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Buried alive, but free

For thousands of years, mining skills were transferred from generation to generation as a secret science. Those who mastered it were assured an exceptional social position. You may be asking now, “What could have been so exceptional about toiling in mines ‘for peanuts’?” The answer is: freedom.

Drawing depicting a typical miner’s house which you can find in the Resla or Pod Paradajsom (Under Paradajs) neighbourhoods. They had nothing in common with the palaces of the mine owners on the Holy Trinity square nor with the townsmen’s houses on Dolná ružová street. Resource: Marcel Mészáros

Gold moves mountains

Before more progressive methods (fire and, later, gunpowder) began to be used in mines, hundreds of kilometres of tunnels deep into the earth were carved out of the rock by hand, using only hammers and chisels. Tens of millions of tonnes of rock to be broken and moved, the choking darkness of underground tunnels, constant life-threatening danger… And still, mining continues to fascinate people.

Tens of thousands of men worked belowground, and from an early age; boys as young as 7 years old used to help in the mines. Gradually, several categories of miners were created, among which were those who excavated tunnels and shafts, and those who worked on the surface, transporting the ore. Then there were the suppliers of materials, clothing, and food. About the quality of these supplies, let us only say that miners often suffered from malnutrition. And, although they were able to extract great amounts of silver every week, you could hardly find a miner who owned even one silver coin. Miners were neither serfs, nor villeins, but the mine owners knew how to chain the miners down. The mine owning waldburghers ran the food, beer and wine businesses, too. So, the little money they paid to the miners simply went back into the rich men’s pockets. As if this were not enough, in 1608, the miners were paid a two-week salary for three-weeks’ work. The working hours kept being extended. In addition, as described by the English doctor Eduard Brown in his travelogue from the 17th c., the miners of Štiavnica often did blind digging – meaning on the basis of random decisions on direction by the mine owners. It is said that once the miners dug for six years without any results, yet all the time only about 3.5 metres from a gold-bearing site. Or, in a different case, they reached a gold vein only after 12 long years of toil. And all this was happening in darkness, in just the dim light of tallow burners. By the way, the greatest tallow-making plant was located where the stairs to the Chemistry High School are today – next to the side entrance to the Botanical Garden.

Glory and misery of the mine owners

For the fact that, today, we can admire the facades of the splendid palaces on Holy Trinity Square, Radničné Square or Andrej Kmeť street, we can be grateful to people who were not among the favourites of the mining public. The luxurious houses belonged to mine owners, those responsible for the miners’ servitude. But – as you can soon read – even wealth did not guarantee the mine owners a long and contented life.

The mine owners of medieval Banská Štiavnica came mostly from German Saxony and Thuringia. They owned all the operations, including the smelters, stamp mills, and grinding mills. They also controlled the food market and owned the right to sell alcohol. They sold wine, transported from Dalmatia, and beer, brewed directly in town, in shops on what is today Andrej Kmeť Street. Some of the mine owners even foresaw a better future in selling alcohol than in mining. That truly upset King Mathew in 1481. The waldburghers who neglected mining were banned from selling wine because drunk miners were of no profit to the royal treasury. The mine owners joined together to build the mines and mining facilities. They had family connections, as well, because they did not want strangers in their closed groups. If you looked at the addresses of the mine owners on the main square, you would find that all of them were somehow related. Men did not live long in those times, and their widows and property enjoyed the interest of other men of short life expectancy. In the stormy 17th c., these families gradually died off or were scattered all over the world. However, the mining companies survived. The most powerful one in the central Slovakian region was the Geramb Mining Union. It was founded by Ján Jozef Geramb in 1743, and was still prosperous at the end of the 19th c. However, after the price of silver collapsed, the Union fell into decline and finally went bankrupt in 1906.

Hellenbach, Fail, and Jozef Richter houses on Holy Trinity Square. Resource: Central State Mining Archive, Registry No.: 670

Surface ore mining. G. Agricola: Twelve Books on Mining. Resource: Boston Library Consortium Member Libraries.