TRAVEL JOURNAL 13: THE EXCAVATION

After staying at the sheep loft for four days, we had an opportunity to help on an archaeological dig in Sainte-Marie-Aux-Mines, the small town where my great grandmother was born.

The building we stayed in was (I think) an old mill, and a stream of water ran past outside. It had the interesting layout of being built against a hillside, so that each of the three floors was at ground level.

The food was wonderful, and there was an interesting mixture of historians, locals, artists, geologists and archaeologists. I met a Russian artist who does beautiful, extremely detailed drawings of archaelogical sites and artefacts, some which are so perfectly drawn they look like photographs.

Everyone stayed together in an open dorm room, which was fun in a way, but then there was like the huge old Saxon guy walking around in his underwear in the evenings, and some tittering college students playing what sounded like Truth or Dare until late at night.

There were also some intensely competitive games of Foozeball downstairs, and on the last day we were there, a wild boar roast.

There were three sites being excavated in the area – a mine, a forge, and a village where the miners lived. The earliest mine was just a hole in the ground at first (I might be wrong but I think I remember it dated from 5th or 6th centuries), and then the people began exploring the vein of silver, lead and sulphur. The later mine tunneled into the mountain was from I think the 7th and 8th century.

This early mine was already thoroughly explored by the archaeologists. They were now working on a mine from the 8th and 10th century (again, I might be remembering the dates wrong! ).

This mine had an air shaft that was also a deep well with water, reaching down just past the first gallery of the mine. Jan, the Saxon, had built a Saxon-style hut over the top of the well, a little A-frame structure to keep anyone from falling down it by accident.

Apparently a lot of Saxons migrated over to work in the mines, and later miners from all over came here. This was not the mining job of the serf-like coal miners, dangerous hard work and starvation. These people were mining silver. They were wealthy, skilled workers who made a good living, and the mine shafts having been hand-hewed out of the rock rather than blasted, the tunnels are strong and safe even over a thousand years later.

Walking inside, the rock walls are cold and damp, and still you can see the marks of picks made by the hard working people long ago to carve the tunnels in the rock. The archaeologists found wooden rails that allowed them to date the mine, almost just like the wooden rails they now have set up to run a little cart for bringing buckets of rubble up from the excavation.

Most of the excavation here was in a gallery down below, and on the last day there was a big celebration because they had discovered another gallery to explore. The Teenager worked here most of the time, hauling the little cart filled with rocks outside. It suited him much better than the more delicate work at the forge.

I worked at the forge, moving rocks and dirt carefully away from the outside. It felt like a treasure hunt. I found small fragments of green pottery from stove tiles, slag and some pieces of old wood posts. The inside of the forge was excavated down to a sooty black layer. There was also a mine here, last exploited in the 17th century.

This forge is still being figured out. There are a few remarkable things about it – there are actually two forges inside, on opposite corners, and the one forge has an unexplained divot built into the back wall. Also it is twice as large as it needed to be. Many fragments of iron slag and pieces of metal have been found, and in general it is thought to have been for making and repairing the miner’s tools.

Mine crystals.

We spent three wonderful days here and wished we had longer. The Teenager said this was his favorite part of the trip, the only part he didn’t suffer.

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