Prehistoric red ochre mining on Thasos

Prehistoric red ochre mining on Thasos

The oldest underground mines in Europe

In recent years the Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum has, alongside its ongoing documentation of prehistoric and protohistoric mining in all cultural areas, carried out several studies on prehistoric and ancient mining in Greece, including the islands of Thasos and Sifnos. The starting point for each of the studies was a project by the Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik in Heidelberg, aimed at identifying the origin of ancient metals right down to the individual mines. This aim applied particularly to gold and silver, the metals used for ancient coinage.

In antiquity, the island of Thasos constituted a separate state, which included parts of the mainland lying opposite, and which minted its own coins. Since this island was celebrated for the wealth of its mines, especially in the work of Herodotus (VI, A6.A7), it seemed reasonable to assume that the metal used for coins would come from the island’s own ore deposits. In the course of extensive fieldwork, we were actually able to locate, for the first time, the mines mentioned by the ancient writers. In the process an unexpected discovery was made: a red ochre mine that had been in use far back in prehistoric times.
In four seasons (1982-84 and 1993), this red ochre mine was examined by the Kavala office of the Greek antiquities service, under the direction of Dr Chaido Koukouli-Chrysanthaki, the Limenaria branch of the Geological Service (IGNE), under the direction of Georgios Gialoglou, and Dr Gerd Weisgerber from the Deutsches Bergbau-Museum. The mine cavity had already been discovered in 1956 during blasting operations as part of iron ore extraction in the opencast Mavrolakos mine, on a hill called Tzines. It had been forgotten, however, when the iron mines of Thasos were shut down, and was therefore unchanged when exploration began in 1982.
The original entrance or adit of mine 1 was destroyed by the blasting operations, so one now enters the mine cavity directly. It is 7 m long and up to 3 m wide, running from south to north. A second working cavity, connecting to the northern end of the main cavity, was nearly completely sealed off by the backfill lying on the floor of the cavity. The debris on the floor was largely horizontal, but was piled up higher at the passage to the second cavity. Furthermore, a large block of waste rock with extremely well preserved traces of work had been left there. There were only a few places where the floor of the cavity protruded out of the fill. On average, 0.70 – 1.00 m of headroom had remained free above the backfill. Once the floor had been cleared, it turned out to be very uneven; in some places depressions had formed, in others humps of stone had remained standing.
Tool finds of stones, antler tips (cervus elaphus), bones and flint were found in abundance in the debris on the floor. The finds were clearly more concentrated along the working faces, however. The roof and faces were once partly covered with layers of white kaolin which had developed secondarily. Where the roof had remained free, numerous marks made by antler wedges could be observed and documented. The antler tips that have been preserved are generally about 9-15 cm long, and the once pointed ends, blunted by use, look something like the tip of a thimble. In this state they were unusable and were usually discarded at the working face. Long bones, e.g. from aurochs, were perhaps used as miners’ tools (perhaps as crowbars); these are rare, however. Hammerstones were used to drive the wedges into the rock. These could easily be picked up, as handy pieces of debris, at the foot of the Tzines hill or in streams. Judging by the frequent use of these tools, we can conclude that they were also used directly on the rock. In total, over 400 tools were retrieved from mine 1.
Investigations of the hill above mine 1 led to the discovery of further mines. Nearly all of them are completely filled with sediment, but could easily be detected from the steep rock walls above small residual openings. Of the 15-20 mines which probably existed originally, one further mine was explored. Mine 2 measures roughly 3 x 4 m and has a very irregular oval shape. Two further galleries lead off from the main cavity, up to 3 m long and extremely narrow in places. The headroom in the cavity is 1 to 1.5 m with a virtually flat roof and a very uneven and irregular floor. This was covered in debris up to 0.5 m deep, in which the only miners’ tools found were hammerstones. Unlike mine 1, there are no traces of work done with antler wedges on the rock. There are no sharp edges, the surfaces are always rounded, and are made up of little humps and hollows, so one can discern the marks of the individual blows on the rock. Different tunnelling and extraction techniques were therefore used in mine 2. These were probably in response to different geological conditions and differences in the deposits.
In Tzines, the iron ore is encased in the marble from which the mountains are formed in such an irregular manner that modern mining was not worthwhile. The ancient miners, however, were only looking for haematite, weathered to red ochre; the individual ore bodies cropping out on the Tzines hill were big enough for them. The haematite contains numerous small hollows, and the powdery red ochre is found on the walls of these hollows. Thus the aim during extraction work was to find these small hollows and to scrape out the pigment with fine bone tools (spikes and spatulas). The pigment was then collected in hollowed out sections of antlers. A few fragments of these could be found in the backfill.
The 14C dating of a bone from mine 1 gave a dating of 20,350+ 160 BP. This early dating is confirmed by finds of aurochs and equid bones, and by the presence of the saiga antelope. The latter last appeared in the Late Glacial, when what is now the island of Thasos could be reached by land. This makes the pigment mines of Tzines the oldest underground mines in Europe.

Current doctoral thesis

Chiara Levato M.A.
Functional Analysis of Macro-Lithic Tools from The Upper Palaeolithic Hematite Mines of Tzines (Thasos, Greece)

Project manager

Prof. Dr. Gerd Weisgerber

Responsible body

Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum




Ephorie Kavalla und Chaido Koukouli-Chrysanthaki, Griechischer Antikendienst

Georgios Gialoglou, Zweigstelle Limenaria des Geologischen Dienstes (IGNE)

Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik in Heidelberg




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