One of the most important archaeological sites in the world is the Austrian village of Hallstatt, located on the shore of the lake of the same name and at the foot of Hoher Dachstein, the highest peak in the Salzkammergut Alps.

Since prehistoric times, a salt mine has been exploited there, which is considered the oldest in the world, with its use documented from around 1500 BCE, although it is known that exploitation began much earlier.

In 1846, Johann Georg Ramsauer found a prehistoric necropolis in Hallstatt with more than 2000 tombs dating from the 8th to 5th centuries BCE.

Interior of the Hallstatt salt mine
Interior of the Hallstatt salt mine Credit: Andrew Bossi on Wikimedia Commons

Before that, in 1734, a perfectly preserved mummy was discovered inside the mine, possibly a worker who perished around 1000 BCE due to a collapse.

Since they didn’t know what to do with it, they buried it in the village cemetery, where unfortunately it quickly degraded. Today, a replica can be seen in the mine museum.

Ramsauer excavated the necropolis during the second half of the 19th century, noting that he did not find any poor tombs. In all of them, he found such wealth of funerary goods that he assumed that the inhabitants of Hallstatt lived well above subsistence level.

Another image from inside the mine
Another image from inside the mine. Credit: Karelj on Wikimedia Commons

This also suggests that there were no social classes, but rather the great wealth provided by the mine was distributed almost equally in an equitable manner, something certainly unusual in human history.

From the abundant remains, objects, and artifacts found in the necropolis (ceramics, iron and bronze swords, bracelets, needles, brooches, etc.), it was concluded that between 800 and 500 BCE, an advanced culture with a very characteristic style developed there, which later spread throughout Europe and is now known as the Hallstatt culture.

However, it has not been possible to find remains of the primitive settlement. It is assumed to be beneath the current town, which occupies almost all the available space between the mountain and the lake shore. In fact, until 1890 when the road was built, Hallstatt could only be reached by boat or by narrow paths that did not allow the passage of vehicles.

Hallstatt Culture Extension
Hallstatt Culture Extension. Credit: NordNordWest on Wikimedia Commons

Around 400 BCE, the mountain collapsed, burying the mine. It never regained the importance of past times, and during antiquity and the Middle Ages, there is barely any mention of Hallstatt.

In 1595, the mine was reopened, and a log pipeline was built to transport the brine to Ebensee, located 40 kilometers away. This pipeline is considered the oldest in the world and is still in use today.

The investigations carried out inside the mine yielded a veritable archaeological treasure, as the salt allowed for the almost perfect preservation of organic materials. Food remains, tools (bronze picks, wooden mallets, shovels), fabrics such as fur and wool coats, leather shoes, and even miners’ backpacks have been found. The oldest find is a shoe dating back to 5500 BCE.

Since the Neolithic period, about 65 kilometers of galleries have been excavated in total, from which it is estimated that around 2 million cubic meters of salt were obtained. However, only 2 percent of the galleries have been explored so far (which, by the way, can be visited by sliding down a kind of slide, see the video at the end) since research began in 1960.

One of the most impressive and best-preserved finds, according to experts, is a wooden staircase dating back to 1108 BCE.

It was used to access two levels of floor in one of the galleries, at least for 100 years until a collapse buried it in 1000 BCE, and it was found in 2002 with its structure completely intact (thanks to the salt which prevented the growth of fungi that decompose wood).

The staircase, as it was found
The staircase, as it was found. Credit: NHM/A. Rausch

It measures 8 meters long by 1.20 meters wide and is said to be the oldest preserved wooden staircase in the world.

After its discovery, the entire chamber where it was found was encased to protect it. But the continuous earth movements in that area of the mine forced the staircase to be removed, dismantled step by step, and taken to the Natural History Museum in Vienna for study. In 2015, it returned to the mine, where it can be seen today inside a large display case.

Hallstatt is now one of Austria’s main tourist attractions, both for the mine and for being considered one of the most beautiful villages in the world, thanks to its peculiar location.

Research inside the mine continues, and possibly in the future, new surprises await us.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 28, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en La escalera de madera más antigua de Europa, encontrada en una mina de la Edad del Bronce de cuyos túneles solo se ha explorado un 2 por ciento


Guadalupe Piñar et al., Biodeterioration Risk Threatens the 3100 Year Old Staircase of Hallstatt (Austria) | Hallstatt (Web Oficial) | Salzwelten (Web Oficial de la mina) / Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History | Robert J.Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology | Wikipedia

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