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Citizen Science Zurich

BB Lunch: Mining goes public. Discovering old traces with new means

In this Brownbag Lunch we went on an exciting journey to Erzmatt, in the canton of Solothurn. Ore was mined there until 1850 and traces of it are still visible. Rouven Turck from the Department of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Zurich and Beat Meier, geologist and dedicated private researcher, presented their project that wants to explore these traces. By doing so, the researchers expect to learn more about the historical mining activities in the region and to measure the exact course of the underground tunnels. Thereby, Citizen Scientists play an important role. Do you want to know more? Then dive with us into the mysterious world of historic mining!

We are in the Erzmatt, on the northern slope of the southernmost Jura chain, between Oensingen and Balsthal, in the canton of Solothurn. The entire project revolves around the discovery that some 200 years ago, iron ore was mined here in underground galleries. The two scientists, Rouven Turck and Beat Meier, assume that there was a dense network of tunnels with three portals. From the literature they know that the mining must have been a so-called pillar mining, probably mostly without backfilling, i.e. the resulting cavities were not filled up with rock. This is the reason why in Erzmatt there are still a number of funnel-like depressions in the terrain – so-called collapse shafts – and several large heaps with excavated material. Traces of ventilation shafts, which were responsible for supplying fresh air into the galleries, are possibly still visible.

A journey through time: Who mined iron ore in the Erzmatt?

After lots of hours in the archives, Beat Meier was able to gather that the beginnings of iron ore mining in this area probably go back to the Romans – i.e. to the 1st and 2nd century A.D. Actual digging attempts were carried out in the 16th century. But it was not until the end of the 18th century that the canton granted mining concessions. With the foundation of the company “Ludwig von Roll & Cie.” at the beginning of the 19th century, mining on the Erzmatt was finally industrialized: The company combined several iron extraction operations and subsequently received permission to build a blast furnace. Ore was exploited a good 50 years until about 1850, after which it was discontinued.

A look back: What has happened so far

In addition to the historical analysis in the archives, the two researchers also took a close look at the surface of the Erzmatt. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data is an excellent optical remote sensing tool for detecting these traces left by historic mining at the surface. On the LiDAR data, they located such traces and analyzed them with the open source software QGIS which is an easy to handle professional GIS application. Since autumn of 2020, preliminary field work has been carried out, including field walks, preliminary mapping surveys, and sample collections. Also, the first practical activities have begun with a first geophysical survey of the area. An exciting article on these activities has also appeared in the Oltner Tagblatt. As so often, it has been shown that thanks to the visibility through traditional media, the public has become aware of the project. As a result, a number of valuable reports and tips about finds have been received from local citizens. This shows how important the involvement of local citizens, forest wardens and amateur researchers is for the success of such a project.

A well-connected and multifaceted project with big aspirations for the future

They know that the underground galleries exist thanks to their thorough preliminary work in the archives on the one hand and to on-site work on the other. But what exactly it looks like is something they would now like to explore further. Resulting in a very diverse and interdisciplinary project, covering disciplines from geography, geology and geophysics to archival and historical sciences and archaeology. The two scientists have established a broad network of partner institutions, including Von Roll AG, the cantonal archaeology department, associations and civic communities, and the Nature Park Thal – to name a few.
Together with their partners, the scientists have in mind to geophysically explore the entire area of Erzmatt in order to be able to empirically prove the modeling of the actual mining. Another idea would be to open the site for guided tours. Geocaching, which is currently very much in demand, would be well suited for this. Also, the collected data and finds should be made available to the public via a database or blog. Furthermore, it should serve as a common platform for the exchange between scientists and citizens, with the goal of ensuring participation opportunities for scientists and citizens.

Citizen Science and Mining

This brings us to another point: the involvement of the public and interested citizens in the research project. Especially archaeological and geological questions are very well suited for Citizen Science projects. As mentioned earlier, local citizens and the general public are extremely valuable for the project to report about finds on one hand, but also to be actively involved in doing field research. A number of lay researchers who deal with mining finds, for example within the framework of the Swiss Society for Historical Mining (SGHB), are already actively involved in the project. But of course, the project wants to include much more local people. Therefore, Beat Meier coordinates and motivates local residents and interested citizens for field visits and inspections. Via the above-mentioned blog and social media it is also planned to reach out for- and build up a strong community.

About the project initiators

Rouven Turck completed his PhD in Prehistory and Early History at the University of Heidelberg in 2012 and is now a research associate and lecturer at the Department of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Zurich. His research interests focus on the reconstruction of the living conditions of prehistoric man. Rouven Turck is also project leader of the SNF project “Prehistoric Mining in Oberhalbstein (GR)” – a partner project with us from the Citizen Science Center Zurich. And also project leader in the project “Old Iron in Trento (VS)”.

Beat Meier grew up in Olten and completed his doctorate in geology at the University of Basel in 1983. He then worked for seven years as a geologist and geophysicist for the Dutch oil company Shell. In 1992, he and colleagues founded a company that offered geological studies to companies around the world. He retired in 2016 and has since devoted himself to research on mining.

Ursina Roffler