For centuries, salt has had a permanent place in the life of human beings. Salt was considered sacred, a gift from the Gods; it was used to confirm oaths and sacrifices. Salt was also an important economic good. One of the most glorious early European civilisations, the Hallstatt culture, was based on salt: salt routes went over the Alps, to the South towards Italy, East to the Balkan Peninsula and North until the Baltic Sea. Wherever there was salt, trade and commerce flourished, river navigation increased, cities became wealthy and powerful, and great fortunes were amassed. In the Middle Ages, salt was the primary merchandise.
All salt on Earth originally came from the sea. How the sea became saline, however, is a question to which science has many hypothetical answers. Still, it is generally agreed that for as long as there were oceans on Earth, they have been saline.
In shallow sea basins with little exchange of water masses, evaporation causes a great loss of water, especially if the climate is arid, i.e. dry and hot. If the basin is then cut off from the open sea by barriers, it will dry up completely. The wind will deposit a clay and marl sediment on top of the different mineral layers. Tectonic displacements of the Earth's crust eventually cause changes in the structure of the layers.
In places where salt deposits reach the surface, brine pools sometimes occur. Such pools have been used by hunters as far back as the late Stone Age.
Prehistoric salt mining
Hallstatt is the world's oldest salt mine. Here, salt mining began as early as in the 12th century B.C. Parallel grooves were scored into the Haselgebirge and the halite in between was broken off. The chunks were carried to the surface in bags made of oxhide..
The heyday of Hallstatt mining
In the so-called "Heidengebirge", early miners left many tools and commodities behind, so that we know a lot about their activities and habits. Findings include pick heads made of bronze, ladders, whetstones, tubs, and many other objects. Light was provided by bundling chips of pinewood into torches, which were wedged into rock crevices. In the Hallstatt period, a miner would advance about one metre per month in the Haselgebirge rock. In one year, a man could mine approx. 2,000 kg with a common salt content of 40 to 70%. This corresponds to the annual consumption of about one thousand families.
The Urnfield culture The man in the salt.
The true Hallstatt period actually began around 700 B.C. In 1846, mine inspector J. G. Ramsauer discovered the Hallstatt burial ground, which would lend its the name to a whole culture, the Hallstatt culture, and the associated time period. The term "urnfield culture" was derived from the discoveries made in that graveyard. A chronicler tells the story of the corpse preserved by the salt, that was found in Dürrnberg on 30 November 1573.
One winter month in the year of 1573
A terrible event came to pass
A man, nine spans tall
With flesh, bones, hair, clothes and all
Was found 6300 shoes deep
He was hacked out of his mountain keep
Cured in the salt, yellow and hard,
Over a thousand years he had stood guard
Preserved like a stockfish, from decay protected,
He has now been resurrected.
He lay in the church and was kept on display for several weeks,
Then began to rot and reek
In vain, he waited all that time for the Bishop's gaze
And was finally buried in great haste.
(Dückher Chronicle, 1666)
The people of the Hallstatt culture were peasant warriors. The existence of a warrior nobility, especially during the later days of the period, has been confirmed by the discoveries of princes' residences and sumptuously decorated graves. One of the most significant technical achievements of the Hallstatt period was the introduction of iron, initially used mostly for swords. But bronze and precious metals were also worked to an astonishingly high degree. The pottery produced are of excellent quality and decorated with geometrical patterns and even depictions of figures. Two obvious prince tombs were opened at Dürrnberg bei Hallein. The most valuable discoveries of all comes from one of them: the famous beak-spouted jug made of bronze, a technical masterpiece.
The rock salt, which to a large extent marked the history of the first pre-Christian century in Austria, was outclassed by the cheap sea salt during the Roman empire, and Alpine salt mining was almost completely disrupted. In Reichenhall, under Roman influence, salt extraction was possible without any actual mining. Salt could be found at Bad Hall in the Sulzbach valley, in Hall bei Admont or in Halltal bei Mariazell. All of these names contain the word "Hall", the Celtic name for salt.
Although the salt works in Hallstatt, Ebensee and Ischl were able to expand their production during the 17th and 18th centuries, many salt mines experienced massive competition from the sea salt and the Turkish 'rock salt'. In both Aussee and Hall in Tirol, the salt production dropped significantly. Fierce and partly armed battles were fought between Hallein and Bavaria in 1597 and 1611, which meant that the profits of the Salzburg production remained in the consumer region, Bavaria.
The poverty among salt miners became proverbial.
"The city where brine saturated with salt particles is boiled in five old, huge pans, is very sad indeed to gaze upon", Count Spaur wrote about Hallein in 1800. The black steam that rises from the salt pans dims the daylight, the streets are narrow and the houses unsightly; the pale faces of the inhabitants (except for some wealthy brewers, merchants and officials) are marked by poverty and sorrow, and one can hardly push on through the crowd of begging women and children who vehemently follow strangers around.
Brine extraction and salt transport – pans and salt houses
The salt brine is extracted from the mountain, and the salt is produced in the salt works. Until recently, the salt works in Austria were called 'Sudhaus'. The word is derived from the old Austrian term 'sieden' - to boil the salt - and describes the procedure of evaporation. The purpose is to separate the table salt from the brine. The saturated brine is lead into the pan, which is an open container with the largest possible surface. Then the pan is heated until the water has evaporated and only salt remains. Most of the salt produced in Hallein left the salt works on ships navigating the Salzach river. The most common type of vessel was the so-called Hallasch, which could hold 15 tonnes. The staggering speeds that could be attained, can be calculated on the following route: Laufen-Hallein-Laufen (80 km): only two days, including charging and discharging!
In the 19th century, the Austrian salt mines entered the industrial age. The great fires (Hall in Tirol 1822, Aussee 1827, Ebensee 1835) that destroyed the old pans, accelerated modernisation. Besides its importance for seasoning and preservation, salt was now used in the industry to produce sodium carbonate.
The end of the Danube Monarchy cut the salt works in Hallein and Hall in Tirol off from their natural trading areas, such as Bohemia and the South Tyrol. And once the years of global recession had been surpassed, the Alpine salt works were threatened by Austria's accession to the German Reich. They simply could not compete with the powerful rock salt mines. Only with great effort could closures be avoided.
In post-war Austria, the salt works were still able to make a profit, but as it turned out, the historical production sites did not meet the requirements of modern business. Therefore, the pan salt works in Hallstatt and Bad Ischl, as well as the salt mine and salt works of Hall in Tirol, were all shut down between 1965 and 1967. Despite these rationalisation measures, making a profit became increasingly difficult. A new business concept was then developed. Instead of an overall controlling administration, a decision-focused management form would be established. In 1979, it was time: The Austrian salt works were converted into a stock corporation.