Mining in the Hallstatt Period

It was during the Early Iron Age, also known as the “Hallstatt Period”, that mining activity in Hallstatt reached its peak. Salt winning brought the mining community lasting wealth, mainly evidenced in the worldfamous cemetery. However, the undocumented gap of around 300 years between the end of Bronze Age mining and the start of mining in the Hallstatt Period proves that there is still much research to be done in large sections of the mines. The Hallstatt Period brought with it new mining strategies and technologies not used in the Bronze Age.

Peak salt production during the Hallstatt Period
Archaeological finds from mining activity during the Hallstatt Period
New mining strategy and technology
The end of mining in the Hallstatt Period
 


 
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Peak salt production during the Hallstatt Period

The Early Iron Age, the Hallstatt Culture, was the golden age of salt production in Hallstatt. The salt brought incredible wealth to Hallstatt and changed this remote location into a prominent commercial centre. The world-famous cemetery in the High Valley has yielded luxury goods from all over Europe. We do not know how they came to Hallstatt, or whether they were directly exchanged for salt. There is however no doubt about the direct relation of these objects to salt mining.
 

Archaeological finds from mining activity during the Hallstatt Period

According to current research, the Bronze Age mine collapsed in the 13th century BC, and new mining activities are only evidenced some 300 years later and in completely different locations. This is now Iron Age salt mining. The findspots relating to these mining activities are scattered over a surface extending over some 54,000 m2. The Hallstatt miners reached a depth of 200 m. Following the classification suggested by Othmar Schauberger, this mining area is now termed the ‘East Group’.

But what happened in the centuries between the end of the Bronze Age mining and the beginning of the Hallstatt Culture salt mine? Had the great catastrophe of the 13th century BC made people abandon salt working? And if so, how can we explain the highly developed and perfectly organised mining that seems to emerge abruptly about 900 BC? Perhaps mining did not stop in the 13th century BC after all, but was transferred to another place that has not yet been discovered or so far identified as such: that would be where the form of mining today known as Hallstatt Culture mining developed. The fact that it has not been discovered so far is not as surprising as it may seem. Only those areas of the High Valley where modern mining occurs can provide information about prehistoric sites, and there are still large parts of the mountain that have not been penetrated in historic times.
 

New mining strategy and technology

Early Iron Age mining is characterized by completely new strategies and technologies, and we can scarcely discern any connections with the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age shaft building strategies were not utilized. In the Bronze Age, shafts were driven vertically down the mountain in search of the rich bands of salt. Now, however, the miners cut horizontal adits to follow the course of the salt veins. The pattern of Hallstatt Culture mining appears highly regulated. It seems that the deposit was opened up and an extensive infrastructure erected within just a few decades. Salt winning seems to have been started at the same time. The mine galleries were now of huge dimensions. In order to hollow out the high mining halls, it is likely that the miners gradually worked their way up step by step. No platforms, which would indicate a different form of mining, have so far been found and we do not know if these mining levels were cut-in longitudinally or transversely.
 

The end of mining in the Hallstatt Period

Around the middle of the 4th century BC, the flourishing salt mining came to a sudden end. What had happened? Nearly all known findspots look the same: the mining chambers are backfilled with several metres of fine-grained surface material containing stones and rocks of various sizes. The traces on the surface are equally telling. In some places, the original surface is covered by a layer of debris and soil sometimes as much as eight metres deep. Mass movements such as earth flows and debris flows are a common occurrence in the region, even in modern times, occurring for instance on the Sandling near Altaussee in 1920. 

(Reschreiter, H. – Kowarik, K. – Loew, C.)
  
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