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2019-03-27 17:28:56   •   ID: 2089

The Long Prehistory of Quarrying and Mining

Figure 1
This is a Neolithic bifacial axe from Haute Silly, near Spiennes (Belgium), which is one of the largest Neolithic mining areas in the world, now registered in the UNESCO List. More information about the site can be found here: 1738

Interestingly this artifact is not made of the typical local Upper Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) flint from the "Craie de Spiennes" formation.

Vermeersch et al. has distinguished several types of raw material procurement during the Paleo- and Neolithic:

  • Incidental collecting of raw materials suitable for knapping.

  • Intensive collecting of abundantly available raw materials without specific organized extraction strategies. These sites can be identified by the presence of huge amounts of waste materials (tested nodules, cores, rough outs, tools, blanks and knapped lithic waste material).

  • Systematic quarrying of an area where raw material is abundantly present in a primary or secondary position. These sites can be identified by well delimited open-air features which were dug to quarry the raw materials.

  • Underground mining resulting in the creation of subterranean structures intended for raw material extraction.

The oldest systematic quarrying sites are known from the Acheulean in India and Israel. The Isampur Quarry (ca 1,2 mya) is located in the Hunsgi-Baichbal Valley in the centre of India. Thousands of artifacts witness an entire manufacturing sequence, from extraction of the bedrock to the creation of finished handaxes and cleavers.

A complex Late Acheulian-Early Mousterian quarry landscape was discovered in the central Dishon Valley, Northern Israel. At Mt Pua, ca 1500 quarry debris heaps, each covered with flint nodules and prehistoric artifacts were detected. These activities show an unexpected high level of cognitive organization and behavioral complexity of early hominids during the Lower Paleolithic.

In the meantime, further prehistoric quaries have detected in Northern Israel. The excavators speak about an “industrial strip” and of its extraction and reduction complexes (Nahal Dishon, Mt. Achbara, and Sede Ilan), demonstrating that these production areas were used mainly for the manufacture of large‐volume items such as Lower Palaeolithic hand axes, Middle Palaeolithic Levallois cores, and Neolithic/Chalcolithic axes/adzes (Ben Yosef et al. 2019).

In addition a low concentration of the cosmogenic beryllium isotope 10 Be in artifacts of Tabun E and Qesem Cave gave strong evidence that the raw material during the Levantine Acheulo-Yabroudian was obtained rather from shallow mining, than from surface collection.

Underground mining is first documented during the Late Middle and Early Upper Paleolithic (OIS5-3) in the Nile Valley, related to the exploitation of chert in the form of cobbles (Nazlet Khater, Nazlet Safaha, Taramsa-1).

These findings evidence an advanced degree of planning and anticipation and of task subdivision and maintenance. Underground mining of flints, cherts, hornstones, radiolarites, and obsidian was a common activity during the Neolithic and continued into the beginnings of the Iron Age in Europe.

Mining during the European Neolithic was clearly triggered by a high demand for flint axe-heads and long blades (sickle blades, daggers).

Within certain networks, both utilitarian and non-utilitarian (prestige)-artifacts were transported over long distances.

In the Spiennes-Area, during the Neolithic, around one hundred hectares were to be exploited for good quality flint with thousands of deep shafts; some of them were dug down to a depth of 15-16 m.

They were narrow, at most 1-1.5 m wide. The area of underground exploitation is estimated to have been 40-50 m2.