The history of silver is long, archaeological evidence suggests that people have been using silver for at least 5000 years. The first evidence of silver mining dates back to 3000 B.C., in Cappadocia in eastern Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and Greece. This mining became a valuable resource for the Minoan and later Mycenaean civilizations that flourished in what is now, Crete, mainland Greece and the Greek islands. Silver craftsmanship was centred in these areas with the silver being used to make jewellery and as a medium of exchange.
Extracting Silver from Ore
Silver can be obtained from pure deposits, from silver ores such as argentite (Ag2S) which is named for argentum, the Latin word used for silver and horn silver (AgCl) so called because the silver ore is polished by desert wind and dust to the dull lustre of a cow horn. Silver can also be found in conjunction with deposits of ores containing lead, gold or copper, but unlike gold, silver occurring in these pure metallic forms is extremely rare in nature. Most silver occurs in ores containing a mix of metals, most commonly lead, zinc, nickel and/or copper.
In order to extract the pure silver, these ores have to undergo a refining process. Bronze Age people achieved this by heating the silver ore and blowing air over it, a process called cupellation. The silver does not react to the air, but the base metals such as lead and copper oxidize and separate from the silver.
Laurium Silver Production
After the destruction of the Minoan (Cretan) civilization in 1600 B.C. and the decline of the Mycenaean culture around 1200 B.C., the focus of silver production shifted to the silver-lead deposits of Greece’s Laurium (Lavrion) – near modern-day Athens, where it continued to feed the region’s growing empires.
The mines were the property of the state of Athens, and were rented out to individuals for a fixed percentage of the production. The most difficult work, including the extracting the ore in underground galleries, was exclusively undertaken by slaves. As many as 20,000 slaves were employed at the height of mining, many of whom lost their lives in the harsh process which included washing the ores and smelting it to produce the metal. Rain water was collected during the winter months in and held in reservoirs and in tanks as plentiful supplies from streams or rivers were unavailable. Today, the elaborate washing tables can still be seen at the site and several abandoned mining sites sprinkle the landscape west of the modern town of Lavrion.
Estimates from historical writings and the physical evidence from ancient mine dumps, indicate silver production to have been about 1 million troy ounces per year during the height of production (600 B.C. to 300 B.C.).
Early Silver Coinage
The silver mines at Laurium were highly productive and helped provide the currency for the economy of Ancient Athens, the Athenian Tetrhadrachm coin, which became the dominant currency of the eastern Mediterranean during the classical era. These coins which were first minted in about 550 B.C., along with the tribute paid by their allies in the Delian league, bestowing even more wealth upon Athenian citizens who used it to maintain their empire and to finance grand cultural projects.
A major silver vein strike in the mines circa 483 B.C. was used to finance the construction and expansion of a formidable navy of 200 war triremes created at the persuasion of Themistokles and thus laid the foundation of the Athenian naval power. Athens relied heavily on sea commerce for its wealth and on imports for food; Themistokles argued that the navy would help Athens in its long-standing rivalry with the island of Aegina, and in the ongoing war with the Persian empire. This navy defeated the Persians in the naval battle of Salamis, and helped spawn the Athenian empire of the Classical era.
The Laurium mines thus had a direct and major effect on the creation of the Athenian empire, and on the Golden Age of Athenian democracy that followed.
For about 1,000 years ending around the 1st century A.D. the Laurium mines were the largest individual source of world silver production. Beyond Laurium production was concentrated mainly in Asia Minor, Sardinia, other Grecian locations.