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D + 17: How Silver, Lead and Zinc Made a Town

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

South of Basa, the mountains of Sardinia start stretching into lower, rolling hills until they form large, slightly inclined plateaus. Ideal soil for wheat, olive trees and vines – feels like in classical Rome. The wonderful Vermentino, the original Greek grape, grows here.

Wheat fields west of Oristano

We are on the way to Tharros, the ancient Phoenician town at the entrance of the Bay of Oristano. Tharros has Nuragic roots as an old seawall and cult places indicate. We know from Mycenae sources that the Nuragic people traded with Greece. The main product was probably silver.

Halfway to Tharros we found a giant salt lake a good 2 km inshore called Stagno di Sale e Porcus. During winter the swell from western storms spills into the dry lake and covers it with one foot of water. The water evaporates during summer. A flat, baked, muddy salt-lake remains. We hoped to find ancient mining operations. But the salt is too dirty and in the absence of water can not be purified. Five square kilometer large, the lake is visible on Google Earth as a big white spot. And as with every salt lake, it is terribly hot there!!!

The baked muddy salt lake of Stagno di Sale e Porcus

The same view during winter time when the lake is flooded by one foot of water

Sailing further south, the mountains of southern Sardinia came into view. Most of the island’s south west is mining territory. Zinc, lead, silver and gold were found there. Mining operations were maintained until the early 20th century. The Phoenicians were attracted to Sardinia for its metals and developed a metal industry. The Romans who took over after the first Punic War were primarily interested in silver and lead. Silver for their currency and lead for domestic appliances like water pipes and the sealing of roofs.

Arriving in Tharros with its 16th century Spanish Watch Tower

Tharros was a big town where most of this was traded. But as long-distance trade faded away, the town lost its business. It is still mentioned in the records of the Byzantine Empire but it had shrunk considerably. Eventually, given the intensive Fatimid raids, Tharros was given up. By 1074, the remaining people and their bishop packed their belongings and moved to Oristano 4 miles further inland.

The large ancient city of Tharros 0- on the ridge is the old main road

Mining areas in Sardinia

Ironically, only 14 years later, a joint Pisan-Genovese expedition sank the Fatimid Fleet in Mahdia (today’s Tunesia). Had the few remaining people decided to stay a bit longer, it may have survived as town. But it was not to be. Tharros became a giant quarry and was “mined” for marbles, columns, stones, wooden beams – simply anything that could be re-cycled to build new homes. There is much to be seen than I expected. Albeit, the beauty is gone as it decorates now homes and churches somewhere else.

Travel Plan for week three

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