Ancient traders and conquerors, attracted by the astonishing underground riches, were drawn to the island's coast. Evidence of ancient metal processing is given in the many placenames connected with mining: examples include Argentiera, Montiferru, Funtana Raminosa, and Capo Ferrato. The term Gennargentu (silver carrier) comes from Eugenio Marchese, then manager of the mining district of Sardinia, bringing it back to the records of an ancient processing of the precious metal around the village of Talana.
About 3000 BC, probably exported there from the Eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea, the metal working practices expanded into Sardinia too, where they reached a highly practical level. Together with metal working, mining practices developed too allowing the mining of growing amounts of minerals and then of metals.
The geographical position of the island, but also its mining asset, attracted between the tenth and the eighth century BC. Phoenician merchants, that were replaced by Carthaginians. Phoenicians and Carthaginians deeply exploited the mining richness, above all in the Iglesiente, where there are some traces of excavations and wastes of fusion ascribable to this period. An intense metal working activity, both in excavation and in fusion, is evidenced by its archaeological viewpoint, by the large ore bodies rich in metal of Sarrabus, made up of minerals compounded by oxydes and iron sulphide, copper and lead.
Under the Romans mining activity grew strongly, first of all as far as rich gold ore bodies of lead and silver are concerned. Ever since 269 BC the Roman Republic had employed silver as a monetary unit, whereas lead was used in the most various fields of civil life, from crockery to water pipes. Sardinia ranked the third region, among all Roman dominions, after Spain and Brittany, in the amount of worked metals. The mining production during the whole period of Roman rule was assessed at about six hundred thousand tons of lead and one thousand tons of silver. The mining industry of the Romans was not limited to the basin of the Iglesiente, in fact they knew and definitely exploited rich silver ore bodies of Sarrabus, the importance of which the geograph Solinus was referring to when he wrote: "India ebore, argento Sardinia, Attica melle" ("India is famous for ivory, Sardinia for silver and Attic for honey").
The mining systems in the Roman era consisted mainly of excavations of even more than one hundred meter deep shafts, using only hand tools and sometimes fire-setting to break up rocks, with the help of free miners, called "metallari" and from about 190 onwards by slaves and prisoners called "damnati ad effodienda metalla". In 369 the emperor Valentinian II decreed that each ship landing at Sardinia should pay a tax of 5 soldi for each carried metallarus. Afterwards the emperors Gratian, Valens and Valentinian II prevented wholly the metallari from moving onto the island. The fear that the extraordinary richness of Sardinian ore bodies should damage the silver mines of Spain, that were owned by the Emperor.
In the late Roman era Sardinian mining industry diminished significantly and, in order to satisfy the limited needs of the island's market, many more were relinquished and some of these, like those of the Sarrabus, were forgotten.
For Sardinia the steady plunderings of the Arabs along the coast had been, for a long spell of time, an impending danger that provoked the depopulation of wide coastal areas and the migration of the people towards the inner side of the island.
More and more isolated from the centre of the Byzantine Empire, Sardinia saw in this period the establishment, for the first time in its history, of a real administrative and political autonomy. The island was reorganised into four sovereign and independent kingdoms: the Giudicati of Cagliari, Arborea, Torres and Gallura, after the title of their sovereign (it. giudice- judge).
There are only a few documents left of the mining history of the period of the giudicati, but it is reasonable to maintain that mining industry was not relinquished at all. In 1131 the judge Gonario II of Torres donated half of the Argentiera of the Nurra to the primatial church of Santa Maria of Pisa, as evidence of the ever closer political links between the weak Sardinian States and the Tuscan comune.
At the beginning of the 9th century in fact, under the patronage of the Papal Court, that was then ruled by Benedict XIII, in Sardinian history the two seafaring republics of Genoa and Pisa, that were at first allied against the Muslim emir Musa who had taken possession of some areas of the island, were afterwards competing for the dominion on the weak judge states. The defy ended up in favour of Pisa. the peace of 1087 between Genuese and Pisans brought, during the period that immediately precedes the Aragonese conquest, to the predominance of Pisa on whole of Sardinia.
From the viewpoint of mining history the Pisan rule seems to be quite well supplied with documentary evidence.
The Pisan family of the Counts of Donoratico, embodied by Ugolino della Gherardesca, enhanced a new start for the mining industry in his dominions in Sardinia and particularly in what is now Iglesiente.
Ugolino operated on a territory of about 590 square kilometers (250 square miles), called Argentaria del Sigerro for the richness of its underground in silver minerals. He supported moreover the moving into the island of some Tuscan hands, skilled in mining and more generally he tried to repopulate his dominions. The main aim of the demographic policy of the Gherardeschi was the founding and the development of the town of Villa di Chiesa, now Iglesias.
In the Iglesiente, the Pisans resumed the operations of the Romans by opening new shafts and bringing back to daylight the old veins. The strong mining industry, just like political, economic and social life, was ruled by some laws that were gathered in a codex divided into four books, better known as Breve di Villa Chiesa. In this codex the regulations of mining industry, particularly the silver prospecting, plays a major role. The crimes against mining were punished with the utmost rigour: death penalty was provided for those who stole silver or silvery minerals but also for the foundrymen who mined silver from stolen materials.
Everyone in the territory of the Argentiera could undertake a mining industry, often for this purpose some companies whose participants (parsonavili) possessed quotations of society (trente) were founded. Some members of these companies, so caled "bistanti" confined themselves to hand in in advance the necessary amount of money.
The operations developed around the digging of ditches and in depth thanks to shafts (bottini) and tunnels. The ongoing of the vein or of the mineral lens was followed, so that the operation extension was quite limited. To grab on the rocky mass picks, wedges and some more hand tools were employed; whenever all this seemed to be necessary fire was used to break out harder rocks. The working week started at noon on Monday and ended at noon on Saturday. Miners worked for 12 hours a day and during the week they could not leavetheir work. During summer season operations were stopped because of the unwholesome climate, being mostly coastal areas stricken by the plight of malaria.
It has been calculated that Sardinian mines have supplied Pisa with almost 15 tons a year of the valuable metal in the period stretching from the end of the 12th century to the beginning of the 14th century. Under the Tuscan comune, in the period of brightest splendour the mines around Villa di Chiesa gave shelter to 6500 workers.
In the years around 1326 Pisa lost its Sardinian dominions for the crown of Aragon. The loss of the island but first of all of its silver mines was the commencing of the fall of the Tuscan city that was pressed on the Continent by its rivals Lucca and Florence. The Aragonese crown took upon the rights concerning the exploitation of the rich ore bodies of the silver ore in order to avoid disputes between Aragonese nobles for the mineral richness of the zone. The mining industry level in this period was remarkably reduced if compared to the one of Pisan domination.
Following the total conquest of the island, the Aragonese tried to enhance the mining industry of silver: duties were lightened and also taxes and rights on the crown on metals. Such policy though could not bring back Sardinian mines to their past prosperity. Under Aragonese domination first and Spanish after that, the mining industry knew a continuous decay; Sardinia, that for century had been one of the most important productive areas for silver ended up importing the valuable material that was by then coming in large amount from the Spanish settlements in the New World. Notwithstanding that it can be maintained that not even in this period Sardinian mines ceased totally to be active, in fact a small domestic market existed, at least for leas.
Under Spanish domination it was decided to subordinate the mining activities to the grant of concessions from the State administration. At least forty concessions for exploration and exploitation of Sardinian ore bodies were assigned. Eight of them were general concessions, extended to the whole territory of the island and eighteen were limited to the circle of Iglesias. The assigners of the territory of the island had to pay to the Treasury 10% of the value of the extracted mineral. The first attempt to enhance the activity of the silver vein of Sarrabus, that had been relinquished for more than one thousand years, dates back to this period. In fact, on 6 June 1622 a certain Gio. Antonio Agus was granted a permit of prospecting around Monte Narba, near the town of San Vito. After no longer than four hundred years the Spanish dominion on Sardinia ended as a consequence of the events connected to the War of the Spanish Succession and to the attempt of reconquest of Cardinal Alberoni.
In 1740 the general concession, lasting thirty years, was assigned to the British Charles Brander, to the baron Karl von Holtzendorf and to the Swedish consule in Cagliari Karl Gustav Mandel. According to the agreement, the concessionaries should pay to the King's Treasury 12% of the extracted galena and 2% of the silver for the first 4 years, 5% for the following 6 years and 10% for the remaining 20 years. The obligatory taxes had to be paid at the dispatch for exported commodities and within six months for those that had been sold into the island. The new company, boosted especially by Mandel, introduced some technological innovations, among which the use of the explosive during mining operations. Handwoks skilled in mining industry were brought to Sardinia especially from Germany. Mandel also built by Villacidro a large lead foundry. He was though accused by the Real Intendance of neglecting the exploration of new mines confining himself to exploit the existing ones. An enquiry was also opened for alleged fiscal illegalities that led in 1758 to the repeal of the concession of Mandel.
In 1762 the direction of Sardinian mines came into the hands of the Director of the mining district Pietro De Belly, who hampered private mining industry maintaining it was more profitable for the State to exploit directly the richness of Sardinian underground. Belly tried also to reintroduce forced work in mines and for this reason he merited in 1771 a criticism from Quintino Sella.
Among the shortcomings that should be ascribed to Belly there is also the lack of exploitation of the rich silver vein in Sarrabus, the potentiality of which Mandel had already guessed. Belly maintained it was too costly to mine in this field because of the inaccessible ground and the difficulties in communications in the area. Only within the following century the mineral value of south-eastern region was discovered again.
The last years of the 18th century were anyway important years for Sardinian mining industry; traces of iron were discovered near Arzana and of antimony in the vicinity of Ballao. At the beginning of the nineteenth century in Sardinia there were 59 mines, mainly of lead, iron, copper and silver. With the renewal of the fervour of mining, some Piedmontese adventurers and from some other European countries had their go too. Among them there was also the French novelist Honoré de Balzac who in 1838 started off a disastrous enterprise that had the purpose of exploiting ancient lead-bearing wastes of the Nurra.
In 1840 the new mining act was passed, which prescribed the separation of property of ground from that of the underground. According to the new act everyone could require the authorization to carry out mining prospecting: a permit written by the owner of the ground on which the research had to be done was required but, if the owner of the ground opposed to the request and the refusal was not considered adequately evidenced, the Police chief could acted officially to allow the permit. The only obligation due to the concessionary was to pay to the Treasury three per cent of the value of mined minerals and to pay the damages to the landowners for caused damage. This law was fully enacted in Sardinia only in 1848, after the "perfect fusion" between Sardinia and the countries on the continent under the rule of the House of Savoy had completed. The new act, that eased the achievement of mining concessions, called back onto the island many managers, particularly from Liguria and from Piedmont and the first Societies with the purpose of exploiting the promising Sardinian ore bodies were born.
Among these there was also the "Società Nazionale per la coltivazione di miniere in Sardegna" of Genua that tried in vain to achieve general concession. This kind of concession was in fact formally forbidden by the new act, in order to prevent the establishment of monopolies in mining industry. The project of the National Society came to nothing. The opening of a great amount of companies was marked by the same protagonists of th project of the National Society, in order to hold anyway the majority of the highest possible number of permits. The majority of mining societies operating in Sardinia depended then on a non-Sardinian capital money. A remarkable exception was the Sardinian manager Giovanni Antonio Sanna, who achieved in 1848 a perpetual concession on about 1200 has located in the area of Montavecchio. Not all societies that were founded in this period had the techniques to launch themselves on the market, many of these went bankruptcy and some other got fused giving birth to greater and more reliable Societies.
In 1858 the exile Enrico Serpieri from the Romagna founded the foundry of Domusnovas for the exploitation of lead mineral in previously processed waste and not so much later of a second one in Fluminimaggiore. In 1862 the two foundries of Serpieri produced 56% of the whole Sardinian lead that had been excavated by previous waste.
From his report the growing importance of the knowledge of the topic emerged within the Italian economy. In 1868-1869 in Sardinian mines there were 9,171 employees, almost three times as much as in 1860. In fact, following the extension to Sardinia of the mining act of 1840 of Piedmont and its following modification of 1859 in order to be more favourable for mining entrepreneurs, a swift development of researches and mining, an increase in production and employed hands was recorded. In 1870 the permits for research, that were 83 by the end of 1861 increased to 420 and the concessions from 16 to 32, The extracted mineral increased from 9,379,800 kilograms in 1860 to 127,924,600 kilograms in 1868 while its value got five times as high achieving in 1868-1869 the amount of £ 13.464.780.
From Sella's report it also comes out that, in order to ease the transportation of mineral to the landing points, up to 1870 the mining societies had built about 30 kilometers of railways and 181 kilometers of land roads.
The steady development of mining industry led to the flow of technicians (engineers and geologists) and board employees from other regions of the kingdom. Because of the poor level of education and technical preparation of Sardinian hands, even the majority of qualified hands employed in mines came from the continent. Most of times the management of mining societies that operated on the island was set on criteria that could have been quietly defined as colonial; that's why very often these were confined to the exploitation of the richest parts of mined veins, ranferring then out of Sardinia the mined material that was processed on plants located on the continent. The large proceeds coming from the exploitation of Sardinian mines were not invested again on the spot unless to ease the operation of the company. Sella's inquiry did not reveal the economic treatment inequities between Sardinian miners and those with a continental origin, not to mention the need to found a school for foundrimen and mining managers in Iglesias. The report ended with the recommendations that more capital should be invested to improve mining industry, first of all the emergency of building a road network between mines and of completing railways. The need of carrying out and developing an adequate telegraph communication network was also highlighted: Sella points out that the main mining companies demanded to be able to build, at own expense, new telegraph lines in order to make communications faster. Such purpose was though made useless by the act that guaranteed the State the monopoly in the building of these important structures.
The year before, in 1871 the Italian mining activity had known the birth of a new industry. With the ultimate discover and the beginning of mining, of silver-bearing vein of Saarabus, even in Italy the production of silvery minerals was started off. A new production cycle lasting about forty years had begun.
Within a short period from fifteen tons of mined minerals in 1871, the year in which the discovery of the Mine of Monte Narba was declared, 2000 average tons a year were achieved and produced within the ten years between 1880 and 1890, that Rolandi defined as "silvery ten-year-span-of-time", in which productions reached the value of two millions lire. From the three mines that were constituted on the ore body in 1871, they increased to ten within twenty years to decrease later in order to become only one when it came to close it for good. In Sarrabus it came to a real quest for silver: together with big societies, such as the Society of Lanusei and the society of Monteponi, tenths and tenths of extemporised diggers of valuable metals showed hundreds of demands of permits to carry out mineral searches on the territories of the towns of Muravera, Villaputzu and, particularly, of San Vito. In 1851 the Genuese company "Unione Sulcis e Sarrabus" acquired the research permits in the area of Monte Narba, in the comune of San Vito. In 1885 the French engineer Leon Goüin founded in Genua the "Società Tacconis-Sarrabus" for the exploitation of Tacconis mine. In 1888 Goüin himself constituted in Paris the "Societè des mines de Rio Ollastu". In its most flourishing period the ore body of the Sarrabus employed up to 1500 workers, distributed among the mines of Masaloni, Giovanni Bonu, Monte Narba, Per'Arba, Baccu Arrodas, Tuviois, S'erra e S'Ilixi and Nicola Secci. Just to have a more precise idea of the quality value of the silver ore body of the Sarrabus we can say that, while in the rest of the world the average silver revenue for 100 kilograms of lead was swaying around 200/300 grams, in the body of the Sarrabus we achieved an average of 1 kilogram for 100 kilograms. In Baccu Arrodas the assays were much higher.