TIN MINING, THE ROMAN EMPIRE, AND THE EASTER
Rare earths may be the "sexy" strategic materials
of the 21st Century, but in the 1st Century, it was tin. Tin was
necessary for producing bronze, which was considered the metal
of war. As one historian put it, "Gold and silver could finance
a war, but bronze could win it." Bronze was the first metal
that man could use to make non-corrodible tools and weapons.
Good as bronze was, there was a critical shortage of the tin
necessary to make the alloy. The cassiterite placer deposits of
the Mediterranean area were quickly exhausted and there is evidence
that tin was even being brought west in caravans from India and
Asia. Tin was an expensive and valuable commodity.
Although iron weapons were available and cheaper, they were softer
than well made bronze weapons. Wrought iron has a Vickers hardness
of 80. It also rusted and didn't keep an edge. Roman era steel
was very expensive and has a hardness of 140.
Regular bronze had a hardness of 90, didn't rust and kept a sharp
edge. With hammering, bronze's hardness could be raised to 228.
Needless to say, those who could afford it preferred bronze swords,
while the average soldier had to make do with an iron one.
It wasn't just swords that required bronze. Helmets, armor, and
shields contained bronze. Even the solder used to manufacture
the military equipment required tin. Roman officers also preferred
shiny bronze to dull iron because it made their uniforms and armor
more attractive. It also made them stand out on the battlefield
and allowed them to be a visible rally point for their men.
This posed a problem. Tin deposits in southern Europe were scarce
and small. The mines in Sardinia and Tuscany were exhausted. When
Julius Caesar invaded Gaul (France) in 57 BC, one of the strategic
objectives was to secure more tin supplies.
While there were some Northern European tin mines, they were
far inland and took a long time to get to ports and into the hands
of Rome's "military industrial complex." That's why
the tin deposits in what is now Cornwall, England was so important.
At about the time Christ was born; Roman writer Diodorus Siculus
described tin mining in Britain. "They that inhabit the British
promontory of Balerion by reason of their converse with strangers
are more civilized and courteous to strangers than the rest are.
These are the people that prepare the tin, which with a great
deal of care and labor, they dig out of the ground, and that being
done the metal is mixed with some veins of earth out of which
they melt the metal and refine it."
The process for mining and refining cassiterite at this time
was simple. Cassiterite was easy to detect in a mine because the
small crystals had a high refractive index and sparkled. The ore
would be crushed at the surface, and the washed concentrate might
even be shipped a distance to a central place that had enough
trees for smelting. The mined cassiterite would be mixed with
charcoal and heated in small crucibles until the tin melted into
globules. The product of the smelting would be crushed and the
tin globules washed out.
Since Rome hadn't conquered Britain yet, it was the Phoenicians
who controlled the shipping. And according to tradition, it was
a Joseph of Arimathea who visited Cornwall frequently, owned several
tin mines, and shipped the raw tin on Phoenician ships. If it
has been awhile since you went to Sunday School, it was Joseph
who asked Pilate for Christ's body after Christ was crucified.
He then buried Jesus in his own tomb. Little is historically known
about him except that he was rich, he was a follower of Christ,
and he had the nerve to ask for Christ's body.
This brings up an interesting question. If the disciples were
hiding for fear of being jailed or crucified, why was Joseph willing
to go to the Roman procurator, admit he was a disciple of Jesus,
and then ask for the body?" Maybe it was because Joseph controlled
one of the most important metals in the Roman Empire. Pilate wasn't
We have to rely on tradition and early Christian writers to track
what happened to Joseph of Arimathea after the death and resurrection
of Jesus. According to tradition, Joseph leaves Jerusalem a few
years after Christ's death and resurrection and heads back to
his mine holdings in Cornwall in 37 AD, where he founds the first
church at Glastonbury.
Whatever the truth, when the Romans did conquer Cornwall in order
to control its tin mines, it appears that Christianity was already
there. The church credits Joseph with the introduction of Christianity
to Britain and in the Catholic Church; he is the patron saint
of tin miners. While some scholars doubt some of these stories,
there are writings of early church fathers that indicate it is
Interestingly enough, the story of British tin is not over, even
if it isn't the strategic metal it once was. Although the last
British tin mine closed 14 years ago, the higher prices of tin
have encouraged Celeste Copper Company to reopen the South Crofty
Mine in Cornwall in the next few years. Geologists estimate about
$2 billion of tin is still recoverable at the mine.