The Great Orme Copper Mines

The Bronze Age Copper Mines located in Llandudno on the Great Orme headland are one of Britain’s most important archaeological sites. Excavation began in 1987 and since then over 5 miles of tunnels dated between 1860BC and 600BC have been surveyed. The mine was opened to the public in 1991, enabling visitors to see the great complex of tunnels and old surface workings. We have visited three times now, the last time being in 2017, so I thought it was about time I wrote a post about it.

Great Orme Location Map

The Great Orme headland, or peninsula, is a massive chunk of limestone, rising to 207 metres /679 feet out of the sea. Its name, Great Orme, is of old Scandinavian origin, Ormr meaning serpent and hofuth meaning head. So the headland was called Serpent’s head, and it isn’t hard to see why.

Llandudno_&_Great_Orme anotated
1024px-Conwy_UK_location_map
It is possible that the site of the mine was already a special place before anyone realised that the green copper ore could be turned into metal. It is thought that the 5,500-year-old Neolithic/Stone Age burial chamber only 100 metres from the mine was constructed there because the area was a closed, dry valley in which water disappeared down a sink hole.

Entrance to the mines is through Reception with a friendly piece of advice about wearing suitable shoes:

Entrance to the Great Orme Mines

Notice at the entrance to the site

The first part of our visit was around the large area of surface/opencast mining, which was all buried underground until excavations began in 1987.  The first opencast mining started approximately 4,000 years ago in places where the green malachite ore was visible at the surface. The malachite would probably also have been useful to the people for its colour as a pigment, perhaps for paint or eye make-up.

Open Cast Mining 2
Artist’s impression of the opencast workings as they may have appeared

Opencast mining probably continued for around 200 years, during which hundreds of tonnes of ore was extracted. When surface deposits were exhausted miners had no other choice than to follow the tunnels below ground. The little Bronze Age man on some of the photos was our guide through the mine, keeping us updated with interesting snippets of information.

The route through the tunnels for visitors has been carefully excavated since 1990. It reveals openings to previously unknown areas of the mine – many of which are too small to walk through.

Information poster at the entrance to the underground mines

Carbon dating in the Great Cavern in the central section of the mine suggests that it was mined in the middle of the Bronze Age, 3,500 years ago. It would have produced an enormous tonnage of copper metal. It is a huge cavern and so dark that it is illuminated by bright lights further in.

Early Bronze Age miners would have had a number of tools available to them. Around 3000 stone hammers have been unearthed since 1987. These were made from some of the hardest rocks, like dolorite, diorite and basalt, most lumps of which would have been found washed up on the beach. Battered markings on the hammers give evidence to the fact that the rock being worked was also fairly hard. When it was too hard to be worked with tools, a process called fire-setting was used. A fire was lit against hard areas of rock, causing it to crack. As with the use of animal fat lamps in the tunnels, fire-setting was hazardous as it burnt valuable oxygen.

Later in the period, tools were made of bronze:

Over 35,000 animal bones have been found at the mine, including cows, sheep, pigs, deer, dogs and rodents. Some of them would have been used for food, others by the earlier miners as chisels and scrapers in the mines.

The only Bronze Age smelting site in Britain was on the Great Orme.  As shown in the images below, copper ore was first broken into small fragments with stone hammers  before being fed into the kiln fuelled by charcoal, which burns at a much higher temperature than wood. The ore was changed into metal by heating it at temperatures around 1,100 degrees centigrade – which they wouldn’t have been able to measure, so I imagine they would simply get the furnace as hot as they could. The process is called smelting. Miners soon realised that on its own, copper ore is soft, and that by mixing it with 10% of tin they could produce the harder metal, bronze. The molten metal was poured into moulds and used to create a variety of objects.

As well as tools and weapons of all types, including spears, daggers, swords and shields, bronze could be made into many things, such as cups, cauldrons and the items named in to image below:

The many uses of bronze

This next image shows how broken or damaged metal implements were re-melted and re-cast into new ones:

There is plenty of evidence to show that an extensive trade network was in place during the Bronze Age.  The nearest source of tin needed to make Bronze on the Great Orme was Cornwall, 300 miles away. During the mid Bronze Age (3,500 years ago) a distinctive type of axe was made in North Wales. Hoards of these axes have been found in France and it is believed that the Great Orme copper was the main source of metal used. The metal has also been found in artefacts across Europe, stretching from Brittany to the Baltic.

Bronze Age boats found in Britain  suggest that trade was conducted by sea. The boats were capable of carrying cargoes of up to 2 tonnes and would have been able to cross the English Channel to France or Holland.

Bronze Age Travel
The mines on the Great Orme would have brought wealth and power to those who controlled them and the people of the Great Orme flourished with them.

Copper mines brought wealth and power to those who controlled them

Bronze Age copper mining on the Great Orme finally stopped when they reached the water table, by which time iron was the new material and the demand for copper declined. After a very long lull in interest, during which the mine seems to have been almost forgotten, there was a renewal during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Water was pumped out and shafts were sunk down to 470 feet (sea level). But eventually, Llandudno became known more as a popular Victorian seaside town than a mining town. The mines were covered over by spoil at the end of the 19th century and once again forgotten.

Although a great deal of excavation has already taken place since 1987, archaeological work will continue on both the surface and underground workings for decades. Tens of thousands of mine waste still cover large areas of the early mine workings and who knows what else will be discovered about this amazing site.

Visitor Centre
The Visitor Centre provides plenty of information about the site, including a short introductory film, a model Bronze Age village, rock and ore specimens area and colourful posters around the walls to explain all about Bronze Age life on the Great Orme and working in the copper mines. The latter were the source of the snippets I’ve used in this post.

This year (2020) the copper mines re-opened on July 25, working to guidelines from the Welsh Government, including social distancing, a one-way system and face masks when viewing underground. Entry fees are £8 for adults, £5 for children and under 5s free. In 2005 the Great Orme mines was awarded the title of ‘The Largest Prehistoric Copper Mines in the World’ by the Guinness World Records Team and I can say that it’s well worth a visit.

References:

The Great Orme Bronze Age Mines Guide Book, purchased at the site

Information boards in the visitor centre and around the site

The Great Orme Copper Mines, Llandudno, Wales – Historic UK

Base map of Conwy, North Wales from Nilfanion at Wikipedia

Aerial photo of Llandudno and the Great Orme from Harvey Milligan at Wikipedia

 

11 thoughts on “The Great Orme Copper Mines

    1. Thanks, Ali. We visited a couple of tin mines when we were in Cornwall a few years ago. As you say, old mines are great places to visit. So interesting that Cornwall was the source of tin for the Great Orme.

  1. What an interesting visit — thank you so much for sharing it! I especially appreciate you including images of the site’s explanatory signs and exhibits. That really helps me understand what I’m looking at with all those tunnels. And oh my, what tiny little places those miners got into, it makes me claustrophobic just thinking about it!

    I’ve been to copper mines here in the States, in Ohio I think (or maybe Pennsylvania; it’s been a very long time). But those were much more recent vintage. It’s amazing to imagine our ancestors managing to do so much with such primitive technology.

    1. Thanks, Joy. This post is three years late in coming. As you know, I’ve been mostly awol from WP for the last 3 years. Old mines of any kind are great to visit. I’d love to see a modern copper mine and see how copper is mined nowadays. Ancient miners had such a hard time, as you say, especially the young children who scrambled through the narrowest of the tunnels. It all makes you think how easy life is for us today, in so many ways.

      1. I imagine truly modern mines are very high-tech. The mines I saw in the 1970s and 1980s were older and no longer working, but turned into museums about the history of industrial production in the Midwest. Perhaps early 20th century? Still very dirty and dangerous to work in, but a huge improvement over the ancient one you show here, especially in terms of how tall (walk-able) most of the shafts were, and having rail carts to haul away the debris and ore.

    1. Thanks Arv. As far as I know there are no worked copper mines in the UK today, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still deposits of it left, however small. The same goes for tin, as in the Cornish tin industry.

      1. Well, since the UK was foremost in industrialisation, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are deposits. There were so many places having thriving industries, once and now they are dusty small towns. Like Dundee in Scotland.

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