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The oldest salt mine known to date located in Azerbaijan

25 November 2010 CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange)

CNRS (1) archeologists have recently provided proof that the Duzdagi
salt deposits, situated in the Araxes Valley in Azerbaijan, were already
being exploited from the second half of the 5th millennium BC. It is
therefore the most ancient exploitation of rock salt attested to date.
And, to the researchers' surprise, intensive salt production was carried
out in this mine at least as early as 3500 BC. This work, conducted in
collaboration with the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences and
published on 1st December 2010 in the journal TÜBA-AR, should help to
elucidate how the first complex civilizations, which emerged between
4500 BC and 3500 BC in the Caucasus, were organized.

The economic and symbolic importance of salt in ancient and medieval
times is well known. Recent discoveries have shown that salt most
probably played a predominant role in protohistoric societies, in other
words those that preceded the appearance of writing. How is salt
obtained? The two most widely used techniques are based on the
extraction of rock salt, in other words a sedimentary deposit containing
a high concentration of edible salt (2), and the collection of sun-dried
salt in salt marshes, for example. Knowledge of the techniques used in
former times to exploit raw materials such as salt, obsidian (3) or
copper enables archeologists to deduce essential information on the
needs and the level of complexity of ancient societies. In the Caucasus,
the first traces of intensive exploitation of rock salt appeared at the
very moment when these protohistoric societies were undergoing profound
economic and technological changes, particularly with regard to the
development, for the first time, of copper metallurgy.

In order to understand these interactions, CNRS researcher Catherine
Marro and her team have been exploring the Araxes basin (Turkey, Iran,
Azerbaijan) for the last ten years or so. The archeologists have been
focusing particularly on the Duzdagi (4) salt mine situated in
Azerbaijan, more specifically beside the old medieval Silk Road linking
Tabriz (in the north west of Iran) with Constantinople. Until now, the
oldest traces of exploitation of this deposit, which is still in
activity, went back to the 2nd millennium BC. This dating was based on
the fortuitous discovery in the 1970s of an ancient collapsed gallery
that contained the remains of four workers buried with their tools.

In 2008, a French-Azerbaijani team directed by Marro and her colleague
Veli Baxsaliyev began a systematic exploration of the Duzdagi mine. The
team then made an inventory of a large number of remnants (tools,
ceramics, etc.), the oldest of which date back to 4500 BC. It is the
first time that artifacts from this period have been discovered in such
large numbers in a salt mine. The researchers have thus been able to
demonstrate that exploitation of this salt mine has been going on for a
very long time, extending back at least to the second half of the 5th
millennium BC: Duzdagi is therefore the oldest exploitation of rock salt
known to date (5).

Another remarkable fact is that the abundance of artifacts dating from
the early Bronze Age suggests that the Duzdagi mine was intensively
exploited from as early as the 4th millennium BC. Hundreds of stone
picks and hammers have in fact been found near the entrances of
collapsed tunnels. The frequent presence nearby of ceramic pottery
fragments specific to the culture known as "Kuro-Araxes" has made it
possible to date these archeological artifacts. Their spatial and
chronological distribution was analyzed by a geographic information
system, combining satellite photos (Spot 5), aerial photos taken from a
kite and the plotting of artifacts by DGPS, a sort of enhanced global
positioning system. Such intensive extraction suggests that the salt
from Duzdagi was not limited to local use by small self-sufficient
communities. It was undoubtedly distributed, within a still unknown
economic framework, to more far-off destinations. Furthermore, it
appears that the extracted salt was not accessible to all of the
communities in the Araxes Valley. Its exploitation from the 5th
millennium BC seems to have been the prerogative of certain prominent
groups.

This work raises a lot of questions. Who and what was the salt intended
for in the 5th and 4th millennia BC. How were the communities that
exploited these deposits organized? What were the political and economic
links between the different regional sites (villages, workshops and
mines), etc.? To find part of the answers, the archeologists hope to
excavate the collapsed tunnels of this deposit, which covers more than 6
km2, in the near future.

The explorations carried out on this site in 2008 and 2009 benefited in
particular from funding from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and
CNRS, as well as CNES support through the ISIS program. They were
performed in collaboration with the Azerbaijan National Academy of
Sciences./



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