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Zechstein and mining in the Spessart

Zechstein - a German specialty

The name "Zechstein" - used to address deposits from the upper Permian Age, the youngest Epoch of Palaeozoic Era - originated from miners of central Germany. Otherwise, only the French use the word "zechstein" seldomly, but generally refer to the deposits as "Kalcaire peneen". The English speak of the "Upper Permian." Thus "Zechstein" can be considered a German specialty. The noun "Zeche", which is first recorded in the Middle Ages originally defines any type of duty or obligation, which in turn passes from one person to another. Later all types of associations, social clubs, cooperatives and brotherhoods bore the name. During the Industrial Age, the word denounced all those cooperatively run mines and mining operations - owners, plant facilities and buildings alike.

Very important for the traditions and terminology surrounding ore mines and miners in the Spessart were their kindred coal and steel worker colleagues from the areas near Mansfeld, the Erzgebirge and regions of Thuringia, where copper ore was mined. There it was common to call all those rock layers, below which the miners expected to find copper-rich slate "Bergstein" (Mountain stone) or "Zechstein". For the older generation of miners, "Zechstein" was a guiding map, which led them to the copper ore they sought.

Stratigraphically, Zechstein belongs to the younger series of the Permian system in the Palaeozoic Era. The younger layers, which lie above, the so-called "Hangende" (meaning "the hanging"), were Buntsandstein layers, which formed in the Trias in the Mesozoikum. Zechstein in general, describes rocks of the shallow oceans, which formed about 260 million years ago.

A builder of cultural landscapes

Not only does Zechstein offer generally good soil conditions for most forms of agricultural practice, it also occurs in climatically favoured sites, making areas where it comes to the surface very interesting locations for man. It is presumed, that even prehistoric settlers preferably settled in its vicinity. One must also assume that the presence of ore in the lower layers of the Zechstein was already well known to prehistoric man. It is likely that Neolithic settlers had detailed knowledge on the spatial distribution of such useful ores. In this light, the peculiar accumulation of prehistoric ramparts in the area surrounding Bieber, which came to be one of the most important mining areas in the Middle Ages and early modern times, was no coincidence. The history of mining in Spessart began much earlier than documented records would suggest.

Mining the Spessart Zechstein-belt

In his book "Geological sketches of the Bavarian Spessart" written in 1881, C.W. von Gümbel (1823-1898) noted that the lower Spessart was seen as an area blessed with rich ore and mineral deposits in earlier times. Numerous copper smelters and later on the many iron, glass and ceramic works give evidence for this mineral wealth.

The documentation of the early mining in the Spessart Zechstein belt dates back to the 15th century. In this age the rulers of the land, the Archbishopric of Mainz, enforced the economic development of the farther reaches of the Spessart Mountains. They acknowledged that the wood reserves in the Spessart forests could offer sufficient energy to support new industrial and economic settlement. Thus many glassworks were established in the Spessart. The forest wealth was also very important for the further processing of the ore mined in the region. The oldest hints of copper mining in the Spessart are found in the "Landscheide- und Bürgerbuch" (land and citizen registry) of the town Gelnhausen. The entry states that in the year 1400 under the reign of King Wentzel, King of Behemen, who had been dispatched by the Roman Empire and elected by King Ruprecht, many miners came from Thuringia and opened a copper mine on the Ruwenberg, built a smelter and made their fortune.

Wickern of Selboldt a member of an old aristocratic family in Gelnhausen, was the first man dedicated to mining ore in the area around Hailer. The copper was quarried on the slope of the "Rauen Berg", southeast of Hailer in the direction of Altenhaßlau. A mill in Schandelbach was transformed into a smelter. After a short period of time, however, the operations were no longer profitable as the Gelnhausen registry relates: It states that the workers left Wickern von Selboldt once the mine became unprofitable.

Excavations in the neighbouring valley Kahlgrund proved more successful. 1454 the Abbot and Convent of Seligenstadt and Theodorich of Erbach, business partner of the Archbishop of Mainz, were given the right to excavate mines in the area around Geiselbach and 1542 Archbishop Albrecht entitled Bonifaz Wildt to continue his mining operations on the Schabernack near Sommerkalden. Also in Laufach, somewhat to the south, near present-day Weiberhöfe mining operations began. Proof of this is given in the "Freihungsbrief", a mining law passed in 1949. Mining in Bieber can be dated back to 1494. At first copper, lead and possibly silver were mined from the copper-rich clays in the Zechstein. In 1737 the operations were expanded to include iron and cobalt excavations and new mining areas like Webersfeld north of Bieber were opened. At times 500 persons were employed in the mines in Bieber, many of them children, who were small enough to fit into the tight galleries through which the ore was transported to the pits.

After this, mining in the Spessart lowlands blossomed. In Hailer, a new copper, lead and silver mine was started by Count Wolfgang Ernst of Ysenburg and Büdingen. The count had received the rights to produce his own currency in the county Ysenburg during the election and coronation of Emperor Matthias in Frankfurt in June of 1612. Only in 1617 did he receive the long sought deed stating his newly acquired liberty to produce "Gulden" and silver coins. In the following year the first silver coins left Hailer with the inscription ""DONUM DEI EX FIDINIS PROPE HEILER". One must however assume, that only a small number coins were ever produced with the silver extracted from the Hailer mines. The silver for the majority of the coins surely came through melting incoming coins or silver household items.

The mining industry experienced a depression though the years, especially during the "Thirty Year War". It was not until a decisive impulse for the industry came from Mainz in the middle of the 18th century that things picked up again. The idea was born to process the ores in forgeries directly in the Spessart. It was mainly Archbishop, Kurerzkanzler and Kurfürst of Mainz, Reichsfreiherr Karl Theodor of Dalberg (1744-1817) founder of the Fürstentum Aschaffenburg in 1803 and founder of the "Fürstlich Primatische und Erzbischöflich Regensburgische" University of Aschaffenburg in 1808, who supported the implementation of the new technology. Driven by the Spessart streams and fired with the wood of the Spessart forests, the new industry prospered in many a Spessart town, and the way was laid out for follow-up industries to establish themselves, foremost the charcoal production. But despite the effort to run the mines profitably, many operations were eventually shut down. The first pits to close were in Hailer. In a general meeting of all shareholders of the mining company "Bergwerks-Gewerkschaft Hailer", held in the noble inn near Meerholz Castle in the year 1744, the mines' closure could not be averted.

In the mid 19th century another drastic change was brought upon the Spessart Zechstein mining industry. The opening of the railway line between Frankfurt and Wuerzburg resulted in an immense structural change for the region. The Spessart operations were no longer able to compete with those of the Rhine iron industry. These were able to transport their goods cheaply and fast over long distances thanks to the new railway. Secondly for further processing, the ore was now transported directly to the area where the energy resource, namely coal, was mined. The dependence on Spessart wood or charcoal no longer existed.

In the years 1916 to 1922 the Mining operation in Sommerkahl experienced one last renaissance. The German Mining Association (Deutsche Montangesellschaft) undertook measures to exploit copper, a resource, which had become very important during the First World War. In 1919 a huge industrial site, covering most of the Kahlgrund valley was built. It comprised living quarters, production and storage buildings, an industrial forgery and a locksmith workshop. The galleries were dug in four levels above one another in the direction of the ore-bearing layers and bore into the mountain to a depth of 82 m. Over 200 people from the region worked in the mine. However, the copper yield averaged only 2-2,5% of the ore mined, and was thus quite low compared with other sites in the Harz Mountains (3,5% yield). Because the site proved unprofitable, the enterprise was shut down in 1922. Thus the copper oriented mining was brought to an end, but the mine was still used well into the 20th century to harvest building stones and chalk.

Recently the mining operations, especially those in Bieber and Sommerkahl, are receiving more and more attention again. Local associations remember the mining tradition and are trying to mediate Spessart mining specialities to interested folk from near and far. In Bieber there is a "homeland and mining museum" (Heimat- und Bergbaumuseum) and a cultural education path, which is mainly oriented at presenting the mining itself but also its effects on the development of the cultural landscape. In Sommerkahl there are plans to open parts of the pits for the public.

*after: Stefan Huck und Jürgen Jung, Diversitätswandel kleinräumiger Landschaftsausschnitte. Zechstein-Dolomit-Standorte im Spessart, in: Natur und Museum 132, 2002, 63-76.

Translated from German by Steffen Pauls


Distribution of Zechstein rocks in the western Spessart.Drawing by Jürgen Jung

Schematic drawing of the geological-geomorphological situation in the region of the Buntsandstein-Landstufe. Drawing by Jürgen Jung.

Mining site in Bieber: Bertha Gallery (Berthastollen)

Mining site in Bieber: iron processing in Webersfeld

Chalk ovens in Bieber

Bieber today: Zechstein-exposure as part of the cultural pathway Biebergemünd

design: Kai M. Wurm
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