A Hole in the Ground

May 9, 2016 / Local Interest
Colline Metallifere, Tuscany

That the area was always rich in minerals is well known. Its long history since the bronze age as a center of metallurgy continues to this day, with the (uncertain future of the) steelworks and furnaces in Piombino.


Yet, riding along trails in the hills above the costa Etrusca (as the area is known) I was still caught off guard by this hole in the ground.


That’s mining Etruscan-style. Or world-wide actually, at the time. No dynamite meant that blasting holes into the sides of mountains and hauling tons of ore out horizontally was out of the question.

So how did they do it? Three thousand years ago, you would walk around until you saw a patch of stones with a high mineral ore content like this one…


…and you would begin digging down, following the vein for as long as it lasted.

Basically, mines in the day were narrow, vertical holes, illuminated by small oil lamps, and bored by hand with smaller utensils. (No space to swing a large pickaxe, the Etruscan mine above is about 2 x 3 feet in diameter, about 40 meters or 130 feet deep, and properly fenced off thankfully).

As you can imagine, conditions would have been literally and figuratively abysmal for the miners, who (to make matters even more disconcerting) it appears were often children as their small size kept the size of the borehole to a minimum, speeding up the extraction of the ore.

Later on, I came across a quarry (bored horizontally) from the 19th century. Peeking inside, you can see that the cavernous entrance of the modern quarry intersected another one of the narrow, vertical Etruscan borehole mines, visible in the roof of the quarry.


Bits and pieces of modern mining equipment were visible further on, abandoned by operations ceased not 50 years ago.


The area contains the Parco ArcheoMinerario of San Silvestro. (Well worth a visit, especially with children.) Busy contemplating my newfound appreciation for the aluminum and steel on my bike, my route finding skills and location were confirmed (ahem!) when I saw the old abandoned Earles shaft (now part of the park’s outdoor museum/displays), a 20th century version of the Etruscan mines that I had come across earlier.




by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

6 Responses to “A Hole in the Ground”

  1. Interesting the things one will find if they know where to look. Fascinating note GB

  2. This reminds me of my family’s ancient building in Piemonte where I’ve stayed many times: the foundation is Etruscan, the lower rooms are Roman and the rest of the building was built about the year 900. Non of the rooms have right angles, the belief, so I’ve been told, that rooms were built as such in the belief that the devil hid in right angles. How many wonderful hours I spent in the lower levels feeling the comfort of being surrounded by walls my ancestors built well before the first century. One gains a comfort that lasts forever when once communicating with ancestors as such.

  3. Nina Sgriccia

    Interesting article. The mines that were just deep holes looked scary. Many Italian immigrants settled in Michigan’s Upper Penninsula in the late 1800’s to work in the copper mines. Italian priests came to establish churches in several towns. There are historic markers in some towns honoring the Italian mine workers. The town of Iron Mountain still has several Italian restaurants and a market that imports foods like prosciutto and sopresso.
    Thank you GB. I love Italian Notebook!

  4. Victoria De Maio

    Now this is truly off the beaten track and a real glimpse into how difficult and arduous life was for so many–thank you, GB, for sharing.


Leave a Reply to Victoria De Maio

Click here to cancel reply.