Thursday, October 11, 2012

Garantito IGP: San Silvestro


This time I take the stand.

In 1984 I spent a couple of weeks on a Paleolithic dig in Gavorrano, one of the towns in the Val di Cornia; the work consisted of digging trenches in an area that was destined to become a road and sifting the dirt in search of man-made flint chips and such. Which we found in abundance, though no other traces of humanity had survived in that particular spot.

But one day we piled into our van and rattled over to the Valle dei Manienti, where Riccardo Francovich, an archaeologist with the University of Siena, and his students were peeling back a huge briar patch that had overgrown a hilltop; we could see crumbling walls in the areas they had already cleared and were told we were looking at the remains of a medieval mining town called San Silvestro. By the time the team finished clearing they had found a tower at the top of the hill, with immediately below it a cistern, a courtyard, and a tiny church, and about 50 houses below, within the town walls.

Some background is in order: The hills inland of Populonia, a promontory on the central Tuscan coast, are called the Colline Metallifere - the Metalliferous Hills. The area is a mineralogist's paradise, and if you're driving along you will see many spectacular splashes of colors on the hillsides, where ore veins come to the surface.

In the past people did more than appreciate the beauty of these deposits: The region is honeycombed with mines, some dating back to the Etruscans. The veins of the Valle dei Manienti (directly inland of the town of San Vincenzo) were instead worked during the early Middle ages by the Conti della Gherardesca, who extracted silver-bearing lead, copper and iron. The miners needed somewhere to live, and since they were providing a valuable service to their lords, the Counts built them a fortified town. San Silvestro flourished for about 300 years before changing economic conditions made the operation uneconomical, and then it was abandoned.

San Slivestro is now the centerpiece of a fascinating archeominarary park with hiking trails, mine shafts you can visit (with a guide), and traces of all sorts of mining ventures, dating from the Etruscans through the post-war period. It's a perfect change of pace if you're spending a few days at the beach, especially if the wind kicks up, stirring the waves, and the lifeguards won't let you in the water because of the undertow.

You should park in the Valle del Temperino, and begin with the museum, which has a nice mineral collection, with some beautiful specimens from the various mines, and exhibits devoted to miners and mining. Guided tours of one of the mine shafts sunk at the turn of the century by the Etruscan Copper Estates Mines (an English company that worked the veins from 1900 to 1907 and then went out of business) depart hourly on the half hour in June, and on the half hour in July and August. They require covered shoes, and since the air is chill, a sweater.

The shaft leads through country rock to skarn deposits (mixed sulfides, including silver bearing galena (lead sulfide), chalcopyrite (copper iron sulfide), sphalerite (zinc sulfide) and in some cases cassiterite (tin oxide)) that formed as a result of the interaction between intruding magmas and the mineral-rich solutions they contained with the calcareous rocks they intruded -- quite interesting, and the shaft intersects a number of older shafts as well that reveal the older mining techniques.

Once you have seen the mine shaft, it's a short walk to the Museo del Minatore, or Miner's museum, with interesting displays of equipment. The departure point of the narrow-guage rail line that follows one of the longer shafts through the mountain to the Valle Lanzi (named after the Tyrolian miners Archduke Cosimo summoned and quartered there in the 1500s) and the town of San Silvestro is next to the Museo; it's an interesting ride. If you'd instead rather say above ground, it's a three-hour hike on a well marked trail with rest stops and lots of things to see, everything from powder houses and another section of the narrow guage rail line built by the English company to pre-Roman shafts and pits.

San Silvestro itself is quite beautiful, and even though only the walls remain enough has survived to give you a good idea of what life must have been like: The boredom of the guards, who scratched the patterns of board games into the steps by the gate; the constant need for water, which led the inhabitants to chip grooves into the bedrock to guide rainwater to cisterns....

Though the park wardens give guided tours (on the hour in June, and on the half-hour in July and August), you may want to explore the village at your own pace. It should take about an hour, and once you're done, you should also look at the experimental station, where the archaeologists reconstructed the smelting furnaces to find out how efficient they were. Quite, and indeed the village was completely self-sufficient with regards to iron. Copper was also refined on site. Silver was not, however: It occurs in galena, lead sulfide, and the Counts Gherardesca found it more practical to smelt the mineral into lead, and then extract the silver from the lead once they'd transported it to Pisa (bandits were a problem, and lead ingots are a lot harder to steal than flakes of silver). Even so, the skeletons of a couple of people dead of ax wounds were found in the slag heaps by the foundry; they differed physically from the people whose bones were found in the cemetery, and may have been thieves, or even pirates.

Getting there: Campiglia Marittima is close to the coast. Take the Aurelia, the Roman road to Marseilles (it's at last four lanes), to San Vincenzo Sud; follow the signs for Campiglia Marittima, and then those for the Parco Archeominerario. It's about 10 kilometers.

For more information (quite a bit more), check out the Parco Archeominerario di San Silvestro's site.  The hours change depending upon the month (though opening is almost always at 10 AM), and you should therefore check the hours page. There's also a simple trattoria, if you get hungry.

Published Simultaneously by IGP, I Giovani Promettenti.

We Are:
Carlo Macchi
Kyle Phillips
Luciano Pignataro
Roberto Giuliani
Stefano Tesi

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