Romm Diamonds Blog
February 17th, 2016
Archaeologists have discovered a 5,000-year-old silver mine that radically rewrites the history of how the precious metal was unearthed in ancient Greece. Although they were believed to be slaves who had no option but to toil in stifling and dangerous conditions, ancient miners were far more sophisticated than historians ever imagined.

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Archaeologists conducting a subterranean investigation of the Thorikos silver mine found a surprisingly complex system of galleries, shafts and chambers — about 5km of conduits in all.

The skill and physical abilities employed by the ancient miners to dig these channels, access the ore deposits from the bedrock and then to properly process them outside of the mine reflected a triumph of human ingenuity, reported New Historian.

Silver played an important role in the history of the Greek people. In fact, the precious metal contributed to Greece's great wealth and domination over the Aegean world. And one of country's greatest sources of silver was the coastal city of Thorikos, about 35 miles southeast of Athens.

Some parts of the mine included open spaces that hadn't been touched in more than 5,000 years. Based on the pottery and stone hammers found on the site, the archeologists concluded that the mine was likely operational as far back as 3200 BC. Tool marks on the walls, graffiti, oil lamps and crushing areas were evidence of the omnipresent activity of the underground workers.

“Extracting the silver would have required an exceptional amount of resources and an advanced technical system of a scale unique in the ancient world,” noted University of Lorraine professor Dr. Denis Morin, who supervised a team of mining archaeologists. “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.”

The archaeologists are planning to continue their work at the Thorikos mine, hoping to learn more about ancient extraction techniques and how the precious metal was eventually made into coins for circulation.

The earliest coins from the 6th century BC were made from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. Later in the same century, technology advanced far enough to allow for the simpler production of pure gold and pure silver coins.

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Here are some examples of the earliest silver coins. One is a silver slater of Aegina (404-340 BC) and the other is a silver drachma (404-340 BC).

Mining image courtesy of Ghent University; Silver slater via Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons; Silver drachma via Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.