The big history of mining in Serbia and the bigger challenges of today

May 30, 2024

by Dragan Dragić, Exploration Manager at Konstantin Resources

Recently, I’ve participated at the 13th International Conference titled ‘Mineral Resources in Serbia – Sustainable Growth Through Responsible Mining’ as a panelist in the discussion ‘Challenges and Issues in Mineral Exploration’.

In preparation for this event, I have asked myself, ‘What is the rate of big discoveries in Serbia and how long will take someone to discover a minable economic deposit and put it in production, as well what would be the challenges and issues?’. Geology is a fundamental science and economic geology plays a significant role. Mining is a fundamental industry for any society and country. The Serbian Geology Society dates to 1891 and it is one of the first in Europe and the world. Teaching of geology has been ongoing since 1880 with the establishment of the Department of Mineralogy and Geology at the Great School in Belgrade, the ancestor of Belgrade University.

↑ A photo from the conference. Dragan is second on the left.

History of mining in Serbia

In the period from 1880 to the present day, Serbia and the world as a whole went through rough times and many changes in the government, society, technology, etc. Those changes affected mining as a whole as well.

But let’s start from the beginning where the history of mining in Serbia goes back to the Neolithic Vinča culture. This culture was one of the first to introduce metal and mining in human history, with archaeological evidence preserved at Rudna Glava, approx. 10 km (6.2 mi) southeast from Majdanpek mine (that has tremendous history by itself) in Eastern Serbia. This area preserves what is considered as one of the first copper mines and smelters in Europe, dating back to the period 7000–5500 BC. Some other Vinča culture mining and smelting localities in Serbia include: Belovode near Kučevo in Eastern Serbia; Pločnik near Prokuplje in Southern Serbia; Avala near the capital Belgrade.

As time went by, human civilization changed, and we entered the Roman period in present day Serbia. Romans continued developing mining and left the evidence at the fortress Kraku Lu Jordan, a smelting complex at Brodica village in Eastern Serbia.

The next stage of this constant change was Medieval Serbia where mining played a significant role. In 1254, Serbian King Uroš introduced the Saxon miners, who brought know-how and played a major role in the development of medieval mining at several sites, including: Brskovo, in present-day Montenegro, at the time largest silver mine; Rudnik (active Pb-Zn mine) in central Serbia; Trepča and Novo Brdo, located in Kosovo. The Law on Mines, or the ‘Novo Brdo Code’, of Despot Stefan Lazarević from 1412 precisely determined the working conditions in the mines, starting with the obligation of the owner to constantly maintain the mine, through determining the length of permitted interruption of work in certain parts of the mine, to standardizing the dimensions of mining tools and accessories.

The only period in Serbian history where mining was relatively subdued was when the Medieval Serbian kingdom was overtaken by the Ottoman Empire. As the rise of Habsburg Monarchy and subsequent the Austro-Hungarian Empire began after the signing the ‘Peace of Požarevac’ in 1718 between Austria and Venice on one side and the Ottoman Empire, mining in present-day Serbia restarted.

Serbia regained autonomy within the Ottoman Empire and regained its independence and freedom in 1867 when the last Ottomans left, while at the Berlin Congress in 1878, Serbia received international recognition. This new chapter is characterized by the establishment of the first mining state institution in 1838. Prince Miloš issued the Mining Law, which regulated work and management in the mines of Serbia. In 1865, the Ministry of Education decided to send twenty young men to study at European universities, which indicated that the state of Serbia invested in mining. Since 1919, mining is regulated by the Ministry of Forests and Mines, and after the Second World War, an independent Ministry of Mining was established, represented by the present-day Ministry of Mining and Energy.

The first half of the 20th Century is characterized with domestic and foreign investments in geology exploration and mining, leading to the major discoveries of world-class deposits including the Cu-Au mine in Bor in 1903 (Eastern Serbia), the Pb-Zn-Ag mine in 1930 in Trepča (Kosovo), and the Lece Pb-Zn-Au-Ag mine in 1931 (Southern Serbia). All three are still in production.

Mining in Serbia from the Second World War onwards

The second half of the 20th century, after the Second World War, was characterized by a Communism regime where all corporate and privately owned mines were nationalized. Great efforts were put in the revival of the production of existing mines, plus the opening of new ones. These include: the Lece Pb-Zn-Au-Ag in 1951, the Crnac Pb-Zn mine in 1968, the Blagodat Pb-Zn mine in 1964, the Rudnik Pb-Zn mine in 1952, the Veliki Majdan Pb-Zn-Ag mine in 1953, the Belo Brdo Pb-Zn mine in 1970, the Majdanpek Cu-Au mine in 1961, and the Veliki Krivelj Cu-Au mine in 1979.

Since 2004, when the Serbian government allowed foreign investments in mineral exploration, significant discoveries have been made including: the Jadar Project with newly discovered mineral Jadarit – a sodium-lithium-borosilicate-hydroxide; Čukaru Peki HS-Porphyry CuAu deposit/mine; Timok Project Sediment-hosted Au; Kiseljak mine’s south extension; Yellow Creek Cu-Au porphyries; Tulare Project; the recently discovered Čoka Rakita Au skarn.

↑ Extensive zone of clay-sericite alteration at Degrmen Au-Cu porphyry prospect, Degrmen, Serbia

If we ruled out the Čoka Rakita Au skarn, because exploration is still ongoing, only Čukaru Peki has been put in production out of remaining deposits, commencing mining on 22nd October, 2021. The Čukaru Peki deposit was found in 2012 with the 10th deep drill hole, while exploration that led to the discovery was intensive in the period 2004 – 2012, although the Institute for Copper explored the area in 1980s. Development lasted from 2012-2021. This can be considered fast, as the whole process took only 17 years. For comparison, the last time a still-operating mine opened, in the Timok Region of Eastern Serbia, was the Veliki Krivelj Cu-Au porphyry in 1979, 42 years ago.

Other Projects are now on hold for various reasons, challenges and issues including environmental, social, technical, etc.

Modern-day realities of exploration, discovery and development

Exploration is a long-term, complex and multidisciplinary process that is directly dependent on investments. Present day explorers are facing challenges that include environmental impact and have to be prepared from day one, as environmental issues are often misused for political battles where companies along with geologists are collateral damage. Social challenges are more visible in the areas that are not historically mined, as introducing mining can be hard since people are not coping well with the change of their lifestyles. Technical issues include grades, type of ore, and construction challenges in remote areas.

The most important challenge, however, comes before all the above-mentioned and that is to find the orebody that is economic and can be mined with all parties satisfied. As an illustration, prospection work on the project that I’ve worked on commenced in 1955, while the first drillhole was completed in 1969. A scout drilling program lasted for another year with 10 drillholes. The second campaign continued from 1977 to 1980 with 14 drillholes, and a third one was executed from 1984 – 1990 with 32 drillholes. To sum, this is 56 drillholes, totaling 11 282 m (37 014.44 ft) over 21 years.

The next stage of exploration at the Project commenced in 2007 with yet another four holes, 1001 m (3284.12 ft) in all. There was intense drilling over the period 2011-2014 with 119 drillholes for 54 150 m (177 657.48 ft) in all. Work in the period 2011-2014 resulted in an extension of the resource from 1988 and the discovery of a new orebody. In just three years, 4.8 times more drilling was done than in 21 years under the State-owned Geological Survey of Communist Yugoslavia.

↑ Detail of chalcopyrite as matrix infill in KK breccia, Orebody Z at Rudnik underground Pb-Zn-(-Cu) Mine, Rudnik, Serbia

So, why did the State geologists fail and what did we do differently to extend resources and discover new orebodies? Trust me, geologists that worked for the State Geological Survey on that project were smart and they used all the tools at their disposal to the best they could. What they lacked was support from the owner, in this case the State, as most likely the State did not want to take risks and maybe had a better idea of how to spend public money. Maybe. We learned from their work, and we collected any possible data we could, we developed models, we interpreted them, and we reinterpreted them. We shared our knowledge and ideas with a wide range of knowledgeable people, actively persuading our management to support our ideas based on facts collected on the ground. The company took all the risk, management bit the bullet and we drilled. Although this Project is not yet developed, knowledge about it significantly increased and one day someone will put the final piece into the puzzle.

It just explains how challenging explorations in general is, without all the other Project-specific considerations, as from the first drillhole in 1969 to the last one in 2014 there is a period of 45 years of hard work, risk taking and knowledge gaining.

Final comments

In our present mining-social environment, with its evolving demand for metals and the need to address the energy transition, time is of the essence as we are all pressed by the market to deliver results as soon as possible. Part of this involves the use of high-end technology where emerging AI is the first choice. As a big believer in technology and its use, I’m also aware that its misuse is dangerous. Although AI can give you solutions, it is also based on a binary concept of yes/no, while geology is all about context, as no two deposits are the same.

The development of great, informed geological models has helped in so many ways, but one cannot put a model in the deposit, we can only put a deposit in the model. Therefore, one needs to know one’s prospect to understand its unique features and to gain as many possible facts, and that is best done with boots on the ground. That is, critical knowledge of a particular prospect is essential.

About the author

Dragan is Exploration Manager at Konstantin Resources, Australian Company exploring in Serbia and consulting geologist with over 18 years of experience in geological explorations in Serbia, Eastern Europe and North America. During his career, he worked on various exploration projects for precious and base metals. He led a team of geologists working to define the Kiseljak copper and gold deposit and was one of the key figures in the discovery of the Yellow Creek deposit and the southern extension of the Kiseljak deposit. He also worked on other projects in the Lece Magmatic Complex, Timok Magmatic Complex and Surdulica Granodiorite Complex. He is a member of the Serbian Geological Society, Society of Economic Geologist, Mineralium Deposita. Dragan is licensed Euro Geologist no. license in 1546.

For more information get in touch with Dragan Dragić on LinkedIn