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The Mines and Minerals of Lavrion - Ancient Mining History

Last Updated: 15th Feb 2019

By Branko Rieck

The mines in the Lavrion Mining District were opened in ancient times for their lead, copper and silver content. While the production of lead and silver from Lavrion is common knowledge, the inclusion of copper in this list may seem surprising, but Gale & Stos-Gale (1982) report: "Several lines of evidence suggest that the Laurion was one of a number of important sources of copper to the Bronze Age Aegean, including our lead isotope analyses. Our finding that Laurion copper was important for Crete harmonizes with our earlier finding that the Laurion was an important source of lead for Crete in the Bronze Age." (cf. also O’Brien, 2015). In the 19th and 20th centuries the zinc, iron and manganese ores also became important.

Fig. 1: Oil lamp from the fourth century BC.


The Neolithic and Bronze Age exploitation was rather small scale, the major area of exploitation was during the classical period, which is considered to begin with the uprising of the Ionian city states against their Persian-supported tyrants in 499 BC (Martin, 2013) until the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC (Depuydt, 1997). During this time enormous advances were made in technological matters of mining, as well as in providing – for the first time ever – a legal framework to govern all aspects of mining. There is no doubt that the riches wrestled from the mines of Lavrion were decisive in creating and maintaining the fortunes of the city state of Athens, its cultural development, military might and establishing the "Owls of Athens" as the dominant and reference currency throughout the Mediterranean and adjacent areas.
With the depletion of the then known resources the mining industry went into a steep decline during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, interrupted by a short rekindling during the Byzantine era until the final abandonment in the 1st century AD (Migeotte, 2007).
With the "rediscovery" of the potential of Lavrion as a source for lead, zinc and silver in 1860, a new era of exploitation started that lasted until 1977 with the closure of the last mine, the North Mine in the Villia area.

Fig. 2: Drinking cup from the fourth century BC.

Neolithic and Bronze Age

There are still ongoing discussions about the earliest period of mining in the Lavrion area.

Xenophon wrote in 355 BC: "It is clear, I presume, to everyone that these mines have for a very long time been in active operation; at any rate no one will venture to fix the date at which they first began to be worked."

Dating by various methods has shown that ceramics found in the famous underground "Mine Nr. 3" at Thorikos are from 3200 BC and shallow open-pit mining can be expected to have been active even earlier (Spitaels, 1984; Demoule and Perlès, 1993; Doctor and Van Liefferinge, 2010; Rosenthal et al., 2013; Van Liefferinge et al., 2014). Discoveries at the prehistoric site of Kephala (Κεφάλα) on the island of Kea (Κέα) of slags and burnt clay fragments of what is assumed to have been crucibles or furnaces show that copper was refined and processed there (Coleman, 1977). Although found outside a secure context, a piece of lead that was also discovered at Kephala has been linked to the silver-rich ores of Thorikos (Demoule & Perlès, 1993). The site of Kephala is only 24 km away from Lavrion as the crow flies, however, even though the small separation of the two places a direct visual contact is not possible, as the island of Makronisos (Μακρόνησος) lies between them.
In Thorikos evidence of lead and silver production was found dating as early as the Bronze age, too (Domergue, 2008). A large piece of litharge was dated from the very early Mycenaean period (16th century BC), which bears witness to the use of cupellation as a technique for the production of silver from the silver-bearing galena ores.

Greek Dark Ages (c. 1200 – c. 800 BC)

Cupellation as a means of silver production was continuously in use from its beginning, as pieces of litharge at Thorikos prove, which were also found among the artifacts (Domergue, 2008) from the relevant strata (11th century BC, which puts them in the Protogeometric Period). The dark ages were a times of decline and resulted in confining the mining operations to shallow open pit mining.

Fig. 3: Litharge from the silver production fourteenth century BC. (Child photos available).

Archaic Period (c. 800 – 499 BC)

It is unclear when exactly the mines of Lavrion became property of Athens, but it is clear, that it came about during the Archaic Period. From around 600 BC we know that they already belonged to Athens, but only marginal profits were achieved. The Athenian lawmaker Solon codified mining laws in 593 BC (μεταλλιχός νομός) where the relations between the state and the lessee of the mines, the lease, security measures, and procedures to solve disputes were clearly put down. The solid legal basis made the mining interesting for investors and boosted effectiveness. The exploration and exploitation became more structured and systematic, leading to the discovery of Maroneia at the end of the Archaic Period (most likely around 520 BC; cf Picard, 2001). This was an important step insofar as this was the first time that sub-surface ores were mined. The discovery and subsequent mining show a clear understanding of the deposition of the metal-bearing solutions at the contact between the Lower Shale and the Lower Marble (the so-called "Third Contact"). Half a century later the city-state of Athens could rely on a steady income from mining.


Fig. 4: Silver Tetradrachme of the "Archaic Style". These were the first "Owls" to be minted between 520 BC and 480 BC.

Classical Period (499 – 323 BC)

Starting around 500 BC the mining at Lavrion reached its greatest importance for the culture and welfare of the Greek. The Persians had conquered northern Greece and the silver mines there. Athens had to rely entirely on the Lavrion mines as a result. The importance of these mines was constantly in the awareness of Athens’ citizens, as they received an annual dividend from this state property. In Maroneia (Μαρώνεια), the area today known as Kamariza (Καμάριζα), alone there are more than 1000 shafts and 120 – 150 km of galleries at the Third Contact, dating from the Classical Period (Conophagos, 1980).
At that time a change of paradigms was evident in Athens’ approach to warfare. The vast majority of soldiers were common able-bodied men who were inducted upon need. This was a cheap way to maintain an army, but its effectiveness was nowhere near that of a professionally trained fighting force. To have a navy meant to be saddled with maintenance costs, even when no campaign was ongoing, and with the pay of crews of professional sailors. With the sound financial background Athens could afford to embrace this fundamentally new concept. Starting 545 BC profits that had been a trickle started to flow as a steady stream into Athens’ state budget. Part of that revenue was invested into a navy of 70 fighting ships. This force was initially needed to keep Athens’ local rival, Aegina, at bay. In 483 BC, when the rich ores of Maroneia, were finally fully in production, the lease alone for these silver mines was one hundred talents (600.000 drachmas, or 2.5 tons of silver), and the profits were taxed separately. It is to the everlasting glory of the Athenian leader Themistokles that he persuaded the citizens of Athens to forgo the annual dividend from the mines and to use it to extend the fleet instead. The building of a ship cost 12.000 Drachmes (52 kg of silver). Athens built 130 of the most powerful warships of that time, the "Trireme", a clear statement that they wanted complete and undisputed domination of the Aegean Archipelago.
The Persians that had been lurking in northern Greece finally decided to attack southwards. Under the personal command of King Dareios they moved south but were beaten in the famous battle at Marathon in 490 BC, however not decisively so. Dareios died soon after, so it took a decade until the Persians tried again. King Xerxes of Persia, son and successor to Dareios sought revenge in 480 BC. With an army of 120.000 soldiers and 700 ships Xerxes crossed over to the Greek mainland after having submitted Naxos and marched on towards the Greek capital. The land forces met at the Thermophyles, a narrow pass leading towards the Attica peninsula, and the only way from northern Greece for such a vast army. After 5 days of heavy fighting the small Greek force holding the pass, consisting mainly of Spartans, lost by the cunning of a traitor. Meanwhile the Athenians used the time to assemble a fleet of 314 warships, slightly smaller than the Persian, but highly mobile and effective. Of these 314, 200 were built in Athens; the rest came from its allies. Athens fell to the Persians, but only after its population had been evacuated to the island of Salamis. There the naval forces clashed, and the Greek were able to lure the Persians into a battle in a narrow straight, where the greater numbers of the Persians did not come to bear. On September 28th 480 BC the Persian fleet was annihilated, and Xerxes had to leave Athens, but not before having it devastated. The Persian invasion of Greece ended in spring of the next year, when the Greek warships cut off Xerxes’ supply lines. The population of Athens started to rebuild its city in splendor. 450 BC Pericles had the Acropolis of Athens extended, and some magnificent buildings erected throughout town. Athens lived in wealth and prosperity, took control over the entire archipelago, and became the world’s center of culture and science.
The main source of income for public spending was the lease of the mines, which was granted for either 3 or 10 years. The lease depended on the size and the expected revenue, which was taxed additionally. Still the owners became enormously rich, triggering envy among those not bestowed with a lease. It is reported that the mine owner Callias earned 1.200.000 Drachmes from his holdings in 449 BC, about 5.4 metric tons. The profit was taxed with 1/20 part going to the state treasury. In the vaults of the Panthenon, where the treasury was kept, 270 tons of silver were kept just before the Pelloponese Wars. About the same quantity was about in the form of currency.

Fig. 5: A piece of marble that was engraved as a mold to cast flans for the production of the famous Athenian "owl" tetradrachme.

To ensure a continuing functionality of the mines, laws concerning the safety were continually reviewed and adapted, and infractions were severely punished. To enforce these laws a separate court had been established. From its proceedings we know that a man called Difilos was sentenced to death by beheading for removal of some support pillars that contained high grade ore in 330 BC. In the same year the whole property of a man called Periokles was seized and the man himself branded and enslaved for removing ore in a critical zone, causing a cave-in in his neighbors mine. This harsh and rigorous rule not only affected the safety in the mines, but also ensured a smooth production, thus a continuous flow of money into the state treasury.
The time between the final defeat of the second Persian invasion of Greece at Plataea in 479 BC and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC was the most prolific in the history of the Lavrion mines.


Fig. 6: The "Classical" silver Tetradrachm.

More than 20.000 slaves worked in the mines and Aristoteles reports that silver flowed like water from a rich fountain from the mines, which were called "Argyreia". From these times the names of some mine owners are reported through Xenophon. He tells of a man named Nikias, who owned 6000 slaves in his mines. Others, like Hipponikos or Philimonides owned "only" 1000 to 2000 slaves.
The dependence of Athens from the income of the Lavrion mines becomes evident when the Spartans occupied the southern Attica peninsula and effectively cut Athens off from their sources of silver. This was first the case in 430 under the orders of Archidamos, then again in 427. Thucydides (381 BC) in his cold deliberation "The History of the Peloponnesian War" writes: "The war is less dependent on weapons than the money that makes them effective." The lack of silver for the minting of coins led so far that towards the end of the war the Athenians were forced to mint gold coins from seven of the eight Victory statues which were dedicated at Parthenon (407/406 BC, under the rule of Antigenes, the epōnymos archōn (ἐπώνυμος ἄρχωνI, chief magistrate)) Each of these statues weighted about two talents of gold and by adding gold from other sources there were about 17 talents of gold available for striking coins. The dies employed for the striking of the gold coins were still kept in the Parthenon just after 385/384 BC. At that time a 12:1 exchange ratio between silver and gold was used, so effectively 207 talents of silver were minted into staters (didrachme) and fraction denominations. Again, lead isotope analysis on some of the remaining gold coins from the 407/406 BC period showed without doubt, that a part of these coins was minted from gold mined at the Lavrion mines (Mccorrick, 2003). The type of small deposits described by Solomos et al. (2004) contains sufficiently high amounts of gold that it was possible to recover the gold from these sources without the chemical processes used later on.


Fig. 7: Gold Diobol minted 407 BC.

In 406 BC for the first time ever in Athens’ history also bronze coins were minted (Shear, 1933). When the Spartan general Lysander utterly destroyed the Athenian fleet at the Battle of Aegospotami 406 BC, he set the stage for the surrender of Athens in 404 BC, which ended the Peloponnesian war.
The resumption of the mining activities at Lavrion was a slow and painful process. The beaten Athenians obviously did not have the energy to invest in this industry. Most important was the lack of skilled labor, both slaves and free men. The Spartans had removed all slaves during the time of occupation, and as the looser of the war Athens also did not have prisoners of war that could be forced to work in the mines. Small surface workings and the re-working of old underground mines could not pay for the opening of new mines and the reconstruction of the destroyed workshops, furnaces and galleries. Xenophon (355) stressed this problem: "And, mark you, it is as possible now to open new veins as in former times. Nor can one say with any certainty whether the ore is more plentiful in the area already under work or in the unexplored tracts. Then why, it may be asked, are fewer new cuttings made nowadays than formerly? Simply because those interested in the mines are poorer. For operations have only lately been resumed, and a man who makes a new cutting incurs a serious risk. If he strikes good stuff, he makes a fortune; but if he is disappointed, he loses the money he has spent. Therefore, people nowadays are very chary of taking such a risk."
At the beginning of the 360s, the city magistrate started to reorganize its resources, especially the monetary aspects and mining. This led to a marked increase of production as investments into new mines now were attractive again. The technical difficulties of reaching new potential ores however remained und heralded the slow decline in the years to come.

Hellenistic period (323 – 146 BC)

For the first time ever silver not from the mines of Lavrion was used in the production of the Athenian Owls during the Hellenistic period. This can be attributed to the decline of the mining industry in the wake of the wars raging in Greece after the death of Alexander the Great. The siege of Athens 295 BC brought the mining at Lavrion to a temporary halt (Plutarch, 110). Also, the influx of precious metals from the conquests of Alexander the Great had a dampening effect of the exploration and its profitability. The advent of "new style" coinage points to a brief revival of the extraction of silver from Lavrion at the end of the second and the beginning of the first century BC.


Fig. 8: "New Style" silver Tetradrachm.

Much of the metal was won from the reworking of older slags and low-grade ores on stockpiles without real mining going on. Strabo (23 AD) describes this in the first Chapter of his ninth Book on Geography: "The silver mines in Attica were originally valuable, but now they have failed. Moreover, those who worked them, when the mining yielded only meager returns, melted again the old refuse, or dross, and were still able to extract from it pure silver, since the workmen of earlier times had been unskillful in heating the ore in furnaces."

Roman Greece (146 BC – AD 330)

The end of mining and metallurgical works at Lavrion came after the bloody ransacking of Athens by the Roman general and statesman Sulla in 86 BC in the First Mithridatic War (Migeotte, 2007). Athens had become "reduced to the role of a provincial city without external possessions, without political role. Without a commercial activity, the mint did not function very often." (Ardaillon, 1897).

Late Antiquity (AD 330 – 529)

In Late Antiquity we know from pottery fragments and oil lamps discovered in a few galleries, which were dated to be from the fourth century AD, that attempts were made to reactivate at least some mines (Domergue, 2008). The success of these operations must have been meagre, because no contemporary writer ever mentioned Attica as a source of either lead or silver.

Thus, the mines lay dormant until their rediscovery in the middle of the 19th century.


My sincere thanks to Dr. Uwe Kolitsch for his constructive comments and diligent proofreading to improve this article.


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Xénophon (355 BC) Ways and Means (Πόροι ἢ περὶ Προσόδων, Poroi e peri Prosodon)

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An interesting short read of the very early Lavrion mines

Steve Rust
19th Feb 2019 8:42am

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