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When miners in the ancient world went looking for materials in the earth, like gold or iron, did they have ways of predicting where those might be found? For example, we now know that diamonds are often found in cone-shaped deposits in old volcanos, but that knowledge is related to the study of geology and our understanding of how diamonds are made.

Did ancient miners just find gold on the surface and start digging, or did they have ways of targeting their search and predicting where they might find valuable resources?

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When you say ancient are you looking for a particular timeframe? At first metal would have been sourced from surface minerals like bog iron, and techniques progressed from there. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metals_of_antiquity –  Travis Christian Dec 20 '13 at 21:27
    
I'm most interested in the Roman and Carthaginian empires, but really any time period before the systemic study of geology would be cool to learn more about. –  Alexander Winn Dec 20 '13 at 22:04
    
Voting to close. A wealth of relevant details, far more than appropriate for an answer here, is readily available by Googling <metal> history for any of gold, silver, tin, cooper and zinc. To also include gem stones with their dramatically different geology makes the question far too broad. –  Pieter Geerkens Dec 21 '13 at 3:00
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@TomAu: Gold and iron are just too different chemically to be together in this question. Gold, silver and copper are often mined together and are similar chemically. Iron is very different. Tin and zinc are different again, as are the various precious and semi-precious gemstones. Diamonds are unique because the role of Kimberlites only being recognized by Cecil Rhodes in the late 19th century. –  Pieter Geerkens Dec 21 '13 at 20:15
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Guys, your quest for specificity (while thoroughly appreciated) kind of goes against the spirit of the question. For example, you took out the reference to marble: stone deposits are an important part of my inquiry. If the process for finding iron differs significantly from that for finding tin, it seems like that's worth mentioning as part of the answer. Remember: I'm not asking about mining PROCESSES for each, just whether ancient peoples WERE ABLE predict resource deposits, or whether they relied on surface discoveries to know where to start digging. –  Alexander Winn Dec 22 '13 at 1:38
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1 Answer

up vote 7 down vote accepted

In short, no. With no knowledge of sedimentary processes, chemistry of ores, or continental-shelf subduction, the ancients were completely dependent on surface geology for location of ore bodies. However, this was not usually a limiting factor - given that the world population only hit 200MM during the Roman Republic, and 500MM in the 15th century, the readily available surface ore deposits for most elements was usually sufficient. Regional differences actually stimulated trade and exploration, such as for British tin or Cypric cupper (the origin of the name).

This is not to say that underground mining didn't exist - it certainly did from at least Roman times. But the mines were dug into cliffs and escarpments to follow seams down from the surface. The ancients being as smart, if not as knowledgeable, as we are today, there were certainly some who may have deduced the likely extensions of already known seams, and taken some shortcuts.

Here is a link on some ancient Greek and Roman mining methods, and here is one on ancient Egyptian gold-mining techniques. Note the similarities of the latter to panning during the California gold rush 2000 years later.

Details of historic prospecting can be found here.

Googling "ancient mining" and "ancient prospecting" yield additional references.

Update
The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester outlines the quest by William (Strata) Smith, from 1793 to 1815, to prepare the first map of geological strata, for the United Kingdom, and lay the foundations of modern geology. William Smith is believed to be the first person to recognize, and study, the geological significance of sedimentary deposition of rocks. On Page 75 of the book, Winchester quote from Smith's diary in regards to the belief of the colliers that the evident and well known patterns of the coal mines did not exist in general:

I was told there was "nothing regular above the Red Ground", which in their sinkings varied much in thickness. Tis did not deter me from pursuing my own thoughts upon this subject.

The "Red Ground" was the sedimentary deposition above the Carboniferous Uncomformity in Somerset, where Smith warked at the time, and indeed much if not all of Britain and Western Europe.

Although the nascent science of geology existed prior to Smith's work, and the stratification of sedimentary deposits had been observed by others, the conclusions reached by earlier geologists were often bizarrely incorrect, by modern terms, and thus of no particular use in predicting the behaviour, existence, and location of buried strata.

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