Pre-Islamic tin mining in Central Asia

Pre-Islamic tin mining in Central Asia

From 1997 to 1999 research in the fields of mining archaeology, archaeometallurgy and settlement archaeology was carried out in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in a project on prehistoric tin mining funded by the VW Foundation. The study focused on the Zeravshan valley, in which several tin districts with traces of prehistoric mining are known. Special attention was paid here to the districts in Karnab and Lapas, located between Samarkand and Buchara, Changali, southwest of Kattakurgan, and the deposit of Mushiston in Tajikistan, not far from Panjakent. The analysis of the mining archaeology part of the project was carried out in the framework of a doctoral thesis, which was completed in 2011.

From the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, metal finds in the ancient Orient are more and more frequently made of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, which gave its name to an entire era, the Bronze Age. Unlike Central Europe, where this alloy does not appear until the 2nd millennium BC, the 3rd millennium is already described as the Early Bronze Age in Near Eastern archaeology. Since the composition of these metals was already established last century, the issue since then has been the origin of the metals – copper and tin – found in Mesopotamia, which had no metal ores. For copper, the possible suppliers are Anatolia, the Caucasus, Iran and Oman. When it comes to determining the origin of the tin, the scientific methods currently available have not proven effective, and the cuneiform texts of the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC also raise more questions than they answer.
New light was cast on the discussion of the origin of tin by the discovery of tin ingots from sunken Bronze Age merchant ships. For example, the sensational discovery of the Uluburun shipwreck off the southwest coast of Turkey yielded more than 300 copper ingots (10 t) and around 40 tin ingots (1 t). The DBM’s department of archaeometallurgy? has worked on these finds from around 1310 BC. However, these discoveries from a much later period can only serve as background information for the origin of the tin found in 3rd-millennium Mesopotamia. Even if we can scarcely guess where the cargo of tin came from in the early period, we can see that it was available in abundance and was traded in large quantities over great distances. The numerous lapis lazuli objects in Egypt or in the Royal Tombs of Ur, which come from mineral deposits in Afghanistan, show that there was already an extensive trade with Central Asia at this time. Thus a trade in tin from Central Asia seems to be well within the realms of possibility.
The tin-bearing mountains in Karnab lie in a semi-desert, at a height of around 450-500 m, and extend over an area of several square kilometres. The bedrock is granite, and the veins of ore are embedded in this. The present appearance of the mining district is largely shaped by prospecting work undertaken by Soviet geologists in the 1950s and 1980s. The surface of the terrain is severely churned up and traversed by prospecting trenches, several kilometres long, running perpendicular to the west-east ore lodes.
Within the framework of the project, eight mines were excavated. These were extraction trenches following the vertical or steeply descending ore lodes from their outcrops on the surface into the depths. The lodes are up to 1 m wide, but mostly only about 60 cm, making the mines very narrow. The mines reached to depths of more than 9.5 m, but could not be followed to any greater depth because of the groundwater level. This showed that the ore lodes had been almost completely extracted. All that remained were small remnants of ore in the support pillars, and numerous finds, including ceramics, animal bones and, above all, thousands of miners’ tools such as hammers and limestone hammerstones. The fire-setting method was used for tunnelling.
One completely excavated mine in the east of the district is 30 m long and 17 m deep. Characteristic abrasion marks give evidence of the use of ropes for extraction and transport. Here too, numerous miners’ tools were found, as well as Middle Bronze Age Andronovo ceramics. With an average width of 60 cm, this mine has a cavity space of 270 m3, corresponding to around 730 t of rock. If we assume an ore thickness of only 5 cm, this comes to at least 60 t of ore. With a tin content of 2%, this pit would have yielded around one tonne of tin, the same quantity as the cargo of the Uluburun ship.
The picture of Bronze Age tin mining was completed by the discovery of a related miners’ settlement, around 1.5 km from the mines, which was studied by the DAI’s Eurasia Department (Berlin). The material found, Andronovo pottery, hammers and tin-rich ore, matches that found in the mines, proving that the mines and the settlement belong together. 14C dating indicates that the tin district was in continuous use from the middle of the 2nd millennium to the middle of the 1st millennium BC.
The prehistoric mine in neighbouring Tajikistan has been cut underground by modern prospecting galleries. It is located in Mushiston in a small side valley of the Zeravshan, right in the northwest of Tajikistan at a height of about 3000 m. The ore lodes exploited here contain, among other things, stannite, malachite, azurite and mushistonite, named after the location of the deposit. The ore content here can be up to 50% copper and 30% tin. During the excavation seasons from 1997 to 1999 a total of eleven mine structures above ground and four openings underground were able to be investigated. As in the mines of Karnab, the material found included Andronovo ceramics, animal bones and stone miners’ tools, albeit in much smaller quantities than in Uzbekistan. On the other hand, remains of wooden linings were found, a very rare find in prehistoric mines. The radiocarbon dating in the various mines reveals that there were at least two phases of extraction. Thus the oldest dates from a surface mine point to the 3rd millennium BC (2450-1935 BC, cal. 2σ), making this not just the oldest mine in the district, but the oldest known Bronze Age tin ore mine in Central Asia. Other 14C data can also be allocated to this phase; these form a cluster at the turn of the 3rd to 2nd millennium BC. The small mining cavities on the surface also fall into this period. The second phase of extraction is associated with data from underground, from the middle to the end of the 2nd millennium BC.

Completed PhD thesis

Dr. Jennifer Garner
Die bronzezeitlichen Zinnbergwerke in Mittelasien

Project manager

Prof. Dr. Gerd Weisgerber


Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Berlin, Eurasien-Abteilung / H. Parzinger, N. Boroffka

TU Bergakademie Freiberg, Lehrstuhl für Archäometallurgie / E. Pernicka, J. Lutz

Akademie der Wissenschaften der Republik Tadžikistan in Dušanbe, Institut für Archäologie, Geschichte und Ethnographie / J. Jakubov, M. Bubnova, V. Radililoskij, D. Staršinin

Akademie der Wissenschaften der Republik Uzbekistan in Samarkand, Archäologischen Institut der / T. Širinov, Ju. F. Burjkov, V. Ruzanov; sowie dessen Außenstelle in Taškent / K. Alimov, L. Sverčkov



1997 - 2000


  • K. Alimov, N. Boroffka, M. Bubnova, J. Burjakov, J. Cierny, J. Jakubov, J. Lutz, H. Parzinger, Prähistorischer Zinnbergbau in Mittelasien. Vorbericht der Kampagne 1997. Eurasia Antiqua 4, 1998, 137-199.
  • N. Boroffka, J. Cierny, J. Lutz, H. Parzinger, E. Pernicka, G. Weisgerber, Bronze Age Tin from Central Asia: Preliminary Notes. In: K. Boyle, C. Renfrew, M. Levine (Hrsg.), Ancient interactions: east and west in Eurasia. McDonald Institute Monographs (Oxford 2002) 135-159.
  • J. Cierny, G. Weisgerber, Bronze Age Tin Mines in Central Asia. In: A. Giumlia-Mair, F. Lo Schiavo (eds.): Le problème de l'étain à l'origine de la métallurgie. The Problem of Early Tin. BAR International Series 1199 (Oxford 2003) 23-31.
  • J. Cierny, T. Stöllner, G. Weisgerber, Zinn in und aus Mittelasien. In: Ü. Yalçın, C. Pulak, R. Slotta (Hrsg.), Das Schiff von Uluburun. Welthandel vor 3000 Jahren (Ausstellungskatalog, Bochum 2005) 431-448.
  • J. Garner, Das Zinn der Bronzezeit in Mittelasien II. Die Montanarchäologischen Forschungen der Zinnlagerstätten (Archäologie in Iran und Turan 12, Veröffentlichungen aus dem Deutschen Bergbau-Museum 194) (in press).
  • H. Parzinger, N. Boroffka, Das Zinn der Bronzezeit in Mittelasien I. Die siedlungsarchäologischen Forschungen im Umfeld der Zinnlagerstätten. Archäologie in Iran und Turan Band 5 (Mainz 2003).
  • G. Weisgerber, Prähistorischer Zinnbergbau in Mittelasien. TÜBA-AR 12, 2009, 235-258.
  • G. Weisgerber, J. Cierny, Ist das Zinnrätsel gelöst? Oxus 4, 1999, 44-47.
  • G. Weisgerber, J. Cierny, Tin for Ancient Anatolia? In: Ünsal Yalçin (Hrsg.), Anatolian Metal II. Der Anschnitt, Beiheft 15 (Bochum 2002) 179-186.