A labyrinth of silver mines uncovered on the shores of the Aegean Sea

by Mary Caperton Morton
Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A mining archaeologist at work in a 5,000-year-old silver mine in Thorikos, Greece. Credit: Ghent University.

By the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., silver mines under the ancient Greek city of Thorikos, now known as Lavrio, were the most important mines in Greece. Recent underground exploration of the network of tunnels found at the foot of the city’s Mycenaean-aged Acropolis is shedding new light on the scale — and miserable conditions — of the mines.

A team of mining archaeologists led by Denis Morin of the University of Lorraine in France and Roald Docter of Ghent University in Belgium first used an aerial drone to locate aboveground features related to the mines, then began exploring and charting the underground labyrinth of galleries, shafts and chambers excavated in the marble and limeschist underlying 5 square kilometers of the Aegean coast.

Many areas of the mine are only accessible using advanced caving techniques, and even with modern safety equipment, exploration is extremely difficult. “Mapping these cramped, complex and braided underground networks, the ramifications of which are sometimes located at several levels, represents a real challenge,” Morin said in a statement. “It is difficult to imagine the extreme conditions in which the miners had to work in this maze of galleries,” he said, where the air is stuffy and “a smothering heat reigns.”

The project is also adding to researchers' understanding of the different phases of mining activity, as well as the evolution of mining techniques and infrastructure. In the older parts of the mine, possibly dating to 3200 B.C., primitive tools and extraction techniques have been found. Portions exploited later show signs of more exacting construction techniques, such as the perfectly geometric architecture of rooms, which made extraction more efficient and may have decreased the risk of collapse.

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