Neolithic Flint Mines at Spiennes (Mons)
The arrival of the Neolithic cultures marked a major milestone in human cultural and technological development, which is vividly illustrated by the vast complex of ancient flint mines at Spiennes. The mines at Spiennes provide exceptional testimony to early human inventiveness and application. The mining centres, like the higher settlements, show there were already major changes taking place in Europe in the 5th and 4th millennia BCE. They constitute a landmark between the first settled communities and the emergence, probably in the Bronze Age, of true 'clan centres'.
The process of change throughout Europe is represented in Spiennes by the Michelsberg Culture, which was present in the middle Neolithic over a vast territory, including a large part of Germany, Belgium and northern France. Spiennes is a remarkable example of this culture because it has two characteristic sites: a fortified settlement on high ground and a vast flint mine.
The flint mines at Spiennes are outstanding examples of the lithic mining of flint, which marked a seminal stage of human technological and cultural progress. Spiennes is one of the best known examples of prehistoric flint mining. Its shafts are among the deepest ever sunk to extract this raw material. The exceptional size of the blocks of flint that were extracted shows how skilled the Neolithic miners must have been. The technique of 'striking', which is characteristic of Spiennes, was developed to allow these blocks to be extracted. The quality of the worked artefacts is one of the most remarkable illustrations of the great skill of the craftsmen, who produced extremely regular blades and axes 25cm long.
The Spiennes mines, covering more than 100ha, are the largest and earliest concentration of ancient mines in Europe. The mining site, 6 km south-east of Mons, occupies two chalk plateaux separated by the Trouille valley, a tributary of the Haine. The mines were in operation for many centuries and the remains vividly illustrate the development and adaptation of technology by prehistoric man over time in order to exploit large deposits of a material that was essential for the production of tools and implements, and hence for cultural evolution generally.
Underground flint mining was taking place there from the second half of the 5th millennium BCE (between 4400 and 4200 BCE), making Spiennes one of the oldest mining sites in Europe. Several dates show that mining activity went on, apparently without interruption, from the beginning of the middle Neolithic until the late Neolithic period. The considerable number of artefacts discovered at Spiennes, and more particularly the pottery, give a fairly precise picture of which human groups were engaged in underground flint mining. Spiennes was also important during the Metal Ages. Remains probably linked to settlements can be attributed to the late Bronze Age (8th or 7th centuries BCE) and the second Iron Age.
The first archaeological discoveries of prehistoric mine shafts were made in the 1840s, but it was not until 1867, when the Mons-Chimay railway line cut part of the Petit-Spiennes plateau, that more systematic work took place. Ever since the reporting of these discoveries to the Royal Academy of Belgium the following year, the mines have been intensively studied, with major excavation programmes in 1912-14 and continuously since 1953.
Currently the site appears on the surface as a large area of meadows and fields strewn with millions of scraps of worked flint. Underground the site is an immense network of galleries linked to the surface by vertical shafts dug by Neolithic man. The authenticity of the Neolithic flint mines of Spiennes is total. Many have never been excavated and those which are open to the public are in their original condition, with the exception of some modern shoring and props for security reasons.
The period when Spiennes developed large-scale flint mining, using techniques which may be termed preindustrial, is known as a result of radiocarbon dating of organic materials such as charcoal, bone, and antler, and also from the artefacts abandoned in the mines or workshops, such as pottery or cord for binding antler tools. Underground flint mining was taking place there from the second half of the 5th millennium BCE (between 4400 and 4200 BCE), making Spiennes one of the oldest mining sites in Europe. Several dates show that mining activity went on, apparently without interruption, throughout the whole 4th millennium and even during the first half of the 3rd millennium BCE, ie from the beginning of the Middle Neolithic until the Late Neolithic period.
However, because of the extent of the site it is not yet possible for each mining area to be individually dated. Camp-à-Cayaux and Petit-Spiennes have, however, produced similar dating and so the two plateaux were probably being mined contemporaneously. Dating is under way for the mining sector at the Versant de la Wampe.
However, on both plateaux, different mines intersect one another, showing that there were successive mining phases. At Petit-Spiennes, for example, new shafts were sunk around 3000 BCE in an area which had already been mined between 4400 and 4000 BCE.
The considerable number of artefacts discovered at Spiennes, and more particularly the pottery, give a fairly precise picture of which human groups were engaged in underground flint mining. Other groups have left at times abundant traces, but the reasons for their presence are more difficult to interpret.
The earliest Neolithic remains at Spiennes are two adzes characteristic of the Neolithic Rubané Culture, dating from the second half of the 6th millennium BCE. However, these are surface finds and cannot be taken as evidence that flint was being mined at Spiennes at that time.
Most of the pottery discovered in the flint mining structures and in the workshops and the upper parts of filled-in shafts is characteristic of the Michelsberg Culture. This covers a large area from central Germany to the Rhineland, Belgium, and northern France. It flourished between the last third of the 5th millennium and the middle of the 4th millennium BCE. Broken pottery found at the bottom of shafts shows clearly that it was left there by the miners themselves before the shafts were filled in.
So far as the Late Neolithic is concerned, although the radiocarbon dates suggest that mining went on, no pottery characteristic of the Seine-Oise-Marne Culture (a local group from the first half of the 3rd millennium BCE) has yet been found. The use of axes with splayed blades suggests that they were made from Spiennes flint during the transition between the Late Neolithic and the Bronze Age.
Spiennes was also important during the Metal Ages. Remains probably linked to settlements can be attributed to the Late Bronze Age (8th or 7th century BCE) and the Second (La Tène) Iron Age. At this period the nature of human occupation therefore changed. However, flint was still being used for toolmaking by these peoples. The Late Bronze Age finds include a stone-working workshop, demonstrating that local flint was still being worked on the site. It is not known how the Late Bronze Age craftsmen obtained the local flint - whether by small-scale extraction or scavenging the many pieces of debris left by previous occupations.
Many pits in the La Tène settlement have been found to contain flint. Here, too, the presence of flint-working debris may well have encouraged the Iron Age people to use this abundant material to make tools.
Justification for being a World Heritage Site
Criterion (i): The Neolithic flint mines at Spiennes provide exceptional testimony to early human inventiveness and application.
Criterion (iii): The arrival of the Neolithic cultures marked a major milestone in human cultural and technological development, which is vividly illustrated by the vast complex of ancient flint mines at Spiennes.
Criterion (iv): The flint mines at Spiennes are outstanding examples of the Neolithic mining of flint, which marked a seminal stage of human technological and cultural progress.