Welsh gold. This rare and soft lustrous gold is the most expensive gold in the world. It fetches up to $4500 per ounce, or three times what standard gold sells for in the London market. Pure Welsh gold is worth more than platinum and is considered by many metallurgists to be the world’s most precious metal.
So it’s no wonder the Welsh have mythical goblin-like creatures that hide in mines and quarries to guard their gold. Known as the Coblynau, these hideously ugly little spirits measure 1 ½ feet tall and show miners where the gold is located by knocking on the best veins. They dress in miner’s clothes, and carry tiny hammers, picks and lamps.Today, in Wales’ rolling, heavily forested hills of Carmarthenshire County you can tour a gold mine where ancient Romans wrung this beautiful metal from the ground two millennia ago. Visiting the Dolaucothi Roman Gold Mines near the tiny country hamlet of Pumsaint, you might not see any reclusive Coblynau, but it’s still a fascinating and intriguing experience.
At Dolaucothi, evidence of these ancient Roman mines is everywhere. You’re standing where Romans hewed gold ore from the hillside from around 78 AD until about 300 AD. And these mines are truly unique because it’s the only site in Britain where gold has been mined by the Romans.
Last summer we toured the famous Dolaucothi mines, way out in the middle of the Welsh countryside. We park and make our way up the short trail to the mining tour headquarters. Arriving at the mine yard, we see the flattened remnants of a huge open cast pit. It’s now a wide quadrangular field of finely crushed gravel bordered by several green corrugated iron sheds of various sizes and functions. The whole area is the size of two football fields. Surrounded by thick, impenetrable old growth forest on the hillsides, the mine yard makes an atmospheric sight.
We cruise through the gift shop and small tearoom, and then spend some time reading about the history of the Roman gold mines in the visitor’s centre. A fierce looking Roman legionnaire manikin stands guard here. Just outside, a small yellow mine train engine stands on some tracks, with eleven ore carts stretched out behind it. They’re loaded up with ore taken from the nearby mines.
Our guide, Donna, is a friendly Welsh woman who loves sharing her knowledge of the Roman gold mines with visitors. Her guided tours are free. Soon, we’re kitted up with a pair of mud proof Wellington boots and white hard hats. Next, an introductory talk about Roman gold and how and why the Romans started the mines. “The Romans conquered Britain largely for its rich mineral deposits, which they used as payment for exports” she tells us. We’re shown samples of gold bearing quartz and a fake gold bar, as the Romans would have molded it.
The mines have been traced back to Sextus Julius Frontinus, sent to Britain as governor in 74AD. Four years later Frontinus established the fort, named Luentinum, at Pumsaint to protect and exploit the gold mine and its assets. Excavations show the fort had a bathhouse. “Luentinum was one of a long chain of wooden auxiliary forts, established nine to twelve miles apart across the Welsh countryside”, says Donna. From these, the legionnaires would march to the aid of neighboring forts when attacked by hostile Welsh Silures and Demetae tribes.
Behind one of the green buildings, Donna gives us a demonstration of how the Romans used water lifting wheels to dewater the mines. The reconstructed wooden wheel is about six feet in diameter and is a half sized model of the original Roman wheel. She treads on the small brackets with her feet, causing the wheel to turn towards her—like using a Stairmaster exercise machine.We learn that during the 1930s, when mining resumed here, a fragment of a Roman waterwheel was found—now displayed in the National Museum of Wales. These water wheels were used in sequences, to lift water higher up to where it could be sluiced away.
Moving on with the tour, we wend our way along a dirt trail up the hillside beside the quarry. Stopping to catch our breath, we pause and peer down into the valley at the large mine yard through the thick forest. Now we’re starting to get some idea of the industrial scale of the Roman diggings.
Continuing a little further up the hill and around a corner we look down across the verdant, picture perfect Carmarthenshire countryside. Only a mile or two distant across the Cothi Valley we spy a few houses and a white chimney from the village of Pumsaint peeking out through the treetops. This is where the Roman fort was located. Broken up by the occasional field sprinkled with white dots of sheep, this superb vista is what you’d expect to see in a Welsh calendar.
In 1970, during a drought, the water level in the village pond fell and large numbers of Roman pottery were found. The fragments collected included Samian ware and coarse ware from more than 100 pots that would have been used by the Romans at the fort. The shards were dated from 78AD to at least 300AD. We glimpse a section of asphalt road leading into the village that Donna tells us was the original Roman road to the mines. “The mines”, she says, “were worked by convicts and prisoners of war, not to mention local tribesman who were unfortunate enough to stray too close to the mines. Their lives were unimaginably hard and they had a high mortality rate”. Blood gold, I think.
Next we come to the Lower Roman Adit camouflaged in the hillside. We don’t enter this one because it’s blocked. This coffin-shaped tunnel is higher towards the top, thus formed by wielding a pick at shoulder height. Millions of pick marks on the wall indicate the thousands of miners who slaved here. We walk a few meters into the mineshaft but a door with a grillwork of metal bars stops us from proceeding any further. Continuing a few hundred meters we come to the Upper Roman Adit, a sinister black hole receding into the hillside. Inside, the tunnel measures about 7-8 feet high and seven feet across. The tunnel walls are covered in thick, spongy moss.
We walk back out and slog a few hundred meters uphill to the back entrance of the Upper Roman Adit. Walking fifty meters into this shaft, lit by a few spotlights strung along the roof, it’s hard to believe that the workers cut this long, almost perfectly formed tunnel, with their sweat and primitive tools. We also see quartzite deposits along the tunnel walls.
At a fork inside the entrance we turn left to enter a large rounded cavern that ends with a stacked pile of rocks. Donna shows us where a miner chiseled the year into the roof of the cavern—early Roman graffiti!
The rock from these hillside adits was crushed by heavy trip hammers from automated water wheels or “water levers”. Once the rock was pulverized into fine dust, it was washed in a stream of water that contained prickly shrubs, which caught the gold. The gold dust was collected, smelted into ingots and sent across the Roman Empire.
Near the quarry, a large stone block called the Carreg Pumsaint was found, with numerous oval hollows in its surface. This crushing stone was used as a kind of “anvil” upon which the ore was crushed before being sluiced. As each hollow became too deep, the water-powered hammer was moved. And as each side of the stone became too worn, it was simply turned over, so the block could be used several times. The Welsh, being a superstitious lot during the Dark Ages, believed the five oval hollows in the Carreg Pumsaint were the impressions of the heads of five saints who were found asleep by the devil.
We exit the upper adit via metal stairs into a small, lush green hollow straight out of Tolkien’s books. I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if a hobbit or better still, a Coblynau, had jumped out of the ferns and blackberry thickets and run away laughing. And therein lies the beauty of this walking tour—it’s worth it just for the magnificent scenery and changing terrain.
We walk a few hundred meters and stop at the top of a vast expanse of sloping fields. Newly shorn sheep dot the adjacent fields. We’re overlooking a huge valley opposite where another mining technique, called hushing, was used by the Romans. It’s an early variation of hydraulic mining. Across the valley on the side of a large hill—known as Allt Cwmhenog—we clearly see the remnants of Roman water tanks, or dams. A huge wave of water would be released suddenly from these large reservoirs and scour away the soil and sediment to reveal the bedrock and hopefully, gold bearing veins.
Then opencast pit techniques would be used to extract the gold. If a rich vein was found, a fire would be built against the rock and then doused with water. The rock would crack, making it easier to quarry. Then another wave of water would be unleashed to sweep away the new debris. But, it’s the marvelous engineering feat that carried the water to the tanks that fills me with awe. The water was carried by aqueducts, called leats, dug into the ground about 7 miles from a gorge on the River Cothi. The leat engineering here was so precise that it was built to a grade of 1 in 800. Another aqueduct brought water from a small stream 2 miles away.
As our tour unfolds, I’m realizing how sophisticated and technologically advanced the mining engineers and equipment were. The archeological evidence indicates the Roman army pioneered the site engineering.I learn that gold may have been “panned” in the river Cothi by washing techniques much earlier, during the Bronze Age (3200BC-600BC) well before the Romans exploited it.
Continuing our tour, we wind our way down the hillside to the mine yard. We stop off in another large cavern mined by the Romans for a quick look and walk past the entrance to a mine used during the Victorian era, with a couple of rusting ore carts standing outside.
What became of the mines? After the Romans left Britain in the 5th century, the mines lay abandoned for centuries. Then, during Victorian times, they were revived and worked until the early 20th century. In the 1930s, a shaft was sunk to a depth of 430 feet to find new gold seams, but the mine finally closed in 1938. Over the years, some remarkable artifacts have been uncovered including a hoard of gold objects with a wheel brooch and snake bracelets. You can see them today in the Roman-Britain Gallery in the British Museum.
The tour of the Dolaucothi gold mines, funded by the National Trust, is a great outing that takes you through the surrounding green hills that once buzzed with mining activity so long ago. It’s not hard to imagine what it was like back in the day, as you stroll through this tour.
Downloadable audio guide
Open Daily 21 March-3 November 11am-5pm. (10am-6pm July-August).
Admission Prices: Adult GBP6, Child GBP3, Family GBP15
Where to Stay in Llandeilo:
This stunning boutique hotel is a listed Georgian building and offers 23 immaculate, wooden floored bedrooms, a restaurant, bar, and lounge. Room rates are very reasonable. Located in the heart of the Welsh countryside, the Cawdor is less than a half hour’s drive to Dolaucothi through beautiful backcountry lanes.
Make sure you spend some time walking through the bustling little town of Llandeilo to get the vibe of Welsh country villages. We loved this place!
Gold Mining Practices Under the Roman Empire by Lauren Axelrod.
Mining in Roman Britain – Wikipedia
Dolaucothi Gold Mines – Wikipedia
Brochure on the Dolaucothi Gold Mines
Written by Roy Stevenson and photos by Linda Popovich for EuropeUpClose.com