Gold Mining Practices under the Roman Empire

Roman gold was of this sort
Photo by Alaska Mining

Minerals brought great wealth to the Roman Empire as they were used most often as payments for imports. The Romans were using a sluicing whereby broken rock was washed through channels containing prickly shrubs, which caught the gold. This extraction technology was being taught all over Europe in mining schools, yet the majority of the individuals working the mines were slaves who were subjected to atrocious working conditions and incurred a high mortality rate.

In 22BC, Publius Carisius, in charge of the Ulterior Army, succeeded in securing several gold mining areas, while he advanced northwards through the Pajares and Manzanal passes. By the middle of the first century AD, Rome’s gold supplies were being maintained in Spain and Dalmatia.

At the end of the First Dacian War in Autumn 106, Dacia was incorporated as a province with a garrison of two or three legions, and stationed at Apulum. Dacian gold mining was exploited at Sarmizegethusa, a colony founded there, and workmen were brought in from Dalmatia. The process of Roman gold mining allowed for Romanization to occur.

Roman Gold Mining in Britain

The only evidence of Roman gold mining in Britain is at the Dolaucothi Gold Mines situated near Pumsaint, Carmarthenshire, Wales. Washing the gravels from the river Cothi was the most elementary method of gold extraction by the Romans. These unique gold mines are set amid wooded hillsides overlooking the beautiful Cothi Valley. 2,000 years ago, the powerful Romans left behind a glimpse of gold-mining methods. The harsh mining environment continued in the 19th and 20th centuries, ending in 1938.

Dolaucothi Gold Mine in Wales that has been mined since the days of the Romans
Photo by David Smith

Types of Romans Gold Mining

The Romans used several different methods for mining gold and extraction, the first being hydraulic mining. This process was also used by the Spaniards. Gold would be stored in large tanks or vessels and when the water was released into a water source or river, the sediments would wash away, leaving veins in the earth and particles of gold. Pliny the Elder gives an account of hydraulic Roman gold mining, made possible by his observations in Spain.

The Romans also utilized deep mining techniques which allowed surveyors to track the veins with shafts and tunnels underground. The remains of Roman dewatering machines were found during the 1880s and the 1920s when the Rio Tinto mines in Spain were being mined by opencast methods (a large tank contains smaller reservoirs below it. It is likely that this complex was used for washing powdered ore to collect the gold dust). Rio Tinto was one of the principal Roman gold mining settlements, having produced more than 2,000,000 tons of silver ore in antiquity.

The Romans also used trip hammers to crush the ore. However, after the Roman occupation, the Carreg Pumsaint was discovered; a block of stone erected many years ago after the Romans had left the site. These types of crushing stones have been found at other ancient Roman mines in Europe, and the hollows in the block were formed by a trip hammer probably worked by a water wheel or a "water lever"

With the decline of the Roman Empire, mining activity was halted until its revival once again in the 11th century. Mining made its emergence in Harz, in what is now eastern Germany, and by the 15th century, amalgamation and retorting processes were widely used in gold extraction.

Author Bio

Lauren Axelrod is a fulltime archaeology student and owner of the website Ancient Digger at:

Archaeology. Her articles have been featured on Treehugger, India Times,, and USAToday. Ancient Digger is also featured on the Discovery News Blogroll under Archaeology.

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