Archaeologists Identify Oldest Use of Fossil Fuels in Europe

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Reconstruction of a weapons workshop in the Bronze Age.
Reconstruction of a weapons workshop in the Bronze Age.Credit: Nikola Nevenov
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David

“It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled.”

Charles Dickens’ bleak description of a 19th-century industrial town in Britain, taken from his novel “Hard Times,” seems to have found a curious and unexpected parallel in a much more distant time: Bronze Age Greece.

An international team of archaeologists has found that more than 3,300 years ago the Mycenaeans fueled their furnaces with coal, in what is the oldest known use of fossil fuels in Europe.

The study, published last week in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, turns back the clock by roughly a millennium on the first known use of fossil fuels in the West. It also paints a vivid picture of the highly advanced civilizations that ruled the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age before suddenly and mysteriously collapsing.

The discovery was made by analyzing the teeth of people who lived during the Bronze Age across the Mediterranean: Mycenaeans from Tiryns in the Peloponnese and Chania on Crete; Hittites from Alalakh in today’s Turkey; Canaanites from Megiddo in Israel; all the way down to ancient Egyptians from the Nile Valley.

The team, which included three dozen researchers from Germany, Greece, Israel and other countries, conducted chemical analyses of teeth belonging to 67 Bronze Age individuals. This was part of a broader project to study the culinary traditions of the period by analyzing the food residues trapped in the dental calculus – the hardened plaque that accumulates on teeth (especially if one doesn’t brush properly).

Such studies have previously highlighted how the Bronze Age was a time of relative sophistication during which vast trade networks brought exotic foods, such as soy and turmeric, to the Mediterranean from the Far East. This was an age of early globalization, or “Bronzization” as some scholars call it, during which complex, interconnected societies developed large-scale manufacturing centers for goods that were exported across the Mediterranean.

The price of Bronzization

But food is not the only thing the researchers found in the teeth – and the prosperity of the Bronze Age clearly had a darker side to it.

Most of the teeth the archaeologists analyzed contained chemical markers for combustion, which showed these individuals had been exposed frequently to smoky environments over their lifetimes. These markers were caused by inhaling smoke produced by fires made with wood or dung, the archaeologists report. This is not unexpected for a time when people relied on open fires for warmth, cooking and light. But what did surprise the researchers was that some of the teeth from Greece showed traces of benzoic acid, benzamide and other potentially hazardous chemicals associated with the burning of lignite, a rock also known as brown coal.

Reconstruction of a metal smelting workshop in the Bronze Age.Credit: Nikola Nevenov

The unexpected chemical signatures were found in six individuals buried in the Mycenaean city of Tiryns in the 13th century B.C.E. as well as three people from the 14th or 13th century B.C.E. found in a necropolis in Chania, on Crete, which was also under Mycenaean control at the time.

The fact that these chemicals became embedded in their dental plaque through mere inhalation means that they were exposed to coal smoke day in, day out over a large part of their lives, says Philipp Stockhammer, a professor of archaeology at LMU Munich who led the team.

“If you inhale it occasionally, there is zero chance it gets embedded in your calculus. If we find it, it means these people inhaled again and again the smoke and dust coming out of ovens where brown coal was burning,” Stockhammer says.

A statue of the ancient Greek philosopher and botanist, Theophrastus.Credit: tato grasso / Esculapio / Singinglemon

Until now, the earliest known use of fossil fuels in the West came not from archaeology but from the writings of Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher and naturalist who lived in the fourth and third centuries B.C.E., nearly a thousand years after the fall of the Mycenaean civilization. In his treatise “On Stones,” this disciple of Aristotle described the use of coal in metallurgy and how the fuel could be easily collected on the surface in the vicinity of Olympia (the site where the ancient Olympic Games were held).

While the new find turns back the clock on the use of coal in Europe, Stockhammer and colleagues caution that this is probably not the first instance in which humanity burned fossil fuels. There is in fact evidence from a recent dig in China that coal was already being used in the Far East by the 16th century B.C.E.

Hard age

But why is the evidence of industrial pollution found only on the teeth of Mycenaeans, and not on those of other Mediterranean people that the archaeologists analyzed? Of course, it may be an issue of sample bias, but Stockhammer suspects there are other factors at work here.

The layer of lignite prepared for mining in the Lom ČSA coal mine near Most, Czech Republic.Credit: Karelj

The first is that Greece has large lignite deposits that, as Theophrastus noted, could be easily mined. In fact, the coal signatures found at Tiryns can be traced specifically to those deposits at Olympia that the Greek naturalist would mention a thousand years later, the archaeologists report.

Tiryns and Olympia are on opposite sides of the Peloponnese peninsula, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) apart, which gives us an idea of the massive logistical challenges of transporting such large amounts of fuel over land or sea.

But the Mycenaeans may not have had much choice. Bronze Age Greece was densely populated and vastly deforested, meaning that not enough firewood would have been available for the large-scale production of pottery and metal that occurred in major Mycenaean centers like Tiryns and Chania, Stockhammer notes. Additionally, the use of brown coal would have allowed for better temperature control, as required to make the exquisite Mycenaean pottery that was in great demand across the Mediterranean, he says.

A 15th century Mycenaean amphora with palm trees.Credit: Sharon Molerus

This all supports the idea that the pollution-marked teeth belonged to workers involved in the metal or pottery industries that were the economic lifeblood of the Mycenaean world. Controlling the production of these wares was so important that the workshops, even though they may have spewed noxious smoke, were usually not removed from population centers but were built close to the palatial complex of each city’s ruler, Stockhammer says.

The consequences of the backbreaking labor in these ancient factories are visible not only on the teeth of the deceased workers. Several of them showed signs of hard physical labor, such as degenerative and rheumatic skeletal changes as well as an overdevelopment of the muscles of the right arm. This might point to the heavy work of operators of ovens and kilns, Stockhammer says.

A Mycenaean krater found in a tomb in Cyprus, at the British Museum.Credit: Udimu / British Museum

The ribs of some of the workers also displayed signs that they suffered from chronic lung inflammation, no doubt because of the long-term exposure to the coal smoke, he adds. Interestingly, signs of hard labor and exposure to coal fumes were found in both male and female skeletons, suggesting that women could be employed in the Mycenaean factories as well.

“The deforestation, the use of coal, these specialized workshops and the exploitation of the laborers – they all give me a feeling that the past is much closer to the present than I assumed,” Stockhammer tells Haaretz. “You always think of these people as doing a bit of simple crafting in their workshop, and then suddenly you see this picture of an almost industrial past emerging.”

Signs of collapse

This echoing of the past may not be limited to the more Dickensian aspects of the Mycenaean sweatshops.

A Bronze Age masonry at Tiryns walls, Greece.Credit: Nick Stenning

While the Late Bronze Age was a time of early globalization, this world came to a sudden end at the beginning of the 12th century B.C.E. In the so-called Bronze Age Collapse the Mycenaean and Hittite civilizations vanished, the Egyptian Empire was diminished, and the Canaanite city-states of the Levant burned

Scholars have been debating the cause of this crisis for decades, initially blaming it on attacks by invading “Sea Peoples,” including the biblical Philistines. But more recent research has shown that the collapse was probably sparked by multiple factors that Bronze Age civilizations were incapable of dealing with. One of these may have been climate change, as evidenced by pollen studies showing that the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.E. were marked by a protracted drought, which may have triggered famine, migrations and war.

Other contributors may have been the growing scarcity of natural resources and widening social inequality, which is particularly evident in research like the study on the dental calculus.

“There was a stark contrast between the splendor of the Mycenaean palaces and the people who were working and being exploited in these early industrial complexes located close to these very same palaces,” Stockhammer notes. “It’s not difficult to imagine that at some point the people weren’t very happy anymore.”

The gates of the ancient Mycenaean city of Tiryns, Greece.Credit: Karelksir

The competition over increasingly scarce resources and social strife may have sparked conflicts between palaces or within cities, he says. There is some archaeological evidence that this may have happened at sites like Hazor, a once powerful Canaanite city-state in today’s northern Israel. The destruction of the settlement in the 13th century B.C.E. appears to have focused on the acropolis and its palatial buildings, as well as the statues of gods and rulers, while sparing more humble private dwellings in the lower city. This has been interpreted by some archaeologists as evidence that the end of Bronze Age Hazor came not at the hand of an external enemy, but as a result of internal social upheaval.

So perhaps the marred teeth of the Mycenaean workers should remind us not of the Industrial Revolution but of a time much closer to us. As far as we can tell, the Bronze Age was an era of rapid progress, increasing interconnection and massive wealth that was brought to a crashing end by a lethal cocktail of climate change, overexploitation of natural resources and extreme inequality. Sound familiar?

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