How did mining work back in the day? Did people just picaxe long tunnels into the rock hoping they’ll find something useful?


How did mining work back in the day? Did people just picaxe long tunnels into the rock hoping they’ll find something useful?

In: Technology


Yes and no. Depending on what’s being mined.
Typically they’d find a vein and surface level evidence. (Think of gold washed down a creek, it comes from a vein somewhere)

Historically, prospecting involved thoroughly searching a wide area looking for mineral deposits on the surface. The best places to look were creeklines or ridges/hills, and any mineral deposits signified that there was likely more beneath the surface.

The Romans used aquaducts for hydrolic mining, where they’d basically use a ton of water to wash away the soil to expose the rock and any veins of metal.

The first mines were largely for stone, and required less precise methods to locate good areas to mine.

It depends a bit on how long ago “back in the day” is. For the mines I’ve visited here in Norway that’s around the 1600s. At that time, the mining was mostly accomplished with heat (wood fires) to make the rock brittle and manual picks or chisels. Using fires to heat the rock and then flash-cooling with water can also break rock faces apart. As chemistry advanced and explosives became cheaper and safer, they gradually took over.
Mining was a craft and geological experts were used to survey the mine and identify where to dig in what direction. Norway largely imported these experts from Germany and France, and you can still see some evidence of this foreign influence in for instance street names in [Røros](

Before modern methods of geology, finding ore in the rock was often a matter of luck. The ore might have shown itself on the exposed surface, or it might wash out and deposit on the surface. If they found a large ore deposit, they could follow the ore veins deep into the rock.

By the way, pickaxes we know today aren’t a typical mining tool, they’re more for breaking heavy dirt and rock on the surface. Instead, they used hammers and chisels in order to be able to get highly precise strikes on the same spot over and over. That’s why you can still see [this logo]( on the coat of arms of many historical mining towns in Europe.

Different deposits would have been mined differently. Shallow stuff, close to surface can be mined by basically digging a big hole in the ground. There are some places where artisanal mining is still practiced along these lines, with a small group doing exactly this.

As you get deeper, you need to start being more selective, so people start tunnelling along specific lines to hit ore bodies or seams. This has always needed some care, skill, and experience. Usually one would not just randomly dig a long tunnel in the hopes of hitting something useful though: you can start with stuff near the surface and then tunnel in deeper, or start with a cave and enlarge it.

Even today, opening up a deep prospect is expensive and difficult, so those efforts are focused as much as possible. In the past, tunnelling through hard rock was slow, so it would also only happen if there is a good likelihood that there is going to be something worthwhile in exchange.