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Sending Laurion Back to the Future: Bronze Age Silver and the Source of Confusion

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Wood J. R., Hsu, Y-T and Bell, C.
Internet Archaeology 56. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.56.9
Figure 20: Stag Rhyton (SG388) in the National Museum of Athens (NMA388). Photo Zde (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Silver-bearing lead ores at Laurion in Attica were considered to have been first exploited with the introduction of coinage sometime around the birth of Classical Greece. However, in the late 20th century this chronology was radically revised earlier, to the Bronze Age, largely supported by lead isotope analyses (LIA). Here, we acknowledge that lead and silver metallurgy emerged from the earliest times but we propose that any correlation between these metals in the archaeological record is not a consequence of a geological association between lead and silver in ores such as galena until the middle of the first millennium BCE. We suggest that ancient metallurgists recognised that silver minerals (such as horn silver) dispersed in host rocks could be concentrated in molten lead and that LIA signatures of Bronze Age silver artefacts reflect the use of exogenous lead to extract silver, perhaps applying processes similar to those used to acquire silver in Bronze Age Siphnos. We further propose that lead from Laurion used for silver extraction resulted in the inadvertent transfer of its LIA signature (probably aided by roving silver prospectors) to silver objects and metallurgical debris recovered around the Aegean. New compositional analyses for the Mycenaean shaft-grave silver (c. 1600 BCE) support these conclusions. We believe that reverting to the mid-first millennium BCE for the first exploitation of silver from argentiferous lead ores is consistent with the absence of archaeological evidence for centralised control over Laurion until the Archaic period, the paucity of lead slag associated with silver-processing debris at Bronze Age sites, the scarcity of silver artefacts recovered in post-shaft grave contexts at Mycenae and throughout the Early Iron Age Aegean, the few Attic silver coins with LIA signatures consistent with Laurion until after 500 BCE and a single unambiguous mention of silver in the Linear B texts. 

 


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