Salt of the Alps: ancient Austrian mine holds Bronze Age secrets

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The well-preserved remains of a prehistoric miner, found in the salt mine in the year 1734, is pictured on August 16, 2018, in Hallstatt, Austria. (AFP)
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A bronze ornament found in the prehistoric salt mine, is pictured on August 16, 2018, in Hallstatt, Austria. (AFP)
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Hans Reschreiter, chief archaeologist at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, lifts with his hand a 3000 year old prehistoric rope, at the salt mine in Hallstatt, Austria, on August 16, 2018. (AFP)
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Hans Reschreiter, chief archaeologist at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, is pictured at the salt mine in Hallstatt, Austria, on August 16, 2018. (AFP)
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Hans Reschreiter, chief archeologist at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna, is pictured on August 16, 2018 in Hallstatt, Austria, beside well-preserved remains of a prehistoric miner, found in 1734 at the Hallstatt salt mine. (AFP)
Updated 24 August 2018
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Salt of the Alps: ancient Austrian mine holds Bronze Age secrets

  • The vast deposit of sea salt inside was left by the ocean that covered the region some 250 million years ago
  • In the mid-19th century, excavations revealed a necropolis that showed the site’s prominence during the early Iron Age

HALLSTATT, Austria: All mines need regular reinforcement against collapse, and Hallstatt, the world’s oldest salt mine perched in the Austrian Alps, is no exception. But Hallstatt isn’t like other mines.
Exploited for 7,000 years, the mine has yielded not only a steady supply of salt but also archaeological discoveries attesting to the existence of a rich civilization dating back to the early part of the first millennium BC.
So far less than two percent of the prehistoric tunnel network is thought to have been explored, with the new round of reinforcement work, which began this month, protecting the dig’s achievements, according to chief archaeologist Hans Reschreiter.
“Like in all the mines, the mountain puts pressure on the tunnels and they could cave in if nothing is done,” Reschreiter told AFP.
Hallstatt was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997 and the work aims to protect it for “future generations,” said Thomas Stelzer, governor of Upper Austria state where the mine is located.
Towering over a natural lake — today frequented by masses of tourists, particularly from Asia, who come to admire the picture-perfect Alpine scenery — the Hallstatt mine lies more than 800 meters (2,600 feet) above sea level.
The vast deposit of sea salt inside was left by the ocean that covered the region some 250 million years ago.

Among the most striking archaeological discoveries was that of an eight-meter-long wooden staircase dating back to 1100 BC, the oldest such staircase found in Europe.
“It was so well preserved that we could take it apart and reassemble it,” Reschreiter said.
Other items date back much further. Excavated in 1838, an axe made from staghorn dating from 5,000 BC showed that as early as then, miners “tried hard to extract salt from here,” Reschreiter said.
In the mid-19th century, excavations revealed a necropolis that showed the site’s prominence during the early Iron Age.
The civilization became known as “Hallstatt culture,” ensuring the site’s fame.
“Thousands of bodies have been excavated, almost all flaunting rich bronze ornaments, typically worn by only the wealthiest,” Reschreiter said. “The remains bore the marks of hard physical labor from childhood, while also showing signs of unequalled prosperity.”

Salt — long known as “white gold” — was priceless at the time. And Hallstatt produced up to a ton every day, supplying “half of Europe,” he said, adding that the difficult-to-access location “became the continent’s richest, and a major platform for trading in 800 BC.”
Testifying to this are sword handles made of African ivory and Mediterranean wine bowls found at the site.
A second series of excavations — started by Vienna’s Museum of Natural History some 60 years ago — produced more surprises.
In tunnels more than 100 meters below the surface, archaeologists discovered “unique evidence” of mining activity at an “industrial” scale during the Bronze Age, Reschreiter said.
As well as revealing wooden retaining structures more than 3,000 years old which were perfectly preserved by the salt, the excavation unearthed numerous tools, leather gloves and a rope — thick as a fist — as well as the remains of millions of wooden torches.

Also used by Celts and during the Roman era when salt was used to pay legions stationed along the Danube River — it is the origin of the word “salary” — the mine has never stopped working since prehistoric times.
Today, about 40 people still work there, using high-pressure water to extract the equivalent of 250,000 tons of salt per year.
“Salt doesn’t have the same value as in antiquity anymore. But some of its new uses, such as in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, are still highly profitable,” said Kurt Thomanek, technical director of salt supplier Salinen Austria.
Tourism linked to the archaeological discoveries is also “a pillar of our activities,” Thomanek added.
Last year, some 200,000 people visited the Hallstatt mine.


‘Age-Old Cities’ exhibition in Riyadh museum breathes new life into ancient sites 

Updated 19 April 2019
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‘Age-Old Cities’ exhibition in Riyadh museum breathes new life into ancient sites 

  • National Museum in Riyadh hosts digital show that tells the story of Mosul, Palmyra, Aleppo and Leptis Magna

JEDDAH: An exhibition that uses digital technology to revive the region’s ancient sites and civilizations that have been destroyed or are under threat due to conflict and terrorism opened at the National Museum in Riyadh on April 18.

“Age-Old Cities” tells the story of four historically significant cities that have been devastated by violence: Mosul in Iraq, Palmyra and Aleppo in Syria, and Leptis Magna in Libya. 

Using stunning giant-screen projections, virtual reality, archival documents and images, and video testimonials from inhabitants of the affected sites, the immersive exhibition transports visitors back in time and presents the cities as they were in their prime. 

It charts their journey from the origins of their ancient civilizations to their modern-day state, and presents plans for their restoration and repair. 

The exhibition has been organized by the Ministry of Culture in collaboration with the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Riyadh is the first stop outside the French capital on the exhibition’s global tour. 

The exhibition follows last month’s unveiling of the Kingdom’s new cultural vision, which included the announcement of several initiatives, including a new residency scheme for international artists to practice in the Kingdom and the establishment of the Red Sea International Film Festival. 

Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al-Saud, minister of culture, said: “I am delighted to welcome the ‘Age-Old Cities’ exhibition to Riyadh. 

“It highlights the importance of heritage preservation, particularly here in the Middle East, and the vulnerability of some of our historic sites. 

“It must be the responsibility of governments to put an end to this damage and neglect, and to put heritage at the heart of action, investment, and policy.

“I will be encouraging my fellow members of government to attend this eye-opening exhibition in our National Museum, and hope to work in the future with partners, governments and experts to do what we can to secure our region’s heritage.”

The exhibition carries a significant message about the importance of preserving and protecting these precious but fragile sites — one which resonates strongly in the week when one of the world’s most-famous heritage sites, Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral, went up in flames.