Skip to main content Accessibility help

Kean Miltos: The Well-Known Iron Oxides of Antiquity1

  • E. Photos-Jones (a1), A. Cottier (a2), A. J. Hall (a3) and L. G. Mendoni (a4)


The island of Kea in the North Cyclades was well known in antiquity for its miltos, a naturally occurring red iron oxide valued for its colour and wide range of applications. By combining geological field work, physico-chemical analytical techniques, simulation (heating) experiments as well as simple laboratory tests, this paper describes the study of Kean iron oxides in an attempt to characterize this material which is still largely elusive in the archaeological record. The present work corroborates previous observations about the superior quality of some Kean iron oxides. Furthermore, it puts forward the hypothesis that miltos may have been considered an industrial mineral, and as such may have been used as an umbrella term for a variety of materials including mineralogically distinct purple as well as red iron oxides.



Hide All

2 μιλτοπάρη̜οι‘red-cheeked’, epithet for ships with red-painted bows, e.g. Homer, , Il. ii. 637; Od. ix. 125; cf. Sophista, Apollonius, Lexicon Homericum, 112 Bekker s.v. Cf. Herodotus (iii. 58. 2): τὸ δὲ παλαιὸν ἅπασαι αἱ νεες ἠσαν μιλτηλφέες; Hesychius μ 1361.

3 μίλτειον στάγμα (LSJ): the red mark made by the carpenter's line.

4 Amidenus, Aetius, Libri medicinales, ii. 5 (ed. A. Olivieri, Corpus Medicorum Graecorum [= CMG], 8.1, p. 157. 8–14), viii. 31, 62 (ed. Olivieri, CMG 8. 2, pp. 444. 21, 528. 17); Dioscorides, , De materia medica, v. 96, 126. 5.

5 G. Sanders, E. Photos-Jones, and A. J. Hall, ‘Industriai minerals in antiquity: the case of Melos’, in preparation. On Melos bentonite (mainly Ca-montmorillonite) is currently being exploited for a range of purposes as varied as the oil industry, foundries, and producers of cat-litter; see Stamatakis, M., Lutat, U., Regueiro, M., and Calvo, J., ‘Milos, the mineral island’, Industrial Minerals Journal, 1996, 5761. Yet similar, if not the same deposits were used in antiquity for the cloth industry (in fuller's earth) or for pharmaceutical purposes as ointments. See Robertson, R. H. S., Fuller's Earth: A History of Calcium Montmorillonite (Mineralogical Society Occasional Publication; Volturna, , 1986).

6 Tod, , GHI ii. 162, lines 9–24; see Meijer, F. and Nijf, O. van, Trade, Transport and Society in the Ancient World: A Sourcebook (London, 1992), 34.

7 Other sources of miltos include Egypt and Carthage (Dioscorides v. 96. 3).

8 Robinson, D., ‘Ancient Sinope’, AJP 27 (1906), 142.

9 Lemnos was the source of two different types of materials: a red miltos and a red earth called Lemnian sphragis since it was packaged in sealed containers. According to Robertson (n. 5), 37, the latter was most probably fuller's earth and was used as ointment. Therefore, it was the sphragis which had the medicinal properties rather than miltos itself.

10 Ed. Eichholz, D. E. (Oxford, 1965), p. 74.

11 Institute of Geological and Mining Exploration, ᾿Επεξηγματιϰὸν Τευ̑χος (Athens, 1973).

12 Mendoni and Photos-Jones (n. 1). For the Laurion equivalent see Photos-Jones, E. and Jones, J. E., ‘The building and industrial remains at Agrileza, Laurion (fourth century BC) and their contribution to the workings at the site’, BSA 89 (1994). 307–58.

13 In their extensive survey of northern Kea, Cherry, J., Davis, J., and Mantzourani, E. (Landscape Archaeology as Long-Term History: Northern Keos in the Cycladic Islands from Earliest Settlement until Modern Times (Los Angeles, 1991) did not report evidence for iron slag. Iron, copper and lead slags are evident in the south and the central part of the island, Mendoni and Photos-Jones (n. 1); Caskey, M., Mendoni, L., Papastamataki, A., and Beloyannis, N., ‘Metals in Keos: a first approach’, in Marinos, G. and Koukis, G. (eds), Engineering Geology of Ancient Works, Monuments and Historical Sites (Rotterdam, 1988), 1739–45.

14 μιλτωρυχει̑α Hesychius μ 1363.

15 W. Rostoker and J. Dvorak, ‘Miltos and Metallurgical Extraction’, in Cherry et al. (n. 13), 141–7.

16 Mendoni and Photos-Jones (n. 1).

17 Rostoker and Dvorak (n. 15), 147; Theophrastus, De Lapidibus, 52, trans. Eichholz: ‘Ruddle of inferior quality is produced by burning ochre. The invention belongs to Cydias, who is said to have grasped it through noticing that, when a general stores was destroyed by fire, half-burnt ochre had turned crimson. New pots luted with clay are placed in a furnace. When the pots are thoroughly exposed to the fire, they cause the ochre to be baked, and the more they are burnt the darker and more glowing the ochre becomes.’

18 Although most classical authors agree that miltos had a bright red colour, some are confident that (at least) Sinopic miltos was liver-coloured: Μίλτος Σινωπιϰὴ ϰρατίστη ἡ πυðνὴ ϰαὶ βαρεîα ἡπατίζουσα ἄλιθος. ὁμόχρους. πολύχυτος ἐν τη̨̂ ἀνέσει Dioscorides v. 96. 1.

19 Cottier, A., ‘Kean Miltos: the nature, composition and properties of Kean iron oxides’ (unpublished BSc dissertation, University of Glasgow, 1996).

20 See here, for comparison, the discussion of Theophrastus’ categorization of plants by French, R., Ancient Natural History (London, 1994), 94–5.

21 Davi, E., ‘Γεωλογιϰὴ ϰατασϰευὴ τῆς Νησου Κέας’, Δελτίον τῆς Ἓλληνιϰῆς Ἓταιρείας, 9 (1972), 252–65.

22 Blake, M., Bonneau, C., Geyssant, J., Kienast, J. R., and Lepvrier, C., ‘A geological reconnaissance of the Cycladic Blueschist Belt, Greece’, Geological Society of America Bulletin, 92 1/5 (1981), 247–54; Bonneau, M., ‘Correlation of the Hellenide nappes in the South-East Aegean and their tectonic reconstruction’, in Dixon, J. and Robertson, A. (eds), The Geological Evolution of the Eastern Mediterranean (Oxford, 1984).

23 Marble, although not shown in the map on Fig. 1, was nevertheless present in the vicinity of Trypospilies cave, Kalamos.

24 The processes have been discussed at length in A. J. Hall, ‘Geology and mineralisation of South Kea’, Appendix in Mendoni and Photos-Jones (n. 1); Cottier (n. 19). A brief account is given in the text.

25 Dioscorides (n. 18).

26 Readings were taken in Glasgow using artificial light in a room by the window at the same time on two different days.

27 The sample was supplied courtesy of Óxidos Rojos de Málaga, Spain.

28 The sample was supplied courtesy of the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow.

29 A Co Kα source was used as opposed to the usual Cu Kα, which produces a high background from secondary fluorescence when analysing iron minerals. The 2 theta position covered was between 4° and 50°. The data were processed using the computer package Traces 3.0.

30 Schwertmann, U. and Cornell, R., Iron Oxides in the Laboratory: Preparation and Characterisation (Weinheim and Cambridge, 1991), 33.

31 Rostoker and Dvorak (n. 15), 144.

32 In limonite water is found within the lattice as well as between crystals, creating much more amorphous material. It should be noted that the degree of goethite crystallinity demonstrated by the Orkos samples is quite remarkable since this mineral, especially in secondary mineralization, often lacks (although not to the same extent as limonite) well-developed crystals.

33 Frenzel, G., ‘The manganese ore minerals’, in Varentsov, K. M. and Grassely, G. (eds), Geology and Geochemistry of Manganese, i (Stuttgart, 1991), 25158.

34 Brown, C. E., ‘Pigments and Fillers’, in Brobst, D. A. and Pratt, W. P. (eds), United States Mineral Resources, US Geological Survey Prof. Paper 820 (1973), 527–36, cited in Harben, P. and Bates, R., Industrial Minerals, Geology and World Deposits (Industrial Minerals Division, Metal Bulletin plc; London, 1990), 141.

35 Theophrastus (n. 17).

36 A number of experimental trials were carried out to ascertain the optimum conditions (Cottier, n. 19). The transition in chemical terms is:

2FeOOH → Fe2 + H2O.

37 Heaton, N., Outlines of Paint Technology (London, 1947).

39 Ibid. 16.

41 Scholia Graeca in Aristophanem, ed. Dübner, Fr. (Paris, 1843), p. 318; Pollux viii. 104; cf. Acharmans 19–22 with scholia on v. 22 (Scholia in Aristophanem 1.1B, ed. N. G. Wilson, 10).

1 We wish to express our gratitude to Dr L. Mendoni (Centre of Greek and Roman Antiquities, National Research Foundation, Athens) for her continuous support throughout the fieldwork and thereafter. See L. Mendoni and E. Photos-Jones, ‘Μίλτος Βελτίοτη the mineral wealth of Kea in reference to lead/silver and iron oxides’, Proceedings of an Archaeological Conference on Kea/Kythnos (Kea, 1994), in press. This work began while one of us (E.P.-J.) was resident at the Fitch Laboratory, British School at Athens. The authors gratefully acknowledge the help and support of its director, Dr I. K. Whitbread, for making its facilities available in the course of this study.

Kean Miltos: The Well-Known Iron Oxides of Antiquity1

  • E. Photos-Jones (a1), A. Cottier (a2), A. J. Hall (a3) and L. G. Mendoni (a4)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed