Mid Fourth-Millennium Copper Mining in Liguria, North-West Italy: The Earliest Known Copper Mines in Western Europe

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Our understanding of the origins of copper metallurgy in Europe has developed somewhat since Renfrew (1969, 1970: 306-8, figure 10) posited independent origins for copper working in the Balkans and in the Iberian Peninsula. One key issue that has emerged is the distinction between the circulation of copper artefacts, what Skeates (1994) has defined as the 'early metal-using horizon', and the actual mining of copper ores for the manufacture of artefacts. Thus small numbers of metal artefacts already occur in Italian late Neolithic contexts: for example, an awl found in the Atone Candide cave (Finale Ligure, Savona province) may be dated to 4000 cal BC or earlier and seems to be made of native copper (Campana & Franceschi 1997).

Evidence for prehistoric copper mining was reported in the nineteenth century at a number of sites in Liguria, north-west Italy, notably by the geologist and pioneer of prehistoric research, Issel (1879, 1892: 4-6). In this paper we present twelve new radiocarbon dates obtained from recent excavations carried out by an international team at one of these--the copper mines at Monte Loreto (Castiglione Chiavarese, Genoa province) (see Table 1). The dates, obtained mostly from young-wood charcoal, document actual copper extraction (rather than just metal use) from around 3500 cal BC, making these the earliest copper mines discovered in Western Europe so far. Our excavations at Monte Loreto have documented prehistoric mines and ore-dressing facilities in various locations on the slopes of the mountain, and evidence has also been found of Byzantine activity. These new dates complement and confirm those obtained previously on material recovered in the nineteenth century at copper mines at Libiola (Sestri Levante, Genoa province) where prehistoric mining is attested in the second half of the fourth millennium cal BC.

Monte Loreto

Copper was still being produced from deposits at Monte Loreto (Figure 1, no. 2) in the late nineteenth century, but production quickly declined after the 1920s. The current archaeological investigations which began in 1996 are conducted by the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Liguria (RM) and the University of Nottingham (MP), with the collaboration of cavers from the Centro Studi Sotterranei (Genoa) and the University of Nottingham School of Geography. The excavations are sited on the south-eastern slopes of the Monte Loreto, along a series of copper veins at the contact between the basalt and an outcrop of serpentinite breccia, close to the village of Masso. Much of the mountainside shows evidence for mining, but excavation has concentrated on two areas: the first is where prehistoric miners have emptied natural fissures of copper ore, the second is primarily an ore treatment area. Other trenches have been opened in various points across the copper outcrop, as field survey and our growing ability to recognise ancient workings have progressed.


Various features of prehistoric mining techniques have been recognised. Ore-bearing fissures in the friable country rock (the rock surrounding the ore) were excavated and backfilled by the miners, leaving deposits of datable charcoal. In many cases the ore was extracted leaving the country rock in place, and the fissures are sometimes very narrow, 0.3 or 0.4m at most. A complete 3.75 m section was obtained in 1998 in one of these prehistoric mines. The section was cleaned in three steps for safety reasons (Figure 2): the positions of a hammer stone, a trampled work floor (probably a temporary platform during the backfilling operations) and a [sup.14]C-dated charcoal sample are all indicated. A radiocarbon determination of 4240 [+ or -] 60 BP (see Table 1: T5) was obtained from charcoal found at this point in the section. Charcoal samples from other trenches have yielded similar dates (T10, within another fissure, 4090 [+ or -] 60 BP; T8, a succession of layers of chalcopyrite-rich ore-processing debris, 4710 [+ or -] 40 BP, 4090 [+ or -] 50 BP and 4000 [+ or -] 40 BP). …