Quarry Sites: The Archaeological Study of Ancient Mining

Favignana Punic Quarry (Italy)
Favignana Punic Quarry (Italy). Alun Salt

To an archaeologist, a quarry or mine site is where a particular raw material—stone, metal ore, or clay—was mined in the past to be used to make stone tools, to carve blocks for building or statuary, or to make ceramic pots.


Some quarries used by ancient people were located near their point of use, regularly visited and fiercely protected from other groups as part of claimed territory. Other quarries, especially those for portable goods such as stone tools, were hundreds of miles away from the point of use, where the stone tools were found.

In those cases, the people might have found the quarry on a hunting trip, made tools there and then carried the tools with them for a few months or years. Some high quality materials might also have been traded as part of a long distance exchange network. Artifacts made from far away resources are called "exotic" compared to "local" artifacts.

Quarry sites are significant because they provide a wealth of information concerning the day-to-day living of people in the past. How well did a particular group understand and use the resources in their neighborhoods? How important was it for them to use high quality materials, and for what? How do we determine what a "high quality" resource means for an object or building?

Questions Posed at Quarries

At the quarry site itself, there might be evidence of the technical knowledge a society had about mining, such as the types of tools they used to excavate and shape materials.

Quarry sites can also have workshops—some quarries were also production sites, where objects might be partly or completely finished. There might be tool marks on the outcrop showing how the workers pried the material out. There might be spoil heaps and discarded materials, which can illustrate what attributes that made a resource unusable.

There might be encampments, where the miners lived while they were working. There might be inscriptions on the outcrops, such as notes about the quality of the material, or prayers to gods for good luck, or graffiti from bored miners. There could also be cart ruts from wheeled vehicles or other evidence of infrastructure suggesting how the material was transported to the point of use.

The Challenge of Quarries

Quarries are difficult to discover, because sometimes they are hard to see and scattered across the region. Outcrops of a particular source can cover many acres across a wide landscape. An archaeologist could find a stone tool or a pot or a stone structure at an archaeological site, but finding where the raw material to make that object or building came from is difficult, unless there are already quarries for that type of material that have been identified.

Potential quarry sources can be found by using bedrock maps of the area, which are produced for the U.S. by the United States Geological Survey, and for the United Kingdom by the British Geological Survey: similar government-backed bureaus can be found for almost any country. Finding an outcrop open to the surface near an archaeological site, and then looking for evidence there that it was mined, can be an effective technique.

Evidence could be tool marks, or excavation pits or campsites; but those might be difficult to identify if hundreds or thousands of years have passed since the quarry was used.

Once a potential quarry has been identified, the archaeologist submits samples to a laboratory for sourcing, a process that breaks down the chemical or mineral content of a material, using Neutron Activation Analysis, or X-ray Fluorescence or another analytical tool. That provides a greater assurance that the proposed connection between tool and quarry is likely correct. However, quarries can vary in quality and content within a single deposit, and it may be that the chemical make up of the object and the quarry may never be perfectly matched.

Some Recent Studies

The following are some recent quarry studies, only a fraction of the available research which has been conducted.

Wadi Dara (Egypt). This gold and copper mine was used during the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods (3200–2160 BCE). Evidence includes pit trenches, tools (grooved stone axes and pounding slabs), smelting sites and slags from furnaces; as well as several huts where the miners lived. Described in Klemm and Klemm 2013.

Carn Menyn (Preseli Hills, Wales, UK). The unique blend of rhyolites and dolerites at Carn Menyn mine were quarried for the 80 "bluestones" at Stonehenge, 136 miles (220 km) away. Evidence includes a scattering of broken or abandoned pillars of the same size and proportion as those at Stonehenge, and some hammer stones. The quarry was used before and after Stonehenge was built, between 5000–1000 BCE. See Darvill and Wainright 2014.

Rano Raraku and Maunga Puna Pau Quarries (Rapa Nui aka Easter Island). Rano Raraku was the source of the volcanic tuff which was used to sculpt all 1,000 of the Easter Island statues (moai). The quarry faces are visible and several uncompleted statues are still connected to the bedrock. Described in Richards and others . Maunga Puna Pau was the source for the red scoria hats the moai wear, as well as other buildings used by the people of Rapa Nui between 1200–1650 CE. Described in Seager 2014.

Rumiqolqa (Peru). Rumiqolqa was a quarry where Inca Enpire (1438–1532 CE) stonemasons excavated andesite for temples and other structures in the capital city of Cusco. Mning operations here entailed the creation of pits and cuts on the quarry landscape.

Huge stone blocks were cut by using wedges placed in natural fractures, or by creating a line of holes then using wooden or bronze poles as pry bars, rock hammers and stone and bronze chisels. Some stones were further reduced in size before being dragged along the Inca road to their final destination. Inca temples were made of a variety of materials: granite, diorite, rhyolite, and andesite, and many of those quarries have been found and reported by Dennis Ogburn (2013).

Pipestone National Monument (USA). This national monument in southwestern Minnesota was used as a source for "catlinite," one of several mines scattered through the midwest that produce a sedimentary and metamorphic rock that was used by Native American communities to manufacture ornaments and pipes. Pipestone NM is known to have been an important religious and quarry site for historic period Native American groups during the 18th and 19th centuries CE. See Wisserman and colleagues (2012) and Emerson and colleagues (2013).