Friday, September 24, 2010

Mining - Metals & Minerals

Ever since I wrote this post about ornamental gems, I've been thinking about what else I could do.  I have a number of substances, commodities, products, services and so on that I've made reference to regarding my train system, and I've been making unconscious plans (the best kind) to eventually describe them all.

The problem has been that the task is tremendous in scope ... the gentle reader just cannot imagine.  It's not something I can do in an afternoon.  Moreover, I don't want to wait for the whole thing to be finished before getting feedback.  And I want to be able to rest.

So this will be a series, and it will get done in sections ... but since each section I plan is still considerable in scope, I'm going to be posting this in the middle of working on it.  That is, I'll update the post daily until I'm ready to move on ... so check back from time to time, there will be new stuff.

So here goes.  I'll start with mining - though this particular grouping does not include ALL the mined substances in my world.  Some are included elsewhere, because of their peculiar industrial application.  However, most are included here.

I carve them up into sections to make easier reading.  Where helpful, I'll add a picture.  Overall, I'm going to keep descriptions to a minimum.


Gold.  What can I say about this that hasn't been said?  It is the most important commodity in D&D and in any medieval economic system, useful in it malleability, reliable nature and its ease of smelting.  Gold ranges in color from bright yellow to white gold, and in Medieval settings is found mostly in placer deposits, or as 'native' gold.  I've often thought that a logical advantage for dwarves would be their ability to 'mine' gold, which was not generally done except in the New World, where said deposits were easily worked.  This is not to say it wasn't done ... but panning was much easier than mining.

Silver.  Like gold, this too was more commonly found in native form - significant mining operations for silver in Europe began in Saxony and Silesia in the 14th centuries, when silver was the relied-upon economic standard.  The 'taler' was a silver-coin, and the word that gives us 'dollar.' 

Copper.  Far more common and less precious than either silver or gold, copper has historically been considered a precious metal due to its potential lustre for ordinary objects and jewellery.  It too is found in native form, but copper ores like chalcopyrite (copper-iron) or cuprite are so common (and easily smelted) that copper mining was common even in periods going back to the Phoenicians and Mesopotamians, 5-6 thousand years ago.

native platinum
PlatinumFor ages platinum has been mistaken for silver and white gold ... so that even though its been mined since ancient times, its actual 'discovery' - when it's nature was understood - did not occur until the 17th century.  The Spaniards kept coming across it, considering the platinum to be a 'nuisance' to their gold mining, that sparked the investigation.  It's easy enough to understand the error - platinum is wildly rare, occurs in similar circumstances to silver and looks like silver.  It is more lustrous, however, and has other unique properties.  'Platinum coins,' therefore, never existed (it's too rare a metal anyway).  I only have the metal in my world because my present takes place in the 17th century, and I use a rule that any metal 'discovered' prior to 1800 would be known to the mage profession, who are better alchemists than those of Earth ever were.


Gold, silver and copper along with lead, tin, iron and mercury (quicksilver), were known in prehistory, and have since been described as "the Seven Metals of Alchemy."  Each were assigned to 'planets' ... silver with the Moon, gold with the Sun, iron with Mars, quicksilver with Mercury, tin with Jupiter, copper with Venus and lead with Saturn.  They're included here in order of their rarity.

Iron.  I've written about iron before, and I don't need to go on about it here.  It is the most common metal, has endless applications and is pretty nigh useless until it is founded and forged.  The most common ore is hematite, but pyrite and others are also widespread.  Iron also occasionally turns up magnetized, as 'lodestone.'

Lead.  While tremendously dense (heavy), lead makes a poor metal for the fabrication of most everything ... plus the fact that it is poisonous.  Lead dust can be breathed into the lungs, lead can rub off into the skin, it can be transferred to water when used as a container - yes, lovely stuff.  But used extensively in the Medieval world for anything that could be heavy and didn't need working parts - bullet stones, goblets, water pipes, cisterns ... and because of its low melting point it made good soldering for window glazing.

TinThe inordinate value of tin is largely overlooked ... in fact it was a very rare metal, and very expensive.  The English economy was founded upon it (but they had conveniently conquered the world before the supplies irrevocably ran out).  A considerable portion of the world's present supply comes from parts of the world (China, Malaysia, Zaire) that were beyond European tradesmen until the 16th century.  Silverish, it is much too soft to be mistaken for silver, and does not occur natively.

Mercury.  Or quicksilver, as it was known for most of history, due to it's splendid habit of remaining a liquid at room temperature or lower.  Almost as poisonous as lead, which didn't keep it from being used as a medicine to heal a wide variety of diseases, where it was introduced directly into the body.  it was included in medicines as late as the first half of the 20th century.  Your grandmother was probably fed some as a child.  Which might explain a great deal.  In a D&D world, it seems a natural additive to everything magic.


Presented in order of identification.  Many of these were used long before the nature of the metal was identified ... mostly because the ore was recognizable and could be used in the smelting process, even if the metal was not.  The ores served as chemical agents, to enable copper to become brass, or to harden iron, or to otherwise change the cohesive qualities of recognizable metals such as those above.

Zinc.  The principal use of zinc was for the manufacture of brass, the most common ore being sphalerite.  The triangular crystal of the ore is instantly recognizable.  The metal itself was not identified until the 14th century in India, and the 16th century in Europe.  While zinc has some marvellous uses as spelter - an alloy that allows hard soldering or brazing, such uses were not widespread until the 19th century.  However, it might be a talent elves, or some other races have for the use of zinc.

Antimony.  Isolated in the 16th century, the metal increases the hardness of lead, has practical applications in the coloration of glass, as a substitute for tin (when tin is present).  It's highly toxic, similar to arsenic poisoning ... read the link for more about that.  It is a soft metal, and although it has been used for coinage the coins do not last.

Bismuth. Lustrous silver in color, the ore was used in cosmetics, medicines and as a substitute for poisonous lead ... though it is by no means as common. The metal was known to the Incas. It was often confused with both tin and lead in ancient times, but became a distinct metal in its own right in 1546.

Cobalt.  Used as a pigmentation in jewelry, glass and paints since ancient times to give a deep, blue color; the isotope cobalt-60 is radioactive ... something I use to justify cobalt's importance in the making of magical ink.  Curiously, the word comes from the German kobalt, or the very familiar 'kobald,' which was an appellation used to describe the bent over miners of the ore.  The isolation of the metal was accomplished in 1735.

Nickel.  Used as a hardener for many metals (gold is soft and useless for jewellery without it), the red mineral from which it comes, nickeline, was commonly mistaken for copper.  Since the mineral would beset copper (make it unmalleable) when mixed, or so German alchemists discovered, they blamed a mischevious sprite who was believed upon occasion to inhabit instances of copper ore.  Nickel wasn't identified as a metal in its own right until 1751.

ManganeseAs an agent Manganese (manganesum or pyrolusite) was used primarily to decolorize glass, as 'glassmakers soap,' thus cleaning it and making the glass clear.  As manganese dioxide it was used in experiments for centuries, tht the actual metal was not identified until 1774.  It would later become useful in steel production.

Molybdenum.  Yet again a silvery metal, with a very high melting point, it was formerly known as molybdena, which comes from the Greek word for lead - with which molybdenum even today is often confused (and with graphite, too).  The Japanese used it to alloy with steel as early as the 14th century (though rarely).  It produces superior armor plating.  The metal was isolated in 1781.

Tungsten.  Remarkably dense, heavier than lead, the metal was known better as an ore than a metal - wolframite, which in German is lupi spuma, or "wolf's froth" (froth being a clean word for 'sperm'), the name suggested by Georgius Agricola.  The ore had few historical uses, but at present it is importantly alloyed with steel.  It was not isolated until 1783.

ChromiumA highly lustrous metal, it's speculated that the ore was used as an anti-corrosive - however, the metal has very little history at all until the 18th century, and was not identified as an isolated metal until 1798.


I don't dare to list all the fantasy metals that are out there.  I use only two: adamantite and mithril.  all my magic items are made with the latter ... and I don't play adamantite as a substance that 'breaks down in daylight' as suggested by the fiend folio - merely as a kind of intensified iron that doesn't break (which I believe was the original concept.

The correct term is adamantine, as described by Virgil describing the gates of Tatarus.  Cronus, or Saturn, was said to have castrated his father Uranus using an adamantine sickle.  The term 'adamantium' was invented for use by the Marvel Universe.  Adamantine had developed a reputation by the middle ages for being as hard as diamond, and it was believed to have the power to block the effects of a magnet (something I've never seen proposed in a D&D campaign).

Mithril was invented entirely by Tolkein, and as far as I know it has no historical precendents whatsoever.  But it's such an accepted metal, I've always included it.


An abrasive is a substance that is used to shape or finish a workpiece by grinding, polishing, buffing and a variety of other means.  Abrasives are added to gemstones for tumbling, and made adherent to paper as sandpaper or incorporated into polishing cloth.  They're also used for cleansing and scraping our own bodies.  But when does a player buy a nail file?

EmeryUsed most often in crushed form, emery is a very hard rock that can be crushed to form various sizes of grains, from coarse to fine, each of which can be used to smooth to a differing degree.  The island of Naxos has been a source for emery for over two thousand years.


Pumice.  A volcanic rock that is solidified in a frothy condition, trapping air and making pumice a rock that floats in water (makes a good 'magic stone' and with a string, as an aid to detect movement in apparently still ponds).  Although it is soft, it makes an excellent abrasive.  It can also be added to cement, and a particular variety, pozzolana, can be mixed with lime to make concrete.


There are four primary building stone types that I use: granite, limestone, marble and slate.  Each has a variety of forms, as described below.  Following those four are three additional kinds of 'hard stone,' which are much rarer in occurrence.
GRANITE.  Forms I call 'granite' include basalt, porphyry, sandstone, syenite, trachyte and tuff.  I know better, but I enjoy being able to use the simplicity of Renaissance catagorization in order to lump most volcanic materials together.  Hey, any way I'm willing to simplify this system is good, right?

Basalt is an extrusive volcanic rock (meaning that it's formed from magma), forming a variety of interesting rock formations, including the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland and pillow basalts on the Pacific seafloor.  It is used to make building blocks, cobblestones and statuary.

Porphyry is a large grained igneous rock, purplish-red in color, prized for monuments and projects in Rome.  The Hagia Sophia made extensive use of porphyry.  Roads, columns, stone decorations and sarcophagi are among the stone's uses.

Sandstone is a long way from granite, being a sedimentary rock and not igneous.  But it's red (or reddish) - remember, Renaissance period science.  In any case, as an easily carved or cut stone, it has a variety of building uses.  Sandstone includes brownstone, popularly used throughout America and parts of Europe.

Syenite is granite-like, with ancient quarries in Upper Egypt (Syene, from where the name comes).

Trachyte quarries have been exploited in a considerable number of places, however unfamiliar the name sounds (most everything gets ascribed to 'building stone.'  To the layman, it is often indistinguishable from porphyry.

Tuff is formed from lava and tephra (solid material ejected from the volcanic cone), pressed into stone.  It is fairly soft, useful for carving, and was used for portals and key points in cement buildings for strength.  The term 'tuff' is used loosely, and sometimes applied to tufa (which is a limestone) ... and often contains trachyte, andesite, basalt and other minerals.  Basaltic tuffs were used to fashion the heads on Easter Island.  Artyk (mentioned in my encyclopedia but not in wikipedia) is a common form of tuff used in Armenia.

LIMESTONE.  Forms I call 'limestone' include dolomite, gypsum and tufa.  Limestone is a sedimentary rock, very common, and often associated with stalactites and stalagmites in caves.  It's available in great amounts, cheap, and therefore excellent for massive structures.  The Great Pyramid at Giza is made mostly of limestone.

Dolomite is a carbonate rock common to the Dolomite Alps of northern Italy, ranging fron yellow to brown tint, even a rosy pink color.  It is sometimes used as an ornamental stone, as flux for making iron, an aggregate for concrete and of course for construction.

Gypsum is common stone, central in the production of cement, concrete and plaster, occurring naturally in crystalline form (unsuitable for gems, but used in ornamental work).  It isn't actually a limestone, I only lump them together due to their mutual use in making concrete.  Other uses are extensive, as indicated by the link.  Alabaster is a remarkably white gypsum, commonly used for stone household articles and decoration.

Tufa, often confused with tuff, and sometimes called travertine, is a precipitated limestone commonly associated with springs, waterfalls and other bodies of water ... wherever bits of calcium are allowed to build up in the form of reefs or stromatolites.  It's used for stone articles and as a mix for concrete.

A particular form of limestone that I've found references for is lithographic stone, a hard limestone sufficiently fine grained to use for carving printing plates.  Lithography is in fact a late invention (1796), but Earth did not have the benefit of magic.  As I said above, anything before 1800 is a potential technology, and so I include the use of stone-based lithography (albeit used rarely).  Wood-block printing is far more common.

MARBLEMarble is a metamorphic rock commonly made from compressed calcite or dolomite, used most commonly for sculpture and construction.  For colors (and there are a lot of them in the real world) I willingly provide prices for black, brown, crimson, green, grey-pink, white and yellow (this isn't as hard as it sounds).  No doubt the gentle reader is familiar with many of the different colors, and with veins in marble, of varied color.

SLATESlate is a metamorphic rock that cuts so that natural, smooth flat sheets of stone are produced, suitable for flooring, roof tiles, wall coverings and so on.  Slate can be split from the quarry in very thin sheets.  It appears in a variety of colors from green and grey to black ... but unlike marble, I don't give separate costs.  It makes excellent tombstones.

That wraps it up for building stone; I don't have prices for gravel, sand or ordinary clay in my world because I consider them so common in a Renaissance economy that the only worthy mention for construction cost would be paying people to dig it up.


Flint.  A non-gem form of the mineral quartz, useful in making cutting tools and crude weapons, such as those used by primitive man.  The flint edge is also useful in the production of fire, sinde striking a flint against steel will produce sparks.  Flintlocks were fashioned so that the hammer, holding a piece of flint, would strike the 'frizzen' and produce a shower of sparks which, hopefully, would ignite the powder of the weapons.  Flint, when available in great supply (as England has), has been used to build stone walls.

MagnesiteThis has few Renaissance applications, the chief among them being its use in making fireproof bricks for kilns, as the stone has a high melting temperature.

Obsidian.  Naturally occuring volcanic glass, generally black in color and potentially sharp to the touch.  It was used to make weapons and edged tools throughout history, and has ornamental applications as a gemstone, objects and for floor tiles.  It can be polished and rounded with abrasives.


This are a collection of minerals that have other applications than construction.

Chalk.  A soft white sedimentary rock, resistant to weather and useful in the making of quicklime (a component of cement), as a writing (tailor's chalk in particular) and artistic tool, as a restorative for soil and for the making of putty.  The application of powdered chalk to the hands is an aid to climbing (but when does a thief ever buy it?).

CoalA black or browning sedimentary rock used chiefly as a fuel - it is falsely believed that coal was not used extensively throughout history, but evidence of its use reaches back up to five thousand years.  The dependence was on outcroppings of coal.  Deep coal mining, on the other hand, occurred with the start of the Industrial Revolution when easy sources of coal quickly played out.  Dwarves would certainly mine coal for their furnaces.  Hard coal, or black coal, is called anthracite, with a high energy content.  Brown coal is lignite, which has a low energy content.

Kaolin.  A hard clay material, chiefly mined for the purpose of making porcelain, dependent on the higher quality clay.  It is soft, earthy and usually white, though iron oxide will color it pink, orange or red.  Beyond its use in ceramics, it has been used in medicine, cosmetics and in the production of paper and smoking pipes.  It has been used to fashion masks, and believe it or not, eaten for pleasure or to suppress hunger.

floating meerschaum
Meerschaum.  One of the more bizarre productions I've found, meerschaum is a soft white mineral which is found floating on the Black and Aegean Seas (and elsewhere), suggestive of sea foam.  If you're ever looking for a justification of the Aphrodite birth-from-the-sea myth, in which she was created from the sea and her father's ejaculate, the existence of meerschaum is probably the source (in Sweden its called aphrodite).  The material is hard enough to carve into pipes and other objects (it hardens when allowed to dry in the sun).

Salt.  A mineral essential for human life, of great value in tropical and deserted parts of the world (where the inhabitants sweat a great deal), and yet with world-wide distribution.  It is useful in curing food and in the processing of animal hides and skins.

TalcA soft metamorphic rock used in paper making, paint, cosmetics, ceramics and otherwise, and for ornamental carvings.  It is widely used in the glassmaking industry.  The rock is soft enough to be scratched with a fingernail, can be cut easily with a knife, and is not soluble in water.  Soapstone is composed primarily of talc.


guano deposit
Guano.  The excrement, both feces and urine, of seabirds, bats and seals, collected for its nitrogen content for the regeneration of soil.  Guano is an important gunpowder ingredient.  The accumulation of thousands of years of deposit creates significant collections of guano for economic recovery.  The Inca civilization mined guano extensively.  By and large, however, a cart full of guano is not an ordinary party's idea of treasure.

peat brick
Peat.  Forming in wetlands - bogs, moors, muskegs and peat swamps, peat is harvested as a source of fuel.  Once compressed to remove water and allowed to dry, it forms bricks sufficient to heat kilns and everyday firepits.  It is formed by the thick layer of plant growth and decomposition of the lower levels - in effect, a short term form of the same sort of energy that over millions of years eventually becomes oil.


Hooray ... this being the last section for this post.  These are minerals chiefly mined for their chemical properties.

Alum.  Obtained from a mineral called alunite (among others), this is a terrifically useful substance which was well known to the ancients.  It mades an astringent that stops bleeding in small cuts and canker sores, a flame retardant (and a component of baking powder) and the purification of drinking water.

ArsenicKnown first and foremost as a poison, arsenic is a metalloid (qualities of both a mineral and a metal.  It also hardens bronze and lead alloys (good for sling bullets).  Like lead, arsenic was once used in a variety of products without the users being fully aware of its inherent danger (even in very small amounts).

Niter.  More familiarly known as saltpeter, niter has been known since ancient times.  It is a principal component of gunpowder and was likely used as soap (or at least as a bathing additive).  It has been famously attributed to suppress the sex drive, but according to snopes it's pure fiction.

PhosphorusThe first form of phosphorus was isolated in 1669 by Hennig Brand, an alchemist who was working with urine under the mistaken belief that the golden color of that fluid would somehow lead him to the distillation of gold, ala the 'philosopher's stone.'  In the process he distilled out phosphorus.  The element burns super-brightly, but not for very long (the reader can find films on youtube).  It a feature in explosives, nerve agents and fireworks.

Danikil Depression, Ethiopia
SulphurA bright yellow crystalline solid, an essential element of life and a component of black gunpowder, matches, poisons and fungicides.  It would be effective like holy water against a wide variety of monsters: green slime, violet fungi, shriekers and yellow musk creepers, to name a few.  It is abundant in native form, and whole landscapes (the Danikil Depression) are composed of it.

WitheriteA colorless, milky white, grey, pale yellow, green or pale brown mineral - and shades in between.  It is found in low-temperature hydrothermal vein deposits, particularly the shorelines of alkali lakes.  it's primary use is in the manufacture of glass.


Anonymous said...

Alexis, though meaning to, I've been far too lazy or distracted with other things to look all of those up and make a list for myself (particularly the discovered dates)... so thanks. Again.

SymonDou said...

I just wanted to add something about lithographic Limestones. Being a lithographer myself I'll add that we mostly never carve in a lithographic stone. The whole process is much more complex. Lithographic limestones have the hability to retain grease on herself which, when properly stabilized via multiples processes of inking and acidify lead to a printing plate made out off greasy part repulsing watery parts. the inking goes on the greasy part while being repulsed by the watery part.

Theses stones are very rare. In fact, the amount of them we have now is unchanged since the only lithographic limestone mine in Bavaria has depleted. When one of these stones breaks there are no new stones can replace them. That's why we don't go on carving them like crazy, because they are rare and they have something like a soul. Because you know a greater artist/lithographer have already used them.

Николай Тимофеевич Станошек said...


Unknown said...

Amazing post. Saved for posterity!

Moses McDermott said...

Excellent, this is exactly what I was looking for, and then some. Thanks, seven years later!

Marcus Watkiss Veal said...

This has been amazingly useful thank you.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you Marcus. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Please keep reading the blog and check out my free wiki at