Cypriot Pit-prop sections, wedges & rope from ancient copper mine.: Late Archaic or Classical (c 550-350 BC)

Pit-prop sections, wedges & rope from ancient copper mine.

Since the Early Bronze Age, the pillow lavas of the foothills of the Troodos mountains in Cyprus have been a major Eastern Mediterranean source of copper, and in the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age large quantities were exported. The Late Bronze Age Uluburun shipwreck off the Turkish coast contained 10 tons of Cypriot copper, and one ton of tin from elsewhere (there is no tin to mine in Cyprus). Mining continued on an even larger scale through the Roman and Byzantine periods. Many ancient copper mine tunnels have been found, some dating from the Bronze Age. Pit-props have been found in some of these tunnels, while some tunnels through stable rock were apparently made without them. Judging from about 4 million tons of ancient slag, it has been estimated that 200,000 tons of copper were extracted from ancient Cypriot mines, half from the area of Skouriotissa in the North West, near the ancient city of Soloi (Soli).  Cyprus had originally been a green island, known for its timber, which it continued to export, but the wood required to smelt this amount of copper has been estimated at 16 times the wooded potential of ancient Cyprus.

At Scouriotissa, near Soloi, a large, red slag heap was found, dating mostly from the Early Iron Age and an even larger black heap, dating from the Roman period: the difference reflecting different smelting techniques.

The sawn pieces of pit-props and fragment of rope , pictured above, are part of the remains found in ancient tunnels destroyed during open-pit copper mining at Skouriotissa, in the North-Eastern foot-hills of the Troodos mountains. It is currently the only working copper mine in Cyprus. These pieces of wood were given to the American geologist Len Ettinger in 1970 by the Chief Geologist, Oskar Korton, and shipped back to USA in September 1970. They clearly show impregnation by copper salts.

Passages varied from 4ft high (28-30” wide) to 6ft (5ft 6”-6ft wide) and could be horizontal or sloped as much as 30º with steps. Stopes were mined out leaving rock pillars and then back-filled with rock. The posts had the thicker end at the top, either chamfered or with one or, more rarely, two wings to securely locate the cap (horizontal lintel) which was notched at each end to resist horizontal pressure on the props. They show signs of having been shaped with an adze-type tool. Lagging pieces, wedges, and ladders formed from notched tree trunks, as well as a simple windlass, were also found, along with woven basket fragments, tools, and pottery and lamp fragments. Also lengths of 3 strand rope (as the 2 fragments here).

One of the two examples of the two-horned post-top (A), was radiocarbon-dated by RCD Lockinge in February 2021. The dating of 946-201 BC is 98% probability, but more precisely a date of 552-343 BC (Archaic II- Classical II) is 67% probability. (There is also a period in the early Hellenistic of 21% probability, and a less probable cluster at the start of the Archaic.) Unfortunately this whole period saw wide fluctuations in radiocarbon levels in the atmosphere, precluding more precise dating. It is unclear if the other pieces were from different tunnels or the same tunnel, and therefore whether they could be from the same or different periods, and whether the tunnel details quoted here from JL Bruce covered tunnels from one or several periods

(11 pit-prop pieces (sections sawn on extraction or for analysis) & 2 rope fragments, with 2021 affidavit from L Etitinger, and Radiocarbon Test report.)

(All measurements start with length, along the grain. All measurements are maximums. Sawn-off refers to activity modern investigators from mine company)

Item "A":  Sawn-off top of a pit-prop "post" with 2 wings to hold in place a notched "cap" (lintel), keeping the posts apart and supporting the roof. 21.4 x 13.5 x 13cm (Item radiocarbon dated)

Item "B":  Sawn-off top of post with 2 wings to hold cap, and section cut away at the back to support narrower timber at right angles to the cap (probably a spacing piece or lagging). 23 x 14 x 11cm

Item "D":  Sawn-off, nearly circular-section, central portion of post (or cap) with some rope fibres (?) adhering.  34.2 x 11cm diameter.

Items "C" & "E":   2 short sawn-off sections from post(s) or cap(s), split in half longitudinally. "C" 8 x 11.5 x 8.8cm, "E" 8.5 x 11 x 7cm

Item "F" & "G":   Sawn-off short sections from one large and one narrower post or cap end, broken or rotted away before discovery. "F" 10 x 16.8 x 11.8cm, "G" 6.8 x9.6 x 5.4cm

Item "J": A complete cap, or other horizontal spacing timber, with heavily notched ends.  It may have been a horizontal spacer of some kind, between posts (see item B).  If this was a cap it was in an unusually narrow tunnel section and the notches are so deep it would mostly only function to keep the post tops apart, rather than take vertical pressure. However it could be the cap of a "pony set".  (Two posts and a cap make a set. Sometimes a second smaller set, a pony set, is placed above it .       50.3 x 9.7 x 7.4cm

Items "H" & "I": 2 wedges heavily stained by copper.

Item "K": Plank. This may be a modern cross-section cut through part of an ancient post to investigate copper penetration. Although strongly stained by copper salts along it's edge, its thin section (7.5mm) and very constant thickness suggest it is not an ancient plank. 

Items "L":  2 short sections of 3 strand rope, plus unravelled section of third (not shown in group photo)

See: Appendix V: Antiquities in the mines of Cyprus. JL Bruce 1937. In The Swedish Expedition: finds and results of the excavations in Cyprus 1927-31: volume III 639-71.   Reconstructing an Ancient Mining Landscape: Vasiliki Kassianidou 2021

(Provenance: Skouriotissa copper mine, Cyprus. Private collection of Len Ettinger, USA 1970-2020.)

(Aquired ArtAncient)

DJ 220. (Annex 201)