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The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites

Laurion

Laurion. In antiquity, even as now, Laurion was understood as Attica's SE corner, the place of the silver mines, a clearly identified system of low hills stretching N from Cape Sounion for a distance of ca. 17 km. For most of this length, Laurion has a single backbone marked by a succession of peaks, the highest of which, Vigla Rimbari, located near the chain's midpoint, has a height of 372 m; but to the S, where it reaches a maximum width of 10 km, the system is divided by the Legraina valley. Along the E coast, other cultivatable valleys penetrate the hills, especially at Thorikos, where the low, flat land is large enough to constitute a small plain and, for millennia, to have helped support a settled community. Otherwise, most of Laurion's 200 sq. km is rugged and waterless, and would have given little to Athenian economy had it not been for the early discovery, particularly in the hills on its E side, of rich deposits of ore--mixed sulphides of lead, zinc, and iron--from the first of which silver could be profitably extracted.
  Exploitation of this mineral wealth may have begun as early as the Middle Helladic period, but the evidence admits of no assessment of the extent, or continuity, of the industry in the Bronze and Early Iron Ages. By the archaic period, however, from the time of Peisistratos' tyranny (Hdt. 1.64) and with the issuance of Athens' silver coinage, the mines of Laurion had assumed political as well as economic significance. And in the 5th c. B.C. this importance increased with deeper mining and the discovery of the ore bodies of the "third contact" (Arist. Ath.Pol. 22.7). But progress was halted by the placing of the Spartan fort at Dekeleia in 413 B.C. (Thuc. 6.91 & 7.27), and recovery may have been slow, for Xenophon (Vect. 4) makes clear that even in the middle of the 4th c. the industry still needed encouragement. Despite this setback, the Classical period marks the heyday of the Laurion mines. Thereafter the story is one of decline, accompanied by a slave revolt (Ath. 6.272), and by Strabo's time men had ceased to go underground but were now reworking the slag-heaps (9.1.23). Even this activity is missing from Pausanias' description of the place as one where "the Athenians once had silver mines" (1.1.1).
  Of this ancient and extensive industry, particularly from the Classical period, the remains that survive throughout Laurion are almost beyond count, many still to be properly cleared and studied. A fair sample of them may be seen alongside any of the roads that serve the mining area: the mines themselves, some nothing more than a rudely hacked horizontal passage, others a complex system of deep galleries linked to the surface by well-cut shafts as much as 100 m deep; milling and washing establishments, the latter with nearby cisterns for the storage of water; furnaces (the excavation of a heavy-walled building containing a bank of them was begun in 1971 near Megala Peuka); slag and other waste; living quarters and cemeteries; roads and culverts. But to some Laurion did not mean only mining: there are also, in some less accessible places, instructive examples of farmhouses and marble quarries, in one of which one can see where column drums were removed. Finally, at the top of Vigla Rimbari there is a rubble enclosure wall, perhaps a direct answer to Xenophon's suggestion (Vect. 4.43-44) that the area needed a third stronghold, in addition to those at Anaphlystos and Thorikos, to protect in war one of the city-state's most valuable assets.

C.W.J. Eliot, ed.
This text is from: The Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites, Princeton University Press 1976. Cited Nov 2002 from Perseus Project URL below, which contains 21 image(s), bibliography & interesting hyperlinks.


Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities

Laurium

(Laurion and Laureion). A mountain in the south of Attica, a little north of the promontory Sunium, celebrated for its silver mines, which in early times were very productive, so that each Athenian citizen received ten drachmae ($1.60) annually; but in the time of Augustus they yielded nothing.


Greek & Roman Geography (ed. William Smith)

Laurium

Laurium, Laureion, Laurion, Adj. Lauriotikos (hence hai glaukes Lauriotikai, Aristoph. Av. 1106, silver coins, with the Athenian figure of an owl). A range of hills in the south of Attica, celebrated for their silver mines. These hills are not high, and are covered for the most part with trees and brushwood. The name is probably derived from the shafts which were sunk for obtaining the ore, since Laura in Greek signifies a street or lane, and laureion would therefore mean a place formed of such lanes,--i. e., a mine of shafts, cut as it were into streets, like a catacomb. The mining district extended a little way north of Sunium to Thoricus, on the eastern coast. Its present condition is thus described by Mr. Dodwell : - One hour from Thorikos brought us to one of the ancient shafts of the silver mines; and a few hundred yards further we came to several others, which are of a square form, and cut in the rock. We observed only one round shaft, which was larger than the others, and of considerable depth, as we conjectured, from the time that the stones, which were thrown in, took to reach the bottom. Near this are the foundations of a large round tower, and several remains of ancient walls, of regular construction. The traces are so extensive, that they seem to indicate, not only the buildings attached to the mines, but the town of Laurium itself, which was probably strongly fortified, and inhabited principally by the people belonging to the mines. Some modern writers doubt whether there was a town of the name of Laurium; but the grammarians (Suidas and Photius) who call Laurium a place (topos) in Attica appear to have meant something more than a mountain; and Dodwell is probably correct in regarding the ruins which he describes as those of the town of Laurium. Near these ruins Dodwell observed several large heaps of scoria scattered about, Dr. Wordsworth, in passing along the shore from Sunium to Thoricus, observes:--The ground which we tread is strewed with rusty heaps of scoria from the silver ore which once enriched the soil. On our left is a hill, called Score, so named from these heaps of scoria, with which it is covered. Here the shafts which have been sunk for working the ore are visible. The ores of this district have been ascertained to contain lead as well as silver. This confirms the emendations of a passage in the Aristotelian Oeconomies proposed by Bockh and Wordsworth, where, instead of Turion in Puthokles Athenaios Athenaiois sunebouleuse ton molnbdon ton ek ton Turion paralambanein, Bockh suggests gests Laurion, and Wordsworth argurion, which ought rather to be agureion, as Mr. Lewis observes.
  The name of Laurium is preserved in the corrupt form of Legrana or Alegrana, which is the name of a metokhi of the monastery of Mendeli.
  The mines of Laurium, according to Xenophon (de Vectig. iv. 2), were worked in remote antiquity; and there can be no doubt that the possession of a large supply of silver was one of the main causes of the early prosperity of Athens. They are alluded to by Aeschylus (Pers. 235) in the line-- argurou pege tis autois eoti, thesanros chthonos.
  They were the property of the state, which sold or let for a long term of years, to individuals or companies, particular districts, partly in consideration of a sum or fine paid down, partly of a reserved rent equal to one twenty-fourth of the gross produce. Shortly before the Persian wars there was a large sum in the Athenian treasury, arising out of the Laurian mines, from which a distribution of ten drachmae a head was going to be made among the Athenian citizens, when Themistocles persuaded them to apply the money to the increase of their fleet. (Herod. vii. 144; Plut. Them. 4.) Bockh supposes that the distribution of ten drachmae a head, which Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to forego, was made annually, from which he proceeds to calculate the total produce of the mines. But it has been justly observed by Mr. Grote, that we are not authorised to conclude from the passage in Herodotus that all the money received from the mines was about to be distributed ; nor moreover is there any proof that there was a regular annual distribution. In addition to which the large sum lying in the treasury was probably derived from the original purchase money paid down, and not from the reserved annual rent.
  Even in the time of Xenophon (Mem. iii. 6. ยง 12) the mines yielded much less than at an early period; and in the age of Philip, there were loud complaints of unsuccessful speculations in mining. In the first century of the Christian era the mines were exhausted, and the old scoriae were smelted a second time. (Strab. ix.) In the following century Laurium is mentioned by Pausanias (i. 1), who adds that it had once been the seat of the Athenian silver mines.

This text is from: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD). Cited June 2004 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks


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