Silver and silver mining – the history

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Silver mining slaves at Laurion, near Athens

Silver mining slaves at Laurion, near Athens

People first mined silver in the Bronze Age. Like gold, silver is a great way to help people trade. Even before people started to make coins, little bits of silver – bracelets, earrings, and necklaces – were a great way to carry around something valuable but not too heavy in your pocket.

Silver was pretty easy to find all over Europe and West Asia. The big problem was, silver ore (the rocks that had silver in them) generally also had lead in it, so that lead mining and silver mining were the same thing. But lead is very poisonous, so the men who were mining the silver were also being poisoned by the lead. Most lead-and-silver miners died of lead poisoning in two or three years. Because of this, most free men wouldn’t work in the mines. But silver was so useful that people really wanted it anyway.  So they forced slaves to work in the mines instead.

Athenian silver coin showing Athena and her owl

Athenian silver coin showing Athena and her owl (400s BC)

One famous silver mine was Laurion, near Athens in Greece. About 500 BC, the Athenians found an enormous silver mine right near Athens, on land that belonged to the government. This mine was what paid to build Athens’ first navy, and helped Athens to become a powerful city-state.

Another famous set of mines were in southern Spain. These mines were already being worked in the Bronze Age. After the First Punic War, in the 250s BC, the Carthaginians took over these mines and used the income from them to pay the money the Romans demanded. Then in the Second Punic War the Romans took over these mines and used the money they got from the mines to pay for more conquests.

Han Dynasty silver coin (200 BC-200 AD)

Han Dynasty silver coin (200 BC-200 AD)

Both the Greeks and the Romans were able to trade their silver to people further east, because there’s very little silver in China. People in China wanted silver to use as money, but they never had enough. Even when Ming Dynasty Chinese people invaded Vietnam and took their gold and silver, it still wasn’t enough. So Silk Road traders knew they could always sell silver in China and buy silk and porcelain to sell back in the west.

By the late Middle Ages, though, there just didn’t seem to be enough silver anywhere to make enough coins for people to use. So when Spanish and Portuguese explorers found out that there was a lot of silver in South America, they were very excited. They enslaved lots of Inca and Aztec and Brazilian people and forced them to work in these dangerous silver mines. Millions of people died working in the mines. The Spanish and Portuguese brought shiploads of silver to sell to China.

Mining in Potosí, an engraving from Theodoor de Bry in Historia Americae sive Novi Orbis, 1596

Mining in Potosí, an engraving from Theodoor de Bry in Historia Americae sive Novi Orbis, 1596

At first, China was pretty enthusiastic. Finally, plenty of silver! But by the 1600s, even China had enough silver. Nobody really needed any more silver than they already had. The Spanish and Portuguese couldn’t find anyone who wanted to buy their silver anymore. That’s one reason that even though the Spanish got rich first from colonization, in the end, the British became more powerful.

Learn by doing: check out something made of silver, maybe in a jewelry store
Gold and gold-mining

Bibliography and further reading about silver – or buy some silver for yourself!


Gold in history
Lead in the Ancient World
Iron in the Ancient World home

By | 2017-10-17T13:26:22+00:00 September 7th, 2017|Economy, West Asia|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Silver and silver mining – the history. Study Guides, September 7, 2017. Web. June 19, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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