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Rosia Montana Roman Gold Mines
Silver was used mainly in coins and decorative items. Greek and Roman bronze had a high lead content. Lead was probably the most widely used metal in ancient Rome. Romans used it to make water pipes, underground pipes, jars and pewter tableware. It was added to coins and paint and was used to make cisterns and roofing. The Romans even cooked in leaden pots and used as kohl (blackened lead) eye-liner, skin-bleaching aides and cosmetics. This meant their food, their water and the things they placed on their body all contained high levels of lead.

The Romans mined lead on a huge scale, mostly from deposits in England and Spain. They ingested great amounts of lead in their food and drink. They often flavored food with boiled-down grape juice that derived much of its sweetness from leaden pots. During bad harvest years sour grapes were boiled in lead vessels. The release of lead acetate would sweeten the wine. White pigments made with white lead were praised for their brightness and covering ability.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Riotinto Mines in Spain

For 5,000 years what today are known as the Riotinto Mines in southwestern Spain produced wealth that sustained civilizations, riches that created cash economies and pollution that spread around the globe. Barry Yeoman wrote in Archaeology Magazine, “Riotinto is part of the Iberian Pyrite Belt, a mineral deposit that stretches from Spain into Portugal. It is one of the largest known mining complexes in the ancient world. Starting as a surface operation focused on copper minerals, it eventually became an industrial-scale enterprise until it finally closed in 2001 amid falling copper prices. [Source: Barry Yeoman, Archaeology Magazine, September-October 2010]

Caesar silver coins
"The name Riotinto has something of a magical connotation," wrote University of Sevilla archaeologists Antonio Blanco Freijeiro and José María Luzón Nogué in 1969. "It has been called the geologist's paradise because at almost no other place on the earth has nature exposed in one spot such richness and variety of minerals." Visiting in the late 1980s, archaeologist Lynn Willies of England's Peak District Mining Museum described it as a landscape turned upside-down: "The hills have literally been turned into valleys, and the valleys made into hills." Even more striking than the topography is the landscape's color palette: crimsons, blue-grays, and ochres, which give the place an otherworldly feel. Naturally dissolving iron, a process believed to predate the mines, has dyed the acidic river "tinto," or wine-colored. So otherworldly is Riotinto that NASA has used robots to drill its soil-practice for the search for underground life on Mars.

Local folklore places King Solomon's mines at Riotinto, though a more factual history has been more difficult to write. "Its birth is shrouded in the mists of antiquity," wrote William Giles Nash, a Rio Tinto Company employee, in 1904. Archaeologists now know that the area's Copper Age inhabitants were extracting malachite and azurite, two copper-rich minerals, during the third millennium B.C. Inside Riotinto's museum is a 5,000-year-old stone hammer found in one of the mines during the 1980s. These hammers were used to cut trenches in the slate outcroppings-the earliest form of mining at the site.

Riotinto Mines Under the Phoenicians

Barry Yeoman wrote in Archaeology Magazine, “The Phoenicians arrived in Spain around 1100 B.C.-their ships filled with ceramics, jewelry, and textiles for trading-and moved inland during the 9th century B.C.” "They didn't bring weapons," says Thomas Schattner, a professor of classical archaeology at Germany's University of Giessen. "They walked in, they exchanged goods with the indigenous people, and they were received." There is no archeological evidence of hostile attacks, Schattner says, which lends credence to the written accounts of peaceful trading. [Source: Barry Yeoman, Archaeology Magazine, September-October 2010]

lead pipes
At Riotinto, the Phoenicians found the silver and copper mines run by an indigenous people called the Tartessians. Even after the foreigners' arrival, the mining operations remained in local hands-though the amount of Phoenician influence remains a point of contention. "None," says Delgado, dismissing those who believe, in his words, that "without the arrival of foreigners, the indigenous people would still be like Adam and Eve." He argues that that only a few Phoenicians lived in the area, where they served as commercial agents. Schattner calls that answer "one-dimensional," noting that both written evidence and the size of the slag heaps show that silver production spiked at mines like Riotinto after the Phoenicians' arrival. Delgado contends this is solely because of higher demand; Schattner disagrees. Among the finds at Riotinto, Schattner says, are rectangular clay nozzles that had been attached to leather bellows, which pumped air into smelting furnaces. "The introduction of bellows is one of the most important contributions of Phoenician technology," he says. "It permits bigger ovens, higher temperatures, more successful melting, and much bigger amounts of metal. It's the beginning of industrial production. You would not obtain this amount of silver by using the old-fashioned technology."

Beyond mining, the Phoenician arrival sparked "a kind of globalization," says Schattner. In the seventh century B.C., the eastern Mediterranean was shifting toward a coin-based economy, and the Phoenicians needed silver to decorate their temples and pay their debts to the Assyrian empire. Silver-which was shipped off the Iberian Peninsula in bars or ingots, according to shipwreck evidence-was the perfect currency, he says: rare enough for coins to have value but common enough for many people to participate in the economy. "Without the silver mines of southern Spain, the development of money would have been quite different-based on a medium that was less ideal," Schattner says.

The globalization was cultural, too, Schattner argues. He has been excavating at Castro Cerquillo, a Phoenician-era village outside the Tharsis mines, 40 miles west of Riotinto. There, he says, "we made the astonishing observation that the new settlements of the indigenous people are being built in an Eastern manner, with orthogonal streets like New York, at right angles, making blocks-a very modern manner for that time." While the Phoenicians were extractors of wealth, Schattner says, they were also "distributors of ideas-for cities, for material culture, for houses, for living."

Riotinto Mines Under the Romans

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Las Medulas mining area of Spain
Barry Yeoman wrote in Archaeology Magazine, “The Romans took over Riotinto in 206 B.C. after defeating and expelling the Carthaginians, who had occupied the region since about 535 B.C. With the technical knowledge of Rome's military engineers and the availability of slave and convict labor, the Roman operations at Riotinto grew colossally, peaking from A.D. 70 to 180. Their magnitude far exceeded anything that came before. During that period, Delgado says, Riotinto was the largest silver and copper mining operation in the Roman Empire. [Source: Barry Yeoman, Archaeology Magazine, September-October 2010]

"The excavations in the mines themselves, the investigations of the slag heaps, and the cemeteries and mining settlements show that the sheer scale is much more important in the Roman period," says Jonathan Edmondson, chair of the history department at York University in Toronto. "With thousands of laborers and Roman soldiers and administrators camped out, they would have been hives of activity."

The Romans mined Riotinto by digging shafts of up to 450 feet deep, which required elaborate ventilation and drainage systems, including wooden water wheels and a system of gently sloping drainage channels that remained in use well into the 20th century. They also developed a sophisticated system of governance. Two bronze tablets unearthed at Aljustrel, another Pyrite Belt mine across the Portuguese border, spelled out the rules by which the Roman government would lease Iberia's mines to individual conductores , who paid 50 percent commission on the ore they excavated. The tablets, discovered in 1876 and 1906, also covered mine safety, the treatment of slaves, and the granting of concessions to barbers, auctioneers, and cobblers. Bathhouse owners, who bought franchises, had to keep the water heated year-round, polish the metalwork every month, and admit women and men at specific hours.

The scale of mining at Riotinto fundamentally altered the Roman economy. "Basically, it ensured Rome a constant supply of fresh metal for increased minting of silver and lower-denomination copper-based coins," says Edmondson. Rome used silver denarii to pay and feed its army, fund public building programs in its capital city, and subsidize the price of (and eventually allow free distribution of) grain to the city's residents. But following the invasion of Spain by the North African Mauri in the late second century, mining activity dropped off and the denarius plummeted from 97 percent silver to 40 percent, leading to outsized inflation as Roman minted ever-less-valuable coinage. "The Roman state experienced major problems, since taxes were paid in coin," Edmondson notes. "People started handing over these debased coins in payment of taxes, while hoarding the [older] higher-percentage silver coins." By the fourth century, he says, gold replaced silver as Rome's main currency.

Life of the Roman Miners at the Riotinto Mines

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Roman slaves
On "a normal day in the life" of a Roman miner Aquilino Delgado Domínguez of the Riotinto Museum said, "Really early, they would get up and have breakfast, which would consist of a purée made mainly of wheat and bread, or posca -water, vinegar and wine-with some cheese and bread," he says. "They would grab their lamps and tools and would head up to the mine to excavate for minerals." The work was exhausting-the museum's collection includes a Roman hammer that weighs 16 pounds. And the air was toxic, Delgado says, even above ground. Studies of a crematory oven from that era point to an outsized infant-mortality rate. "It was a highly sulfuric environment," he explains, "so any small child who was affected by asthma or any other respiratory problem could die very quickly." [Source: Barry Yeoman, Archaeology Magazine, September-October 2010] Lunch often included a salty fish sauce to balance out their high-potassium diets. Afterward, the miners would "keep working until about four or five p.m. or until the lamp had extinguished," Delgado says. "Then they would go back home, and then to the public baths, where they would get clean and spend some time with friends. They would have some wine because, even though in Roman times they already had beer, it was not considered elegant to drink beer."

Delgado and his mentor Juan Aurelio Pérez Macías — the former staff archeologist for Rio Tinto Minera S.A. (the mines' then-owner) — and now an archaeology professor at the University of Huelva — are passionate about dispelling the notion that all Roman miners were slaves. Evidence from Riotinto's graves shows many workers had last names, which meant that they had been free men. Delgado worries that the popular conception comes from films like Barabbas, the 1961 classic in which the title character, played by Anthony Quinn, is sentenced to work in Sicily's sulfur mines-shackled, beaten, never allowed to see daylight. Director Dino De Laurentiis' hellish scenes "are iconic images that stick in people's heads," Delgado says.

Pérez describes the Roman settlements at Riotinto as, in some ways, unextraordinary. "The standard of living would have been very similar to any other Roman town," he says. "The population was not just composed of slaves but of citizens who had purchasing power to buy the best Roman products." There were slaves, too, Pérez adds, "but a slave could have been a teacher, or a smelting technician who would have been paid for his work. Although he would still depend on a master, he would have had money and savings."

For the slaves who were condemned to the mines, Delgado says life was not unlike the scenes in Barabbas. "They would be chained at the neck," he says, "and their working day would be determined by how long their lamp would last, about 11 hours. They would be woken up really early in the morning. They would be fed a very strong posca to hydrate them and make them drunk, because if they were a bit drunk they would not be as conscientious of their situation. They would also be fed some bread and they would probably not get anything else until the following day. They would feed them enough to be able to go through a working day, but not enough to put up resistance." Human bones found in slag piles show that enslaved miners were not entitled to burials. Instead, Delgado says, "they were thrown out with the slag and the garbage."

Riotinto Mines After the Romans

Waterwheels used in Roman mine
Barry Yeoman wrote in Archaeology Magazine, “After the Roman era, the Visigoths allowed Riotinto to go dormant, though the mines did experience a small-scale resurrection during the Islamic Period (particularly the 10th through 13th centuries). They weren't rediscovered until 1556, when a priest named Diego Delgado set out to search for new mines at the behest of Spain's King Phillip II. "In these parts I have discovered very important secrets," wrote Delgado in a letter to the king, in which he enclosed three buttons of silver. But little came of the mines until 1873, when the British-based Rio Tinto Company developed them into a gigantic operation with open-cast pits and its own railway. The company built a Victorian village called Bella Vista (cricket field and all), along with its own hospital and school system. At the peak, in 1910, 17,822 people worked for the mining company, in a landscape altered beyond recognition. [Source: Barry Yeoman, Archaeology Magazine, September-October 2010]

Aquilino Delgado Domínguez runs the Riotinto Mining Museum in southwestern Spain. Many members of his family worked in the mines. "For 2,000 years it was done by hand, by pick and shovel," he says. His paternal grandfather, who died when Delgado was six, worked one-third of a mile underground, naked except for helmet and boots because of the 120-degree heat. The work was not only brutal; it was also unhealthy: The archaeologist vividly remembers the coughs of neighbors who had contracted the incurable lung disease silicosis, which often afflicts miners who inhale silica dust.

Debilitating as it was, mining kept the economy humming in this remote corner of Spain. When Riotinto's owners introduced labor-saving technologies in the 1960s and '70s-including automatic loaders that could be guided into the most dangerous areas by remote control-miners sabotaged the equipment out of fear for their jobs. "They would put pyrite powder in the injectors to break them down," Delgado says. "They would do the same with the automatic drills."

Delgado's museum contains lamps, domestic pottery, statues, amphorae, and metal objects such as buckets, safety pins, and mirrors, Phoenician artifacts, 900 pieces of glassware and 500 Roman-era iron hammers. Much of their research centers on ancient metallurgy. But Delgado has also used physical evidence-lamps, tools, household utensils-to reconstruct the lives of Roman miners.

Pollution from the Riotinto Mines

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Barry Yeoman wrote in Archaeology Magazine, “Ancient mining has given Ihe iberian pyrite belt another grim legacy, as is one of the earliest sources of global pollution. In the 1990s, a team of scientists headed by Australian physicist Kevin Rosman analyzed the lead content of a 1.9-mile-long ice core drilled in Greenland. They found "unequivocal evidence" of massive pollution during Roman and Carthaginian times, with Spain emerging as the main source. Seventy percent of the lead in the ice core that dated between 150 B.C. and A.D. 50 had the chemical signature of Riotinto. Lead, a byproduct of silver mining, was used in everything from shipbuilding to winemaking. [Source: Barry Yeoman, Archaeology Magazine, September-October 2010]

Other research dates the damage even earlier. In a study published in 2000, a group of Spanish and U.S. scientists analyzed a 164-foot sediment core from a site near Riotinto. They discovered significant sulfide and heavy-metal pollution going back 4,800 years. "The contamination started pretty much at the initiation of mining," says co-author Jeffrey Ryan, chair of geology at the University of South Florida. To get the valuable metals, the sulfide ores were burned in large furnaces that released sulfur-rich gases. Most striking, Ryan says, was that pollutant levels didn't decrease as mining waned. "You've taken the rocks from deep in the earth. You've pulled them to the surface. You've broken them into little pieces. And you've exposed the sulfide minerals to the atmosphere," he says. "When sulfide is exposed to the atmosphere, it reacts with the oxygen to form sulfur dioxide and leaves behind a heavy-metal effluent."

When Diego Delgado, the Spanish priest, came upon Riotinto in 1556, he reported to King Felipe II, "In this river there is no type of fish nor living creature, and neither people nor animals drink these waters." Even today, the Tinto and Odiel rivers are poisoned with arsenic and metals, raising concerns about water quality in the nearby Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.

University of Huelva mineralogist Reinaldo Sáez Ramos, whose studies combine archaeology and geology, has worked at Cabezo Juré, an ancient copper-mining community just outside Tharsis. "When we did this excavation, we realized that the villagers ate the shells of a particular mollusk," he says. "After analyzing those shells, we found out they contained zinc, copper, and arsenic in a quantity that was much higher than what it is considered normal." By studying clamshells throughout the region, Sáez and his colleagues concluded that the nearby Gulf of Cádiz became polluted with heavy metals around 2475 B.C.-just as large-scale mining and smelting were getting underway. The researchers did find a dip in pollution levels 200 years later when mining ceased. No one knows why mining stopped, but tree-pollen levels in the sediment core show that there might not have been any more trees to burn for smelting metals. "One of the main conclusions we can draw is that when a particular area's development explodes on a big scale, it ends up destroying itself," he says.

Amber, Emeralds and Pearls in in the Roman Empire

pearl divers
In ancient Rome, a single piece of amber was worth more than a slave and Pliny the Elder described it as medicine for ailments of the neck and head. Nero reportedly made contact with Germanic people in northern Europe because he was upset over the high middleman charges for amber and wanted to get closer to the source of the material. His emissaries returned with 13,000 pounds of amber, including one piece that weighed 10 pounds.

Roman women liked to sleep with pearls so "their dreams would be filled with lustrous gems. Caligula adorns his slippers with pearls and draped a pearl necklace around the neck of his favorite horse Incitatus; Nero decorated his scepter and Constantine his helmet with pearls; and one of reasons why Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 B.C. was to get his hand on freshwater pearls from Scotland. The Roman general Vitellus paid for an entire military campaigns by selling one of his mother’s pearls.

Cleopatra once bet Marc Anthony she could give the world's most expensive dinner party. To win the bet she crushed one of her pearl earrings and drank it in a goblet of wine. That one earring was said to have been worth 100,000 pounds of silver.

According to Pliny emeralds were the most prized of all gems after diamonds and pearls. Often called “Egyptian” or “Ethiopian” stones, they were mined near the Red Sea in eastern deserts of Egypt in a place called the Emerald City. According to Pliny Lollia Pualina, the consort of Caligula, was “covered with emeralds and pearl interlaced and alternately shining all over her head, hair, ears, neck and fingers, the sum total amounting to 40,000,000 sesterces.” The annual salary of a soldier was around, 1,200 sesterces.

Wadi Sikait in Egypt is the home of the Emerald City, the source of all of the emeralds in ancient Rome. Described by Pliny the Elder and rediscovered in 1816, it contains the ruins and foundations of temples, graves and mine shafts where “Egyptian” and “Ethiopian” stones were mined. The ruins spread out over a large area. Particularly interesting is a large temple with a Doric facade cut into a mountain and buildings with subterranean rooms and tunnels. Some of the shafts go directly into Emerald Mountain. Other spiral downward into the earth.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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