Friday, April 21, 2006

Great Orme Mine

Above the town of Llandudno along the north Welsh coast, is a high limestone headland called The Great Orme. It was formed during Carboniferous times in a warm sea, and today, where the rock is exposed above the thatch of sheep-trimmed grass, it is possible to see the smashed remains of shells, bones and creatures like brachiopods. People have used the startlingly white rocks to pick out messages on the intensely green slopes: 'Everton FC'; 'Julie 4 Ahmed'; the star of David, a cross.

But it was what lay beneath that interested me the most: the oldest prehistoric mine in the world. After some millions of years this limestone was uplifted and cracked so that hot fluids rich with minerals - in particular copper - could percolate upwards, changing the limestone around it into the softer browner dolomite and filling the cracks with copper ore.

Like the copper roofs of churches it is mainly green - the beautifully banded malachite, reminiscent of the rings of trees - and maybe that is how it grows, one layer of mineralising fluid and then another with a slightly different composition giving a slightly different shade - a summer ring and then a thinner winter one according to the seasons of the middle of the earth. It is easy to spot: bright green against the white rock - an essential ingredient (with tin) for the bronze age. So 3000 years ago, at the time of Noah they came - Neolithic miners, digging out the rocks with bones and then smashing them with boulders of dolerite. While one ancient man was sailing around the middle east hunting for land my ancestors were digging into the ground searching for a more vivid green.

They sent in their children - some of the tunnels were too narrow for anyone aged much more than five - and they worked mainly in darkness, only sometimes using candles of animal fat to help them sort the waste from the ore. If the rock was hard they sometimes lit fires so that the heat would make the rock crack and come away more easily, and it is the charcoal from these fires that has enabled the mines and tunnels to be dated. They worked down through nine levels to 70 metres below the surface - an incredible feat.

The headland was mined again in the mid-nineteenth century - a straight shaft down to below sea-level blasted out with dynamite and they recorded then that they cut through ancient working - either Roman or ancient Welsh. In one place they came across a cavern that was 40 yards long and one of the tunnels we followed passed a large deep cavern with the marks of the bone tools in the roof.

Only traces of the malachite are left now, a smear of green along parts of the roof resembling moss or lichen. It is estimated that 1 700 tonnes of copper were extracted making this one of the largest industrial sites of the ancient world.

The tunnels we passed through were narrow with uneven roofs and we were grateful for the hard hats because each of us managed to bang our heads against some overhang. These tunnels were just wide enough to walk through, and to each side there were smaller, even more narrow tunnels, leading off into darkness, also worked - presumably by children. It was easy to imagine working in this place, and how incredibly frightening it must have been for a child because I guess, like us, Neolithic children were afraid of the dark. They would have had to be led down into the darkness for some time before reaching the place they had to work, and then they would have had to squeeze into the rock, cutting themselves on the sharp edges and bruising themselves on the unexpected protruberances and overhangs.

Today archeologists find carefully placed stone hammers and bone tools which may have marked out direction or may have been offering to spirits. In the nineteenth century the miners also thought they could hear spirits knocking on the walls which they called Knockers. The Knockers led the miners to the richer veins of copper ore. If the vein wasn't very good the miners would leave a small offfering asking for better luck next time - I wonder if the Neolithic miners were equally superstitious. It has always interested me how these heathen superstitions persist, even in a population that is nominally Christian. Though I guess the presence of spirits they could hear for themselves would be much more convincing than the one remote being they heard about from the man in the pulpit.

After the ore was extracted it was heated in a kiln to 1100 degrees Celsius with the aid of charcoal and air from bellows - whereupon the copper would appear, and this copper then could be mixed with molten tin (brought in from Devon or Cornwall) and then poured into a mould to produce a sword, axe-head or any other object of choice. It is incredible to think of this quite complex technological process going on so long ago. These people lived in hill-forts like the one we saw in our walk above Rowen. They wove crude garments, slept communally in large round huts with daub and wattle walls and thatched roofs. They made pots from clay called beakers, some of which they buried with their dead, and because of this were called the beaker people. But they were not hunter-gatherers and were not nomadic. They had started to farm - grew crops and kept animals such as sheep and cattle. In many ways people were still living like that in the mid-nineteenth century when the mine was reopened again. By then of course iron was the metal of choice, but many people were still living in exactly the same conditions as their ancestors: the floors were of earth, their walls daub and wattle, their roofs thatched and they kept the same animals in their small-holdings. Far away in the towns and cities there may have been factories and shops but in rural Wales much of life was the same as it had been centuries.


Anonymous Jan said...

Did you know this was featured in the brilliant BBC " Coast" programme last year? There was much of one programme devoted to it. It would be interesting to see again.

Sun Apr 23, 08:54:00 am  
Anonymous Clare said...

Jan: Yes, I knew it was featured but missed that one - think we may have caught it on tape though. Didn't know they'd devoted most of one programme to it - does sound interesting..

Sun Apr 23, 09:17:00 am  
Blogger Jonathan said...

I'd like to see this place. I wonder how far abroad this copper ore was bartered? Was it just used locally or did it end up being carted off somewhere else? I imagine it might have been at least nationally important?

Sun Apr 23, 09:02:00 pm  
Anonymous Clare said...

Jonathan: Well worth a visit in my opinion.

Thanks for your questions - no one seems to know much about it except that there is no evidence that the metal extraction took place on the site. It was thought that the ore was probably taken down to the valley where there were lots of trees for fuel.

Also they must have obtained the tin from either Devon or Cornwall so there must have been a trade route over the sea to there at least. Also large boats have been found in the south of England have been dated from about this time so there was most likely quite an extensive trading network at this time.

And that's about it...shrouded in the mysteries of a long-forgotten time and all that. Amazing though, really.

Mon Apr 24, 11:51:00 pm  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Interesting, thanks.

Tue Apr 25, 06:48:00 am  

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