Sardinia’s history of mining and jewelry

Mining in Sardinia: Prehistory

The long mining history of Sardinia started probably around the 6th millennium BC with the mining of obsidian at the slant of Monte Arci in the central-eastern part of the island. Monte Arci was one of the most important Mediterranean centres for mining and processing of this volcanic glass in the area. As a matter of fact at least seventy processed hectares of land and about 160 steady or temporary settlements have been found from which obsidian was later exported to Southern France and Northern Italy.

About 3000 BC, probably exported there from the Eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea, the metal working practices expanded into Sardinia too, where they reached a highly practical level. Silver extraction was one of the earliest in Europe, known since the early Chalcolithic. Together with metal working, mining practices developed too allowing the mining of growing amounts of minerals and then of metals.

The geographical position of the island, but also its mining asset, attracted between the tenth and the 8th century BC. Phoenician merchants, that were replaced by Carthaginians. Phoenicians and Carthaginians deeply exploited the mining richness, above all in the Iglesiente, where there are some traces of excavations and wastes of fusion ascribable to this period. An intense metal working activity, both in excavation and in fusion, is evidenced by its archaeological viewpoint, by the large ore bodies rich in metal of Sarrabus, made up of minerals compounded by oxides and iron sulphide, copper and lead.

Silver ore exploitation in Roman times

In 238 BC began in Sardinia the era of Roman domination. As a matter of fact Carthage was forced to formally cede the island to Rome following the defeat in the First Punic War and the upheaval of the mercenaries who were stanced on the island. In 226 BC, Sardinia was granted the status of Roman province.

Under the Romans mining activity grew strongly, first of all as far as rich gold ore bodies of lead and silver are concerned. Ever since 269 BC the Roman Republic had employed silver as a monetary unit, whereas lead was used in the most various fields of civil life, from crockery to water pipes. Sardinia ranked the third region, among all Roman dominions, after Spain and Brittany, in the amount of worked metals. The mining production during the whole period of Roman rule was assessed at about six hundred thousand tons of lead and one thousand tons of silver. The mining industry of the Romans was not limited to the basin of the Iglesiente, in fact they knew and definitely exploited rich silver ore bodies of Sarrabus, the importance of which the geographer Solinus was referring to when he wrote: “India ebore, argento Sardinia, Attica melle” (“India is famous for ivory, Sardinia for silver and Attica for honey”).

The mining development in the Roman era consisted mainly of excavations and shafts—some more than one hundred meter deep—using hand tools and sometimes fire-setting to shatter rocks. Workers were free miners first, called “metallari” and from about 190 onwards were slaves and prisoners called “damnati ad effodienda metalla.” In 369 the emperor Valentinian II decreed that each ship landing at Sardinia should pay a tax of 5 soldi for each metallarus on board. Afterwards the emperors Gratian, Valens and Valentinian II prevented any metallari from moving to the island. There was a fear that the extraordinary richness of Sardinian ore bodies might threaten the silver mines of Spain that were owned by the Emperor.

In the late Roman era Sardinian mining industry diminished significantly and, in order to satisfy the limited needs of the island’s market, many more were relinquished and some of these, like those of the Sarrabus, were forgotten.

Downfall and revival during the Middle Ages

Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire the historical events of Sardinia split up from those of the Italian Peninsula. After the short pause of the Vandalic occupation, the island came under the Byzantine rule. Right under the Byzantine rule the mining industry and the metal working activity scored a certain rebirth and silver became again one of the most important export produces of Sardinia, although around 700 trade traffics in the Mediterranean Sea became somewhat difficult because of the plunderings of the Arabs.

For Sardinia the steady plunderings of the Arabs along the coast had been, for a long spell of time, an impending danger that provoked the depopulation of wide coastal areas and the migration of the people towards the inner side of the island.

More and more isolated from the centre of the Byzantine Empire, Sardinia saw in this period the establishment, for the first time in its history, of a real administrative and political autonomy. The island was reorganised into four sovereign and independent kingdoms: the Giudicati of Cagliari, Arborea, Torres and Gallura, after the title of their sovereign (it. giudice, meaning “judge”).

There are only a few documents left of the mining history of the period of the giudicati, but it is reasonable to maintain that mining industry was not relinquished at all. In 1131 the judge Gonario II of Torres donated half of the Argentiera of the Nurra to the primatial church of Santa Maria of Pisa, as evidence of the ever closer political links between the weak Sardinian States and the Tuscan comune.

At the beginning of the 9th century in fact, under the patronage of the Papal Court, that was then ruled by Benedict XIII, in Sardinian history the two Maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa, that were at first allied against the Muslim emir Musa who had taken possession of some areas of the island, were afterwards competing for the dominion on the weak judge states. The defy ended up in favour of Pisa. the peace of 1087 between Genoese and Pisans brought, during the period that immediately precedes the Aragonese conquest, to the predominance of Pisa on whole of Sardinia.

From the viewpoint of mining history the Pisan rule seems to be quite well supplied with documentary evidence.

The Pisan family of the Counts of Donoratico, embodied by Ugolino della Gherardesca, enhanced a new start for the mining industry in his dominions in Sardinia and particularly in what is now Iglesiente.

Ugolino operated on a territory of about 590 square kilometers (230 sq mi), called Argentaria del Sigerro for the richness of its underground in silver minerals. He supported moreover the moving into the island of some Tuscan hands, skilled in mining and more generally he tried to repopulate his dominions. The main aim of the demographic policy of the Gherardeschi was the founding and the development of the town of Villa di Chiesa, now Iglesias.

History of mining in Sardinia. (2016, May 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 08:32, July 31, 2016, from