Rock&Gem Magazine|February 2021
465 Years Old and Still Relevant
The bibliographies of the modern literature of minerals, mining, assaying, and smelting often cite a pivotal work titled De Re Metallica. This fact may seem surprising for a work that is 465 years old, but De Re Metallica is no ordinary book. An encyclopedic dissertation on mining and metallurgy, this book is one of the landmark achievements of the early Renaissance period. Based on personal observation and written in meticulous detail, it documents both period craftsmanship and the rudiments of science and is the first true example of modern technological literature.

De Re Metallica (On the Nature of Metals) is the work of Georgius Agricola, a well-educated humanist scholar, physician, author, and de facto mineralogist and metallurgist. His achievements include describing 20 new mineral species, preparing the first systematic mineralogical classification system, recognizing bismuth and antimony as primary metals (elements), and, most importantly, writing a work of great historical significance that is still relevant today. Through its text and the original illustrations, De Re Metallica offers a fascinating look at mining and metallurgy in the first half of the 16th-century.

The setting for De Re Metallica is the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) on the present-day border of the German state of Saxony and the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary district. The Erzgebirge is an intensely mineralized, 85-mile-long, 25-mile-wide range of mountains with summits rising to 4,000 feet.


By 2000 BCE, the Erzgebirge was already an important source of tin for Bronze Age metallurgists in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. More than 3,000 years later, a silver strike in 1168 CE at Freiberg (now in Saxony, Germany) triggered a Berggeschrey (literally “mining clamor”), a mineral rush similar to those that would occur centuries later in the American West. After these discoveries were depleted, the Erzgebirge stagnated again until the late 1400s, when even richer silver strikes touched off a second, much larger Berggeschrey. This rush attracted thousands and led to the founding or expansion of such mining towns as Schneeberg, Annaberg, Marienberg, and St. Joachimsthal, each the site of hundreds of underground mines that exploited vast systems of silver-rich, multimetal veins.

By the early 1500s, the Erzgebirge became the world’s largest silver source and its most technologically advanced mining center. It led the transformation of European mining and metallurgy from small-scale, craft-based, medieval operations to a large-scale, state-controlled industry fueled by capitalist investment. With its well-organized administrative, managerial, and social dimensions and riding a rising wave of applied science and technology, the Erzgebirge mining industry became a model for Europe’s later industrialization.

One individual who had a ringside seat for this exciting new world of advancing mining technology was Georg Bauer. Born in 1494 in Glauchau, Saxony, Bauer would make his mark in history as Georgius Agricola (the Latinized form of his birth name). Agricola had studied theology, philosophy, Greek, and Latin at the University of Leipzig, earning a degree in 1518 and later returning to study chemistry, physics, and medicine. After completing his medical studies in Italy, Agricola worked for a Venice book publisher. During his time at the publishing company, he met the Dutch philosopher and scholar Erasmus (Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus), who encouraged him to write. Erasmus later became Agricola’s patron and published several of his books.

In 1528, Agricola accepted a position as a town physician in St. Joachimsthal (Jáchymov, now in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic). With a population of 15,000, St. Joachimsthal was then a thriving center of silver mining and smelting with more than 600 operating mines. Over the next 70 years, the St. Joachimsthal district would produce 110 million troy ounces of silver. Today, this intensely mineralized district is the type locality for 31 of its 230 recognized mineral species. A government mint began turning out Joachimsthaler coins to utilize part of St. Joachimsthal’s prodigious silver production. Joachimsthaler, shortened in German to taler and the Dutch daler, would become the etymological base of our modern English word “dollar.”

Agricola’s medical responsibilities allowed him time to pursue a growing interest in mining and metallurgy. After reading all the available classical and medieval literature on these subjects, he befriended miners, mine owners, managers, assayers, and smelter workers to gain firsthand knowledge of their professions. Frequently visiting the mines and smelters, he observed and documented their operations, equipment, methods, and the St. Joachimsthal ores and ore deposits’ nature.


Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine