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Roman Gold-Mining in North-West Spain

  • P. R. Lewis (a1) and G. D. B. Jones (a1)

The Augustan conquest of the Asturias was resisted with all the tenacity native to that region, but under the combined pressure of no less than three legions, this wild and mountainous area of North-Western Spain finally capitulated in c. 25 B.C. On the Roman side the prospect of mineral exploitation was a major motive that demanded at times the presence of both Augustus and Agrippa. The literary references to the Spanish mining-projects that followed the conquest do not specify particular sites, but indicate instead general areas where mining was initiated. Fortunately, however, the gold-rushes of the last century in California and elsewhere reawakened interest in other areas of the world, and particularly this region of Spain, partly as a result of the legendary stories of Roman successes. The prospectors found many traces of those efforts, although in the main unsuccessful themselves. Part at least of what they saw was recorded in the current mining papers and journals of that period, and we are indebted to the work of O. Davies for abstracting and summarizing much of this information, which would otherwise be difficult to assimilate, the sources now being unobtainable or very inaccessible. We may be sure that the twenty or so mines that he noted are an underestimate, and that many more await discovery. Although Davies' list was made over thirty years ago, none of the sites have since been surveyed in any detail and no photographic record exists.

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1 For the classical topography of the area, see Schulten E. A., Iberische Landeskunde: Geographie des Antiken Spanien (1955), also published in a Spanish translation (1959). For the Augustan campaigns, see Magie D., ‘Augustus' War in Spain’, Class. Phil. XV (1920), 323 ff., further discussed with some topographical modifications by Syme R., ‘The Spanish War of Augustus’, Am. J. Phil. LV (1934), 293 ff., and Schulten E. A., Los Cantabros y Astures y su guerra con Roma (Madrid, 1946). See also now Brancati A., Augusto e la Guerra di Spagna, Pubblicazione dell'Università di Urbino xvii, 1963.

2 Pliny, NH XXXIII, 6778, fully translated and discussed in the appendix. A list of general references by classical authors to minerals in Spain is given by Schulten (Landeskunde 223; Spanish ed., vol. ii) and Davies O., Roman Mines in Europe (1935), 94 f. Cf. also Sil. Italicus I, 228 ff.

3 Richmond I. A., ‘Five Town Walls in Hispania Citerior’, JRS XXI (1931), 91 ff.

4 For a brief discussion of the nature of gold deposits, Lewis V. P. R. and Jones G. D. B., ‘Dolaucothi Gold Mines I: the Surface Evidence’, Ant. J XLIX (1970), 244 ff. A more extended discussion is given by M. Maclaren, Gold, its geological occurrence and geographical distribution (1908), passim.

5 Davies, op. cit., 103.

6 Mr. Bird is currently undertaking a comprehensive survey of the mining sites of the region for a postgraduate thesis.

7 A recent general survey by Manning W. H., Antiquity XLII (1968), 301, over-emphasized this aspect, following Boon G. C. and Williams C., JRS LVI (1966), 122, n. 6.

8 Lewis and Jones, op. cit., 246. A more detailed discussion is given by Jones and Lewis, Carmarthen Antiquary VI (1970).

9 Geomorphological terms, if not immediately obvious, may be found in several textbooks currently available, for example A. K. Lobeck, Geomorphology: an Introduction to the Study of Landscapes (1939). A broad survey of the physical geography of North-West Spain is available in Terán M., Geografiá de España y Portugal (Barcelona, 1952) I, ch. 12.

10 A description of the geology in the province of León is given by Jones J. A., Trans. Fed. Inst. Mining Eng. XX (19001901), 420 ff. It is not known if any more detailed geological surveys of the region have been made subsequently.

11 Probably built at the end of the last century by a German company based on Ponteferrada: Breidenbach M., Zeit. prakt. Geol. 1893, 16. A protective overlay of river debris (now removed) may best explain the survival of this feature in its foundation courses.

12 Beuther W., Zeit. Berg-Hütten-Salinenwesen preuss. Staat. XXXIX (1891), 55.

13 Davies, op. cit., 102.

14 M. Maclaren, op. cit., and Paul R. W., California Gold: the Beginning of Mining in the Far West (University of Nebraska, 1947), 153 ff., explain the practice of hydraulicing placers.

15 J. A. Jones, l.c., fig. 1.

16 Fairbridge R. W. ap. The Encyclopedia of Geomorphology (Reinholdt, 1968), s.v. Badlands.

17 Lobeck, op. cit., 388 ff., gives an extensive discussion of the subject of loess weathering by a similar mechanism.

18 A sample taken from the roof collapse of the cavern shown in pl. XVIII, b showed zero trace of gold. (The analysis was performed using X-ray techniques by the good offices of Dr. J. M. Anketell, Dept. of Geology, Manchester University.)

19 op. cit., 102.

20 Del Mar A., Australian Mining Standard, 25th April, 1906, 399, concluded in issue of 2nd May, 1906, 429.

21 Longridge C. C., Mining Journal, 29th January, 1898, 139.

22 O'Reilly S., Proc. Roy. Irish Acad. Ser. III, vol. VI (19011902), 63 ff.

23 loc. cit., 427.

24 For example, Revista Minera XLIV (1893), 36.

25 Del Mar, loc. cit.

26 Recendy surveyed by Mr. R. F. Jones of Manchester University, in collaboration with Mr. D. G. Bird.

27 Davies, op. cit., 102.

28 The Elder Pliny classifies such hydraulic gold mines as alutiae in a passage relating to lead: ‘(plumbum) invenitur et in aurariis metallis quae alutias vocant’, NH XXIV, 157.

29 R. W. Paul, op. cit., 151 ff.

30 Maclaren, op. cit., pl. 25.

31 Lewis and Jones, loc. cit., 258.

32 Longridge C. C., Gold and Tin Dredging (1914), 233 f.

33 Jones G. D. B., ‘The Dolaucothi Aqueduct’, Bull. Board of Celtic Stud. XIX (1960), 71 ff.

34 Notably Longridge and Del Mar.

35 The site was examined by the authors in the company of Mr. D. G. Bird, to whom we are grateful for comments and information.

36 Mining Journal (8/2/1896), 199.

37 Jones G. D. B., PBSR XXXI (1963), 140 f., cf. 74–99. For the background, see T. Ashby, The Aqueducts of Ancient Rome (1932).

38 O'Reilly, op. cit., 65.

39 Lewis and Jones, op. cit., 259.

40 For the kind of problems concerned, i.e. the geomorphological effect of human agency in the classical period, v. C. Vita-Finzi, Mediterranean Valleys (1969), passim.

41 G. D. B. Jones and P. R. Lewis, Ant. J., forth coming.

42 Lewis and Jones, op. cit. 246.

43 The authors would like to acknowledge help from many sources in Spain and Britain: Dr. A. P. Masiá and Prof. A. G. Alvarez of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas; Prof. Almagro and Dr. Figuerello of Madrid University and the Cultural Attaché of the Spanish Embassy; Mrs. V. A. Jones, Dr. J. P. Wild, Mr. D. G. Bird and the Needham Hall Fund of Manchester University; and the Society of Antiquaries of London for access to the Gowland Bequest. The authors are deeply grateful to Sir William Mansfield-Cooper, formerly Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University, and to the Dept. of History in the same university for subventions towards the cost of travel.

44 The source may be personal knowledge. For a discussion of the Elder Pliny's career in Spain, Syme V. R., ‘Pliny the Procurator’, Harv. Stud. Class. Phil. LXXVIII (1969), 218 ff.

45 Jones G. D. B., Bull. Board of Celtic Studies XIX (1960), 71 ff. For a similar attempt to calculate flow in a closed aqueduct Jones V. G. D. B., PBSR XXX (1962), 200 f.

46 C. C. Longridge, Gold and Tin Dredging (1914).

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