Great Orme copper mines

Great Orme copper mines

Last updated: 15 August 2008

The Great Orme is one of North Wales' most distinctive landmarks, and it was the Vikings who gave it its name.

Orme, meaning 'worm' or 'sea serpent' describes the promontory overlooking Llandudno very well: a hulking mass encroaching into the lapping Irish Sea.

It was known for many years that the Great Orme housed mine workings, but until detailed archaeological work began in the 1980s, it was assumed it was the industrial Roman society which was responsible.

That assumption was put to bed with an excavation that began in 1987, uncovering over four miles of tunnels dating back 4000 years.

It quickly became clear that the Great Orme was the location for massive extraction of valuable copper ore by Bronze Age Britons. The tunnels and caverns opened in the excavations included huge hall-sized spaces down to tiny cracks through which only children could squeeze.

It has been estimated that 1,800 tonnes of copper ore were lifted out of the Great Orme by the prehistoric Britons, most likely to be smelted down and alloyed with tin to make bronze, a harder and more practical metal. The tin would have been from Cornwall, pointing to a strong trading culture within Britain at the time.

Volcanic stones from the beach were used as hammers, then animal bones would have been used for more detailed work.

It is thought that supply from these mines might have outstripped demand domestically, and international trade would have been commonplace.

By the Iron Age, a few hundred years BC, copper ore mining appears to have come to a stop at the Great Orme. The Romans, too, appear not to have been interested. It wasn't until 1692 AD that mining started once more.

Although mining came a stop in 1881, it fell away after 1848 trade laws made it uneconomic to mine copper in the UK. The mines fell into disuse and were covered by thousands of tonnes of waste rubble, only to be rediscovered and reassessed some hundred years later.

In present times, Great Orme is the only Bronze Age copper mine open to the public in the world. Despite public access, excavation continues to this day and more discoveries are being made.

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