As he looked down, his eyes now adjusted to the bright light, he saw his daughter coming out of the forest with the basket. She picked her way carefully across the broken ground of the old workings, smiling with pride as she handed him his lunch. It was only this year that she'd been old enough to make the two-mile trip alone from the riverside village.
He opened the basket. Yes, the usual, but the oatcake was fresh baked and still warm, the dried fish was not too old and not too salty, and the beer was still very good. He knew the old tale about beer: once upon a time it had been truly sacred, only used at the harvest festival. But as the barley flourished on the Chalk uplands, and the flint trade improved, the elders had decided that taking the Earth god's bones from the ground was sacred business, and ought to have beer associated with it. So he poured a little for the Earth god, and took the first grateful gulp for himself.
The miners and the elders worked well together. The miners had their skills, and the elders had theirs. It was the elders who made sure that there were always several flint traders visiting the village in the spring. That meant they competed with one another for the best axe blanks, and that meant more trade goods and gifts for the village, and more news and tales of the world outside, true and false together, who could tell?
But as long as farmers needed land, and villagers needed homes, and fishermen needed boats, and hunters stalked prey, people would need axes and chisels and knives and spears and arrows, and that meant flint. And since the best flint for many days around came from here, the traders would come and the village would be prosperous, and miners would be appreciated for their skills.
He reflected on his daughter. By the time she married, he'd be a lot older. Not that he felt worried about that. Already he could feel the wear and tear of mining. Once he'd never thought of it, simply worked all day and felt good about it. But now, as his back and shoulder and elbows and wrist and fingers unstiffened in the morning and ached a little by evening, he was conscious of the years going by, especially as the girl changed almost by the month. But he was proud too: the body wasn't slowing him down. Well, to be truthful, it dida little bit. But even when it did, he knew he could compensate a lot by skill. It wasn't plain strength to get the flints out, though he'd relied mostly on that when he was young. Now he could keep up with anyone by using the accumulated tricks and skills of leverage, knowing the subtleties of the cracks in the flints and the slight flaws and joints in the Chalk, conserving on the force he put into the antler pick and getting it at exactly the right angle and penetration before he levered. He actually looked forward to quietly comparing his day's pile with those of the younger miners in the next shaft. Not that he would boast, because they were too close to him for that. They helped one another with difficult blocks, they were there if the other had a cave-in, and they would always lend a candle if a lamp was broken.
For all that, he would be glad when the harvest came, and the rain and shorter darker days put an end to the mining season. There was still winter work to be done, shaping the blanks that the traders would buy in the spring, but that was light labor in comparison. He might be cold, but at least he'd be dry, while the fishermen and hunters were up to their armpits in cold water and mud in the swamps. And once in a while, someone would want a presentation axe or knife as a gift for a prospective father-in-law or a visiting elder, and he would have the satisfaction of using his utmost skill and receiving appropriate flattery as well as a new pair of boots or a fur cloak for his wife.
Meanwhile, it was time to go. The sun was going behind a cloud, and his young cousin would have finished cleaning up the morning's rubble out of the way into one of the old galleries. The flints were waiting.
This is the first act of an early geologist that might be visible to an archaeologist, because it can leave permanent traces of mining activity on the rock outcrop. Furthermore, extensive mining not only disturbs the ground, but forms galleries and shafts and pits from which materials were mined, into which rubble and artefacts can fall or be thrown.
There are always discarded piles of "waste" rock round a mine, sometimes tossed into old pits, sometimes piled up to one side. One can tell what was being mined from fragments in waste piles. To avoid moving more material than necessary, the mined substance was often processed on site to some extent, so often one can tell what was being made. From these or other artefacts left behind, (materials from living quarters, mining tools) one can tell when the mining was done and perhaps who was doing it, and one can often infer what methods were used. (It needs a disaster or a burial site to leave behind the miners themselvesbut mining is a dangerous business, and that is not as rare as it might seem!)
Mining is hard, dangerous work, and no-one is going to do it unless they are forced to, or well rewarded, financially, materially, or psychologically. One would expect that people would pick up surface materials rather than mine for them, unless they were particularly valuable. And that is what we find.
The earliest known mines were for valuable materials: and it is an interesting comment on the human race that these were luxury goods, not necessities. The iron ore hematite is hard and difficult to hammer into any useful shape; and it is very difficult to melt or to smelt into iron. But it can be smashed into fragments and then ground to powder with stone tools, to make the red pigment that we know as ochre. In continent after continent, anthropologists have discovered societies who used ochre in religious contexts. Probably used first to symbolize blood in images related to sex, hunting, and death, ochre became embedded in the psyche of the group as a magic pigment that was vital to their rituals and the well-being of the society. That meant, in purely economic terms, that it had great value.
We know a lot about the significance of ochre, from ethnological research among Australian Aboriginal tribes, compiled over more than a century. Ochre was and is a fundamental component in Aboriginal life, and sophisticated rituals were and are used in acquiring it and using it. In Tasmania, the chief men of some tribes would cover their hair and beards with a mixture of ochre and grease, to achieve a striking appearance like a red head dress.
Throughout Australia, ochre was mined, sometimes in huge galleries, and traded over great distances in exchange for axes, feathers, shields, boomerangs, spears, or hallucinogens. The trading was ritualized, often accompanied by feasting, and often seems to have had the quality that we associate today with pilgrimage. Quality (real or perceived) was important: one tribe, living among abundant ochre sites, insisted on sending a huge war party on a perilous journey to obtain ochre from a particular distant site: once again, this bears the connotations of pilgrimage that we associate through the centuries with the long and difficult pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Mecca, Lourdes, and Santiago de Compostela.
Hematite can last a long time in archaeological sites, but even so, it is astounding that we have been able to trace back its use to our remote ancestors. The use of ochre long predates Homo sapiens. The most convincing early site is at Terra Amata, near Nice, in southern France, where dozens of pieces of hematite were discovered associated with Homo heidelbergensis, probably around 300,000 years ago. The ends of the pieces are worn, suggesting that they had been used as crayons to draw red lines. At Becov, now in Slovakia, another site of Homo heidelbergensis around 250,000 years old is patterned with ochre powder in a strange way. The pattern makes sense if a person was sitting on a convenient stone ledge (which is still on the site) grinding hematite, with the powder falling all around except where his feet would have been!
Neanderthal sites in Europe and the Near East (30,000+ years ago) often have ochre associated with them. At La Chapelle-aux-Saints and at Le Moustier, men had been buried with their needs for the afterlife: bison or cattle bones (for meat), tools (for hunting and butchering), and lumps of ochre (for spiritual needs). At Arcy-sur-Cure, near Paris, some of the last Neanderthals lived in huts whose floors were so impregnated with ochre that they were purple: there were many grinding stones, suggesting that the hut was an ochre processing factory. In addition, there were hearths in which ochre had been heated, a process which usually enhances its color. This is not the evidence one would expect to find in a hut in which ochre was processed for the needs of one communityit suggests processing for trade. It may not be an accident that Arcy-sur-Cure yielded a necklace that may not have come from the Neanderthal tradition, but from the CroMagnon Homo sapiens that were moving into Western Europe at the time.
After the Neanderthals disappeared from Western Europe, we see the flourishing of the CroMagnon/Gravettian people who made such wonderful cave paintings and sculptures, again with liberal use of ochre. They too sometimes buried their dead with ochre lumps or ochre powder.
The Lovas Caves, near Lake Balaton in Hungary, are naturally formed in limestone. But as occasionally happens, there is iron ore in veins in the limestone. An ancient mine along one of these veins is a pit about 6 meters long, 2.5 m deep, and 2.5 m wide. The rubble in it contained antler picks and shovels, stones for grinding the ore, and tubes made from hollow bones, presumably carrying tubes to transport the powder. The ore is not hematite, but limonite, which is yellow-brown, but it can be fire-heated to produce red ochre. Dating this site is difficult, but it's likely to be around 30,000 years old.
Ochre was mined on what we would call an industrial scale at Rydno, in southern Poland, at least 10,000 years ago. At least 7 settlements were built on the terrace of the Kamienna River, including large dwellings about 7 m (20 feet) across, in what we can call the first mining village. So much ochre was mined and processed here that even today, ochre powder makes up about 1.5% of the soil at the site, and this is just the waste from the ore processing. Ochre must have been ground there for a long time to accumulate dust to such an extent.
The European record is not special: it's just better studied. The oldest large mine so far discovered lies in the hill country of southern Africa, in what is now Swaziland. On a ridge named Bomvu ("red" in Zulu), an artificial cave called "The Lion Cave" is actually an ancient mine into an iron ore deposit that contains not only hematite but a beautiful crystalline version of hematite called specularite. The "cave" is a horizontal gallery driven into the side of a 150-meter (500-foot) cliff. The gallery is 9 meters wide, and 6 m high, and must have yielded at least 150 tonnes of hematite and specularite. The miners had used stone hammers of the hard rock dolerite, and these workings yielded a radiocarbon age of 9600 years ago.
However, this is not the whole story. Removing a large boulder at the base of these workings revealed a much earlier gallery, with stone tools from the "Middle Stone Age". A radiocarbon date of 43,000 years was obtained here. This date was obtained 25 years ago, using methods and equipment that are now obsolete, close to the limit of radiocarbon dating, but even if it is badly wrong, this is still the oldest known mine in human history. The "Lion Cave" is very close to a much older archaeological site, and it's very likely that ochre from the rock outcrop had already been used for many thousands of years. So the oldest mines we know, by far, are for ochre. It's an interesting comment on the human race that the first mines were for luxury goods, not necessities.
The archaeological record is very clear: the use of ochre is clearly associated with religion, or magic. As we try to assess how "modern" our remote ancestors were, we cannot escape the feeling that their concept of the abstract was very strongly developed. The sophistication of mental imagery that ochre use implies says to me that our remote ancestors were not shambling apes, but human beings, even if we call them by names that suggest they were a separate species. It is fashionable today to denigrate Neanderthals and their ancestors, often by calling them Homo heidelbergensis or Homo neanderthalensis rather than Homo sapiens. Some anthropologists even deny them the power of speech. It is equal prejudice on my part to point out that any being who can fashion intricate stone tools, deliberately bury the dead with grave goods for the hereafter, and have an ochre industry, is for all practical purposes very close to us.
Obsidian is volcanic glass. In the hands of a craftsman, it can be made into a broad variety of tools with very sharp edges. Even today, surgeons prefer glass knives over steel for some procedures. Trade in flint and obsidian is relatively easy to reconstruct archaeologically, even in a pre-literate culture. Flints and obsidian are practically indestructible, even after the tools are useless for their original purpose: they cannot be recycled in a way that destroys evidence of their original use. They often carry geochemical traces that allow their source rock to be identified precisely. Around 7000 BC, obsidian from northeast Anatolia was traded in large quantities locally, and small pieces of it have turned up as far away as the southern Levant and the Persian Gulf. Marine shells were apparently traded the other way, and jadeite and other ornamental stones were traded out of the Taurus mountains into the Levant.
We do not know what the original inhabitants called Çatal Höyük. It certainly wasn't Çatal Höyük, which is the modern Turkish name for a fascinating archaeological site in the hills of central Anatolia, the highland plateau that makes up most of modern Turkey. The Neolithic city at Çatal Höyük lay on the edge of an alluvial plain, so was well placed for food production. (The detailed topography still has to be worked out, because the landscape has changed a lot in 9000 years.) The city itself contains twelve successive levels of building spanning about 1000 years from 63005400 BC. Closely packed houses of mud brick provided homes for perhaps 6000 people, so it was a substantial city for its time. Only a small part of Çatal Höyük has been excavated, but we can already form an evocative picture of the daily life of the town 8000 years ago.
Animal bones on the site suggest a diet rich in meat, from domesticated goats, sheep, and cattle to wild boar and deer. Store rooms contained wheat, barley, and peas, suggesting that agricultural skills were already well developed, and clearly, people had mastered the logistics of maintaining a city of thousands of people. Homes consisted of a living room with store rooms attached, and had built-in ovens, hearths, bins, and sleeping platforms.
The technology of the time is expressed in beautifully worked obsidian spear points, arrow heads, knives, and polished mirrors. Luxury goods were being traded, because there are beads and pendants made from various minerals. Some vessels were used to keep perfumes and oils, and wood carving and basketry work is highly intricate. Some of the earliest paintings on man-made walls are found here. The artists used a wide color range of natural pigments, including the reds and browns and yellows of ochre, and the greens and blues of the copper minerals malachite and azurite. The motifs include geometric patterns, symbols, and designs taken from nature. Plaster heads of bulls, paintings of hunting scenes, and clay statuettes may have been aesthetic or religious; probably the skulls painted red with the mercury mineral cinnabar were religious. The world's earliest landscape painting shows Çatal Höyük with the volcanoes behind it in eruption! Textiles were woven and dyed, and clay stamps were used to apply pigment to them in pre-set patterns.
Some of the world's earliest practical pottery occurs at Çatal Höyük in levels dated at about 6000 BC. It was probably fired in a kiln, because the potters had learned how to produce either red or black pigmented pots from the same clay, by allowing or preventing free air flow around the pots as they were fired. Apart from their technological significance, the pigments show that Çatal Höyük potters were already adding aesthetic design to the basic utilitarian function of domestic pottery. Çatal Höyük lies near the volcanoes from which its obsidian supplies came, the only known source of obsidian for hundreds of miles around. Coral and decorative shells (from the Mediterranean) and Syrian flint suggest that Çatal Höyük traded valuable goods over long distances. Obsidian from Çatal Höyük has been identified as far away as Jericho.
Çatal Höyük does not lie in the best situation for agriculture. The juniper beams from which its dwellings are made have very closely-spaced growth rings, showing that the climate was even drier than today's. Crop yields would have good only in wet years, and could have been disastrous in dry years. In other words, this was not a region of abundant food, and it was not an obvious site to develop a city full of hungry mouths. There must have been a compelling reason for the establishment and long-term success of Çatal Höyük, and it was most likely the trade based on its abundant and unique obsidian resources. Çatal Höyük is thus the oldest known boom town, situated on the wild northwest frontier of the "civilized" agricultural world of the time, with its wealth based on geology and maintained only as long as its resources remained available and desirable. As we shall see in the next chapter, that did not last for ever.
Grime's Graves is an unimpressive site in the flat Chalk upland of East Anglia, in England. The ground is pitted and uneven, barren except for a little grass and a few flowers. The importance of the site is underground. A little government hut stands over a deep round hole in the ground where people once mined for flints to make tools.
The Chalk formations of Northern Europe make very thin soils that do not support much natural vegetation. The white chalk is often seen in landslips or along animal trails, or in coastal cliffs, and it contains flint nodules that are easy to see. Flints form in chalk as water percolates through the rock, along joints or along bedding planes, and they are concentrated in layers that stand out in color and texture from the dull white of the Chalk.
Flint makes wonderfully sharp tools, second only to fresh volcanic obsidian, and must have been greatly prized. Once people had picked up the easily found surface flints, it would have been fairly easy to dig shallow scrapes along the layers of flint that stand out along coastal cliffs, and could sometimes be found and followed on land. Later, people would have had to dig deeper, making angled shafts into hillsides, and as they did so they developed and perfected mining techniques that they could then use to dig vertical shafts or horizontal galleries running underground along the flint layers. They also found that fresh flints from underground are not weathered as much as those closer to the surface, so make better (more valuable) tools.
Grime's Graves has an interesting geological quirk that serves to demonstrate how well Neolithic geologists had mastered the art of stratigraphy (understanding the three-dimensional relationships of sedimentary rocks). It is easy to understand how miners could have followed flint layers into hillsides or underground. But flint does not (and did not) appear at the surface at Grime's Graves. By knowing the local geology in detail, the Neolithic miners had to work out the principle that they stood a good chance of digging down to a valuable flint layer that they couldn't see from the surface. Having thought it out, the geologist then had to persuade his neighbors to invest considerable effort in digging an exploration shaft.... and the rest is history. The people of Grime's Graves struck a rich layer of flints, and proceeded to mine out practically all of it between 2100 and 1800 BC.
Chalk is a forgiving medium to dig and tunnel into. It drains well, so water is not usually a problem; it is a fairly soft rock, yet stands reasonably well in vertical faces. At Grime's Graves, the miners dug vertical shafts for access to the richest layers, then dug horizontal galleries from the bottom of each shaft. The site now contains several hundred filled-in pits, some of them 10 m (30 feet) deep.
Neolithic mining techniques allowed a very efficient exploitation of the flint layer, precisely suited to the local geology. The Chalk at Grime's Graves is badly jointed, so it is dangerous to cut long underground galleries. The Grime's Graves miners had apparently learned this very well (no skeletons have been found in the mines, unlike many other prehistoric sites). They dug closely spaced vertical shafts, and reached the flints by carving short galleries from the base of each shaft. A typical vertical shaft was begun by digging a fairly large conical hole to begin with, anywhere between 5 and 12 m in diameter at ground level. This allowed a sizeable team of diggers to work at the same time. As the hole was deepened, the excavation narrowed, requiring fewer diggers but freeing more people to haul the waste rock up and out of the shaft. Once the miners reached more solid chalk, the shaft sides were dug vertically, until the shaft hit the flint layer it was aiming for, or was abandoned.
Once the flint layer was reached, the flints were always mined in the same way. The base of the shaft was dug all the way through the flint layer, so that it was exposed on all sides of the base of the shaft. Working with a deer-antler pick, a single miner dug a gallery into one side of the shaft, aiming first to clear away the softer chalk from the top of the big flint blocks. Then he would lever the flint blocks out one by one, rather than trying to break them up underground. (Miners hired by archaeologists to work by hand today use the same method, because it is the easiest: levering pieces of rock out by using natural cracks between them is much more efficient than brute-strength digging and hammering.) An assistant probably hauled out the flints and waste chalk the miner pushed behind him, and another team hauled all of that up and out of the shaft. Experiments suggest that there would have been one clearing assistant for every 4 m (12 feet) or so of gallery.
Once he had dug close to the safety limit into a gallery (anywhere from 4 m to 20 m) the Grime's Graves miner then dug out a side alcove into the flints. He then retreated a little and dug another alcove on the opposite side of the gallery. This time he would need only one assistant to sweep away waste, which would now be back-filled into the preceding alcove. Any others could concentrate on removing the flints only to the base of the shaft for hauling to the surface. This efficient process was repeated all the way back to the shaft, at which point a new gallery was begun. The shaft was finally abandoned after all possible galleries had been dug from its base.
Experiments by experienced modern-day miners using ancient tools suggest that a flint miner could remove 300-400 kg in an 8-hour day, that is, about 2 tons a week. This means that a typical Grime's Graves shaft and its associated galleries could have been dug by a team of twenty or so men during a summer, providing 40-50 tons of flints which were probably prepared during a non-mining season in the winter. Winters in East Anglia are cold and damp: the chalk shafts would have been slimy and liable to slippage, apart from the fact that burrowing in cold mud is not only uncomfortable and exhausting (as the troops on the Western Front in World War I found out), but makes the flints more difficult to see and handle safely.
A new shaft would be dug during the next mining season, with the miners spacing it just far enough from its predecessors to allow sensible exploitation by galleries from its base, but close enough to use it as a dump for the new tonnage of waste rockand so on. We have very good evidence that they did this. While archaeologists were excavating Grime's Graves, animals would fall into their open shafts during the winter (non-excavating) season. However, the bones of prehistoric animals are very rare in the original shafts: therefore, shafts were filled quickly after they were worked out.
The miners' major tools at Grime's Graves were picks, made mostly from deer antlers. The abandoned, broken picks left in the excavations suggest that a miner used up about a pick a day.
The Grime's Graves people mined successfully and for a long time. Enough flint to make 5 million tools was mined here! The miners did not usually produce finished tools on the site, but they carefully prepared the flints into "blanks," each designed for further processing into axe heads, knives, or spear points. The site is littered with waste flakes and abandoned cores. This is a sensible way to prepare export goods: however entrancing a finished flint tool or weapon may look, it is brittle, and likely to break during transport in a pack or on a boat. (Modern flint-workers use expanded polystyrene to hold their precious points and edges.)
Similar flint-mining operations are found in Chalk rocks that extend from Britain and France eastward through Belgium to Denmark, Sweden and Poland. Large flint quarries were worked at Le Grand Pressigny in France, Spiennes in Belgium, Cronsko (=?Krzemionki) in Poland, and many other sites. Flints are so abundant around Le Grand Pressigny that they are brought to the surface every time a farmer ploughs a field. Local walls, including the massive walls of the old castle, are built largely of big irregular flint masses, cemented together. The flints are known locally as "poids de beurre" (pounds of butter) because of their unusual yellow color, and this color has allowed archaeologists to identify flints from the region that were traded as far as the Netherlands. At Spiennes, shafts occur over 2-3 hectares; like those at Grime's Graves, they reach about 9-12 m deep (30-40 feet), with galleries radiating from many of the shafts. The miners at Spiennes were eventually sinking shafts through overlying rock beds to reach the Chalk hidden under it, again showing a pragmatic mastery of simple geology. Some flint mines are deeper than Grime's Graves, up to 20 m deep. Where there was poor drainage, the miners dug sump-holes to drain away rainwater that seeped into the workings.
At Cronsko, hundreds of pits were cut 3 m (10 feet) deep into clay to recover flint nodules. The raw nodules received rough pre-processing at the sites, presumably being taken elsewhere for finishing off. Flints from the mines are distributed over a radius of 500 km. The working floors have been dated at 5600-5000 BC, and if the dates are reliable this is a considerable early industry in this region of Europe.
In the Mediterranean, flint was mined in tunnels into limestone on Sicily, and obsidian from volcanic centers like Lipari, Italy, was also traded.
The mining industry must have been a vital part of a larger economy. Mining and flint processing needed skilled and semi-skilled labor; any large mine would have needed a steady supply of hundreds of antlers for tools (picks, wedges); stone and wood for mallets, grease (for lamps), ropes, and baskets. Over 200 discarded antler picks were found in two pits at Grime's Graves, and tough stones had been imported for use as tools. Grime's Graves has yielded greenstone hammer heads from Cornwall, and the miners at Krzemionki in Poland used hard igneous rocks brought from Silesia.
Greenstone axes from the bleak, inhospitable Langdale area of Northern England were traded over much of England in Neolithic times. Special mines were opened at places like Hespriholmen in Norway to produce greenstone for axes and hammers, and it has estimated that as many as 20,000 boatloads of greenstone were once mined there. (How big is a boat? I don't know!). Mining (and shipping) on this scale implies several things: very impressive levels of organization, customer demand, transportation systems, and employment. And what about the return flow of goods in this pre-monetary time? We know nothing about them (furs? slaves?) or about the entrepreneurs who ran the trade.
At least at Grimes Graves, flint mining and trading flourished at a time when regions in southern and eastern Europe had already made the transition into the Bronze Age further. It's not impossible that copper or bronze objects were part of the trade goods that financed the flint industry (though we have not found the village near Grime's Graves where we might hope to find such goods). But bronze tools were not available for everyday use: they had to be imported, and were gifts for the rich. Even so, flint tools are very effective: even an archaeologist can chop through a tree-trunk seven inches across in five minutes with a stone axe, and a strong and skilled Stone Age woodsman probably did it much faster!
Page last updated April 1999.
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