The human race
Minerals and metals

by Carlo Alberto Garzonio
Professor of Applied Geology at the Faculty of Architecture
of the University of Florence

Most of the history of the human race, including the origin of its civilizations, can also be described through the evolution of the hydraulic systems of the first urban cultures (the 'hydraulic communities'), which were linked mainly to climatic changes, the consequent need for irrigation and water rationalisation and therefore the local hydrogeomorphological systems (both on the plains and higher lands in the vicinity of springs and groundwater tables).

Manual activities developed which led to the diversification of work and increasingly complex production processes. This called for the need to increase the tools required for the various activities and transport, using new materials and technologies.

A clear contribution was made by the discovery, research and perfection of techniques for exploiting the new resources. In other words, the history of the human race and its various civilisations can also be written in terms of the history of the exploitation of mineral resources and metals, the quest for new ore deposits, and the mining industry.

The following outline indicates some stages in our history. After the Neolithic Age came the first monumental civilizations, in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, etc, with the development of metalworking techniques (especially for copper and tin), the production of bricks, squared stone, the con{truction of polygonal walls and the working of noble metals and precious stones (3000 - 1700 BC).

This was followed by the Bronze Age (1700 - 800 BC), when the working of the majority of metals spread throughout Europe thanks mainly to the knowledge of the Mycenaeans. The Iron Age took over from the 12th century BC, with the working of iron for weapons, tools and ornaments which from the Near East and Greece spread to the rest of Europe.

The industrial revolution, which began in 1700 in Britain and subsequently spread to the rest of the world, brought steam engines and the exploitation of coal. It was also responsible for the modern iron and steel industry and later the working of alloys and above all steels. Then we come to the development of the sciences, modern technology, etc.

In this regard, three years ago congresses were held throughout the world to celebrate the 5th centenary of the birth of Agricola. His 'De Re Metallica' in 1556 beautifully illustrated the revival of mining activities after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and the year one thousand, through the medieval mineral codices and the description of mechanisation in mines and metallurgic techniques.

Other technical analyses on the search for minerals were made by Biringuccio of Siena in 1540, testifying to the importance of the history of mining and the technical contribution made by Italy. Biringuccio, prior to Agricola, had sensed the importance of beginning the search for minerals in river beds and along their banks, thus anticipating modern geochemistry, arriving at the more important deeply-located mineral by excavating at the foot of the mountain instead of at the outcrops, that is to say abandoning the Etruscan method so as also to obtain a better mine dewatering of the groundwater tables.

In the late Neolithic Age with the Nuraghi peoples of Sardinia, like those of Guspini, there is evidence of common lime being used for the first time ever. The Aenolithic Age marked the beginning of the period of transition between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. It is notable for the introduction of the firing technique employing refractory lining for the first metal furnaces and as the age in which metals themselves were also put to use.

Starting in Sardinia, copper was the first to be worked. It was followed by tin which the Phoenicians imported from Cornwall, and which was mostly worked by the Etruscans. With the discovery of the ore deposits in the Campigliese area near Livorno and in the metalliferous hills of the island of Elba, the long history of mining began in Tuscany.

The Etruscans were the first to value iron and mercury. Populonia was the centre for the working of iron from Elba, having at its disposal wood from the enormous forests inland near the mining area of Campiglia.

But the Etruscans and other peoples, for example the Salassi who worked gold in the Vercelli area, despite being skilled miners nad metal workers were badly organised in military terms. Consequently, the subsequent Roman domination brought about the demise of mining in Italy, since the Romans moved these activities to other areas.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire brought about a complete decline. Great changes took place with the discovery of America and the territories which were ripe for 'exploitation', or 'cultivation'. Latterly, modern mining engineering took shape as a consequence of the industrial revolution, the development of Earth Science and modern technologies.

A variety of events (world wars, technological revolutions, reorganisations, etc.) is responsible for the present-day situation of the mining industry characterised by serious crisis (on a nationwide scale in the case of Italy) in the metallurgical mining field. On the contrary, the opposite is true of the industrial mining and energy mining sectors.

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