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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

      Hallstatt - A Stairway to the Bronze and Iron Ages

          Hallstatt in the Dachstein Mountains of the Austrian Alps is probably best known for its prehistoric cemetery, from which the early Iron Age Hallstatt culture derives its name. Between 1846-1864 Johann Georg Ramsauer, director of the salt mines at Hallstatt, excavated more than 990 richly furnished graves. Paul Reinecke (1872-1958) then used these finds to develop a chronology based on a comparison of the combination of artifacts within the individual burials. These graves contained Bronze Age and early Iron Age weapons and jewelry. Using material from the abundant early Iron Age burials, Reinecke defined the periods Hallstatt C and D, which today are generally accepted divisions of the early Iron Age of Central Europe (ca. 750-475 BC).

          The nearby Hallstatt salt mine, which was exploited in late medieval times (after AD 1311), has since revealed material left behind by prehistoric miners, including bodies of possible accident victims. After the discovery of the adjacent cemetery, it became clear that there probably was a connection between the prehistoric mining activities and the graveyard, which mainly contained the bodies of middle-aged men.

          More recent investigations in the salt mine have revealed numerous well-preserved items of the Bronze and Iron Age due to the properties of the salt environment. These included thousands of pinewood chips (for lighting the mine galleries); pieces of woolen textiles; fur and leather caps; leather shoes; and leather carrying baskets (to transport the salt). Other items include ropes and cords made of grass and bast (to pull up larger plates of salt); wooden handles for metal picks; wooden shovels; and leftovers of food. These varied items provide insight into the methods used in mining, wood and leather processing, and rope production.

          Since most of the material was deposited in the mine between 1400 and 600 BC, covering the Middle Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age, it is evident that mining activities began long before the interments in Hallstatt cemetery. Three different mine tracts could be determined: the north group, which was in use between 1400 and 800 BC (Middle and Late Bronze Age); the east group exploited between ca. 800-400 BC (Middle Bronze Age and Iron Age), and a younger west group around AD 0. Mining activities within the east group apparently decreased after 600 BC, perhaps due to problems of infiltrating water, which finally forced closing the mine after 400 BC.

[Fig.1: The Bronze Age staircase in the Hallstatt salt mine during excavation (photo: Hans Reschreiter)].

          Recent research carried out by Hans Reschreiter of the Natural History Museum in Vienna has led to the discovery of a large wooden staircase, clearly revealing the skills of Bronze Age carpenters. This is the oldest known staircase in Europe, dating back to the 13th millennium BC. It consists of spruce and fir trunks, each 20 cm thick, connected by flat and triangular pieces of wood comprising the steps (fig.1). The steps are 1 m wide and carefully fit into slits carved into the trunks. Dendrochronological analysis shows that all the wood in the staircase was cut within the same year.

          The staircase is situated at the lower end of a Bronze Age shaft, from which horizontally oriented galleries branch off. Such Late Bronze Age shafts of the Hallstatt salt mine could reach well below 100 m into the mountain. During the Early Iron Age, other mining methods included the excavation of huge horizontal halls, which followed the course of the best salt layers. These underground halls could reach dimensions of more than 170 m in length, 10-20 m in width, and 20 m in height.

          Little in the way of Bronze and Iron Age settlement has been found in the direct vicinity of these two sites, perhaps because of a giant rockfall which covered parts of the region during the 4th century BC. A survey of the surrounding Dachstein Mountains and their alpine pastures undertaken since the 1980s, however, has shed new light on the miners' possible subsistence strategies. At an elevation of 1600-2100 m a.s.l. more than twenty campsites of the Middle and Late Bronze Age have been discovered, with stone house foundations (probably log cabins), hearths, bones of domestic animals (cattle, pigs, horses, and goats or sheep) and other artifacts. Perhaps these alpine pastural farming sites, which were situated above the treeline and therefore did not need to be cleared, supplied the workers of the Bronze Age salt mine with meat.

[Archäologische Sensation im Salzberg von Hallstatt: Älteste Holzstiege Europas gefunden. Press release, 10/12/04, Nat. History Museum Vienna and the Salien Austria AG; Barth, F. E. 1998. "Bronzezeitliche Salzgewinnung in Hallstatt." In: Hänsel B. (ed.): Mensch und Umwelt in der Bronzezeit Europas: pp. 123-128. Kiel; Cerwinka, G. and F. Mandl (eds.). 1996. Dachstein. Vier Jahrtausende Almen im Hochgebirge. Vol. 1. Gröbming; Cerwinka, G. and F. Mandl (eds). 1998. Dachstein. Vier Jahrtausende Almen im Hochgebirge. Vol. 2. Haus i.E.]

This article appears on pages 12-13 in the Recent Finds in Archaeology of Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

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