Off to the Salt Mines…

Salt has a long connection with many societies going back to ancient times becoming, no pun intended, ingrained into our language and culture. From table salt to road salt, and all of the chemical combinations between, salt is tied closely with the formation of society as we know it.

From the earliest points of recorded history it has been used as a food preservative at a time when refrigeration was not available. The trade of salt has created avenues of wealth known as Salt Roads linking important trade points. War’s have been fought, paid for, and affected by salt. During the American Revolutionary War the British would intercept American salt shipments so the Americans couldn’t preserve their food.

Roman’s at one point paid soldiers in salt which led to the word salary; considering the danger of the mining and relatively short life expectancy criminals were often punished by being sentenced to the salt mines-hence the joking term “back to the salt mines” or “off to the salt mines” (7) The scarcity of salt for a long point of time led to  the term “salt of the earth” referring to the best people in the world and made it into the bible (1)from the sermon on the mount where he uses the term to refer to his followers. Also the term “To take something with a grain of salt” as some dishes can be made to taste better with salt-so can some situations in life.

Salt can be extracted two ways: evaporation and mining. The process of mining salt goes far back into antiquity. Iranian miners discovered a group of mummies in a collapsed tunnel which were found to be nearly two thousand years old (2)The Salina Turda Mine in Romania was first mentioned in 1075 and operated till the mid 20th century. Another mummy was found very early in 1734 in the Hallein Salt Mine, one of the oldest mines in the world (8). Dating of the mummy revealed that it was probably a victim of an accident sometime around 1000BC. Dating of a mining tool made from an antler revealed it to be from around 5000BC The salt mine allowed the region to remain prosperous throughout the ages and influenced the name of the town-the celtic word for salt is Hall.(3) The Polish mines of Wieliczka and Bochnia were opened in the 13th century and feature unique carvings and chambers created by the miners-indicative of the wealth and then decline when mined salt began to be viewed as inferior to sea salt.

Salt mining helped define the economy and society of England. Romans chose to settle Chesire because of its brine springs where they could use heated lead pans and kilns to extract the salt. The town Middlewich was called Salinae by the Romans and became a prosperous salt community-particularly the Wych House Lane Salt Works between the 14th and 18th centuries. The salt industry of Nantwich peaked during the 16th century when a recorded 216 salt houses were operating, but the last closed by the 1850s. The Winsford Mine-the largest salt mine in England-was opened during the 17th century as an animal salt lick, but wasn’t converted to an actual mine till the mid 1800 (4) The town of Liverpool was greatly helped by being the principle point of export. In 1753 English Doctor Charles Russel published, “The Uses of Sea Water” which reaffirmed the teachings of Hippocrates from 460BC.

Extensive records of salt making and mining communities still exist and help reveal some of the peculiarities of these towns.The mining process wasn’t the only hazard. Homes during the period had to conform to rules to protect the towns from fire. Eighteen rung ladders and proper storage of fire wood helped, and saltmaking was allowed only after a town bell had been rung. Along with safety issues the workers had to follow additional rules about the industry. The amount of salt extracted was monitored, and various other details of production closely studied

The discovery of the Americas would lead to the decline of the European Salt Markets. Although Native Americans primarily used the pan extraction method, England would remain superior with the creation of salt works in the Bahamas and New England cod fisheries.(5)

In The New World a large salt dome was found on Avery Island Louisiana. Native Americans would boil the islands water and extract salt to trade with other groups. Later during the American Civil War a large mine was constructed using more modern equipment. (6)

Salt mining continues into the modern age changed mainly by technology and the different chemical applications for salt and the by products from the rock. It is still a lucrative industry though mainly controlled by large companies. To conclude, the world we know would not have been possible without salt, as early lessons gleamed from salt mining helped to lead to an advanced petroleum industry.

1-“mathew 5:13” Bible Gateway 2011 <-http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+5%3A13&version=NIV >

2-Dean, James M. “Iranian Salt Mummies” Mummy Tombs 2012 < http://www.mummytombs.com/mummylocator/featured/saltmummies.htm. >

3-Lopez, Billie Ann. “Hallstatt’s White Gold- Salt” Virtual Vienna 2007 <http://web.archive.org/web/20070210142713/http://www.virtualvienna.net/columns/billie/hallstatt/hallstatt.html>

4-Twigg, George. “Salt Making Sites in Chesire” Chesire History 2006 < http://web.archive.org/web/20060901004419/http://www.cheshirehistory.org.uk/Papers/Salt.htm>

5-Brown, Ian W. “The Role of Salt in Eastern North America” Office of Lieutenant Govenor Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism 1981 < http://www.crt.state.la.us/archaeology/virtualbooks/SALT/hist.htm>

6-Stradley, Linda. “Tabasco, History of Tobasco Pepper Sauce” Whats Cooking America 2004 < http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/Tabasco.htm>

7-Farlex “salt-idioms” The Free Dictionary 2012 < http:idioms.thefreedictionary.com/salt>

8-“hallstatt-salt mine-history” Salz Welten Faszination 2012 <http://www.salzwelten.at/en/hallstatt/saltmine/history/>


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