The Earliest Rock Salt Exploitation in Europe: A Salt Mountain in the Spanish Neolithic. (News and Notes)

By Weller, Olivier | Antiquity, June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Earliest Rock Salt Exploitation in Europe: A Salt Mountain in the Spanish Neolithic. (News and Notes)


Weller, Olivier, Antiquity


There are only two salt domes in Europe: one in Romania and the other in Catalonia, about 80 km northwest of Barcelona, at Cardona. Ranging in colour from white through to red and blue, the Cardona outcrop is over 140 m high. It is called the Muntanya de Sal (FIGURE 2).

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The various kinds of salt which it contains have been worked underground since 1905. From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, mining was open-cast and the quarry was protected by a great fortress founded in the 7th century. For the Roman period, there is a reference in a text by Cato to a `Roman mine' in activity during the 2nd century BC. Despite much work on Neolithic graves in the area at the beginning of the 20th century (Sera i Vilaro 1927) and finds of stone tools around the outcrop (Lopez de Azcona 1933), the hypothesis that the remarkable site had been exploited during the Neolithic was rapidly abandoned in the 1930s. Since then, this pre-Pyrenean region has remained largely untouched by development and archaeological fieldwork, mostly confined to coastal areas of Catalonia.

The initial stage of the current project was to map all the Neolithic sites known in Catalonia. Analysis of changes in settlement pattern showed a distinct concentration of burial sites around Cardona in the Middle Neolithic (4200-3600 cal BC) (FIGURE 1). As this raised the possibility that the Mountain of Salt had in fact attracted settlement by the Sepulcres de Fosa culture (Solsones group), a search was first of all made for tools that could have been used for mining the salt.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Over a hundred stone tools from surface collection by farmers and mine-workers since the early 20th century (Figuls 1997) were examined and the artefacts include massive hammerstones, pounders, picks and pecking tools (FIGURE 3). They are made in hard, dense rock which is not locally available. Technological analysis involved study of overall morphology, as well as shaping, use, re-use and discard. The type of breakage and the macro-wear on working edges clearly show that the tools were used for striking blows on a solid material (FIGURE 4). Over 70% of the tools examined were found in the vicinity of the Mountain of Salt. Artefacts of this kind are also present, however, on permanent or temporary settlement sites over 25 km from Cardona. Finds of tools in two cist graves located less than 3 km from the salt outcrop, associated with classic Middle Neolithic grave-goods, nevertheless remove any doubt about their dating, especially since this type of artefact has never been found on sites of other periods.

[FIGURES 3-4 OMITTED]

How was salt-working organized and did this north Catalonian group specialize in salt production? The high proportion of tools made from broken polished axe blades, their distribution beyond a radius of 20 km around the salt outcrop and, above all, the absence of major fortified sites which could have controlled the area, suggest that the salt was freely exploited and was not reserved for a small number of local specialists.

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