World's oldest tin mine is found in Turkey

January 04, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- A research team has discovered the world's oldest tin mine, a lengthy network of narrow tunnels, as well as the bones of workers who apparently labored in them, in the mountains of southern Turkey.

The find answers a long-standing puzzle of how people in the Middle East region, where experts believe the Bronze Age began, were able to obtain the key ingredient for the important alloy.

The discovery of the nearly 5,000-year-old mine by Aslihan Yener, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and her colleagues, also fuels a current archaeological debate on how metal technology spread. Some experts believe metallurgy was essentially invented in one population center, but Dr. Yener's work indicates otherwise.

The mine shafts were actually discovered several years ago, but the conclusions were not publicly announced until yesterday and followed years of painstaking research conducted in the tunnels and on artifacts found there and in the surrounding region.

The mine was found in rural Kestel, about 60 miles north of Taurus in the central Taurus Mountains. When the mine was most active, from 2870 B.C. to about 1870 B.C, the area was populated by a people known as the Anatolians. "We don't know who they are or what nation they were tied to because there was no writing," said Dr. Yener.

But what is known as a result of finding the mine is "this is where the then-high technology was," in the Middle East, she said.

"But until now, nobody knew where the tin, which was the most important additive to the technology, came from. Tin's economic role in the metal technology of the time is perhaps akin to oil in industry today," she said.

Before the Kestel mine discovery, some theorized that imported tin was used by ancient Middle Eastern artisans in their bronze work, said Dr. Yener.

Tin was thought to have come from central Asia and even as far RTC away as Cornwall, England, though no direct evidence existed to support this. The most likely source, however, was thought to be Afghanistan.

The Bronze Age began in about 3000 B.C. Before then, important tools, weapons and decorations were made of stone. Copper had some uses but was too soft by itself for most purposes.

Ancient metallurgists learned from centuries of experimentation that copper mixed with tin made the strong alloy of bronze, which increased the military potency of the armies equipped with such weapons. Bronze's superiority lasted until 1100 B.C., when it was supplanted by iron.

The discovery of the Kestel mine occurred because Dr. Yener conducted her investigation in mountains that had been relatively ignored by other researchers, who instead concentrated on the agricultural lowlands where the ancient urban centers were.

"This is a site unlike any other," said Guillermo Algaze, professor of anthropology at the University of California in San Diego. "Nobody has ever excavated such a site, mostly because they weren't looking for them.

But Dr. Yener excavated in what Dr. Algaze said amounted to a small gold rush town of the old American West and gleaned important information about the technological process and economics of the time.

Dr. Yener was actually looking for silver sources. "We stumbled on the source of tin," she said. "Our intent was not to look for this needle in a haystack, because we had all grown up learning that tin didn't exist in the Near East."

Researchers found the mines several years ago. The entrances had been sealed by local shepherds who had grown tired of pulling out their dead and maimed sheep, which had fallen down the shafts, Dr. Yener said.

When the researchers entered the labyrinth of shafts, they were amazed at their narrowness, only about 2 feet wide in many places. "I slid down into one of the shafts with a rope tied around my waist. It was one of the scariest things I've ever done in my life," she said.

The team estimated that about two miles of mines had been carved out of the mountain. In the accessible reaches of the mine, team members found an area that apparently was a burial site.

The site had been ransacked by the Byzantines thousands of years ago. Still, the scientists were able to observe numerous skeletons of children 12 to 15.

The children's remains and the slender shafts led researchers to hypothesize that youngsters were used to mine the tin.

Dr. Yener describes a ancient mining scene: Inside the shafts, children lighted fires against walls to soften the ore, which they then pounded off with stone implements. Although there is evidence that ventilation shafts were dug to relieve the smoky conditions, "you can imagine what it must've been like," she said.

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