The Great Orme Mines

by Ben Johnson

The Great Orme Mines in Llandudno boast over 5 miles of explored tunnels and passageways. In 2005 it was awarded the title of ‘The Largest Prehistoric Copper Mines in the World’ by the Guinness World Records Team.

The name Great Orme has old Scandinavian or Norse origins, ormr meaning snake and hofuth meaning head or headland. Modern translations take it to mean ‘serpent’s head’, derived from the appearance of the landmass to those arriving to the area by sea. The Little Orme lies on the other side of the bay, and the two land masses surround the modern town of Llandudno. The area has inspired many artists, poets, and other visitors by its spectacular beauty and setting.

Great Orme prehistoric mines

There are two main phases of mining at the site. The mine was first worked during the Bronze Age, around 4000 years ago, about the same time as Stonehenge was being built. The miners used granite stone hammers brought up from the beach, and animal bone to dig away at the copper ore. Most of the ore was malachite, a green mineral used in other parts of the world as eye make-up or paint, however blue azurite, gold chalcopyrite and even native copper may have been mined at the site. The site was worked for a period of up to a thousand years creating a vast array of tunnels, some so small they could have only been dug out by children around 5 or 6 years old. The miners used animal fat candles to light their way in passages that extended for miles and went up to 220 feet below the surface. Finally mining ceased when they reached the water table, by this time iron was the new material and the demand for copper wavered.

Great Orme mine workingsAfter a long hiatus, in which the mine seems almost forgotten, interest in the mine resumed and water was pumped from the site during the Industrial Revolution to reach the copper below. Later Victorian miners sunk shafts down in the site; one can be seen on the Visitor’s Route that extends 470feet straight down to sea level. Eventually the mine fell into disuse once again as Llandudno became known more as a Victorian seaside resort then a mining town. The mine was covered up by spoil at the end of the 19th century and forgotten once more.

A scheme to landscape the site in preparation for a car park prompted cavers and mining engineers to abseil down the 470foot Vivian’s shaft into the workings below. The mine had always been thought to have been Roman at its earliest date, but the bone tools and stone hammers made some locals query this assumption. Radio-carbon dates were taken off the bone and charcoal found, placing them as being over 3500 years old. Four local people set up a company to buy the lease for the site, excavate it and open it up to the public. The rest you could say is history!

Over 30,000 bones have been discovered from the site belonging to animals; they range from cows, sheep and pigs to deer, dogs and small rodents. Some represent food, other bones were used as tools, some may have been found naturally, others still may have been ritual deposits. Only two human bones have been found at the site so far and are on display in the Visitor Centre. People would have died at the site: it is a dangerous site even for modern explorers; however victims of fatal accidents would have been taken out and given the proper burial rite for the time. There is no evidence that the miners were slaves. Other finds have included over 3,000 stone hammers, pestle and mortars or other tools; charcoal from fires lit in the underground; and markings in bone or the occasional fingerprint left on the tunnel walls. Victorian miners also left various artefacts that range from clay pipes to iron shovels, tea pots, horseshoes and a powder horn.

Archaeologist working

Today the Great Orme Mines are open to visitors from around March to the end of October 10-5pm. This allows the public to wander round some of the surface and underground areas of the site, view some of the artefacts discovered at the site and chat to the archaeologists and team still working away discovering more tunnels and secrets of this extraordinary site.

Main photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Author: Nilfanion.

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