Native silver and natural silver bearing minerals are the sources of all silver used in human history. Metallurgical processing of the silver minerals to produce silver metal dates from about 2,500 BCE during the Bronze Age. The largest single source of silver in the world from about 482 BCE until 280 BCE was the Laurion mine in ancient Greece. Over 200 million ounces of silver coins were in circulation at the height of the Roman Empire. Many of these coins were dispersed through trade to the Arabian Peninsula, central Asia, India and China, becoming valuable secondary sources of silver for non-currency use.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), a Roman naturalist and military commander, described two fabled islands in the Indian Ocean named Chryse and Argyre where the soil consists of gold (chrysos in Greek) and silver (argyros). Later historical research moved these islands to various geographical positions proximal to Japan, Java and Arakan on the northwest coast of present day Burma.
More recent conjecture suggests that Argyre, or ‘Silver Country’ refers to the Chandra dynasty of Arakan which controlled the export of silver bullion from Nanzhao (Yunnan Province, China) and the Bawsaing region of the Shan States. The silver was reportedly transported via the Irrawaddy River and exported from the port of Temala, near to present day Syriam (Thanlyin). The archaeological evidence to support Argyre’s history and location is limited. However, it is certain that Yunnan and the Shan States were richly endowed with surficial silver ore which in all likelihood was exported beyond China. There are no extant written records of Burmese history before the 11th century.
Silver was first used in Burma for coinage and silver by the Pyu. The Pyu are a Tibeto-Burman people who built complex cities across northern and central Burma during the period 200 to 850 CE. The Pyu may have formed a link in the trade routes that connected the Roman Empire to southeast Asia and beyond to China. A Chinese chronical from 290 alludes to an overland route from southwestern Yunnan to the Pyu kingdom. A later chronical from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) describes Pyu cities and culture in detail.
Pyu silver coin (Obverse)
A stylized rising sun in a circle of dots.
Diam. 37 mm Weight 26 g
Pyu silver coin (Reverse)
A Srivatsa design
Diam. 37 mm Weight 26 g
Pyu silver coins were widely distributed in Burma and the surrounding states in the first millennium. Silver coins were also produced by the Mons in southern Burma and the Chandra dynasty of Arakan during the 3rd to 9th centuries. These coins are similar in design, size and weight to the Pyu coinage. Their purity ranged from about 50% to 100% silver. The ability to mint coinage required a sizeable and dependable source of silver metal. These sources are not recorded, although reasonable deduction suggests the following;
The Pyu civilization occupied part of the present-day Shan State and bordered the Nanzhao kingdom in southwest China. There are rich deposits of silver in Nanzhao and in the Bawdwin and Bawsaing districts of northern Shan State. The ore was first discovered and worked from the surface in both areas. It is logical to deduce that the first Shan mines were in part the source of Pyu silver. However, there is no hard archaeological evidence to confirm any significant silver mining and smelting during the Pyu period.
On the balance of the probabilities, India was the likely source of Pyu silver. India exerted a strong religious and cultural influence on the Pyu civilization and trade may have included the import of silver as bars, coins or other artefacts.
The Bawdwin ore body, located near Lashio in northern Shan State, was one of the world’s largest and richest deposits of silver, lead, and zinc. It was mined continuously at variable production scales from at least the 15th until the 21st century. The name Bawdwin derives from ‘baw’, the Burmese word for silver and ‘dwin’, the word for hole or hollow. Bawdwin produced over 175 million ounces, or 5,000 tons, of silver metal.
It’s probable that Bawdwin’s silver-rich lead mineralization was first discovered long before mining was first recoded in the 15th century. The oxidizing mineralization was exposed over a large surface area and it would have readily attracted the attention of early artisanal ‘explorers’ and ‘miners’. Chinese chronicles refer to Burmese silver mining in the 12th century. A rock inscription near the Bawdwin mine provides the first record of mining. It states that mining was begun by the Chinese in the ninth year of the rule of Emperor Yung-Lo of the Ming dynasty, corresponding to the year 1412.
Chinese nationals exclusively mined silver from the Bawdwin deposit from 1412 until 1868. The Han Chinese miners fled in 1868 due to the Panthay rebellion against Manchu rule by the Hui and other minorities in neighboring Yunnan Province.
Primitive Chinese mine workings, including tunnels and stopes, have been found to a depth of about 30 m in the Bawdwin region. Bamboo stems were used for ground support and primitive mechanical pumps for ventilation and drainage. Small cupellation furnaces on the surface smelted the silver from other associated metals. The Chinese had no interest in the lead and zinc associated with the silver. A few slag dumps from the Chinese smelting remain visible today, together with large hill-top areas despoiled by the poisonous by-products of the smelting process. An estimated 10 million ounces of silver were produced in the 450 years of Chinese mining in the Shan States. Most of this silver was delivered to China during the Ming and Qing dynasties and used to produce fine silver for the Emperor and his court. Bawdwin was also the principal source of silver used in Burma from the 15th to the 19th century and the Burmese kings received a production royalty from the Chinese miners whenever Burma had effective control over the Shan States. After the Chinese miners left Bawdwin in 1868, the Konbaung Kings Mindon and Thibaw both tried and failed to continue silver production using unskilled soldiers and forced labour.
The modern history of the Bawdwin mine starts in 1903 with the processing of the large Chinese slag dumps for lead and zinc. In 1906 the British Burma Mines Limited company began underground exploration and the great Chinaman Lode was discovered in 1913. This period of work was supervised by Herbert C. Hoover, who became the 31st President of the United States in in 1929. The Marmion Shaft and the Tiger Tunnel were constructed between 1909 and 1915. A large metallurgical plant comprising a mineral concentrator and a lead smelter was subsequently built at Namtu about 20 kilometers east of Bawdwin.
The Marmion Shaft – c. 1925
The Marmion Shaft – 2015
Tiger Tunnel – c. 1925
Tiger Tunnel 2015 – Modern ‘Miners’ ready for work!
The Bawdwin mine was in continuous production from 1910 until the start of World War 2 in 1939. The production rate increased during this period from less than 10,000 tons of ore per year to a peak of over 500,000 tons in 1930. The total pre-war production was 7.8 million tons of ore with an average metal content per ton of 15.3 ounces of silver, 18% lead and 7.7% zinc. This rich ore produced 120,000 million ounces of silver.
After the war the Burma Mines Limited company resumed production until it was eventually nationalized by the socialist government of General Ne Win in 1965. Under the People’s Bawdwin Industry and the No.1 Mining Corporation and Enterprise, the production rate dropped from 200,000 to 100,000 tons of ore per year. Open-pit mining began in 1980. The Bawdwin mine is currently operated on a care and maintenance basis only by the Win Myint Moh Industrial Enterprise Company, a joint venture between the Burmese government and a subsidiary of the Asia World Company.
A total of about 175,000 million ounces of silver were extracted from the Bawdwin mine between 1412 and 2009. This ‘world class’ mineral deposit was an abundant source of silver for producing bullion, for industrial applications and silver fabrication throughout much of the early 20th century. Silver is also mined in the Bawsaing district in the southern Shan State. Mining started in the 14th century and continues to the present day.
Silver is also mined in the Bawsaing district in the southern Shan State. Mining started in the 14th century and continues to the present day.
Burmese-Chinese GPS Joint Venture silver mine, Bawsaing – 2015
Artisanal silver miner, Bawsaing - 2015
Coins were a common source of high quality silver for Burmese silversmiths in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The number of coins used of a specific weight and tenor determined the final scale, weight and quality of the silver piece. The silversmith was often paid in an agreed number of silver coins for his time and workmanship.
Peacock and Rupee coins – Sittwe Buddhist Temple, 2015
The one kyat Burmese Peacock and the Indian Rupee were the two coins most commonly melted down to produce silver. French Indochinese piastres and Spanish silver dollars, also known as ‘pieces of eight, also went into the melting pot.
Silver coins melted down as a source for Burmese silver (Upper to Lower)
Mindon Peacock – 1 Kyat
India Rupee – Queen Victoria
India Rupee – King George V
French Indochinese Piastre
Spanish Silver Dollar – Eight Reales known as ‘Pieces of Eight’
The Mindon Peacock silver coins were withdrawn from circulation by the British in 1892. Prior to this date, the coins could have been exchanged for the India Rupee on a one-for-one basis. There is some evidence that the Burmese hoarded many of the Peacock coins. Official records show that 26 million 1 kyat Peacocks were minted in Mandalay, yet, by 1889, only 7.5 million had been withdrawn from circulation. The balance of 18.5 million coins were either exchanged in the final three years before withdrawal or hoarded by the Burmese people. This leads to the speculation that after 1892 many Peacock silver coins were eventually melted down to make generic silver bars or silver. In both forms, the silver represented a private, and easily concealed, store of wealth and a hedge against future economic and political turmoil.
Occasionally, an engraving on the base of silver states the number of coins used to make the piece.
A 2.5 kg silver ingot refined from melted Peacock silver coins
The Royal Mint, Mandalay Palace – 2015. Built by King Mindon in 1865
All forms of silver have been recycled to produce ‘new’ silver since the age of antiquity. Silver’s relatively low melting point easily facilitates recycling. The common reasons to recycle include fashion change, profitting from an increase in the value of the metal, coin redundancy and the conversion of artefacts into negotiable and transportable silver bullion or ingots. This conversion was employed to protect wealth and assets from theft and confiscation during times of war, revolution or political change. Gold and silver have always served as the ultimate source of value in a turbulent world.
Burmese silversmiths’ preferred sources of silver metal today are 999 Chinese ingots, silver pellets from refineries and silver scrap from various manufacturing operations. Silver alloys for fabrication work are typically made by melting silver metal with copper wire and scrap copper in the silvermsith’s workshop.