The First Mineral Prospectors in Wales
From archaeological investigations of several Welsh mines, we know that prospecting and mining for copper ores was an active pursuit in the middle Bronze Age, almost 1,500 years before the Roman occupation. The ability to: a) recognize minerals; b) distinguish useful ones from the rest; and c) make basic interpretations of mineral deposits would have been as much of a key requirement of the successful prospector (or mineralogist) then as it is today.
In the 3,500 years that have passed since those ancient times, minerals have played a major role in the economic and social development of Wales. Metalliferous and, later on, “spar” minerals have variously been worked by the Romans, by the Cistercian Monks, by celebrated seventeenth century mining characters such as Thomas Bushell and others, on into the heyday of Welsh metal mining in the mid nineteenth century, when virtually every outcropping vein or fault was tried by the drivage of adits or the sinking of shallow shafts. Gold, lead, silver, copper, iron, zinc and manganese have all been the focus of attention, while various successful attempts have been made to exploit cobalt, arsenic, antimony, barytes and calcite. We do not know the total production of each individual mineral – mainly because, until the late 1840s, few detailed records were kept of ores raised to surface, dressed into concentrates (the process by which sulphide-bearing rock is freed of waste material such as vein-quartz) and sold. The published totals for mineral production in Wales therefore represent an unknown percentage of the total.
Mining activity around Cwmystwyth, Mid-Wales is predominantly from the nineteenth century; however C14 dates give evidence of Early to Middle Bronze Age workings on Copa Hill (extreme right of photograph). © J.S. Mason.
Some of the mines were of European significance in their magnitude, such as Parys Mountain, Anglesey (copper - eighteenth Century) and Van, near Llanidloes in Powys (lead and zinc – nineteenth Century). Whole communities grew in such prosperous locations. This can be difficult to imagine, for example in mid-winter at (among many such places) Dylife, in north Powys. Other sites were no more than speculative trials, aimed at raising venture capital on the stock market and little more. The relative remoteness of some parts of Wales during the nineteenth centaury made it particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous ventures in which apparently fabulous reserves of ores seemingly evaporated away once the development capital had been secured. Meanwhile, a large number of mines fell in between the two extremes. The history of mining in Wales is a fascinating and complex subject and is, especially in terms of the past 250 years, mostly well documented.
A view looking north over the opencast pit at Parys Mountain, Anglesey. The picture was taken prior to remedial work at the site which necessitated the draining of the water at the base of the pit. Parys Mountain was the site of extensive copper extraction between 1750 and 1850. © J.M. Horák.