Illustration of people during the Bronze Age.

Child Miners, Mother Goddesses, and One of the Greatest Powers of the Bronze Age

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In ancient times, metal ores such as tin and copper were hard to come by. So in 4,500 BC when the innovators discovered how to produce bronze from a mixture of the two, there was a mad rush to extract as much ore as possible in order to cash in on the booming bronze trade. One of the most productive- and thus most powerful – centers of activity was the British Isles. In the area surrounding the Irish Sea (Dublin, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, and western Scotland) large deposits of both tin and copper were discovered. Moreover, by this time an adequate shipping industry had sprung up that was able to transport the minerals from the British Isles to the powerful empires of Europe and the Mediterranean region. The small British mining communities became some of the most important outposts in the trans-European Bronze Age trade networks.

Mining and metalwork are difficult tasks even today. 6,000 years ago, it would take an entire village or kinship group to pull off a successful smelting operation. First the ore would have to be extracted from the ground- tools would have to be made, tunnels dug, minerals mined; then incredibly hot fires would have to be made in order to smelt the copper or tin – wood would have to be gathered, fires stoked, metal manipulated; finally, the finished products would have to be packaged and shipped to markets in France, Germany, Spain, and perhaps even as far as Denmark and Turkey. This difficult operation would mean that the whole family had to pitch in – children being no exception.

Primitive furnace of the bronze age

Primitive furnace of the bronze age (CC BY 2.0 )

In a forthcoming paper, Alan Williams of the University of Liverpool's Department of Archaeology in the United Kingdom discusses the mining colony that operated at the Great Orme in Wales.

“The star in the crown was basically the Great Orme, which grew to be much bigger than all of the others and, in fact, is one of the biggest in all of Europe. It turned out to be the Stonehenge of copper mining," explained Williams in an interview with the BBC.

Tunnels at the site stretch across five miles (eight kilometers) and in some places go as deep as 230 feet (70 meters), the level of the water table. Estimates put the total amount of ore extracted from Great Orme anywhere from 25 to 1,760 tons. As the tunnels get closer and closer to hitting the water, the tunnels get ever narrower- far too narrow for even the most flexible adults to squeeze through. Williams argues that these parts of the mines were probably excavated by children.

"Children were probably scraping out these veins while their parents were nearby,” said Nick Jowett, the manager of the Great Orme site. “It was a different time. There's no school to go to. That's just the way."

The entrance to the Neolithic Copper Mine complex on the Great Orme

The entrance to the Neolithic Copper Mine complex on the Great Orme ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Another striking difference was the role of women in these societies. During the Bronze Age, “inhabitants of the British Isles were mother right people, matrilineal in their descent, with the right to rule passing down from mother to daughter” (Campbell, 2015). These women undoubtedly played a key role in the mineral extraction and trade. The land in the western portion of the British Isles, such as Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Cornwall, was largely spared from the corrosive force of the Roman Empire. This allowed the spirit and style of the Celtic Legends, with their powerful Mother Goddess figures, to remain intact well into the Middle Ages. Indeed, the fairy godmothers and magical queens that pervade many Celtic and European myths have their roots in this culture of feminine power.

As a result of the incessant need for tin and copper, a matrix of civilized communities sprang up along the waterways of Western Europe. As Jowett explains, "If you're going to go all the way to Cornwall, there's no point showing up at the beach with two tons of copper. There must have been meeting times. They must have communicated." Incredibly, this level of sophisticated trade arose at nearly the same time, if not before, the art of writing was invented. 

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