Vast, Sophisticated Roman Mining Operation Found in Spain



MUNIGUA, SPAIN – Excavations at the ancient city of Munigua in southern Spain tell a tale of exploitation, occupation, and war.

The ancient city of Munigua was built around a copper mine constructed over 4,000 years ago by the city’s original inhabitants, the Turdetani. The city that grew around the mine became a major hub of civilization, if the different artifacts discovered there originating from all around the ancient world were any indication. Archaeologists have even discovered Greek ceramic fragments in the city excavations that date all the way back to the fourth century BC. Since the first digs in 1956, archaeologists have found temples, sanctuaries, a two-story hall, walls, a vast necropolis, and a Roman forum and thermal baths.

The settlement eventually drew the attention of the Carthaginians from Northern Africa. Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca founded Carthago Nova on Spain’s southeast coast. In the process, he marched right into the streets of Munigua, intent on taking the city’s valuable copper mines for Carthage. The Carthaginians set up shop, put the native people to work in their own mines, and within just a few short years, the copper mined from Spain turned a hefty profit for the Munigua’s new Carthiginian overlords.

Well, as history has it, anything the Carthaginians could do, Rome wanted to do better. Drawn by the vast amount of money Munigua was making Carthage, Roman general Cornelius Publius Scipio decided he wanted a piece of that, and landed his troops on the Iberian Peninsula and marched on the Spanish mines at Munigua, Carthago Nova, and Castulo. With just 500 Roman soldiers, Scipio managed to conquer Carthago Nova and Munigua. The Romans wasted no time in setting up shop at the old copper mines, cutting off Carthage’s supply and strangling her economy.

Over the next century, from the first century BC to the second, Rome overhauled the Spanish copper mines. Archaeologists at Munigua have found a surprisingly sophisticated mining network beneath the city dating to this era, complete with ventilation shafts and huge mining floors. The Romans had delved deeper into the earth than any historian had thought possible for the technology of the time in their quest for valuable metals.

The Romans completely overhauled and industrialized the mines at Munigua, bringing Roman efficiency into full effect. Near the city, researchers and archaeological teams have found enormous slag deposits – waste matter separated from metals during the refining process – the size of football fields.

Professor Thomas G. Schattner, director of the Madrid office of the German Archaeological Institute and head of the excavations at Munigua, explained that these slag deposits are immensely valuable to the archaeological record.

“Slag is a first-class archaeological source material,” Schattner said, “as it can be analyzed and can give precise information about the metal melted, the process by which melting was achieved and the chemical characteristics of the metal.”

Roman Occupation

The castle of Mulva at Munigua. [PHOTO:]

The foundation is all that’s left of the castle of Mulva at Munigua. [PHOTO:]

The copper mines weren’t the only thing the Romans overhauled in the Spanish city of Munigua. Wherever the Romans went, their signature architectural style and way of laying out cities followed. Archaeologists have found an incredible network of terraced architecture that was common in the area around Rome. The Romans were from “the city of seven hills”, and they knew how to make the best use of the mountainsides.

At Munigua, they built a monumental sanctuary into the Spanish hillside. Archaeologists aren’t sure what deity was worshiped there, but it might have served as a meeting place for the imperial cult. Nearby, archaeologists have also found a podium (a standard structure in all Roman cities – used to give public speeches), an altar dedicated to the Roman god Mercury, the remnants of intricate Roman baths, and – perhaps most importantly – a Roman forum.

The Roman forum was a lot like a town square today. It was vast plaza that housed government buildings, and would’ve been the hub of the entire city’s public life. There would have been criminal trials, gladiatorial matches, elections, and processions here. On this plaza, archaeologists have found the curia and tabularium. The curia was a building where town citizens discussed public affairs – like a city hall today – and the tabularium was an official library, where all the important state documents would have been kept.

The remains of another temple at Munigua. [PHOTO:]

The remains of another Roman-era temple at Munigua. [PHOTO:]

A dozen houses have been unearthed along with two necropolises. The city boasted the best Roman life had to offer, and still, it seems that Roman occupation was exactly what caused the city to decline.

According to the archaeological record, it seems that after the 2nd century’s vast mining operation, the city fell into decline. It’s likely that the Romans became far too greedy for copper and stripped the area bare. Without its copper, the city quickly became worthless, and fell into disrepair and mismanagement. In the third century, Archaeologists found the echoes of an earthquake that split the Roman architecture apart and crumbled the buildings. The city never quite recovered.

It remained inhabited for another three-hundred years, but in the late sixth century AD, only a few pieces of Islamic ceramics remain to tell us that someone lived there. After that, the city was all but abandoned. Munigua and its valuable copper mines had been completely consumed by the different regimes that had occupied it over the centuries.