Hallstatt's White Gold - Salt
By Billie Ann Lopez
In 1997, the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO put Austria's Hallstatt-Dachstein-Salzkammergut region on its list of Cultural Heritage Sites for special protection. Hallstatt, one of Austria's oldest settlements, as well as one of its prettiest, is home to the oldest salt mine in the world. Located in the heart of Austria's salt mother lode, the Salzkammergut, Hallstatt crouches beneath the Salzberg (Salt Mountain--not to be confused with Salzburg the city) along the shore of the Hallstaettersee which is 8 kms long, 2 kms wide and 135 meters deep and is surrounded by towering mountains that are part of the Dachstein Range.
"Hall" is the Celtic word for salt. What has become known as the Hallstatt Age in archeology dates from the 8th to 4th centuries BC and marks the Early Iron Age and the movement of the Celtic tribes to the area from the east. But evidence of salt mining here and in the surrounding area stretches back in time to the Neolithic Age. In 2001, scientists used radio carbon dating on an antler pick, uncovered in 1838, and determined it was 7,000 years old. This pick was the type commonly used by stone age man in mining and together with stone axes and fragments of a shoe provide the earliest evidence of settlement in Hallstatt from around 5000 BC.
Due to the preservative qualities of salt, many other discoveries in the mines over the centuries of items made from wood, fur, leather, and textiles have been made and continue to contribute to our knowledge today of Hallstatt's long settlement. In the beginning, as per the 7,000 year old antler pick, salt was hacked out of the Salzberg in the shape of hearts, now known as Hallstatt Hearts, and carried in backpacks made from animal skins down the mountain. Salt wet mining was introduced in the 12th century whereby rocks of salt were dissolved in artificial pits of water and the saline solution then piped down the mountain for processing. In 1595, the pipeline was extended a whopping 40 kms to Ebensee for final processing. This pipeline, made from 13,000 hollowed-out trees, is the oldest industrial pipeline in the world.
Throughout Hallstatt's long history, the mining of salt has been its chief occupation. In 1846, the chance discovery of a prehistoric graveyard yielded 1,300 graves of what is now thought to number over 4,000. These excavations revealed an assortment of artifacts such as fibula, precious jewelry, weapons, bronze and ceramic vessels as well as iron tools indicating their owners were trading from the Baltic to the Mediterrean using salt for payment.
This chance discovery was all the more remarkable because Johann Georg Ramsauer, who was the manager of the salt works at the time, recognized its importance when archeology wasn't even a science yet. Ramsauer had his assistant, Isidor Engl, carefully sketch in watercolors each gravesite, including the human skeletons and artifacts, as they were uncovered. Not only did Ramsauer manage a huge salt mine and carefully supervise the excavation of prehistoric graves before such care was exercised in the world of archeology, he also fathered 22 children.
Today tours of the salt mine can be taken from 27 April to 22 September. A funicular on the edge of Hallstatt takes visitors up the Salzberg and a 15 to 20 minute walk brings you to the entrance. It's an opportunity visitors, young and old alike, won't want to miss.
Near the market square, Hallstatt's local museum provides a fascinating tour of Hallstatt's 7,000 years of human history and its chief industry-the mining of salt. The museum uses modern museum technology to tell its story. Although the exhibit texts are in German only, an English text guide may be purchased. Visitors should make every effort to include a visit to this fascinating museum along with a tour of the salt mine. (To prepare for this excursion, visitors may want to visit the Hallstatt room of the Natural History Museum in Vienna where many of Hallstatt's most valuable treasures are on display.)
Hallstatt's colorful old houses, many dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, are tucked into the village's many staggered nooks and crannies. Prior to 1875, residents could only access their homes by boat or along narrow footpaths. A road was constructed from Gosaumuehle to Hallstatt in 1875, but villagers resisted any further construction of roads until 1966 when the Hallstatt road tunnels above the village were completed. Although there is a narrow road for residents, deliveries of supplies and hotel guests, it is the sound of water that permeates the air, not traffic. A lovely waterfall descends from above to the side of the small market square adding to the beauty of this exceptionally picturesque Alpine village.
The Maria Himmelfahrt Church looms over the village and lake below and is reached by a long old covered wooden flight of steps. A large but now faded St. Christopher can be seen on its outer wall. Inside, one of Austria's magnificent late Gothic winged altars, with two moveable pairs of wings, tells the story of the life of Mary and also shows St. Barbara who is the patron saint of miners and St. Catherine who is the patron saint of woodcutters with her. The altar is thought to have been made between 1515-1520. All parish records were destroyed in a fire in 1750 so actual dates are impossible to determine today.
The 12th century St. Michael's Chapel sits next to the church and is the local charnel house or ossuary. Space being so limited in this tiny village, both Catholic and Protestant villagers are buried on this rock terrace, but not for long. Ten years is the usual period allowed. When their time is up, the bodies are exhumed and their bones placed in the ossuary. A salt trader donated the Baroque altar in 1612. A strange custom developed in the 18th century whereby the skulls of the dead were placed in St. Michael's chapel, often decorated with wreaths of ivy or garlands of roses, black crosses, and the owners' names, professions, and death dates. One skull has a serpent winding itself through the previous owner's eye cavaties and this is said to represent the cause of his death. An assortment of these neatly stacked skulls can be seen in the chapel for a small admission charge.
If time permits, visitors to Hallstatt can also visit the magnificent Dachstein ice and limestone caves. Dr. Friedrich Simony (1813-1896) was the first to explore these caves in the 19th century. The Rieseneishoehle (ice cave) is the third largest in the world and features stunning frozen rivers and waterfalls. The Mammuthoehle Cave is a labyrinth of limestone galleries formed by a long gone underground river, while the Koppenbrueller Cave includes, along with its stalactites, an astonishing curtain of water and water spout.
For more information, see www.hallstatt.net and www.salzwelten.at.
Billie Ann Lopez was an American freelance writer, born and raised in Kansas. For many years she called Vienna, the city she loved, home. Billie Ann's articles tell you about the legends, places in Austria not often on the tourist maps and subjects close to her heart. Informative, descriptive and interesting she acquainted you with her Austria.
Billie Ann Lopez passed away September 13th, 2003. She enriched our lives through her friendship, caring and writings. Billie Ann, you are greatly missed. Silvia McDonald
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