The Great Rio Tinto Mine

The first explorers sailed carefully through the Gates of Hercules (Gibraltar and Dschebel Musa) and a little beyond.

What did they find in that New World? No one they knew had ever been there before but it was reputed to be a land of warriors.

They watched from the deck of their ship, their eyes wide.
Suddenly through the fog the coast came into view. They could see cultivated fields! The hills were covered with olive trees. There were fishing boats everywhere.
The country was busy with trade!

Trade with who?

They went ashore and tried to find out. They saw barges coming and going up a big river—the Guadalquivir. They were carrying olives and fish and metal.
Their eyes widened. Metal? GOLD?

Copper. “It comes from a mine not far from here,” they were told.

No need to explain to those explorers what to do with copper. It was what you needed to make weapons, bronze weapons.

Bronze Age swords (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Dbachmann)

Everyone was always looking for good copper. Back home in Tyre at the other end of the Mediterranean—and everywhere!—people would pay very good money for copper ore. Copper wasn’t gold but it was the next best thing.

They hurried to see the mine. It was just a two-day trip north from the coast, following a stream that got redder and redder. That was a curiosity but it didn’t yet mean to them what it would mean to people soon afterwards. Iron wasn’t yet discovered. They were still in the Bronze Age.

The mine itself was like no copper mine they had ever seen. The copper ore gleamed everywhere you looked. They dreamed about that mine on their way back to Tyre.
And on their next trip to Spain they bought it from the natives.

The Riotinto (Red River) Mine is no legend. It was so rich that it helped turn Carthage into the rival of Rome. Its copper and Spain’s silver and gold deposits paid for Carthage’s mercenary armies and financed her three wars with Rome. Then they made Rome rich too.

And the Riotinto mine never ran out of copper. IT IS STILL IN OPERATION—the oldest mine in the world.

riotinto mine


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