You have to go on and find out where the tunnel leads to...

Prof. Dr. Thomas Stöllner gives  us exclusive insights into his work as a mining archaeologist.



There are large salt deposits in the Austrian Eastern Alps. These are still mined today in Hallstatt and Hallein. Both places are of great importance for archaeology, because they give an insight into the living world of the Bronze Age. Today there are extraordinary insights into the world there: I talk to Prof. Dr. Thomas Stöllner about his work. We are underground in the Dürrnberg, Hallein. More precisely, in a leaching plant. There, salt is pulled out of the rock with water. When I arrive, Thomas Stöllner and three of his co-workers are standing in front of a mining wall and trying to beat salt out of the wall with replica picks and wedge hammers. This is part of an experiment investigating Iron Age mining methods. The underground hall where we are standing is dark, only the experiment is lit up so that they can film the scene.

Mr Stöllner, you are a mining archaeologist. What does that mean?

Mining archaeology - Montanarchäologie - comes from Latin and actually means "res montanorum" - everything that has to do with mining. This has been an allegory for everything from mining since the 16th century. Archaeology discovered this subject area as early as the 19th century and then coined the term "montanarchaeology" in the 1960s. We understand this to mean not only the mine, because the mine in itself is the extraction of the raw material, but everything that is connected with it: societies, settlements and the economy. All this is connected to a mine. It is a very holistic approach, because you actually have to know all aspects of a society in detail to understand a mine.


thomas stoellner looks friendly

That's very exciting. You told me that the first time you went into the mountain was when you were a little boy. What was that like for you?

I went to school in Hallein and we went on an excursion here to the salt mine. I was maybe 9 or 10 years old. We went into the mine here. What fascinated me most were these narrow caverns. In the Hallein salt mine there is a mine workings, the so-called "100-year tunnel". That fascinated me because I thought to myself, "You have to go further and find out where the tunnel leads to."

100jährige Stollen

It is interesting to look back and see what you found exciting as a child: Caves, underground, mine workings, working underground, this special atmosphere. That followed me professionally and is still fun.

We all know salt from our everyday lives. But what is so special about archaeology in salt? Are there any special challenges? How is it different from other archaeological disciplines?

Thinking from the raw material, I can say salt is a very special raw material because you eat it and because it is vital. That is why it is a necessary requisite in all societies worldwide. Every society needs salt. That means we always have a way of producing salt. That is the exciting thing about archaeological research in salt - similar phenomena can be found all over the world. This is also true for times without writing or with little writing, which is what we are researching in archaeology.

It is also exciting that salt is an incredibly good preservative. The archaeological finds in salt mines in particular are all preserved as if you had thrown them away yesterday. So we find an uncanny breadth of everyday culture that we don't find elsewhere. In a normal dig, you have pottery and metals, but very little organics. When you dig in salt, you have 5% non-organics, everything else is organic. That means you have a complete panopticon of an ancient society, with everything that makes up this society - right down to the food. Because salt was - and still is - necessary for the production and storage of e.g. bacon or cheese. Or let's take cattle farming: in order for the animals to give milk for cheese and have a good meat supply, salt is also essential. So salt is essential for a society.

In other words, a relevant reference to our readers' lives. You just mentioned that you work all over the world. Where are you currently digging?

We are currently digging a second salt mine. This is a big project in Iran that focuses on a mine near Zanjan. Zanjan is a provincial capital in north-western Iran. The mine is as old as the Dürrnberg near Hallein, where I did my first excavations. It is from the so-called Achaemenid period, which is the time of the Persian Great Kings, and salt was mined there. The finds of miners who died at an accident are particularly fascinating. The finds of miners who died at an accident are particularly fascinating. They died around 400 BC. We have similar finds from the Austrian Alps. Of course, I would have always been interested in making such a find myself. But so far neither we nor our colleagues in Hallstatt have managed to do so, but our colleague Dr. Abolfazl Aali in Iran has. For many years we have been investigating the " Salt Men" together, the mine and the surrounding area. It's a beautiful project and an incredibly fascinating site, of course. 

These finds are in museums in Zanjan and Tehran. You must have visited them once. When were you there for the first time?

I remember the first time I was there was in 2005 during an excursion. We had an excavation in Veshnaveh. I already knew that the finds from the salt mine were on display in Tehran because an Austrian ambassador had asked me about it. He said, "There's something interesting, Mr. Stöllner." I knew that these finds were something special. For several years I tried to establish contacts in Iran.

And what was it like to see the Salt Men for the first time?

In 2005, the so-called " Salt Man 4" could be seen for the first time. It is well preserved due to the salt and had just been found. It was in a display case for the first time and you could see it on site. Of course, that was incredibly fascinating. We always wondered what a person mummified by salt looked like. There were the old reports from the 16th and 17th centuries, but just no finds. Everything that has happened now, all the research on the man in the salt in Iran, has of course brought a tremendous amount of information.

For example? 

The most fascinating thing is that the Achaemenid miners, for example, were mostly foreign workers and came to the salt mountain to work. And the young man - " Salt Man 4" - he is really fascinating. He probably came there just before he died, probably as part of a labour service or contract. Probably he was only there for a few days, maybe only one or two, and then he died in an accident. That is a very dramatic life story that can be deduced for a sixteen-year-old. But there is a wealth of other detailed information: How was he dressed? How was he equipped? What illnesses did he have? " Salt Man 4" had a hereditary disease, which you can also see in his bones.

The upcoming special exhibition "Death by Salt. An Archaeological Investigation in Persia" at the German Mining Museum in Bochum is also about Salt Man 4, and for this you have worked intensively with the museums in Iran. Now the question is, what is special about this cooperation?

I believe that we humans do well to work together - even in times of climate change and the Covid19 pandemic. And it does us no good in this world if people and societies and states work against each other. That's why I think it's important from a cultural policy point of view to work with Iran and to have contacts at the scientific working level, to expand them and to show that, despite all political differences, it is possible to work together. I think that's the essential thing about an exhibition like this: that, in addition to the content, we also tell an exciting story and show our research.

What is special about the special exhibition?

As a research museum, we want to bring research to the public and engage with the public in a participatory discourse. And so this exhibition is ultimately also an exhibition that takes the visitor into the archaeologists' investigative work.

Why do you think people should visit the special exhibition?

I believe that the visitors will see the fascination of "archaeology" in a very vivid way by means of some selected life stories of the miners. This opens up a world of life that we can no longer imagine today. In our western world, hard physical work is no longer the norm. But I think it is very exciting to see that life stories and work go hand in hand and can be very immediate. The accident makes us suddenly aware of that. We are no longer used to this in our office jobs; we are familiar with a heart attack or a stroke. But the fact that you can also have an accident during physical work is not common in Central Europe. I find it intriguing, and I think our exhibition is very clearly structured in this direction, so that visitors will really enjoy this journey into the lives of the ancient Persian miners.

I agree with you there. Do a few final words?

You always go your own way, and that's what I always tell my younger colleagues: "Dare doing things." Then something happens and progress is made. In our society, we need the courage to implement things, and I believe we have to keep trying. Then our society will move forward.

Then I would like to conclude by saying: thank you very much for the interview.

You're welcome. 


The interview was conducted by Pia Weber.

Prof. Dr Thomas Stöllner is Professor of Prehistory and Early History at the Ruhr University Bochum and Deputy Museum Director and Research Director of the German Mining Museum Bochum, Leibniz Research Museum for Georesources. With prehistory and early history he connects many raw material issues. This led him to mining at an early age. His special field is mining archaeology. He conducts research in this field worldwide.

© Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum, Leibniz-Forschungsmuseum für Georessourcen

LogoDBM neu

Mit freundlicher Unterstützung der Kunstsammlungen der Ruhr-Universität Bochum