Exploring the ancient mine that attained Greece a superpower

aOld things become new with the passage of timea- Greek Proverb

Words byA Maria Fotiadi, Erikos Kranidiotis, Stelios Stamatakis

” The ancient ours were instrumental in the construction Acropolis of Athens and the mighty Athenian fleet “. Photos courtesy: Addicted2H 2O. com

The mines of Lavrion: a vast complex of tunnels, covering more than 46 square miles( 120 km 2 ), that has made unimaginable quantities of silver, result and copper throughout the centuries.A

Mining activity began in this Greek landscape as early as 3000 BC, when copper was extracted for the construction of early Iron Age tools and weapons. Later, result and silver became the main focus. So it was for centuries, peaking during the 5th century BC during the Athenian Republic. The ancient mines were instrumental in the construction Acropolis of Athens and the formation of the mighty Athenian fleet, which constructed Athens a superpower of its time.

As the influence of the Greek Empire receded, the mines fell into disuse. Then Lavrion again became important to the economy of the Modern Greek State, after its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821. Mining continued here until the 1980 as when, due to the de-industrialization of Greece, the ours discontinued production.A

Shortly after, Lavrion became a large archaeological park and an industrial heritage site. Archaeologists, mineralogists, and geologists visited the site to explore and conduct research in their respective fields; but there was a limit to this access. Deep vertical rods, muddy terrain, semi-collapsed arcades and long distances to reach the heart of the mine construct the chore more demanding. And then there was the water. Everything stopped where the water began.A

The team prepares for a dive as a videographer captures the moment. Photos courtesy: Addicted2H 2O. com

ThirstA forA exploration

The inflow of water from the aquifer had been a frequent problem during the working life of the mines. Where it was impossible to continue mining by pumping out the water, galleries were abandoned or sealed. Water flooded the lower levels, making them inaccessible. This prevented modern guests from accessing these lower levels, protecting this section of the mine from acts of vandalism, an unfortunate occurrence over the years. The rediscovery of such a flooded region by a group of dry cavers and the desire to explore further led them to contact the Addicted2H 2O diving team to explore these galleries.A

Our first sessions took place in May of 2019. The squad visited the first site, the Hilarion complex, in the Kamariza Region near the modern village of Agios Konstantinos, to evaluate the logistics of exploration. Accessibility was going to be difficult. It would be more than an hour descent via slippery terrain, down to the 5th inundated level of this enormous mine site( 400 ft/ 120 m below ground level ), to stage the dives. There was no existing infrastructure to transport the diving gear. Our team was going to have to do some serious heavy lifting. But we were aroused and ready to pull this off.A

Less than a month later, in July of 2019, we attained the first exploratory diving. The site was amazing. The water was warm, almost 68 AdegF( 20 oC ), and the visibility of the was exceptional. Starting our underwater descent in a huge excavated chamber that had become a subterranean lake, we insured the first passageways. Wooden rays, railway tracks, and graffiti left on the walls by the miners gave us a savour of what was to come.A

A second exploratory dive has just taken place at the same mine complex a few months later. We explored fully the three different passages that we had initially encountered and observed them to be interconnected; but there was a fourth passageway with an impressive rail way from the 1930 s that was enticing. It might also run as alternative solutions exit.

Sure enough, the Hilarion mine had more secrets to disclose. Another area, Number 50, was also inundated.( In the past century the mining company had assigned numbers to the various tunnels .) Mine 50 was part of the ancient mine, which later had been exploited and expanded, and it remained in use from the 1870 s until at least the 1950 s until groundwater from the aquifer flooded and cut off the lower levels.A

Our team visited Mine 50 on January 4, 2020. The dry part of this mine was also impressive. Due to the high humidity, especially near the flooded section, metal and metal oxide formations have created a beautiful, colourful spectacle. Aragonite, copper, hydroxides, and malachite are some of the many minerals in the gallery. Graffiti from the 1920 s and 1930 s also covers the tunnel walls.A

Underwater, rail tracks for the mining wagons remain almost frozen in time. A mining basket left in place by the last miner and the large mechanism that pulled the wagons were still standing as an impressive momentum of a long-lost era. You could nearly watch the ghosts of the workers, still toiling to extract the valuable ore. It was clear that we were just scratching the surface of this unknown world.

Serpieri Mine by Louis Poinsot in 1894

TunnelA 80

This project would not have happened without the right people to help us. Vasilis Stergiou was an invaluable asset; exploring the mines for yearsasince he was a childahe knew how to navigate the labyrinth of tunnels. Vasilis probably had expended more time in the mine galleries than in the real world! His knowledge of the Lavrion district was deep( no pun aimed) and every time he joined us to show us a new inundated section, he shared liberally information on and stories of the mines. The diving team was assisted also by fellow divers and dry cavers, who willingly joined us at this quest: Apostolis Tzamalis, Trifonas Egglezos, Akis Pallis, Kyriaki Fosteri, Konstantinos Kalomoiros, Panos Karoutzos, and Georgia Manzi were the valuable support team. The commitment of the support team allowed us to further the exploration of new flooded segments over difficult terrain.A

Located only four miles( 6km) from the modern settlement of Lavrion and its port is the village of Plaka. It was the second largest mining center in the region and the largest mining complex on the northern side of Lavreotiki, with extensive mining facilities. Plaka surpassed the Kamariza mines as a center of production and had a greater variety of ores, including mixed sulphites and manganese. The successful extraction of the ore led to the construction of mining shafts and other infrastructure, and the mines were run from 1885 through the 1970 s. However, in many parts of the mine, the issue of the rising water made such a difficult obstacle that some passageways were abandoned even though the ore deposits were still rich.

Our team visited the Plaka region from July to December 2019, conducting multiple dives in four different dive sites. In almost all of the mine sites, the transport of our diving equipment was challenging. But there was one specific dive site that was a real nightmare: Mine Tunnel 80. A

Plaka is a huge mine complex, with hundreds of miles/ kilometers of tunnels. Tunnel branches radiate in every direction and there are some serious heavy installations for delivering a vast sum of ore. During the 1950 s there was a need to find new profitable mineral sources. This led to the extraction of the ore at Mine 80, which was opened between 1954 and 1956. Main purpose of Mine 80 was to unite an extensive area of mine tunnels at the north and the south part of the Plaka Mine Region, encompassing a mile( 1700 m) in length. It contained an extensive railway system of wagons and heavy machinery to transport the ore, as well as a power station for electricity. Many shafts inside the mine reach a depth of 500 -5 25 feet( 150 m-1 60 m ).

Old tracks can be seen throughout the ours. Photos courtesy: Addicted2H 2O. com

ExtremeA challenge

Mine Tunnel 80 was by far the most extreme and challenging mine that we have ever been through. Although we had a support team of only three individuals to carry four 80 cu.ft. tanks each, along with all of the other necessary equipment, the team undertook a very difficult 50 -minute descent into the heart of the mine to stage for the dives. The dry part of the tunnel was a nightmare, with semi-collapsed arcades and silt covering the floor, a bad sign for the of the condition of mine. The substrate was mainly soft slate, which had led to the inevitable collapse of many passages, even during the time the mine was in operation back in the 1950 s. This meant there were numerous wooden columns and support walls constructed out of stone that had been erected to keep the roof intact. If the dry component was in such condition, we could only imagine how it would be underwater. After a steep and slippery descent that reached over 330 feet( 100 m) in depth, assisted by rope in a couple of extremely steep proportions, the team reached the dive location.

The state of the mine underwater was exceedingly poor: a more-or-less collapsed passageway with similar characteristics to the dry components above. Wooden rays and stone walls supported the roof. Visibility was very poor; effectively zero at the start of the dive, although it started to get better slightly as we progressed further. The water was colder, at 60 AdegF( 16 AdegC ), and percolation affected the visibility and caused pieces of silt fragments from the roof to rain all over us. We explored three different branches of the main passageway. All had further galleries splitting into different directions. Many proportions had collapsed. It was by far the most dangerous part of the whole expedition. There was only one way in and out, and the poor visibility attained the return an extra challenge. It was a chilling reminder that diving in an overhead environment such as a mine can be unforgiving.

Heavy lifters, archaeologists, and mine divers –
the team from Addicated2H 2O. Photos courtesy: Addicted2H 2O. com


Mine diving in many countries is a regular form of technical diving. Mines in Europe, for example, are explored and carefully prepared to be safe dive sites, open to the public and visited by those with appropriate training and experience. In Greece, that is not the case. While some of the industrial builds from the mineas heyday have been preserved, the mine tunnels remain mostly unexplored. They remain unmapped to a large extent and regrettably are easy prey to acts of vandalism. But water sealed some passageways and these underwater passageways may offer an opportunity, as a day capsule, to see the mine as it was at its very last moments, before the workers abandoned it.A

Further exploration is the main objective. With this mine exploration project, the team hopes to pave the way for future explorations and share the unique images of this underwater quest with the wider public. After all, Lavrion is one of the oldest and iconic mine sites in the world. Maybe one day, these mines will open to the public as museums of industrial heritage and the flooded sections could become a new exciting diving place for technical divers.A

For more information about theA exploration visit the official site: A www . addicted2h 2o. com

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