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Science
UNEARTHING MYSTERIES
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Great Orme Head - Britain's biggest prehistoric mine
Tuesday 26 August 2003 11.00-11.30am

Great Orme Head, above Llandudno in North Wales, is riddled with mines, mostly dating back a couple of centuries. But a few years ago, archaeologists began to uncover a much earlier series of tunnels beneath the mine waste. They date back more than 4 000 years to the Bronze age, and several miles of passageways and caverns have been found so far. But how was the hard rock mined? How and where were the hundreds of tons of copper ore smelted? And what sort of social structure and trade supported it all?

Llandudno
LLandudno, North Wales
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Aubrey Manning descends into the miles of underground passages that burrow into Great Orme head above Llandudno in North Wales. This is the biggest prehistoric mine in Britain but how did the Bronze Age miners dig out the ore and turn it into shining bronze?

Great Orme, overlooking the North Wales holiday resort of Llandudno has long been known for its copper ore. In the 18th and 19th centuries, huge shafts were cut into the headland, producing vast piles of waste rock. But now, archaeologists are picking through the debris and revealing mines that are much more ancient, dating back to the Bronze Age.

The miners then had no steel tools or artificial lights. They had to pound at the rock with great stone hammers and soften it by setting fires are against it. Then they could scrape up the copper ore with scrapers and shovels made of bone. It must have been exhausting, unpleasant work so it is not surprising that only be veins of copper ore were mined, not the hard limestone around them. Sometimes that resulted in vast caverns like the one discovered in the latest excavations. In other places the tunnels are so thin and - less than 8 inches - that only a young child could have dug them and even then there would have been no room even for a tallow candle and scarcely any air to breathe.

But the mystery doesn't end there. There is little Bronze Age slag at the site, so where was the copper smelted? Perhaps it was in the wooded ConwyValley below where fuel was plentiful. But the prize was not copper but bronze a precise mixture of copper and tin. And the tin mines were hundreds of miles away in Cornwall. All the evidence points to a well established social structure and organised trade routes within Britain and across Europe. All this at a time when Tutankhamen was Pharaoh in Egypt.
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