History of Mining: The evolution of shaft sinking systems in the western world and the improvement in sinking rates (Part 1 of 7) – by C. Graham and V. Evans (CIM Magazine – August 2007)


Shaft sinking prior to 1600 (ancient times)

The sinking of mine shafts has been going on for thousands of years. The Egyptians mined gold as long as 4,000 years ago, and it is thought that the Persians, Greeks, and Romans learned their shaft sinking techniques from the Egyptians.

Shaft sinking in the Egyptian period and early Roman period was carried out by prisoners of war and criminals, and conditions were terrible. Towards the end of the Roman period, prisoners of war became less available and working conditions improved dramatically.

With the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, shaft sinking and mining activity decreased substantially due to the instability in Western Europe. The social chaos and general economic instability persisted until the 11th century.

From 1100 – 1500 AD the status of the miner was much changed from Roman times. The trade of mining, which included shaft sinking, became a respected profession. Agricola, in his book De Re Metallica published in 1556, gives a number of references to shaft sinking. Advance rates at the end of this period were probably in the range of one to two metres per month.

The period from antiquity to 1600 AD covers a huge time period and many changes in civilization; however, from the early mining by the Egyptians, through Roman times, the Dark Ages, and then the Medieval period, very little changed as far as the techniques utilized for sinking shafts.

The earliest miners sought flint for tools and weapons. Shallow shafts were commonly being sunk as deep as 300 feet or 90 metres in the chalk beds of northern France and southern England in the Neolithic period (8000 BCE to 2000 BCE). Their main excavation tools were wedges and picks made from deer antlers and shovels made from the shoulder blades of oxen.

During this early period, it is thought that the spoil from shaft sinking was hauled to surface in leather bags or wicker baskets, by one or two men. Fire setting was practiced for assistance in fracturing the rock and making it easier to remove with the primitive tools that were available at the time. Ventilation methods were also primitive, often limited to waving a canvas at the mouth of the shaft.

It is important to realize that the valleys of the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile were home to the first metal-using cultures. Copper and gold were the first metals gathered in any quantity, with copper being particularly important. A civilization using considerable amounts of copper was established in Mesopotamia by about 3500 BCE and in Egypt by about 3000 BCE. Copper was used to make tools and weapons.

From Egypt and Mesopotamia, the knowledge of metals spread across Europe. The copper-based cultures of the world were replaced by cultures using bronze by about 1500 BCE. This development led to significant improvement in the quality of weapons and tools. Iron was not successfully smelted until about 1400 BCE.

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