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Las Médulas*
UNESCO World Heritage Site

Panoramic view of Las Médulas
State Party  Spain
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii, iii, iv
Reference 803
Region** Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 1997  (21st Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.

Las Médulas, located near the town of Ponferrada in the region of El Bierzo (León province, Castile and León, Spain), used to be the most important gold mine in the Roman Empire. Las Médulas Cultural Landscape is listed by the UNESCO as one of the World Heritage Sites.

The spectacular landscape of Las Médulas resulted from the Ruina Montium, a Roman mining technique described by Pliny the Elder in 77 AD consisted of undermining the mountain with large quantities of water supplied by at least seven long aqueducts tapping the rivers in the nearby mountains. The same aqueducts were used to wash the extensive gold deposits, a precursor of Californian hydraulic mining. The area Hispania Tarraconensis had been invaded in 25 BC by the emperor Augustus, so the mining was initiated some time after the region had been subdued.

To bring the necessary water from the Sierra de La Cabrera mountains to Las Médulas, a system of at least seven parallel aqueducts more than a hundred kilometers long in total were constructed, with some parts still well preserved in precipitous locations, and including some rock-cut inscriptions.


Description in Pliny the Elder's Natural History

"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!"
The metalurgic "Orellan" town in Las Médulas (I and II centuries B.C.)

The description could well have applied to Las Medulas. Since Pliny was a Procurator in the region in 74 AD, it is highly likely that he saw mining operations for himself, and his text reads like an eye-witness report. He 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 Medulas. 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.

Interior roads

The remains of such a system have been well studied at Dolaucothi 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.

Pliny also stated that 20,000 Roman pounds of gold were extracted each year. The exploitation, involving 60,000 free workers, brought 5,000,000 Roman pounds (1,650,000 kg) in 250 years.

Cultural landscape

One of the passages of Las Médulas

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 (Sánchez-Palencia, 2000; Orejas and Sánchez-Palencia, 2002).

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 (e.g. Sánchez-Palencia and Orejas, 2006).


  • Lewis, P. R. and G. D. B. Jones, Roman gold-mining in north-west Spain, Journal of Roman Studies 60 (1970): 169-85
  • Jones, R. F. J. and Bird, D. G., Roman gold-mining in north-west Spain, II: Workings on the Rio Duerna, Journal of Roman Studies 62 (1972): 59-74.
  • Domergue, C. (1990) Les mines de la Penínsule Ibérique dans l'antiquité romaine. Ècole Française de Rome, Rome.
  • Domergue, C. and Hérail, G., Conditions de gisement et exploitation antique à Las Médulas (León, Espagne) in L'or dans l'antiquité: de la mine à l'objet, B. Cauuet, ed., Aquitania Supplement, 9 (Bordeaux 1999): 93-116.
  • Sanchez-Palencia, F. J., ed., Las Médulas (León). Un paisaje cultural en la "Asturia Augustana" (León 2000).
  • Orejas, A. and Sánchez-Palencia, F. J., Mines, Territorial Organization, and Social Structure in Roman Iberia: The Examples of Carthago Noua and the Peninsular Northwest, American Journal of Archaeology 106.4 (2002): 581-599.
  • Sánchez-Palencia, F. J. and A. Orejas (2006) "Mines et formes de colonisation des territoires en Hispanie occidentale". In L. Lévêque, M. Ruiz del Árbol, L. Pop and C. Bartels (eds.) Journeys Through European Landscapes/Voyages dans les Paysages Européens. COST-ESF, Ponferrada: 101-104.

See also

External links

Coordinates: 42°28′10″N 6°46′15″W / 42.46944°N 6.77083°W / 42.46944; -6.77083

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