I was distinctly sceptical…unsure what to expect when we parked at the entrance to the mines. So many ancient sites, once commercialised, seem to lose both their intimacy and essence, but I remembered watching something about the discovery many years ago and was curious to see for myself what had been found. A landscaping project in an area thought to be above Victorian mines had uncovered something much older which had astonished archaeologists and changed the way the nation’s ancient history was written.
At school we were taught that the Stone Age peoples were primitive… pretty much your archetypal cave-man, with a minimal survivalist technology and little else to recommend him. That never really added up to me, not when I had seen so many of the great stone circles as a child. It made even less sense when you looked at the incredible artwork of the caves at Lascaux and the ancient figurines and carvings that have survived. How could Ugg and his companions be so unsophisticated and yet produce such beauty?
Working with the ancient sites in recent years, it became clear to us that the stone of the Stone Age was as much, and as complex, a technology in its day as electronics are to the Digital Age. We lack the context of their mindset; we do not understand a fraction of what they saw and built, in and upon the land… but we can see that it is a lack in our knowledge, not in theirs, that renders their monuments so mysterious to our eyes.
We have learned a little about the alignments and functions built in to structures often dismissed as crude in comparison to the cultural achievements of their global contemporaries. It is true that modern man finds it easier to recognise technological achievement in the stonework of the pyramids of Giza than in the great earthen mound of Silbury Hill, for example, but are they really so different? Egypt is a desert land, they looked to the stars for their gods. Were the ancient Britons in a closer relationship with the land? Or simply making use of the abundance of green earth? Either way, the pyramids that rose at roughly the same time in both lands are amazing feats of engineering. While one style is elegantly crafted in stone, the other evokes the primal power of the inner life of earth.
Over the past few decades, archaeology has been reconsidering its stance on the peoples of the Stone Age, and one of the most incredible finds was the copper mines of Great Orme. In 1987, the tunnels were found. Subsequent investigations have uncovered a complex maze of tunnels, nine levels deep. Over five miles of man-made tunnels have been excavated so far… the largest prehistoric mine in the world to date...with who knows what else still awaiting discovery.
It had been assumed that the ‘new’ technology of metalworking had been imported from the East. As the last outpost of Europe, Britain would have come out of the Stone Age and into the Bronze Age far later than other lands. Yet the mines date back at least four thousand years… which completely changed that perception.
The little museum at the entrance to the mines holds many of the finds from the site. The huge stone hammers are no more than boulders collected from the sea-shore. The picks, stained green by the minerals, are no more than pieces of antler. Yet the bronze blades and arrowheads made with those minerals are both beautiful and deadly.
To dig five miles of tunnel, and through rock…not earth, with such implements, seems incredible. They knew what they were doing and why. Making bronze is not a simple question of melting ore…it is a complex, multi-staged process. Bronze artefacts originating from the site have been found far and wide, indicating trade which was already an established part of life as stone axes had been traded for centuries.
Just as incredibly perhaps, the whole community must have been involved in the process; many of the tunnels are so narrow, following the veins of malachite, that they can only have been dug by children. To modern eyes this seems appalling, but as metalworking was seen as a magical act even into historical times, I have to wonder if the mining was seen as sacred.
Smiths were always credited with magical or otherworldly powers for their ability to create metal from stone. It makes you wonder about this mining community and what they were…what they were seen to be…
We had only seen the museum, but were already blown away by what we had learned. Even so, we were completely unprepared for the magnitude of what we were about to find…