YMHC #10: Labour in the Antique Mines of Laurion – by E. Favier

Labour in the Mines of Laurion in Greek antiquity
Eléonore Favier ( ATER Université Paris 8 – Associate researcher at the laboratory HiSoMA)

Metal was an essential material in the ancient Greek world: it was vital to agricultural production and construction, as well as to other aspects of the everyday lives of ancient Greeks, for it was used in the production of tools, vessels, currency, as well as weapons. It is in this sense that in his Natural History, Pliny the Elder has remarked that iron in particular is “at the same time the most useful and the most fatal instrument in the hand of mankind” [1]. Notably, an early meaning of the Greek word for metal, metallon (μέταλλον), is “quarry” or “mine”, a location where ore is extracted from the ground (Halleux, 1974: 34). In this short essay, I argue for the consideration of mines in every study of metal production in Greek cities, despite the fact that most of these mines were located outside city walls. The geographical distinction between the extramural extraction of ore and its intramural transformation into tools and handicraft gives us a particularly interesting perspective on how labour would have been organised in ancient Greece.

A map of the mines of Laurion. Source: Daremberg and Saglio (1873), 1850.

Different types of metal were processed in urban workshops across ancient Greece, but the most common and well-known ones included bronze, iron, lead, gold, and silver. Amongst them, bronze was probably the most widespread. Yet, bronze is an alloy that primarily consists of copper and tin, of which only the former can be found in the Mediterranean basin—on both the Greek mainland and on Cyprus, which has exported copper since the Archaic times. Tin, on the contrary, needed to be sourced from Brittany, Armorica, and the Cassiterides islands (Cunliffe, 2003), which is why Herodotus has written that “tin comes from the end of the world” (Herodotus III: 115).

In the following lines, I discuss metal mines and their organisation in Classical and Hellenistic Attica to argue that mines should be viewed holistically and not as a microcosm. A number of studies has traced the construction and exploitation of mines in ancient Greece to prehistoric times, but mining took place throughout the Classical period and beyond. The mines of Laurion,v located in the south of Attica, some 50 km SE of Athens, are probably the most well- known mine in ancient Greece (Ardaillon, 1897; Conophagos, 1980; Flament 2011). It was partly thanks to the silver, lead, and copper extracted there that Athens became significantly prosperous in the 5th and 4th century B.C. and managed to build the fleet that allowed Athenians to expand their influence and form their empire (Flament, 2018). Very telling of the importance of the Laurion mines for the Athenian state was the fact that the mines’ occupation by Sparta towards the end of the Peloponnesian War contributed to Athens’ defeat.

Thanks to the significant volume of literary, epigraphical, and archaeological sources available, the Laurion mines have been studied in more depth than any other mine in ancient Greece (Morin and Photiades, 2005; Morin et al., 2013). And yet, despite this wealth of information, the ways in which the mines functioned remain largely unknown. It is well established that the mines were owned by the city, which issued concession permits to private individuals interested in exploiting them (Flament, 2018: 199). Once the ore was extracted, it was washed in treatment workshops situated either on the extraction site or in its vicinity. While the fee for a concession permit is unknown, Demosthenes, in Against Pantaenetus, has revealed a rent of 105 drachmas a month for the leasing of a treatment workshop [2]. The Poletes stele [3] indicates that, during the 4th B.C. for the steles we are interested in [4], there were 294 concession permits, 83 treatment workshops, and six kilns (Langdon, 1991). The difference in those numbers suggests that ore treatment facilities were shared by several concessionaires (Flament, 2018: 201). We imagine there to be a specific organisation, of which we do not understand all aspects, with a likely division of labour, wherein some specialised people were involved in ore extraction and others in ore treatment.

The extraction and processing of raw material into end products required an enormous investment in terms of labour, time, and equipment. Ore was extracted manually by skilled individuals, most of whom were slaves. The majority of the workers processing ore in treatment workshops were also slaves, all of which is very telling of the fact that Athenian wealth was largely a product of enslaved labour. The sources are not clear on the total number of paid workers or slaves working in the Laurion mines. Some indications are provided by Thucydides, who has mentioned that 20,000 slaves fled the mines during the Peloponnesian War [13].

Where did ore go after it was extracted from the mines and had undergone the first stage of treatment? We assume the next stage of treatment takes place in urban workshops, but unfortunately, we do not have any proof of that except our common sense. When seeking to understand the “operational chain” of urban metal production, it is necessary to observe the entire process from the very start. By operational chain, I refer here to all the stages of the production of an object. In the case of metal, this begins with the extraction of the ore and continues with its purification, its transport to the workshops, its transformation into the end product, and, finally, the sale of the latter. Starting the study of an object within the workshop while ignoring the extraction process is counterintuitive because half of the lifecycle of the raw material is concealed. Ore extraction is important to examine for it determines the next steps in the production process. A holistic viewpoint from the mine allows us to understand the organisation of labour in the workshop by making the entire production process visible. It is outside of the workshop, in the extraction site of the raw material that we must look. From that perspective, the mine offers a new dimension to the study of artefacts, as it showcases a particularly interesting division of labour.
In conclusion, in antiquity, metal was an indispensable element in almost every aspect of the everyday life of ancient Greeks. While our gaze often focuses on the artefacts found in archaeological excavations, we need to look at the entire operation chain of metal production starting from raw material extraction within mines. In the case of bronze, which can only be obtained by mixing two metals, one of which is extracted thousands of kilometres away, we are able to frame the mine at a much bigger scale. The mines are overflowing with information on the division of labour and enslaved labour, not only internally but also as part of larger structures, such as the city and its surrounding area. Placing the mine at the very beginning of any study of metal production allows us to take into account ore extraction, treatment, and transport to urban workshops, thus offering a holistic understanding of the production circle of every artefact we come across.


[1] Pline, Natural History, XXXIV, 39: “Next to copper we must give an account of the metal known as iron, at the same time the most useful and the most fatal instrument in the hand of mankind.”

[2] Demosthenes, Against Pantenetos, 37,5: “and the plaintiff leased them from us at a rent equal to the interest accruing on the money, a hundred and five drachmae a month.”

[3] The Poletes are the magistrate in charge of Laurion tendering process.

[4] Almost seventy years separating the earliest (367/6 B.C.) from the latest (ca. 300 B.C.).


Ardaillon, É. 1897. Les Mines Du Laurion Dans l’Antiquité, Paris.
Daremberg, Ch. and E. Saglio. 1877-1914. Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines, tome 3, volume 2, Paris.
Conophagos, C. 1980. Le Laurium antique et la technique grecque de la production de l’argent, Athènes.
Cunliffe, B. 2003. “Chapitre 4. La soif de l’étain,” in Pythéas le Grec découvre l’Europe du Nord. IVe siècle av. J. -C. (Mémoires/Histoire 91), Paris, pp. 71–89.
Flament, C. 2011. “Le Laurion et la cité d’Athènes à la fin de l’époque archaïque,” L’Antiquité Classique 80, pp. 73–94.
———. 2018. “Les monnaies athéniennes aux ve-ive siècles av. n. è., des mines du Laurion au marché de la Cité,” Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez. Nouvelle série, pp. 195–213.
Halleux, R. 1974. Le Problème Des Métaux Dans La Science Antique, Liège.
Langdon, K. 1991. « Poletai Records », in The Athenian Agora. Results of Excavations conducted by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, vol. 19 : Inscriptions. Horoi, Poletai Records, Leases of Public Lands, Princeton, pp. 55-143.
Morin, D., and A. Photiades. 2005. “Nouvelles Recherches Sur Les Mines Antiques Du Laurion (Grèce),” Pallas, pp. 327–358.
Morin, D., P. Rosenthal, R. Herbach, and D. Jacquemot. 2013. “Les Techniques Minières de l’antiquité Grecque : Approche Tracéologique. Les Mines Du Laurion (Grèce).,” in Indices et traces: la mémoire des gestes: actes du colloque international, 16, 17 et 18 juin 2011, Nancy, pp. 147–169.

Demosthenes, Against Pantenetos. Translated by Murray, A. T. (1939), Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
Herodotus, Histories III. Translated by Godley, A. D. (1920) Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
Pline, Natural History XXXIV. Translated by Bostock, J. (1855), London, Taylor and Francis.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War VII. Translated by Hobbes, Th. (1843), London. Bohn.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
LIM COORDINATORS (February 27, 2023). YMHC #10: Labour in the Antique Mines of Laurion – by E. Favier. Labour In Mining. Retrieved July 19, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/qwee

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