Ancient Salt-Mining in Austria

Article excerpt

Above Hallein, 14 km south of Salzburg and at 800 m above sea level, the spa village of Heilbad Durrnberg clusters around what until recently was a centre of commercial salt production. Its prehistoric roots overlapped with the hey-day of the well-known Hallstatt site, 40 km east. From c. 750-150 BC a community of perhaps 200 provided the labour force for the mines. It was clearly dangerous work; in 1573 and again in 1616 there are contemporary records of the discovery of the well-preserved bodies of Iron Age miners while on the Durrnberg as again at Hallstatt there are indications of serious landslides. As in historic times, the miners probably worked part-time only, in spring and autumn tending their pigs and cattle and pasture land. The wealth of this small settlement is clearly evidenced by the clusters of graves which surrounded the various rectangular houses.

In recent years, archaeological activity on the Durrnberg peaked in 1979-82 when construction of an all-weather road linking Hallein with Berchtesgaden just over the German border necessitated the assembling of an international project. To date some 350 graves have been excavated, a fraction of those which must still remain unlocated. Attic drinking cups, Etruscan bronzes and a Macedonian coin, no less than exotic raw materials such as Baltic amber, Mediterranean coral, a cowrie shell from the Arabian Gulf and even silk indicate how widespread the down-the-line trading of the Durrnberg miners must have been. On the other hand, stylistic affinities between such masterpieces of early Celtic art as the 4th-century bronze flagon found in 1932 in a chariot grave (FIGURE 1) and that discovered in 1997 in one of three rich warrior's graves below the Glauberg northeast of Frankfurt bear witness both to the long-range links between Iron Age communities and also to the skills that they could command.


In 1998 a new three-year project combining Flinders University in Adelaide, the University of Leicester and the Philipps-Universitat Marburg, backed up by a large group of specialists, started to examine traces of Celtic mining both below ground in the area exploited by the modern saltmines and also on the surface, where it was hoped to recover ancient adits and dumps of waste material. The cessation in 1989 of commercial operations on the Durrnberg has brought new threats to the mines. Old shafts are collapsing, so there is limited time in which to look at the prehistoric levels before they become inaccessible. The finds from the Iron Age mines are mostly contained in the so-called Heidengebirge, old workings redeposited by tectonic movement. They are almost without parallel; colourful textiles, fragments of leather clothing and whole shoes, including those of children, while wooden artefacts show that until the last century there has been relatively little change in mining technology (FIGURE 2). …