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”
. 22.7). But progress was halted by the
placing of the Spartan fort at Dekeleia in 413 B.C. (Thuc.
& 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”
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.
) 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.
B. Ardaillon, Les Mines du Laurion
; G. P. Marinos & W. E.
; J. H. Young, “Studies in South Attica, Country Estates at Sounion,” Hesperia
; R. J. Hopper, “The Laurion Mines:
A Reconsideration,” BSA
63 (1968) 293-326; H. F.
Mussche et al., Thorikos