I wrote this short essay last summer, after spending a week in North Wales. Both the landscape of the Great Orme and the copper mines made a great impression on me.
Great Orme Copper Mines
The limestone headland of the Great Orme rises steeply from the seaside town of Llandudno. A great wedge of layered limestone, it juts upwards and outwards from the coast of North Wales. A number of streets and houses attempt to climb the slope, but the sheer angle of the hill has caused them to congregate towards its base.
Away from the town, the Great Orme becomes its own world – an island, almost. Step away from the tram stop and the summit complex and you are out in the wilds.
The headland juts towards the clouds and you are held between sea and sky, in a world of wind and sunlight. You are up amongst the birds – black-backed gulls, fulmars, ravens, buzzards. There are choughs, too; orange-legged, curved-beaked, taking off like jump jets into the strong breeze.
Out on the northern tip of the promontory, the rocks burst through the soil and turf – miniature limestone landscapes of pool-lakes and plant-trees.
Out there the Great Orme shakes off human timescale. It is remembering, as if it was yesterday, the tremors of the Alpine eruptions that caused its form to fold and buckle within. These folds formed voids in the limestone, and these voids filled with minerals and ores. The Great Orme is especially rich in copper carbonate ores and the rich veins running through the limestone have been mined for millennia, from prehistory up to the nineteenth century.
The earliest copper mines in the Great Orme were carved out during the Bronze Age, between 4000 and 2500 years ago. Ore from these mines was sought by people across the land, across Europe, even. Research suggests that the Great Orme mines may have been the largest producer of copper ore in the whole Continent[i].
Prehistoric people, including women and children, carved their way through the soft limestone rock using antler and bone picks. Look on the surface of the tunnel walls, of the alcoves and offshoots, and you can see the grooves they cut into the rock. They look so fresh it’s hard to believe that they were made so long ago.
The extent of the mines, in an age before machines, is breath-taking. You are aware, as you walk through the tourist trail, that you are taking just one of the possible routes through the hillside. There are endless side routes and passages blocked off by modern metal grills. There are many dead ends, too, where miners have followed the seam to its conclusion. These small offshoots show clearly that children worked in the mine; they are tiny, narrow tubes that no adult could have created.
How did it feel to crawl through the dim tunnels, to carve your own pathways through the rock? Was it an honour to be sent down there, or a duty? Were the miners afraid – of the mass of rock above their heads, of the supernatural powers locked within the ore? I had thought that I would feel scared, claustrophobic, going down into the mines, but the tunnel walls felt safe and firm around me. Lit today by electric light, you need to work to imagine the mines lit by smoking, flickering lamps and torches. Evidence from other prehistoric mining sites suggests that miners may have carried lighted wooden spills between their teeth, to light their way as they worked. Illuminated by living flame, the shadows and rock formations would have moved constantly; this subterranean world was animate.
Again and again the mines force you to consider the work, the persistence, the desire needed to mine the copper from the ground. The paying visitor can walk down to the third level of the mines, but archaeologists have excavated the mines down nine layers. They believe that the mines extend up to 70m in depth and sprawl a massive 240m into the hillside. In some places the prehistoric miners dug straight down through the tunnel floors, making long, thin shafts that descend through several layers at once. They cut breaks and chasms into the old routeways through the hillside. The archaeologists have placed metal grills over some of these spaces and the visitor must walk over them – looking down into (or away from) the sheer drop beneath their feet.
These are not neat, regular passageways, but lines of pursuit, led by the irregular wanderings of the ore through the limestone.
The work of the archaeologists shadows the work of the prehistoric miners. As certain shafts and passageways were emptied of ore, the miners backfilled them with rubble and debris from the new minings. As well as solving a practical solution for dealing with waste, the blocking and opening of areas of the mine may have been used to control ventilation in the mines – necessary when lamps or torches were being carried, or when fire-setting was used to soften the harder rock. The shafts were backfilled with used hammer stones and discarded picks, as well as smashed stone. It has become the archaeologists’ job to re-excavate the mines, clearing their way with trowel, shovel, mattock and machine in place of antler picks.
Towards the end of the visitor route through the mines is the most impressive sight of all – a cavern, several layers deep. Numerous passageways lead into the cavern and have been left hanging in mid-air, open mouths gaping at the unexpected space. The cavern is silent now, but standing before it I could easily imagine the immense movement and effort that brought it into being; the scraping and lifting and hauling away – the sculpting of absence.
I would have stood there longer, but another party was behind me, keen to see what lay ahead. So I moved on and soon I was walking upslope, heading back to daylight.
I had expected to feel relief on emerging from the deep, narrow mine tunnels and returning to the sunlight and fresh air. But my first impulse on exiting the mines was to walk back round to the entrance, to head back underground.
[i] The most detailed research on the mines so far is by Andy Lewis and can be read online at http://www.greatormemines.info/MPhil.htm (C. Andrew Lewis 1996 Prehistoric Mining at the Great Orme: Criteria for the identification of early mining, MPhil Dissertation, University of Wales – Bangor) The details of mining at the Great Orme described in this essay are based on this research, as well as information provided on site for visitors to the mine.