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Prehistoric Copper Mining in South-West Ireland: The Mount Gabriel-Type Mines

  • William F. O'Brien (a1)

Abstract

This paper examines the Mt Gabriel-type exploitation of sedimentary mineralization in the West Cork region of south-west Ireland. It includes a consideration of the physical setting of the mines, their distribution, morphology, technology, dating and cultural affinities. Mt Gabriel, the highest mountain of the Mizen Peninsula in south-west Cork, was the setting for extensive mining of surface copper beds during the closing stages of the Early Bronze Age. Recent radiocarbon dating of wood and charcoal from these sites confirms that the main period of mining activity on this mountain was between 1700–1500 cal. BC, making these the oldest copper mines presently known in north-west Europe. The importance of these sites lies not only in their antiquity, but in their unique preservation in upland blanket bog environments.

A recent programme of survey and excavation culminated in the investigation of the mine 3/4 site on the eastern slopes of the mountain. The removal of a large peat-based infill deposit from mine 3 revealed an 11 metre deep inclined opening, in which the transition from a strata-bound drift-mine to a cross-cutting tunnel was visible. Waterlogged sediments within this mine contained a large assemblage of roundwood fuel and wooden mining equipment, including a shovel, pick, wedges, lighting chips and handles for the many stone-hammers which were also found. The excavation of a large spoil mound outside this mine has provided important evidence on ore treatment in these operations, an important element of which involved the repeated crushing of rock using stone cobble-hammers. Activity areas located on the periphery of this dump included further dressing floors, concentrations of broken stone tools and a posthole structure with associated water trough.

This mining, together with an expanded Early Bronze Age metal production in south-west Ireland, may be directly associated with an important intensification of agricultural production and human settlement in this region, which also finds expression in the adoption of new sepulchral and ceremonial traditions. The ore sources constituted an important resource during this period, contributing to the emergence of controlling élites who had an important managerial role in the production and distribution of metal.

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Prehistoric Copper Mining in South-West Ireland: The Mount Gabriel-Type Mines

  • William F. O'Brien (a1)

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