy:
The famine was felt not only in Florence but throughout Tuscany and Italy.  And so terrible was it that the Perugians, the Sienese, the Lucchese, the Pistolese and many other townsmen drove from their territory all their beggars because they could not support them....  The agitation of the [Florentines] at the market of San Michele was so great that it was necessary to protect officials by means of guards fitted out with an axe and block to punish rioters on the spot with the loss of their hands and their feet.
--Giovanni Villani
from France:
We saw a large number of both sexes, not only from nearby places but from as much as five leagues away, barefooted and maybe even, except for women, in a completely nude state, together with their priests coming in procession at the Church of the Holy Martyrs, their bones bulging out, devoutly carrying bodies of saints and other relics to be adorned, hoping to get relief.
--Guillaume de Nages

Wars [e.g., Hundred Years War (1337-1453)] and civil disorders caused destruction of crops, of houses, and of life in general

The Black Death, a deadly bubonic plague epidemic, caused dramatic population loss.

  • by 1351, an estimated 24 million people had died
  • by 1400, subsequent outbreaks claimed another 20 million victims
  • over all, Europe lost a third to a half of its population

The Black Death (1347-1352)

Mines:  Saxony
Mines in the Harz mountains of Saxony had been active since the time of Charlemagne (742-814).  Operations in the Saxon mines, just as in those of the Greeks and Romans, were carried out by slaves.  With no power tools or explosives, tunneling through the hard rock was slow and difficult with progress averaging only about 10 inches/day.  New mines were found in neighboring areas, like the Erzgebirge range separating Saxony and Bohemia.  Eventually these mines became the most prosperous in all Europe.

Landowners opened their estates to prospectors who had become adept at looking for minerals.  Some of these prospectors were former serfs.  A prospector staking a claim could sell the minerals he found after paying a royalty to the landowner.  Mine owners became financiers and creditors of the royal courts of Europe.

German Empire around 1550

In 1516, one of the greatest silver strikes in history was made near the town of Joachimstal.  At its peak of operation, this mine generated 300 million ounces (roughly 10,000 tons!) of silver per year.  Much of the mined silver was exported and silver became the principal coinage of Europe.  The coins were called "joachimstalers", which was soon shortened to "'thalers" from which the modern word "dollar" is derived.

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