De Re Metallica
Quarrying (steengroeve) and mining are the prime extractive occupations: without stones and metals with sharp edges and resistant surfaces neither weapons nor tools could have passed beyond a very crude shape and limited effectiveness – however ingeniously wood, shell and bone may have been used by primitive man before he had mastered stone. The first efficient tool seems to have been a stone held in the human hand as a hammer: the German word for fist is die Faust, and to this day the miner’s hammer is called ein Fäustel.
Of all stones flint (vuursteen), because of its commonness in Northern Europe and because of its breaking into sharp scalloped edges, was perhaps the most important in the development of tools. With the aid of other rocks, or of a pick-ax made of reindeer horn, the flint miner extracted his stone, and by patient effort shaped it to his needs: the hammer itself had reached its present refinement of shape by the late neolithic period. During a great span of primitive life the slow perfection of stone tools was one of the principal marks of its advancing civilization and its control over the environment: this reached perhaps its highest point in the Big Stone culture, with its capacity for cooperative industrial effort, as shown in the transportation of the great stones of its outdoor temples and astronomical observatories, and in its relatively high degree of exact scientific knowledge. In its latest period the use of clay for pottery made it possible to preserve and store liquids, as well as to keep dried provisions from moisture and mildew: another victory for the primitive prospector who was learning to explore the earth and adapt its non-organic content to his uses.
There is no sharp breach between grubbing, quarrying and mining (wroeten, hakken en graven). The same outcrop (dagzomende aardlaag) that shows quartz may equally hold gold, and the same stream that has clayey banks may disclose a gleam or two of this precious metal – precious for primitive man not only because of its rarity but because it is soft, malleable, ductile, non-oxidizing, and may be worked without the use of fire. The use of gold and amber and jade antedates the so-called age of metals: they were prized for their rareness and their magical qualities, even more than for what could be directly made of them. And the hunt for these minerals had nothing whatever to do with extending the food-supply or establishing creature comforts: man searched for precious stones, as he cultivated flowers, because long before he had invented capitalism and mass production he had acquired more energy than he needed for bare physical survival on the terms of his existing culture.
In contrast to the forethought and sober plodding of the peasant, the work of the miner is the realm of random effort (zomaar wat doen, op goed geluk): irregular in routine and uncertain in result. Neither the peasant nor the herdsman can get rich quickly: the first clears a field or plants a row of trees this year from which perhaps only his grandchildren will get the full benefits. The rewards of agriculture are limited by the known qualities of the soil and seed and stock: cows do not calve more quickly one year than another, nor do they have fifteen calves instead of one; and for the seven years of abundance seven lean years, on the law of averages, are pretty sure to follow. Luck for the peasant is usually a negative fact: hail, wind, blight, rot. But the rewards of mining may be sudden, and they may bear little relation, particularly in the early stages of the industry, either to the technical ability of the miner or the amount of labor he has expended. One assiduous prospector may wear out his hart for years without finding a rich seam; a newcomer in the same district may strike luck in the first morning he goes to work. While certain mines, like the salt mines of the Salzkammergut, have been in existence for centuries, the occupation in general is an unstable one.
Until the fifteenth century A.D., mining had perhaps made less technical progress than any other art: the engineering skill that Rome showed in aque-ducts and roads did not extend in any degree to the mines. Not merely had the art remained for thousands of years in a primitive stage: but the occupation itself was one of the lowest in the human scale. Apart from the lure (aantrekkingskracht) of prospecting, no one entered the mine in civilized states until relatively modern times except as a prisoner of war, a criminal, a slave. Mining was not regarded as a humane art: it was a form of punishment: it combined the terrors of the dungeon with the physical exacerbation (uitputting) of the galley. The actual work of mining, precisely because it was meant to be burdensome, was not improved during the whole of antiquity, from the earliest traces of it down to the fall of the Roman Empire. In general, not merely may one say that free labor did not enter the mines until the late Middle Ages; one must also remember that serfdom remained here, in the mines of Scotland for example, a considerable time after it had been abolished in agriculture. Possibly the myth of the Golden Age was an expression of mankind’s sense of what it had lost when it acquired control of the harder metals.
Was the social degradation of mining an accident, or does it lie in the nature of things? Let us examine the occupation and its environment, as it existed through the greater part of history.
Except for surface mining, the art is pursued within the bowels of the earth. The darkness is broken by the timid flare of a lamp or a candle. Until the invention of the Davy safety lamp at the beginning of the nineteenth century this fire might ignite the ‘mine-damp’ (mijngas, m.n. methaan) and exterminate by a single blast all who were within range: to this day, the possibility of such an explosion remains, since sparks may occur by accident even when electricity is used. Groundwater filters through the seams and often threatens to flood the passages. Until modern tools were invented, the passage itself was a cramped one: to extract ore, children and women were employed from the earliest day to crawl along the narrow tunnel, dragging a laden cart: women indeed wore so used as beasts of burden in English mines right up to the middle of the nineteenth century. When primitive tools were not sufficient to break up the ore or open a new face (pijler, front), it was often necessary to light great fires in the difficult seams and then douse (kletsnat maken) the stone with cold water water in order to make it crack: the steam was suffocating, and the cracking might be dangerous: without strong shoring (schragen), whole galleries might fall upon the workers, and frequently this happened. The deeper down the seams went the greater the danger, the greater the heat, the greater the mechanical difficulties. Among the hard en brutal occupations of mankind, the only one that compares with oldfashioned mining is modern trench warfare loopgravenoorloog; and this should cause no wonder: there is a direct connection. To this day, according to Meeker, the mortality rate among miners from accidents is four times as high as any other occupation.
If the use of metals came at a relatively late date in technics, the reason is not far to seek.
Metals, to begin with, usually exist as compounds in ores; and the ores themselves are often inaccessible, hard to find, and difficult to bring to the surface; even if they lie in the open they are not easy to disengage. Such a common metal as zinc was not discovered till the sixteenth century. The extraction of metals, unlike the cutting down of trees or the digging of flint, requires high temperatures over considerable periods. Even after the metals are extracted they are hard to work: the easiest is one of the most precious, gold, while the hardest is the most useful, iron. In between are tin, lead, copper, the latter of which can be worked cold only in small masses or sheets. In short: the ores and metals are recalcitrant materials (weerbarstig): they evade discovery and they resist treatment. Only by being softened do the metals respond: where there is metal there must be fire.
Mining and refining and smithing (mijnen, zuiveren en smeden) invoke, by the nature of the material dealt with, the ruthlessness (meedogenloosheid) of modern warfare: they place a premium on brute force. In the technics of all these arts the pounding operations (hameren, stampen) are uppermost: the pick-ax, the sledge-hammer, the ore-crusher, the stamping machine, the steam-hammer (de pikhouweel, moker, ertsmolen, stampmolen, stoomhamer: one must either melt or break the material in order to do anything with it. The routine of the mine involves an unflinching (vastberaden) assault upon the physical environment: every stage in it is a magnification of power. When power-machines came in on a large scale in the fourteenth century, it was in the military and the metallurgical arts that they were, perhaps, most widely applied.
Let us now turn to the mining environment. The mine, to begin with, is the first completely inorganic environment to be created and lived in by man: far more inorganic than the giant city that Spengler has used as a symbol of the last stages of mechanical desiccation. Field and forest and stream and ocean are the environment of life: the mine is the environment alone of ores, minerals, metals. Within the subterranean rock, there is no life, not even bacteria or protozoa, except in so far as they may filter through with the ground water or be introduced by man. The face of nature above the ground is good to look upon, and the warmth of the sun stirs the blood of the hunter on the track of game or the peasant in the field. Except for the crystalline formations, the face of the mine is shapeless: no friendly trees and beasts and clouds greet the eye. In hacking and digging the contents of the earth, the miner has no eye for the forms of things: what he sees is sheer matter, and until he gets to his vein it is only an obstacle which he breaks through stubbornly and sends up to the surface. If the miner sees shapes on the walls of his cavern, as the candle flickers, they are only the monstrous distortions of his pick or his arm: shapes of fear. Day has been abolished and the rhythm of nature broken: continouous day-and-night production first came into existence here. The miner must work by artificial light even though the sun be shining outside; still further down in the seams (steen-kolenlagen), he must work by artificial ventilation, too: a triumph of the ‘manifactured environment.’
In the underground passages and galleries of the mine there is nothing to distract the miner: no pretty wench is passing in the field with a basket on her head, whose proud breasts and flanks remind him of his manhood: no rabbit scurries (dribbelt) across his path to arouse the hunter in him: no play of light on a distant river awakens his reverie. Here is the environment of work: dogged, unremitting, concentrated work hardnekkig, niet-aflatend, geconcentreerd werk. It is a dark, a colorless, a tasteless, a perfumeless, as well as a shapeless world; the leaden landscape of a perpetual winter. The masses and lumps of the ore itself, matter in its least organized form, complete the picture. The mine is nothing less in fact than the concrete model of the conceptual world which was built up by the physicists of the seventeenth century.
There is a passage in Francis Bacon that makes one believe that the alchemists had perhaps a glimpse of this fact. He says: “If then it be true that Democritus said, That the truth of nature lieth hid in certain deep mines and caves and if it be true likewise that the alchemists do so much inculcate, that Vulcan is a second nature, and imitateth that dexterously and compendiously, which nature worketh by ambages and length of time, it were good to divide natural philosophy into the mine and the furnace: and to make two professions or occupations of natural philosophers, some to be pioneers and some smiths; some to dig, and some to refine and hammer.” Did the mine acclimate us to the views of science? Did science in turn prepare us to accept the products and the environment of the mine? The matter is not susceptible to proof: but the logical relations, if not the historical facts, are plain.
The practices of the mine do not remain below the ground: they affect the miner himself, and they alter the surface of the earth. Whatever could be said in defense of the art was said with great pith (geestkracht) and good sense by Dr. Georg Bauer (Agricola), the German physician and scientist who wrote various compendious treatises (beknopte verhandelingen) on geology and mining at the beginning of the sixteenth century. He had the honesty to sum up his opponents’ arguments in detail, even if he could not successfully refute (weerleggen) them: so that his book De Re Metallica remains to this day a classic text, like Vitruvius on Architecture.
First as to the miner himself: “The critics,” says Dr. Bauer, “say further that mining is a perilous occupation to pursue because the miners are sometimes killed by the pestilential air which they breathe; sometimes their lungs rot away; sometimes the men perish by being crushed in masses of rock; sometimes falling from ladders in to the shafts, they break their arms, legs, or necks… But since things like this rarely happen, and only so far as workmen are careless, they do not deter miners from carrying on their trade.” This last sentence has a familiar note: it recalls the defenses of potters and radium watch-dial manufacturers when the dangers of their trades were pointed out. Dr. Bauer forgot only to note that though coal miners are not particularly susceptible to tuberculosis, the coldness and dampness, sometimes the downright wetness, predispose the miner to rheumatism: an ill they share with rice cultivators. The physical dangers of mining remain high; some are still unavoidable.
The animus (de geest) of the miner’s technique is reflected in his treatment of the landscape. Let Dr. Bauer again be our witness: “Besides this the strongest argument of the detractors (zij die kleineren) is that the fields are devestated by mining operations, for which reason formerly Italians were warned by law that no one should dig the earth for metals and so injure their very fertile fields, their vineyards, and their olive groves. Also they argue that the woods and groves are cut down, for there is need of endless amount of wood for timbers (stutbalken), machines and the smelting of metals. And when the woods and groves are felled, there are exterminated the beasts and birds, very many of which furnish pleasant and agreeable food for man. Further, when the ores are washed, the water which has been used poisons the brooks and streams, and either destroys the fish or drives them away. Therefore the inhabitants of these regions, on account of the devestation of their fields, woods, groves, brooks, and rivers, find great difficulty in procuring the necessaries of life, and by reason of the destruction of the timber they are forced to a greater expense in erecting buildings.”
There is no reason to go into Dr. Bauer’s lame (mank, nietszeggend) reply: it happens that the indictment (aanklacht) still holds, and is an unanswerable one. One must admit the devastation of mining, even if one is prepared to justify the end. “A typical example of deforestation,” says a modern writer on the subject, “is to be seen on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, overlooking the Truckee Valley, where the cutting of trees to provide timber for the deep mines of the Comstock left the hillside exposed to erosion, so that today they are bleak, barren and hideous. Most of the old mining regions tell the same tale, from Lenares to Leadville, from Potosi to Porcupine.” The history of the last four hundred years had underlined the truths of this indictment; for what was only an incidental and local damage in Dr. Bauer’s time became a widespread characteristic of Western Civilization just as soon as it started in the eighteenth century to rest directly upon the mine and its products, and to reflect, even in territories far from the mines itself, the practices and the ideals of the miner.
One further effect of this habitual destruction and disorganization must be noted: its psychological reaction on the miner. Perhaps inevitably he has a low standard of living. Partly, this is the natural effect of capitalist monopoly, often exerted and maintained by physical compulsion: but it exists even under relatively free conditions and in ‘prosperous’ times. The explanation is not difficult: almost any sight is brighter than the pit (kuil, put, schacht), almost any sound is sweeter than the clang and rap of the hammer, almost any rough cabin, so long as it keeps the water out, is a more hospitable place for an exhausted man than the dark damp gallery of a mine. The miner, like the soldier coming out of the trenches, wants a sudden relief and an immediate departure from his routine. No less notorious than the slatternly (slonzig) disorder of the mining town are the drinking and gambling that go on in it: a necessary compensation for the daily toil. Released from his routine, the miner takes a chance at cards or dice or whippet racing (windhondenrennen), in the hope that it will bring the swift reward denied him in the drudging efforts (gezwoeg, afbeulen) of the mine itself. The heroism of the miner is genuine: hence his simple animal poise (houding, evenwicht): his profound personal pride and self-respect. But the brutalization is also inevitably there.
Now the characteristic methods of mining do not stop at the pithead: they go on, more or less, in all the accessory occupations. Here is the domain, in northern mythology, of the gnomes and the brownies (kabouters en elfen): the cunning little people who know how to use the bellows, the forge, the hammer and the anvil (de blaasbalg, het smidsvuur, de hamer en het aambeeld). They, too, live in the depths of the mountains, and there is something a littele inhuman about them: they tend to be spiteful and tricky (hatelijk en listig). Shall we set this characterization down to the fear and mistrust of neolithic peoples for those who had mastered the art of working in metals? Perhaps: at all events one notes that in Hindu and Greek mythology the same general judgment prevails as in the North. While Prometheus, who stole the fire from heaven, is a hero, Haphaestus, the blacksmith (hoefsmid), is lame and he is the sport and butt (mikpunt van spot en grap) of the other gods despite his usefulness.
Usually pocketed in the mountains, the mine, the furnace, and the forge have remained a little off the track of civilization: isolation and monotony add to the defects of the activities themselves. In an old industrial domain, like the Rhine Valley, dedicated to industry since the days of the Romans and refined by the technical and civil advances of the whole community, the direct effect of the miner’s culture may be greatly ameliorated: this is true in the Essen district today, thanks to the original leadership of a Krupp and the later planning of a Schmidt. But taking mining regions as a whole, they are the very image of backwardness, isolation, raw animosities (vijandigheid) and lethal struggles. From the Rand to the Klondike, from the coal mines of South Wales to those of West Virginia, from the modern copper mines of Minnesota to the ancient silver mines of Greece, barbarism colors the entire picture.
Because of their urban situation and a more humanized rural environment, the molder (modelmaker) and the smith have often escaped this influence: goldsmithing has always been allied with jewelry and women’s ornaments, but even in the early Renascence ironwork of Italy and Germany, for example, in the locks and bands of chests as well as in the delicate traceries of railings and brackets, there is a grace and ease that point directly to a more pleasant life. In the main, however, the mining and metallurgical arts were outside the social scheme of both classic and gothic civilization. That fact proved a sinister (onheilspellend) one as soon as the methods and ideals of mining became the chief pattern for industrial effort throughout the Western World. Mine: blast: dump: crush: extract: exhaust (Mijn: blaas op: stort in: breek: ontgin: put) – there was indeed something devilish and snister about the whole business. Life flourishes finally only in an environment of the living.
from: Technics and Civilizations, Lewis Mumford