Advanced Roman copper mining systems discovered in southern Spain

roman-copper-mining-southern-spain_1Altar consecrated to Mercury, in Munigua, Spain

Munigua, a present-day archaeological complex in Sierra Morena, southern Spain, was once an ancient settlement known for its mining scope. Originally inhabited by the Turdetani, a pre-Roman people of the Iberian peninsula who lived in the Guadalquivir valley, the resources (namely copper ore) of the proximate region were exploited since the Bronze Age almost 4,000-years ago. And now, recent excavations (conducted by researchers from the German Archaeological Institute) have suggested that the ancient Romans revitalized the entire mining scene by refurbishing and installing an advanced network suited to acquiring copper at deeper levels.

Archaeologists were pleasantly surprised by this elaborate system of ventilated galleries and linking tunnels that provided accessibility to the miners to various depths. This interesting engineering technique allowed the Romans to effectively extract the metal from depths that were previously thought to be impossible.

Now historically, mining was an important activity in this region – so much so that numerous instances of ancient conflicts and political arrangements were played out in a bid to acquire the mines of southern Spain. For example, the famous Hamilcar Barca (father of Hannibal) established New Carthage (Carthago Nova, corresponding to modern-day Cartagena) on the southeast coast of Spain during the second half of the third century BC. The Carthaginians were able to control the region with this new administrative setup, thus allowing them to take advantage of the rich Munigua mines. The latter scope was economically profitable for the maritime empire, and consequently their extensive coffers were refilled within just a period of few years.

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In 218 BC, the Romans captured Carthago Nova to counter the Carthaginian economic prowess and take control of the ‘strategic’ Munigua mines. By this time, the mining settlement was already established as a commercial hub. However subsequently, the new rulers of Munigua not only streamlined its mining operations but also added Roman infrastructure to the urban scope. This resulted in the profusion of Roman architecture, including a tetrastyle temple with a podium possibly dedicated to Jupiter, a temple dedicated to Mercury, a forum, a two-story porticus, a nymphaeum (monument consecrated to the nymphs), thermal baths and even a large necropolis.

And by 2nd century BC, the production of copper increased at an admirable rate. As Thomas G. Schattner from the German Archaeological Institute, who led the recent excavation project, said –

We know that metal production enormously increased partly from vast slag deposits in Munigua, some the size of football fields. This has much to do with our knowledge of their mining operations. Slag is a first-class archaeological source material, as it can be analyzed and can give precise information about the metal melted, the process by which melting was achieved and the chemical characteristics of the metal.

However by 3rd century AD, the commercial ambit of Munigua seemed to be finally extinguished, possibly exacerbated by a calamitous earthquake that destroyed much of the city. And while archaeologists have found disparate evidences that suggest that the area was still inhabited till the Islamic epoch (circa early 7th century), the scale of these occupations were probably not that big, especially when compared to ancient legacy of the region.

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Temple in the second terrace of Munigua.

Source: Haaretz / Via: NewHistorian / Image Credits: Íñigo López de Audícana

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  • TimeGhost

    Since the name Carthage (*qrtg in Phoenician, which is probably what Hamilcar spoke) means “New City”, why would he call this place “New New City”?

    • LilaR

      Perhaps they didn’t understand Phoenician. There a number of similar occurrences, e.g. Waikaremoana in NZ, which is mostly called *Lake* Waikaremoana because the early European settlers didn’t understand that the Maori name already included ‘moana’, which means a large body of water, e.g. lake or sea. And Mount Fuji in Japan used to be referred to by Europeans as Mount Fujiyama because they didn’t realise ‘yama’ means ‘mountain. And the River Avon in England, which actually says ‘River River’, because ‘Avon’ was the early British word for ‘river’. etc., etc.

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