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Krzemionki Opatowskie

The prehistoric flint mine of Krzemionki Opatowskie is one of the most important historic sites in Poland, and without doubt the foremost Neolithic monument in Central Europe. It reveals a high level of technological achievement among the human communities that inhabited the Vistula Basin 5000 years ago, before the discovery of bronze and iron production. The landscape of the basin is altered by the visible traces of Neolithic mining activity.

Krzemionki Opatowskie is located in the north eastern foreland of the Świętokrzyskie Mountains (the Holy Cross Mountains), near the town of Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski. The area’s Jurassic limestone bedrock, hidden under later superficial deposits, contains nodules of striped flint, one of the most beautiful flint varieties to be found in Europe.

Striped flint was mined in Krzemionki Opatowskie using various methods of extraction, the simplest being the sinking of regular pits 2 metres deep. The mine’s unique historical value lies in the application of the most sophisticated Neolithic mining techniques. Shafts were dug through the Pleistocene formations and sunk through the limestone layers beneath. When the flint-bearing level was reached, low galleries about 60-90 cm in height were cut from the shaft base, usually at a depth of about 5 to 8 metres. The hard limestone enabled the rich striped flint seams to be followed by means of galleries expanding into low underground chambers. The subterranean workings could reach a distance of 20 metres from the shaft bottom and cover an area of several hundred square metres. The chambers were filled with heaps of limestone rubble between which narrow passages were left to allow movement in and out of the workings.

In the galleries were preserved some simple pictograms drawn on the walls using charcoal from the torches which gave light. The most outstanding of these is the so-called ‘orante’, a praying figure named from the Latin orare, to pray. Its meaning today is obscure, but it is likely that the image was related to the religious beliefs of the Neolithic miners.

The underground chambers of Krzemionki Opatowskie represent the most advanced form of flint mining in prehistoric Europe. The hardness of the limestone enabled these to be hollowed out in order to extract the maximum amount of precious striped flint, for which there was a high demand. Their structure is a monument to the high level of technology employed in the European Neolithic.

Each side of the 20 zł coin depicts part of one of the chambers with a standing limestone pillar. The obverse of the coin features the pillar in its present condition, while the reverse shows how it looked 30 years ago. The evident progressive erosion of the pillar emphasises the need for greater care of the site. Krzemionki Opatowskie deserves to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The miners came to Krzemionki from nearby villages. They worked with picks of flint, stone and antler as well as hammers and levers. Wood and animal hide were also used in the making of mining tools.

Striped flint extracted from Krzemionki Opatowskie was mainly used for making axe heads. These were the end product of workshops within the mining area near the shafts, where the raw material was knapped. Part-finished axe heads were taken to villages located in the adjacent loess upland, where they were honed and provided with handles. Finished axes of striped flint were traded over an area stretching more than 600 km from the mine. They served as effective tools, weapons and powerful symbols of the social status of their owners. They were often buried in megalithic tombs as part of the equipment of men from communities belonging to the Globular Amphora culture.

The Krzemionki mine was discovered on 19 July 1922 by a geologist, Jan Samsonowicz (1888-1959), in collaboration with the archaeologist Stefan Krukowski (1890-1982). Further research there has provided a picture of the practical knowledge, multiple skills, efficient organisation of labour and impressive scale of works undertaken by communities that lived 5000 years ago. Today, Krzemionki Opatowskie is the foremost monument of Central Europe’s prehistoric heritage. Any archaeologist setting out to investigate it uncovers places that have barely changed since the last Neolithic miner left thousands of years ago.

Professor Jacek Lech
The Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology
of the Polish Academy of Sciences
Autonomous Unit for Prehistoric Flint Mining