Miners and Mining in the Late Bronze Age: A Multidisciplinary Study from Austria

Article excerpt



The mining industry underpinned the innovations of the Bronze Age, and yet we still know little about the environment and economy of the mining communities. Current research questions concern the raw materials exploited, the structure of the mining landscapes, the technologies applied, the mining culture and the effects of mining activities on environments and human societies alike. In particular, we need to explore aspects of the mining populations' food supply and diet. Among the key regions for the study of prehistoric mining is the Mauken mining district (Tyrol), which was active from the Late Bronze to Early Iron Age. Here we present new information about these miners, who have been the subject of an interdisciplinary project investigating their local environment and food supply as well as the methods by which metal was extracted and processed.

The Mauken mining district

The Mauken mining area is located in the Radfeld/Brixlegg region of the Lower Inn Valley. The area between Schwaz in the west and Radfeld in the east, extending along the southern side of the central Lower Inn Valley, is well known for mining in the early modern period. Cupriferous and argentiferous Fahlore was extracted on a large scale and the area became one of Europe's leading mining centres in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries AD, as celebrated in the sixteenth-century 'Schwazer Bergbuch' (Bartels et al. 2006).

Archaeological field research undertaken since the 1990s has revealed that the area had also been the location of a mining boom from the Late Bronze to the Early Iron Age, also targeting the copper-bearing Fahlore deposits (Rieser & Schrattenthaler 2000; Goldenberg & Rieser 2004). The Mauken Valley near Rattenburg (Figure 1, inset), situated at an altitude between 900 and 1200m asl, is of special interest (Goldenberg & Rieser 2004; Goldenberg 2008; Klaunzer et al. 2010). Mining here exploited the eastern branch of Fahlore deposits in the so-called 'Schwaz dolomite' (Pirkl 1961).


The recent campaign of excavations in the Mauken Valley (2000-2009) involved five main sites and took place within a broader Austrian research project (HiMAT) aimed at a fuller understanding of the prehistory of mining. Using data from archaeological excavations in the 1990s (Goldenberg & Rieser 2004) and magnetic field measurements conducted in 2007 (Terrana Geophysik, Mossingen), the well-preserved in situ remains of a smelting site were excavated in 2008 at Mauk A (Figure 1). Two furnaces and a dual-phase ore roasting bed were defined, and an excavation trench was cut through a heap of slag-sand in order to recover organic remains for archaeozoological and archaeobotanical analyses. The animal bones (food waste), mostly stained green by copper salts, were preserved exceptionally well. The archaeobotanical macroremains, on the other hand, were in a poorer state of preservation (Schatz et al. 2002; Heiss & Oeggl 2005, 2008).

Mine shafts were investigated at Mauk B and Mauk E (2009), the latter extending some 25m into the mountain (Figure 2). Mauk D, investigated in 2000, was the site of a small group of mine shafts located on a terrace, where exploratory excavations uncovered the remains of a work camp for ore processing adjacent to the mine adits. A feature of the site was a 'midden' containing a rich assemblage of ceramics, animal bones and stone tools. In 2007/08 a small, well-preserved ore processing site (Mauk F) was recorded and explored extensively by archaeological excavations in the Schwarzenberg-Moos, a former bog, now practically drained. Upon discovery, the features were completely embedded in peat deposits. Remains of tree stumps and chop notches at the bottom of the site indicate that a work camp had been created in the boggy area by clearing a formerly wooded plot.


The vegetation history of the region was documented by pollen profiles taken at three points along a transect from the valley floor up to a middle upland elevation (located as black triangles in Figure 1, inset). …