Lignite ‘Brown Coal’ Used by Ancient Greek Craft Workers

The Mycenaean culture in Bronze Age Greece is not only famous for works of art such as the “Gold Mask of Agamemnon”, but also for the beginning of export-oriented mass production of elaborately made ceramic vessels and bronzes, such as swords and vessels.

Gold death-mask known as the “Mask of Agamemnon”. National Archaeological Museum of Athens Self-photographed (Flickr), 20 December 2010 CC BY 2.0

An international team led by LMU ( LUDWIG-MAXIMILIANS-UNIVERSITÄT MÜNCHEN) archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer has now been able to show that this mass production was probably possible more than 3,000 years ago mainly because people were already systematically using lignite for their kilns and smelting furnaces at that time.

lignite, generally yellow to dark brown or rarely black coal that formed from peat at shallow depths and temperatures lower than 100 °C (212 °F). It is the first product of coalification and is intermediate between peat and subbituminous coal according to the coal classification used in the United States and Canada. In many countries lignite is considered to be a brown coal. Lignite contains about 60 to 70 percent carbon (on a dry, ash-free basis) and has a calorific value near 17 megajoules per kilogram (7,000 British thermal units per pound).


The archaeologists and chemists found evidence of the use of lignite in the dental calculus of Bronze Age people from Greece. The people from the workshops apparently repeatedly inhaled the exhaust fumes from burning lignite during their lifetimes.

Evidence was also found of the inhalation of smoke from other combustible materials: pine , oak, and dried animal dung , when they are burned.

So specific is the chemical trace that researchers can even link them to lignite deposits known today. In southern Greece, a deposit near Olympia, a good 150 kilometres west of Tiryns, was apparently exploited in the Bronze Age. In Crete, a deposit located directly near Chania was exploited.

Stephen Buckley, University of Tübingen, explained:

“This means we can prove the exploitation of lignite as early as the 14th and 13th centuries BC, a good 1000 years earlier than previously thought.”

It is believed that this is why Early Greek ceramics and bronzes were able to be produced in such excellent quality and for mass export.

Philipp Stockhammer said:

“The finds of Mycenaean pottery from Spain to Syria show that tens of thousands of vessels were produced annually in the southern Greek workshops, primarily for export.

“Until now, there had been nothing to indicate that lignite was already being used in the Bronze Age.

“We now have to rethink resource management in Mycenaean Greece.”

The early, almost industrial mass production was ultimately only possible in a densely populated and largely deforested region because the fossil fuel lignite was systematically used.

Link: Archaeometric evidence for the earliest exploitation of lignite from the bronze age Eastern Mediterranean

WATCH: Mask of Agamemnon, Mycenae, c. 1550-1500 B.C.E.

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