Copper Mining Boom Across Britain 3,600 Years Ago Found in New Study
Researchers have made a major breakthrough with regard to the history of mining in Bronze Age Britain. They have established that there was a great mining boom in the area much earlier than thought. It is believed that the Great Orme mine in Wales was mined by large scale producers who dominated the trade in copper for two centuries and they were part of an international network.
Possible trade/exchange routes for Great Orme metal based on the distribution of bronze shield- pattern palstave axes. (R. A. Williams / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the study of prehistoric mines. According to Antiquity, researchers can use the “latest interdisciplinary expertise in ore geology, mineralogy, archaeometallurgy, and analytical geochemistry” to better understand the history of mining.
The earliest source of copper in the British Isle was at Ross Island in southeast Ireland and it is associated with a society known as the Beaker people. Great Orme mine in North Wales, near Llandudno, later became the most important copper mine in Britain and remained so for many centuries.
Great Orme - Mining with Animal Bones
The “extraordinary complex of surface and underground workings of the Great Orme Bronze Age mine was discovered in 1987” according to Antiquity. This mine was worked from approximately 1,700 - 900 BC. The ore was extracted by open cast mining and also tunnels dug into the earth.
The work was mainly done by miners who used implements made from animal bones and tools made of stone and bronze. Antiquity reports that “over 2,400 hammerstones, over 30,000 pieces of bone — many used as tools — and also abundant bronze fragments from tools” have been found at Great Orme.
The accepted wisdom was that the prehistoric mining boom was in the later Bronze Age and that it was carried out by small scale mining operations. However, a study by Alan Williams of Liverpool University and Le Carlier de Veslud, of the University of Rennes has possibly changed this view forever. They were able to analyze the properties of the metal extracted at the mine and they came to some remarkable conclusions.
Chemical Fingerprint Found At Great Orme Mine
The experts developed a methodology to identify the chemical and isotopic ranges of metal. A press release issued by Antiquity states that the experts found a “chemical and isotopic fingerprint, which identified the artifacts that are consistent with Great Orme metal”. These items are shield-pattern palstave axes. In particular, they found that the early “Acton Park palstaves” had some of the copper mined from Great Orme, reports Antiquity.
Bronze Age palstave, Great Orme metal found on Acton Park palstaves. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 2.0)
The importance of this is that the palstaves are dated to the period 1,700 BC to 1,500 BC. Based on this Le Carlier de Veslud and Williams believe that it is likely that Great Orme was in production sometime around 1,600 BC. This is much earlier than was once thought by academics.
Bronze Age Great Orme Mining Boom and Bust
The two researchers believe that from 1,600 – 1,400 BC there was a “golden age” of production at the mine according to a press release issued by Antiquity. This was followed by several centuries when the Welsh mine yielded much smaller amounts of copper. The experts also demonstrated that the mine produced much higher quality metals than once believed.
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The entrance to the Bronze Age Great Orme copper mine. (Alan Simkins / CC BY-SA 2.0)
The earlier date for the metal from Great Orme also has significant implications for the understanding of how the site was worked. It seems “likely that there was large-scale copper production for about 200 years at the mine”, according to a press release by the journal Antiquity. The mine was worked more extensively than thought and was therefore excavated by a great many miners who were organized and controlled by a central authority and not by small scale mining enterprises. This also may indicate some form of political government in the area during the Bronze Age.
Great Orme Mine Involved in Long-Distance Trade
The researchers were also able to detect evidence that metal from the Welsh mine was used in a range of palstaves found over much of northern Europe. They established a link between Great Orme and items found in modern-day France, Netherlands, and Sweden. It appears that because of Great Orme, Britain played a major role in the metal trade and was also much more integrated into the European system than once assumed.
Continental distribution map of bronze shield-pattern palstave axes and those analyzed are all consistent with Great Orme metal. (R. A. Williams / Antiquity Publications Ltd)
The analysis of the metal from Great Orme is changing our views of Bronze Age Britain. It was a society that was rich in metals and had sophisticated metallurgical techniques at an early date. Moreover, it experienced a boom in production much earlier than thought.
The find also demonstrates that large scale production happened at the mine and that Britain was very much part of the pan-European metal trade network. The findings of the research by Williams and Le Carlier de Veslud, are published in Boom and Bust in Bronze Age Britain.
The full report is available from Antiquity Journal, DOI: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.130
Top image: Aerial view of the Great Orme mine site looking south-east towards Llandudno). Source: © Great Orme Mines Ltd / Antiquity Publications Ltd.
By Ed Whelan
Williams, R. and & Le Carlier de Veslud, C. 2019. The Earliest Mining Boom in the history of Britain. Antiquity Journal. [Online] Available at: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.130