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A bit of History

Discovering the ancient mining paths

From the ancient Neolithic (ca. 6000 A.C.) to the present day, the presence of man in the south-western area of Sardinia has been characterized by and intense relationship with the rocks and subsoil. First to find shelter and give burial in the natural karst cavities and in the Domus de Janas, specially excavated burial structures; later, in particular from the Nuragic age (1500-800 A.C.), to extract precious mining resources (mineral and metal).

The mining activity has developed over the centuries with alternating events, leaving deep traces in the territory. Among these is the road network designed to ensure the mobility of people as well as to transport  minerals from the mining site to that of treatment and use.

These ancient communication routes include:

  • cart and mule tracks, still perfectly visible, built in the Phoenician-Punic and Roman periods (800 A.C. – 650 D.C for the transport of minerals via use of carts and animals of burden;
  • paved streets and stone bridges built in Roman times permitting viability from the coastal areas to the mining sites and vice versa;
  • paths travelled on by the miners to the mining site from their homes;
  • railways for the transportation of minerals on carts or wagons, drawn by men or animals of burden
  • tracks of the old railways built in the second half of the 19th century for the transport of minerals from the mining sites to the ports of embarkation and to the metallurgical plants
  • the normal communicating roads, once dirt roads and later asphalted, realized in order to connect the mines and mining villages with the towns and cities in the territory through various means of transport.

These are road structures often forgotten and abandoned to negligence and destruction which have been singled out and mapped by the volunteers of the Pozzo Sella Association with the help and support of the old cartography and the direct testimony of the miners, living memory of the great role historically played by these roads and which can be rediscovered thanks to the Cammino Minerario di Santa Barbara.

Therefore, a new itinerary is not being proposed, but ancient roads upon which, since the ancient Neolithic, numerous populations have met and walked together in the Mediterranean basin and the European continent.

History of the mines

Around the second millennium BC, exploitation of minerals such as zinc and lead starts by excavating along the superficial veins in the Iglesiente, Sarrabus and Nurra areas where the first foundry workshops were also identified.

In the Nuragic age trading of ore metals and their artifacts starts to spread with other Mediterranean peoples.

As evidenced through the famous Nuragic bronze statues, around 1000 BC, the local population had developed a solid mining basis and metallurgic skills.

Exploitation of the metalliferous mines continues with the Phoenician-Punic invasion of Sardinia. Traces of the excavations from that era remain until mid-19th century, before being cancelled by modern day industrial mining.

In 138 BC, with the victory of Rome over Carthage, Sardinia ends up under Roman rule. The mines are dug at considerable depths, and thanks to the use of more advanced techniques and of prisoners and slaves condemned to forced labor in Metalla (in the metalliferous mines) Rome will found the mining cities of Plumbea and Metalla and give course to the realization of foundry workshops in different areas of the island but mostly in the metalliferous areas of the Iglesiente territory.

With the fall of the Roman Empire the mining activity in Sardinia falls into decline and for a long period all traces are lost.

It is only in the 12th century that a resumption of the mining activities by the Pisan Count Ugolino of Gherardesca is registered, building Villa di Chiesa, the current Iglesias, a prosperous mining city, also called the city of silver.

After the reign of Count Ugolino, Iglesias and her mines pass, in 1302, under the dominion of Pisa.

Not many years later, in 1323, Sardinia is conquered by the Aragonese. The Aragonese considerably reduce the mining activity and utilize the Iglesiente miners to open new mines in Catalonia.

In 1720, with the passage of Sardinia to the Savoy, the mines are entrusted to various concessionaries that limit themselves to exploiting the richer veins, without however, achieving significant results.

In the second half of the 1800’s the violent advent of the industrial era generates a strong demand for metals. The most important Italian and European companies start an intense exploitation of the Sardinian metalliferous mines, to which are soon added the carboniferous productions, in support of the intense energy consumption required by the metallurgic plants.

The rising demand for argentiferous galena (calaminari) and, as of 1865, also for zinc ores, give a strong impulse to the opening of the great mines in the Iglesiente and Guspinese areas (Monteponi, San Giovanni, Nebida, Masua, Ingurtosu and Montevecchio) around which vast mining facilities are constructed: excavation of shafts, galleries, preparation plants, foundries as well as construction of various facilities.

At the end of the 19th century Sardinia supplies Italy with the most of its metal requirements, almost the total amount of lead ores (98.7%) and zinc (85%). The century closes with the participation of some Sardinian mining companies at the Universal Exposition in Paris. At the beginning of the 20th century the Sardinian mining industry rests on solid foundations, thanks also to the vast interventions of mechanization undertaken in all the mines.

During the first half of the 20th century, the mining industry faces great difficulties nevertheless, these difficulties are always overcome until the outbreak of the first world war, which causes the closing of the European markets and a drastic reduction of the mining activity.

Despite the crisis of 1929, the great mines continue to hold. Moreover, the autarkic policy drives the increase in coal mining, with the opening of the large Serbariu mine and the foundation of the city of Carbonia in the 1930’s.

In the 1950’s intense production resumes, touching peaks never reached, thanks to innovative exploitation methods and to modernization of all the plants

But already in the mid-fifties, the effects of the loss of competitiveness of the Sardinian mining industry towards the European and international market, to which the price of metals is tied, began to be felt.

In the early 60’s several companies cease their activities and by the end of the decade, reach the definitive withdrawal of private capital which obligates the State and the Region to intervene more and more heavily, up until they become the sole managers of the mines.

Despite the great work of research and modernization of the mining sector, the situation keeps worsening, until the last mines are closed in the mid-nineties of the last century.

A Park that is born from an underground battle

The end of the traditional mining activity in Sardinia is reached after a long agony, starting in the early 60’s and, characterized by tiring trade union battles.

In this process, the immense heritage of industrial archeology of mines that were progressively disused  was completely neglected, causing the loss and destruction of structures, equipment and machinery.

With the emergence of the idea of a Geomining Park as an instrument for the conservation and enhancement of this heritage, proposed in the 1980’s by some voluntary associations, the awareness was finally reached as to the importance of this heritage; and so, as of the mid 1990’s the first interventions aimed at the recovery and preservation of some underground and surface structures began.

Of considerable importance for promoting the establishment of the Geomining Park is the prestigious international acknowledgement by the UNESCO promoted by the national government and by the Sardinian Region upon proposal of the Sardinian Mining Authority which in 1998 led to the signing of the Charter of Cagliari (see attachment) with which the signees committed themselves to adopting the necessary acts for the formal establishment of the Geomining Park.

However, despite this prestigious international acknowledgement from the UNESCO, the birth of the Geomining Park has been difficult. It was finally founded after a great mobilization by the local people who sustained a peaceful and non-violent struggle lasting an entire year, underground, in the mine of Monteponi in Iglesias. In the face of a situation of Parliamentary inertia, the Regional Counselor, at the time Pietro Pinna, now President of the Foundation, decided to undertake a form of extreme protest with the occupation of the Pozzo Sella mining shaft in the Monteponi mine. soon after, 500 short-term workers, that eventually would have been employed on a stable basis with the birth of the Geomining Park, joined the protest.

The support of a vast and extraordinary popular mobilization was decisive in permitting us to endure an entire year in the mine shaft and for the success of the protest.

Following that fight, beginning on November 5th 2000 and ending on November 6th 2001, while still in the mine and in the presence of the Environmental Minister, the following was obtained:

  • a rule of law for the foundation of the Historical-Environmental Geomining Park of Sardinia;
  • the decree establishing the Park itself;
  • allocation of national funds for its management;
  • the first significant financial resources from the State allocated for the recovery of the disused mining areas of the Sulcis-Iglesiente-Guspinese.
  • the hiring of 500 workers with full-time working contracts