Phoenician Mining

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Metals and Processes

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Surface gathering of metals, anterior to mining

The most precious and useful of the metals lie, in many places, so near the earth's surface that, in the earliest times, mining is unneeded and therefore unpractised. We are told that in Spain silver was first discovered in consequence of a great fire, which consumed all the forests wherewith the mountains were clothed, and lasted many days; at the end of which time the surface of the soil was found to be intersected by streams of silver from the melting of the superficial silver ore through the intense heat of the conflagration. The natives did not know what to do with the metal, so they bartered it away to the Phoenician traders, who already frequented their country, in return for some wares of very moderate value.[1] Whether this tale be true or no, it is certain that even at the present day, in what are called "new countries," valuable metals often show themselves on the surface of the soil, either in the form of metalliferous earths, or of rocks which shine with spangles of a metallic character, or occasionally, though rarely, of actual masses of pure ore, sometimes encrusted with an oxide, sometimes bare, bright, and unmistakable. In modern times, whenever there is a rush into any gold region--whether California, or Australia, or South Africa--the early yield is from the surface. The first comers scratch the ground with a knife or with a pick-axe, and are rewarded by discovering "nuggets" of greater or less dimensions; the next flight of gold-finders search the beds of the streams; and it is not until the supply from these two sources begins to fail that mining, in the proper sense of the term, is attempted.

Earliest known mining operations and in Phoenicia Proper

The earliest mining operations, whereof we have any record, are those conducted by the Egyptian kings of the fourth, fifth and twelfth dynasties, in the Sinaitic region. At two places in the mountains between Suez and Mount Sinai, now known as the Wady Magharah and Sarabit-el-Khadim, copper was extracted from the bosom of the earth by means of shafts laboriously excavated in the rocks, under the auspices of these early Pharaohs.[2] Hence at the time of the Exodus the process of mining was familiar to the Hebrews, who could thus fully appreciate the promise,[3] that they were about to be given "a good land"--"a land whose stones were iron, and out of whose hills they might /dig brass/." The Phoenicians, probably, derived their first knowledge of mining from their communications with the Egyptians, and no doubt first practised the art within the limits of their own territory--in Lebanon, Casius, and Bargylus. The mineral stores of these regions were, however, but scanty, and included none of the more important metals, excepting iron. The Phoenicians were thus very early in their history driven afield for the supply of their needs, and among the principal causes of their first voyages of discovery must be placed the desire of finding and occupying regions which contained the metallic treasures wherein their own proper country was deficient.

Phoenician mines of Cyprus

It is probable that they first commenced mining operations on a large scale in Cyprus. Here, according to Pliny,[4] copper was first discovered; and though this may be a fable, yet here certainly it was found in great abundance at a very early time, and was worked to such an extent, that the Greeks knew copper, as distinct from bronze, by no other name than that of {khalkos Kuprios}, whence the Roman /Æs Cyprium/, and our own name for the metal. The principal mines were in the southern mountain range, near Tamasus,[5] but there were others also at Amathus, Soli, and Curium.[6] Some of the old workings have been noticed by modern travellers, particularly near Soli and Tamasus,[7] but they have neither been described anciently nor examined scientifically in modern times. The ore from which the metal was extracted is called /chalcitis/ by Pliny,[8] and may have been the "chalcocite" of our present metallurgical science, which is a sulphide containing very nearly eighty per cent. of copper. The brief account which Strabo gives of the mines of Tamasus shows that the ore was smelted in furnaces which were heated by wood fires. We gather also from Strabo that Tamasus had silver mines.

Phoenician mines elsewhere

Thasos and Thrace

That the Phoenicians conducted mining operations in Thasos we know from Herodotus,[9] and from other writers of repute[10] we learn that they extended these operations to the mainland opposite. Herodotus had himself visited Thasos, and tells us that the mines were on the eastern coast of the island, between two places which he calls respectively Ænyra and Cœnyra. The metal sought was gold, and in their quest of it the Phoenicians had, he says, turned an entire mountain topsy-turvy. Here again no modern researches seem to have been made, and nothing more is known than that at present the natives obtain no gold from their soil, do not seek for it, and are even ignorant that their island was ever a gold-producing region.[11] The case is almost the same on the opposite coast, where in ancient times very rich mines both of gold and silver abounded,[12] which the Phoenicians are said to have worked, but where at the present day mining enterprise is almost at a standstill, and only a very small quantity of silver is produced.[13]


Sardinia can scarcely have been occupied by the Phoenicians for anything but its metals. The southern and south-western parts of the island, where they made their settlements, were rich in copper and lead; and the position of the cities seems to indicate the intention to appropriate these metals. In the vicinity of the lead mines are enormous heaps of scoriæ, mounting up apparently to a very remote era.[14] The scoriæ are not so numerous in the vicinity of the copper mines, but "pigs" of copper have been found in the island, unlike any of the Roman period, which are perhaps Phoenician, and furnish specimens of the castings into which the metal was run, after it had been fused and to some extent refined. The weight of the pigs is from twenty-eight to thirty-seven kilogrammes.[15] Pigs of lead have also been found, but they are less frequent.


But all the other mining operations of the Phoenicians were insignificant compared with those of which the theatre was Spain. Spain was the Peru of the ancient world, and surpassed its modern rival, in that it produced not only gold and silver, but also copper, iron, tin, and lead. Of these metals gold was the least abundant. It was found, however, as gold dust in the bed of the Tagus;[16] and there were mines of it in Gallicia,[17] in the Asturias, and elsewhere. There was always some silver mixed with it, but in one of the Gallician mines the proportion was less than three per cent. Elsewhere the proportion reached to ten or even twelve and a half per cent.; and, as there was no known mode of clearing the gold from it, the produce of the Gallician mine was in high esteem and greatly preferred to that of any other. Silver was yielded in very large quantities. "Spain," says Diodorus Siculus,[18] "has the best and most plentiful silver from mines of all the world." "The Spanish silver," says Pliny,[19] "is the best." When the Phoenicians first visited Spain, they found the metal held in no esteem at all by the natives. It was the common material of the cheapest drinking vessels, and was readily parted with for almost anything that the merchants chose to offer. Much of it was superficial, but the veins were found to run to a great depth; and the discovery of one vein was a sure index of the near vicinity of more.[20] The out-put of the Spanish silver mines during the Phoenician, Carthaginian, and Roman periods was enormous, and cannot be calculated; nor has the supply even yet failed altogether. The iron and copper of Spain are also said to have been exceedingly abundant in ancient times,[21] though, owing to the inferior value of the metals, and to their wider distribution, but little is recorded with regard to them. Its tin and lead, on the other hand, as being metals found in comparatively few localities, receive not infrequent mention. The Spanish tin, according to Posidonius, did not crop out upon the surface,[22] but had to be obtained by mining. It was produced in some considerable quantity in the country of the Artabri, to the north of Lusitania,[23] as well as in Lusitania itself, and in Gallicia;[24] but was found chiefly in small particles intermixed with a dark sandy earth. Lead was yielded in greater abundance; it was found in Cantabria, in Bætica, and many other places.[25] Much of it was mixed with silver, and was obtained in the course of the operations by means of which silver was smelted and refined.[26] The mixed metal was called /galena/.[27] Lead, however, was also found, either absolutely pure,[28] or so nearly so that the alloy was inappreciable, and was exported in large quantities, both by the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, and also by the Romans. It was believed that the metal had a power of growth and reproduction, so that if a mine was deserted for a while and then re-opened, it was sure to be found more productive than it was previously.[29] The fact seems to be simply that the supply is inexhaustible, since even now Spain furnishes more than half the lead that is consumed by the rest of Europe. Besides the ordinary metals, Spain was capable of yielding an abundance of quicksilver;[30] but this metal seems not to have attracted the attention of the Phoenicians, who had no use for it.


A special article is dedicated for the secret mines of Britian.

Phoenician methods not unlike those of the present day

The methods employed by the Phoenicians to obtain the metals which they coveted were not, on the whole, unlike those which continue in use at the present day. Where surface gold was brought down by the streams, the ground in their vicinity, and such portions of their beds as could be laid bare, were searched by the spade; any earth or sand that was seen to be auriferous was carefully dug out and washed, till the earthy particles were cleared away, and only the gold remained. Where the metal lay deeper, perpendicular shafts were sunk into the ground to a greater or less depth--sometimes, if we may believe Diodorus,[31] to the depth of half a mile or more; from these shafts horizontal adits were carried out at various levels, and from the adits there branched lateral galleries, sometimes at right angles, sometimes obliquely, which pursued either a straight or a tortuous course.[32] The veins of metal were perseveringly followed up, and where faults occurred in them, filled with trap,[33] or other hard rock, the obstacle was either tunnelled through or its flank turned, and the vein still pursued on the other side. As the danger of a fall of material from the roofs of the adits and galleries was well understood, it was customary to support them by means of wooden posts, or, where the material was sufficiently firm, to arch them.[34] Still, from time to time, falls would occur, with great injury and loss of life to the miners. Nor was there much less danger where a mountain was quarried for the sake of its metallic treasures. Here, too, galleries were driven into the mountain-side, and portions of it so loosened that after a time they detached themselves and fell with a loud crash into a mass of /débris/.[35] It sometimes happened that, as the workings proceeded, subterranean springs were tapped, which threatened to flood the mine, and put an end to its further utilisation. In such cases, wherever it was possible, tunnels were constructed, and the water drained off to a lower level.[36] In the deeper mines this, of course, could not be done, and such workings had to be abandoned, until the invention of the Archimedes' screw (ab. B.C. 220-190), when the water was pumped up to the surface, and so got rid of.[37] But before this date Phoenicia had ceased to exist as an independent country, and the mines that had once been hers were either no longer worked, or had passed into the hands of the Romans or the Carthaginians.

Ores crushed, pounded, and washed

When the various ores were obtained, they were first of all crushed, then pounded to a paste; after which, by frequent washings, the non- metallic elements were to a large extent eliminated, and the metallic ones alone left. These, being collected, were placed in crucibles of white clay,[38] which were then submitted to the action of a furnace heated to the melting point. This point could only be reached by the use of the bellows. When it was reached, the impurities which floated on the top of the molten metal were skimmed off, or the metal itself allowed, by the turning of a cock, to flow from an upper crucible into a lower one. For greater purity the melting and skimming process was sometimes repeated; and, in the case of gold, the skimmings were themselves broken up, pounded, and again submitted to the melting pot.[39] The use of quicksilver, however, being unknown, the gold was never wholly freed from the alloy of silver always found in it, nor was the silver ever wholly freed from an alloy of lead.[40]

Mines worked by slave labour

The Romans and Carthaginians worked their mines almost wholly by slave labour; and very painful pictures are drawn of the sufferings undergone by the unhappy victims of a barbarous and wasteful system.[41] The gangs of slaves, we are told, remained in the mines night and day, never seeing the sun, but living and dying in the murky and fœtid atmosphere of the deep excavations. It can scarcely be hoped that the Phoenicians were wiser or more merciful. They had a large command of slave labour, and would naturally employ it where the work to be done was exceptionally hard and disagreeable. Moreover, the Carthaginians, their colonists, are likely to have kept up the system, whatever it was, which they found established on succeeding to the inheritance of the Phoenician mines, and the fact that they worked them by means of slaves makes it more than probable that the Phoenicians had done so before them.[42]

When the metals were regarded as sufficiently cleansed from impurities, they were run into moulds, which took the form of bars, pigs, or ingots. Pigs of copper and lead have, as already observed, been found in Sardinia which may well belong to Phoenician times. There is also in the museum of Truro a pig of tin, which, as it differs from those made by the Romans, Normans, and later workers, has been supposed to be Phoenician.[43] Ingots of gold and silver have not at present been found on Phoenician localities; but the Persian practice, witnessed to by Herodotus,[44] was probably adopted from the subject nation, which confessedly surpassed all the others in the useful arts, in commerce, and in practical sagacity.

For additional information about Phoenician Gold Mining in Zimbabwe, follow this link.


[1] Diod. Sic. v. 35, ß 2.
[2] Brugsch, /History of Egypt/, i. 65; Birch, /Ancient Egypt/, p. 65.
[3] Deut. viii. 7-9.
[4] Plin. /H. N./ xxxiv. 2:--"In Cypro proma Êris inventio." The story went, that Cinryas, the Paphian king, who gave Agamemnon his breastplate of steel, gold, and tin (Hom. /Il./ xii. 25), invented the manufacture of copper, and also invented the tongs, the hammer, the lever, and the anvil (Plin. /H. N./ vii. 56, ß 195).
[5] Strab. xiv. 6, ß 5; Steph. Byz. ad voc. {Tamasos}.
[6] See the /Dictionary of Gk. and Rom. Geography/, i. 729.
[7] Ross, /Inselnreise/, iv. 157, 161.
[8] Plin. /H. N./ l.s.c.
[9] Herod. vi. 47.
[10] Plin. /H. N./ vi. 56; Strab. xiv. 5, ß 28.
[11] See the description of Thasos in the /GÈographie Universelle/, i. 142.
[12] Herod. vii. 112; Aristot. /De Ausc. Mir./ ß 42; Thuc. iv. 105; Diod. Sic. xvi. 8; App. /Bell. Civ./ iv. 105; Justin, viii. 3; Plin. /H. N./ vii. 56, &c.
[13] Col. Leake speaks of /one/ silver mine as still being worked (/Northern Greece/, iii. 161).
[14] Perrot et Chipiez, /Hist. de l'Art/, iv. 99.
[15] Ibid. p. 100, note.
[16] Plin. /H. N./ xxxiii. 4, ß 21.
[17] Ibid. xxxiii. 4, ß 23.
[18] Diod. Sic. v. 35, ß 1.
[19] Plin. /H. N./ xxxiii. 6, ß 31.
[20] Ibid. ß 96.
[21] Strab. iii. 2, ß 8; Diod. Sic. v. 36, ß 2.
[22] Ap. Strab. iii. 2, ß 9. Compare Diod. Sic. v. 38, ß 4.
[23] Strab. l.s.c.
[24] Plin. /H. N./ xxxiv. 16, ß 156.
[25] Plin. /H. N./ xxxiv. 16, ß 158 and ß 165.
[26] Polyb. xxxiv. 5, ß 11; Plin. /H. N./ xxxiv. 16, ß 158.
[27] Plin. xxxiv. 18, ß 173.
[28] Ibid. ß 159.
[29] Ibid. xxxiv. 17, ß 164.
[30] Quicksilver is still among the products of the Spanish mines, where its presence is noted by Pliny (/H. N./ xxxiii. 6, ß 99).
[31] Diod. Sic. v. 36, ß 2.
[32] Ibid. {Kai plagias kai skolias diaduseis poikilos metallourgountes}.
[33] Pliny says "flint," but this can scarcely have been the material. (See Plin. /H. N./ xxxiii. 4, ß 71.)
[34] Ibid. ß 70.
[35] Ibid. ß 73.
[36] Diod. Sic. v. 37, ß 3.
[37] Diod. Sic. v. 37, ß 3. Compare Strab. iii. 2, ß 9.
[38] Plin. /H. N./ xxxiii. 4, ß 69.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Kenrick, /Phúnicia/, p. 263.
[41] Diod. Soc. v. 38, ß 1.
[42] Kenrick thinks that the Carthaginians "introduced the practice of working the mines by slave labour" (/Phúnicia/, l.s.c.); but to me the probability appears to be the other way.
[43] See Wilkinson, in the author's /Herodotus/, ii. 504.
[44] Herod. iii. 96.

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