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

 

The Deep

mangrove swampThe Deep is a public aquarium in the city of Kingston-upon-Hull (often referred to simply as Hull) in East Yorkshire, and it’s a great place for a family day out.

Location of The Deep in Hull
Base map of East Yorkshire courtesy of Wikipedia

The building was designed by world class architects, Sir Terry Farrell and Partners and opened in 2002. Perched right on the confluence of the River Hull and the Humber estuary, it still looks pretty modern today. It’s 5 minutes walk from Hull Marina and a short distance from the city centre.

Our visit to The Deep was on a rainy day last year and we’re very glad we went when we did, especially as we’d been considering going for some time. Unfortunately, like so many museums, parks and historic sites we like to visit, the aquarium has been closed since March this year due to Covid-19. We can only hope this wonderfully educational resource can survive financially to continue in the future.

Ocean knowledge

The journey through the aquarium begins with taking either the scenic lift or the stairs – eight flights of them – up to the third floor, where the main cafe (Castaways) is located. We chose the stairs (and my knees will  never forgive me). The ‘scenic lift’ is very very popular and queues to get in it were quite long when we were there.

The winding route down takes us through over 4 billion years of ocean history.

Looking down at the visitors The first display is The Awakening Earth, which comprises hands-on activities and 4D screens showing creatures that would have been swimming around in the oceans up to 400 million years ago. These included Dunkleosteus (370 m years ago) Ichthyosaur (240 m years ago) and Xiphactinus (80 m years ago).

There are also living starfish to see, a species which appeared on Earth around 450 m years ago. Starfish typically have five arms but some have up to forty! Those we saw all had only five:

This freshwater creature was also around almost 400 m years ago. It is called a tiktaalik and it grew to 3m in length, had sharp teeth and looked like a cross between a fish and a crocodile. It was, however, technically a fish and it lived on a continent called Laurentia, which was around the equator and had a warm climate.

Ancient seas 2

The Lagoon of Light is a lovely display, being an open  stretch of  blue, tropical water filled with aquatic life found in a mangrove lagoon. Hundreds of colourful, tropical fish, rays and small sharks delight all visitors and are particularly popular with children.

There are information boards along the route, some specifically aimed at children, others for older visitors. They are all so useful and informative, like these about the importance of mangrove swamps:

There are also smaller tanks with living sea creatures of all types from specific environments of today, including Coral Reefs.

Coral 11

Lovely and colourful, and home to 25% of marine life on Earth, the variety of life on coral reefs is equal to that of the Amazon rainforest. It includes tiny plankton to predatory sharks  – all of which depend upon each other for survival. Worryingly, coral is very sensitive to environmental change, pollution and overfishing and the future of these fabulous reefs remains severely threatened.

The Kingdom of Ice is intended to give visitors a glimpse of  life in the polar realm and its importance to the ocean food chains, global warming, ocean acidification and so on.  The Gentoo penguins proved popular with adults and children alike and it was difficult to get close enough to the glass to take photos. We managed a few in the end.

There are so many different ocean environments as well as displays of some species in the Amazon Flooded Forest to visit. To show them all here would mean a very long post, so here are a few random photos, including a few information boards. There are tanks full of clown fish for all Nemo fans to enjoy, but the little fish must have been hiding in the anemones when we were there. Not surprisingly, another name for them is anemonefish. (The photo of the information board below is rather blurred, unfortunately.) At feeding times, the hiding clown fish readily emerge from amongst the stinging tentacles.

The main tank, called The Endless Ocean, fills the centre of the building, extending from the ground floor to the top, and can be viewed through large ‘windows’ on several levels, including an underwater viewing tunnel. The tank is filled with 550,000 imperial gallons of water (660,000 US) and 87 tons of salt. A variety of sharks can be seen, including White tip, Grey reef sharks and Zebra sharks, rays, and the only pair of Green sawfish in the UK. Turtles and rays swim past regularly, too. And although it wasn’t feeding time when we took these photos, we caught a glimpse of a diver in the tank, too.

The Endless Ocean can also be viewed from the Tunnel, which is 10 m below the surface. The tunnel is made is 6 inch thick acrylic and can take the weight of three elephants. It was very hard to take photos through, so the few we took aren’t very clear:

The Deep is a wonderful place for a day out, or for anyone on holiday in the East Yorkshire area. Children are fascinated by it and spend lots of time on the hands-on activities. There are cafes and picnic areas (some outside for when the weather is good). On rainy days the aquarium does get quite packed but it all adds to the fun. We had a great day there and learned a lot about the oceans and some of the hundreds of species that live in them.

Endless Oceans Viewing Window

The following quote from the ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ website sums up the objectives of The Deep:

The Deep is an environmental and conservation charity, not run for profit, and is dedicated to increasing the knowledge and interest of the world’s oceans through its participation in vital research and conservation schemes around the world.