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|UNESCO World Heritage Site|
Panoramic view of Las Médulas
|Location||Province of León, Castile and León, Spain|
|Criteria||Cultural: (i), (ii), (iii), (iv)|
|Inscription||1997 (21st Session)|
|Area||2,208.2 ha (5,457 acres)|
Las Médulas (Spanish pronunciation: [laz 'meðulas]) is a historic gold-mining site near the town of Ponferrada in the comarca of El Bierzo (province of León, Castile and León, Spain). It was the most important gold mine, as well as the largest open-pit gold mine, in the entire Roman Empire. Las Médulas Cultural Landscape is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Advanced aerial surveys conducted in 2014 using LIDAR have confirmed the wide extent of the Roman-era works.
The spectacular landscape of Las Médulas resulted from the ruina montium (wrecking of the mountains), a Roman mining technique described by Pliny the Elder in 77 AD. The technique employed was a type of hydraulic mining which involved undermining a mountain with large quantities of water. The water was supplied by interbasin transfer. At least seven long aqueducts tapped the streams of the La Cabrera district (where the rainfall in the mountains is relatively high) at a range of altitudes. The same aqueducts were used to wash the extensive alluvial gold deposits.
The area Hispania Tarraconensis was conquered in 25 BC by the emperor Augustus. Prior to the Roman conquest the indigenous inhabitants obtained gold from alluvial deposits. Large-scale production did not begin until the second half of the 1st century AD.
What happens is far beyond the work of giants. The mountains are bored with corridors and galleries made by lamplight with a duration that is used to measure the shifts. For months, the miners cannot see the sunlight and many of them die inside the tunnels. This type of mine has been given the name of ruina montium. The cracks made in the entrails of the stone are so dangerous that it would be easier to find purpurine or pearls at the bottom of the sea than make scars in the rock. How dangerous we have made the Earth!
Pliny also describes the methods used to wash the ores using smaller streams on riffle tables to enable the heavy gold particles to be collected. Detailed discussion of the methods of underground mining follows, once the alluvial placer deposits had been exhausted and the mother lode sought and discovered. Many such deep mines have been found in the mountains around Las Médulas. Mining would start with the building of aqueducts and tanks above the mineral veins, and a method called hushing used to expose the veins under the overburden.
The remains of such a system have been well studied at Dolaucothi Gold Mines, a smaller-scale site in South Wales. Opencast methods would be pursued by fire-setting, which involved building fires against the rock and quenching with water. The weakened rock could then be attacked mechanically and the debris swept away by waves of water. Only when all opencast work was uneconomical would the vein be pursued by tunnelling and stoping.
Parts of the aqueducts are still well preserved in precipitous locations, and including some rock-cut inscriptions.
Research on Las Médulas had been mainly carried out by Claude Domergue (1990). Systematic archaeological studies of the area, however, have been carried out since 1988 by the research group Social Structure and Territory-Landscape Archaeology of the Spanish Council for Scientific Research (CSIC). As a result, Las Médulas ceased to be only a gold mine with its techniques and became a cultural landscape in which all the implications of Roman mining were made apparent. The survey and excavations of pre-Roman and Roman settlements throughout the area allowed for new historical interpretations that greatly enriched the study of Roman mining.
A positive result of these systematic studies was the inclusion of Las Médulas as a World Heritage Site in 1997. Since then, the management of the Cultural Park has been monitored by the Las Médulas Foundation, which includes local, regional, and national stakeholders, both public and private. Currently, Las Médulas serves as an example of good research-management-society applied to heritage.