Exploring the ancient mines in Lavrion, Greece

By Eirini-Maria Poulaki, MS 2018

From the beginning of my geology journey, many of my friends, parents and relatives struggled to understand why I was going on field trips, breaking and collecting rocks and walking for hours to find one geological contact. But how can you explain the times that, although these people, as well as professors, books, and your instinct say that something is dangerous but you still want to do it? So when you have good friends, intrepid feelings and the desire for adventure you can do really cool things in geology. You can explore different fields, expand your knowledge and your survival skills, and overcome your fears.

On one such adventure, my friend Eirini and I went to meet Konstantino Kapela, our guide, for a small journey through history and geology in the Lavrion mines. The history of those mines began in ancient Greece; they are one of the oldest mines in the country and silver and lead were extracted there starting in 3000 BC until 1982. Since then the mines have been closed to the general public and only those people who worked there or were descended from those who worked there still have access. During my undergrad studies in geology, we were taught many things about this area. We were taught about the structural and economic geology, the history of the mines, and we were shown the minerals of this area in the mineralogy and petrology museum of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. It was one of my greatest goals to go there.

The night before I was stressed. I told my parents where I was going, that I would not have a signal on my phone, and they shouldn’t worry about me for the next 6 hours. Of course, the mines expanded 120km under the surface, so if anything happened down there, it would be almost impossible for someone to find you.
Then the time arrived. I put on old pants, rain boots and a helmet. I grabbed hammers and flashlights and was ready to go. The first few meters were enough to feel the temperature decrease sharply, a few minutes enough for my eyes to adjust to the dim light coming from the flashlights and a few seconds enough to forget any sense of fear and increase my other senses. While we were walking it was vital to be very careful of the unpredictable holes in the narrow tunnel’s floor, the rusty iron bars that poked out of the walls and places where the water level was higher than our knees. Every few meters the tunnel branched out more, and the markings that previous visitors had used on the walls for orientation were becoming more and more complicated. Konstantinos Kapelas didn’t need this kind of orientation because he has known this labyrinth since he was a child, so I didn’t need to worry about our safe return to the surface.

The most exciting part of this journey were the chambers full of minerals. In the Lavrion mines more than 3000 different types of mineral and metal deposits have been identified. The mineralization in this area started in the early Miocene and took place during successive geology events. Initially the core complex was exhumed, which then underwent tectono-plutonic evolution, oxidization of sulfide minerals and marble replacement. As a result, a lot of hydrothermal ore types have been noticed in Lavrion. Even if I tried to take pictures of the minerals around me, it was impossible to reflect in a few photos the beauty of the rocks in their natural environment. We collected a few samples of malachite, fluorite and azurite.

Before we left the tunnel we had a small break at an open chamber, it might have been one of the places where the workers used to take their break. I tried to bring to my mind those people who had been spending days and days under the earth without seeing the sunlight for weeks, sleeping, eating and working under those circumstances, but it was impossible. A lot of people lost their lives in there during mine collapses. The working conditions were inhumane and a lot of marches and strikes had taken place to demand the obvious: decent salaries, health insurance, and accommodation in houses rather than caves.

After 5 hours we were again under the sunlight. When we went home it was time for the sorting and separation of our collections. I was so excited that after 4 years I had the opportunity to get in the mines that everyone talked about, and collect minerals that had stimulated my interest for geology since I was a child.