Las Médulas with its Gold Mines (World Heritage)

By | August 23, 2021

The landscape is shaped by ancient mining, which Pliny already reported. Las Médulas was the most important gold mine of the Roman Empire. To get to the precious metal, the mountains were hollowed out and flooded with water. Dams, shelters and canals of over 100 km in length illustrate the masterpiece of mining technology.

Las Médulas and its gold mines: facts

Official title: Las Médulas with its gold mines
Cultural monument: »Ruina montium« – »destruction of the mountain« – as an expression of the development for the mining of gold; Part of the property of the Roman Empire under the administration of a procurator; »Excavation sites« on 20 km² with mines, dams and shelters for miners, pits over an area of ​​10 km² and a system of canals with a presumed length of several hundred kilometers
Continent: Europe
Country: Spain, northeast of the province of León
Location: Las Médulas, south of the Camino de Santiago, southwest of Ponferrada
Appointment: 1997
Meaning: Testimony to a Roman “gold rush”

Las Médulas with its gold mines: history

29-19 BC Chr. Conquest of the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Romans
70 AD placed under the supervision of a procurator after the Vespasian reforms (Procurata Asturiae et Gallaeciae)
after the end of the 2nd century gradual decline, presumably due to the fall in the price of gold
1985 placed under monument protection
1992 placed under nature protection

The threatening darkness of the tunnel mouth

As life goes: the fact that an exploiter once stood on the side of the exploited may be seen as the justice of history. According to militarynous, long before Spain rose to colonial power, its gold craze conquistadors raged in the Inca empire and sent hundreds of thousands of Indians to the silver mines, the Spaniards themselves were victims of foreign masters and were forced to bring the treasures from the river area on the Río Sil to the light of day. During Roman rule, it was not just Iberian wine and oil that “poured” into Italian boots up to the 3rd century AD, and fed Roman power and luxury. The country of origin remained – here the same course of events is repeated – no golden sheen, not even a golden sparkle. To the southwest of the small industrial town of Ponferrada, only a bizarre crater landscape has been preserved in the Montes Aquilianos: Las Médulas, the Roman most productive gold mining area, a silhouette of brown mountain stumps and humps, rock towers and rugged walls. To this day, this is an eerie backdrop, riddled with holes in galleries and the ominous darkness of the mouths of the shafts and tunnels. And meanwhile the green grows wildly in between. riddled with broken galleries and the threatening darkness of the mouths of the shafts and tunnels. And meanwhile the green grows wildly in between. riddled with holes in galleries and the ominous darkness of the mouths of the shafts and tunnels. And meanwhile the green grows wildly in between.

In their gold rush, no expense was too great for the Roman “colonial rulers”. The already known method of sifting through river sands was old hat for them, and it pushed them to the sources of the expected wealth, high up in the inaccessible mountain areas, in order to really get to the bottom of the golden veins – but not there, where they bit on granite, but in places with a soft stone ground. Their technique was based on flushing entire hills with water and literally hollowing them out in order to wash out the gold a little deeper – artificial fluvial erosion in rapid succession. The method used was calculated and mercilessly pursued: the goal was called »ruina montium«, the »destruction of the mountain«. Thousands of closely guarded slaves toiled at various points in the work process. While some built a system of several hundred kilometers of water channels including the upper basin in the heights, others dug – one or two slope steps lower – a network of shafts and corridors supported by wooden beams and, in turn, dykes, pits and canals underneath. The “hydraulic spectacle” could begin. The inlet was released from above through sluices, the gushes of water shot into the prepared inlets and did their work until the hill sent its contents downwards and occasionally collapsed under deafening thunder. A relatively shallow slope was important, over which the masses of water and precious metal-containing mud rolled. Catch basins and canals slowed the ballast and steered it into the right direction; Now nothing stood in the way of the search for golden grains and noble reddish-yellow residues. It was impossible to prevent large areas of land from falling into the valley; below, on the Río Sil, what is known as residual gold was mined.

How many cubic meters of earth were moved in the area of ​​Las Médulas – the boldest estimates speak of around 100 million – belongs to the realm of speculation as well as the question of the number of slaves buried in collapsed mountain gullies and the total output of gold. Based on various theories and some figures handed down by the historian Pliny the Elder, up to 1.65 million kilograms of gold have been mined in Las Médulas over the years. And the end of the mines? Whether the crisis in the Roman Empire, the decline in the value of gold or a lack of labor is not clear. Perhaps the gold veins in the Montes Aquilianos had simply dried up.

Las Médulas with its Gold Mines (World Heritage)