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  • georgekaf

An Oil lamp illuminates this ancient mining shaft after two and a half thousand years.

There is a place near Athens that is probably the most magical place in Attica. Lavrion. A city built from scratch, for the needs of the “French Lavrion mining company”. However, Lavrion was not inhabited for the first time in the 19th century. This is it’s modern history. In fact,the area has been continuously inhabited since ancient times until today,with mining and quarrying activity that is lost in the depths of time.How the ancients understood the existence of the underground wealth of the Laureotic land and how they were led to exploit it are some of the questions that may never be answered with certainty,but what is certain is that these ancient ancestors of ours managed to achieve a miracle in Lavrio. With their hands and blood they were able to dig deep into the earth and bring the underground wealth of lead and silver to the surface. Wealth that later armed Athens and made it the “de facto” super power of culture and commerce of the ancient world. How can somebody not feel awe when visiting Lavrio and seeing these remains - "temples" of our cultural heritage from antiquity?

Of course, I call them "temples", because every centimeter of the countless galleries and wells of Lavrio was dug by hand, with blood and sweat since ancient times. And that has it’s importance on what follows. I was lucky enough to visit such a well a few years ago because of my activity in caving. Unfortunately however, due to the fact that that visit took place in the framework of scientific research, I could not record it as I wanted.

I have seen many wonders of nature underground, but this experience in this small well was something that got etched in my memory from that first time,and I promised myself that I would return to record it and highlight the value of the work that these ancient workers did,two and a half thousand years ago. Entering a space that probably hasn't been seen since ancient times is something that evokes unique emotions. The feeling of awe is so great,you can't help but completely respect the place and it's history. When I first entered and crawled into the small gallery with the small carvings in the rock for the slave to rest his oil lamp to work on, I promised myself I would come back and light an oil lamp once more,as a small tribute to those slave workers who sacrificed their lives in the subterranean chambers of Lavrio. And so on a Saturday of November (2021) I returned,equipped with the materials for the descent into the well, my camera, and an oil lamp with some olive oil in my pocket for the offering to this ancient slave.

It is worth mentioning that most of the well is flooded and we do not know it’s exact depth. But we do know that it is a research well for the investigation of the existence of mineral bearing, and the open unflooded part of it is about 8-9 meters deep. We can also say with relative certainty that it’s opening dates back to the 4th to 5th century BC due to the existence of other wells of this period in the same area. The well - at the depth that is accessible without diving - is carved on limestone, with a vertical opening, where at its end - just above the tangible surface of the water - it has an open horizontal gallery where the workers would search for the point of contact between the limestone and the schist where the ore would lay for mining.

So,we will go down to this small gallery to see the work and history hidden within it.Look at the photos and the description because many conclusions can be drawn about the life and habits of the ancient slaves as well as about the conditions and working methods. During the descent,we can see in the walls of the well the dents that would have supported the timbers of the scaffolding.

As soon as we reach the surface of the water, low below we can see the opening of the horizontal portico. Its size is about 60x60 cm at the entrance, with a small uphill slope and many stones to the left, in a pile that has been there since ancient times as if the slave dropped them yesterday.

To the right of this pile of rocks, a small carved shelf for a lamp, and to the left another one larger in size, which would have been convenient for the worker or workers to stand somewhat elevated and take out the stones (rubble and possibly the ore), to send to the surface. So on this small shelf we lit the ancient lamp with olive oil and illuminated the space for the first time, with the light it would have had two and a half thousand years ago.

The emotions were indescribable and I stood as I was there for a little while, to admire and soak up as much as I could in this unique moment.

Moving further in we reach a point where the portico begins to turn to the right and gives the impression that it would be a resting and/or eating area. There is a bench-like surface carved into the rock, which would be convenient for such a thing, and has enough space for someone to sit more comfortably and stretch their legs as well.

The thrill of standing in the space where this ancient slave would have eaten and rested was truly incredible. What was he thinking in those moments of rest? Maybe he was falling asleep? What dreams was he seeing and what jokes was he thinking and discussing with his colleague working next to him at the front of the small gallery?…

After this short break, we continue to the right. At this point, next to this rest area, the portico acquires a sigmoidal shape with a strong downward slope that leads to the continuation of the portico on another level, about one and a half to two meters lower. And here at this point we can see the magnitude of the craftsmanship, experience and foresight that the ancients had. The sigmoidal shape with a downward slope offers ease of movement in the otherwise very narrow space. With relatively little effort and digging, they went deeper into the ground and continued to open the portico lower but with the same final orientation. Something truly admirable given the circumstances and the technical means they may have had. At this downhill point, there are two small steps carved out which in turn help the movement of the body and how restful this movement would be between the two different levels.

On them -as throughout the gallery- are visible the marks of the carving of the limestone with hand tools. Little by little they chisseled the rock and gave it the shape that served them best. Immediately after this "shock" of realization that we experienced, the portico continues for a few meters to its front and its end. This second level seems to have been flooded at some point (who knows how long ago) because it has quite a bit of mud but is also covered by a thick layer of roots from the plants and trees on the surface, which is about ten meters above us. Perhaps the whole well was flooded and it's level slowly dropped, while the humidity remained in the gallery (the space is very closed and the air does not circulate easily), or perhaps it simply means that the rainwater reaches this point more easily from above.

To the right we see another place carved into the rock, whose shape shows that it would be convenient for him to lay his body to the side,and for a second person to stand,in case the worker digging in the front a little further on needed it. Perhaps this second man was holding an extra lamp, or standing there to watch the progress of the work, bring some water, or simply turn his body so that he had room to pick up the rubble we saw at the entrance and take it out of the gallery. To the left,another small carved recess for a lamp or other objects.

The roots o the ground seem to spill out from this position to the right. It's like the earth is giving them up at this point. Along with them pour out my thoughts about what I see and feel in this little mining well,untouched by time and always with the flame of the lamp illuminating them.

A step ahead is the front of the portico.

The last ancient impacts on the rock can be seen since the attempt was fruitless and the ore was not found. Who knows, maybe they continued further down the well, to a point that is now hidden under water.

On the way out I am flooded by thoughts.There are so many and so intense,I think it will take me quite some time to line them up...

One last look at this sacred space and after extinguishing the lamp and making a wish, I crawl towards the exit to grab the rope. For the climb this time.

What happened to this slave and how did he live the rest of his life?

Who knows.

But for a moment maybe,I felt a little like he may have felt and felt him being close to me right there, ten meters below the earth...

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