Las Médulas

Introduction

A magical setting

- Date of Declaration as a World Heritage Site: 1997.
Site: Las médulas
Coordenates:
Location: Southwest of El Bierzo, León Province.
Opening Hours: Depending on the time of the year: More information: http://www.fundacionlasmedulas.info/
Más información: http://www.fundacionlasmedulas.info/
Fares: Normal rate 2 Euros, students 1.5 Euros, groups and retired members 1 euro and free for kids up to. 8 years old.

Technical Specifications

Located in El Bierzo, in the northwest of the Aquilanos Mountains, and next to the Valley of the Sil River, The Médulas is an outstanding Spanish landscape complex that came to be as a result of Roman gold mining works.

Thought of as the greatest over ground gold mine of the entire Roman Empire, the engineering process that was took place in the complex in order to extract the gold took a considerable toll on the environment of the area. As a result of these actions, an odd but outstanding landscape of red sand under chestnut and oak trees appeared.

The latter land movements created artificial plains that now work as access paths for other areas such as the Carucedo Lake, which is a valley that appeared when the lake was clogged due to the residues from the mine, considered protected wetland.

This area was declared “Cultural Heritage” in 1996 due to its archeological interest. In the year 1997, UNESCO declared the site World Heritage, in 2002 it was granted the title of “National Monument” and in the year 2012 the award of “Cultural Space”.

As an interesting fact, it is important to mention that Thailand’s Delegation was against the decision of declaring “Las Médulas” a Human Heritage. In their eyes, the site was caused by human-made destruction, and was therefore a prejudice to the environmental protection cause. Germany and Finland agreed with Thailand.

History

A Legacy of Octavian Augustus

As explained above, Las Médulas was originally a Roman over ground gold mine. Despite the fact that the indigenous settlers had already discovered and carried out works in the mine, it is estimated that the real mining processes began in the times of coordinated the majority of the conquest actions of the northern towns between the years 26 and 19 B.C.

Plinio el Viejo was, during his younger years, the administrator of the Gold mine. He was in charge of making sure that in a years’ time, about 20,000 pounds of gold (approximately 1,635,000 kilos) were extracted.

Antonio Garía Bellido, lecturer and archeologist, states that the stirred land in the Site is equivalent to 500 million cubic meters. On average, it is believed there was about 3 grams of gold per tone of land, therefore, as a whole, moving about 1,500,000 grams.

According to Plinio’s records, the number of Handy workers that cooperated in the mining of the Site adds up to over 60,000. But the latest studies carried out based on the amount of land that was stirred in the area reflect a number of between 10,000 and 20,000 men.

The reason why the Site received the name “Las Médulas” is still not clear, though experts in this field state that Médulas was the name used for stacked thatch, highly popular in the area. Other experts relate this name with the Latin metalla, metals. At the same time, a lot of people also believe that the name comes from the Mons Medulius (The Medulio Mountains)

Gold extraction Method

The power of water

Panorámica de las médulas

 

mineriaThe system they used for the gold extraction was the “Ruina Montium”. With this system, the water from the mountain streams was channeled and stored in the highest end of the complex.

mundoThe water force would break down the mountain and drag the land that contained gold towards the mine draining area.

herramientasAt last, the water that had been channeled would reach a series of tanks built after digging the land. These had specific gates for water distribution purposes.

 

Las Médulas wasn’t an area chosen light-handed by the Romans to begin their search for gold, but a flood area with a characteristic amount of dust, where there was an important quantity of water and enough slope to use the water as hydraulic power, as well as the existence of not so tilted slopes towards the Sil river that could be used as drains.

The choice was therefore properly studied before beginning all of the machinery processes. The system they used for the gold extraction was the “Ruina Montium”. With this system, the water from the mountain streams was channeled and stored in the highest end of the complex; the water force would break down the mountain and drag the land that contained gold towards the mine draining area.

If we take into account the amount of water that was being used, the length and the number of the channels’ branches, we can easily consider the hydraulic system of Las Médulas the most outstanding complex we know of.

The Teleno Mountain played an important role in this process. At 2,000 meters, the snow would accumulate, and eventually, as it would melt down, the water would reach the Cabo River and feed the 7 channels that would surround the mountain and reach the tanks of the mining complex. It is believed that the length of the channels was of approximately 300 Kilometers. It is important to mention that the construction of such channels was extremely difficult, due to the fact that in some areas, such channels had to be built under the rock-made mountain base. It was also the most expensive construction work of the entire site.

At last, the water that had been channeled would reach a series of tanks built after digging the land. These had specific gates for water distribution purposes.

Highlights

Key points

A good starting point when visiting the site is the Archeological Classroom, seeing as there we can find all the information on how the gold mining worked, and many other engineering processes of the time such as the water channels and how all of these things affected the areas’ landscape an the life of the nearby population.

If you’re not too fond of the history, the visit to “Las Médulas” will be worth visiting either way from the Orellán Observatory, located in the town under the same name. The best time to visit the place is first thing in the morning or in the evening.

On the other hand, the Visitors Reception Center organizes routes for anyone interested to get to know the site better, though it is also possible to visit it without any tour guides.

The different routes allow different combinations of greater or smaller distance depending of the visitor’s interest (the time they are able to spend in the site and the distance they wish to cover while in the site). The recommended route does take a minimum of two days to be finished.

  • The different routes allow different combinations of greater or smaller distance depending of the visitor’s interest (the time they are able to spend in the site and the distance they wish to cover while in the site). The recommended route does take a minimum of two days to be finished.

  • Surrounding Path (Senda Perimetral) It is the longest route and therefore the most complex one. It requires a more intense effort in behalf of the visitors but it is in no way an excessive distance to cover. It is the best path to choose if you wish to understand the importance of the water in the mining process, and how the different leaks and wetlands have been created in the area.

    ver ruta
  • The Valiñas Path: It is the most demanded route by the visitors, due to its simplicity and its easy access to areas within the Médulas such as the Tía Viviana Water source, or the Caves of La Cuevona and La Encantada. It is a circular path which begins in the Las Médulas town and its route goes though one of the mining complexes of the site. The path allows the visitors to understand the different elements of time and space, from the finger prints of the Roman mining activities to the management and care of the oak trees.

  • Path of the Lago Sumido: short and easy path. It stretches out to the lake and also offers the possibility of reaching out to the Chaos de Maseiros Observatory, known for its outstanding views. Along the path, visitors are able to take a look at the lakes that have been created because of the natural drainage process in the area, as well as the evacuation channel and the channel made for the solely purpose of washing the gold clusters.

    ver ruta
  • The Convents Path: (La Senda de los Conventos): accesible from the roadway or from the very village of Orellán, it is complementary to the Surrounding Path (Senda Perimetral), The Convents Path allows visitors to get to know the different Roman mining techniques less known that the “Ruina Mointium”, such as the converging grooves. Visitors will also be able to see the different elements of the hydraulic network in a more detailed way.

  • The Settlements Path: (La Ruta de los Poblados): This path allows visitors to understand the role that the mining had in the integration of social structures and territorial premises in the Roman Empire. Along this path you will find information about all of the different aspects regarding Roman Gold Mining.

Las Médulas’ Landscape

Changing the landscape

The area’s mining processes came to an end in the III Century, and ever since, the local vegetation has taken over the area again. Chestnuts, holms and a considerable amount of oak trees are just some of the natural elements of Las Médulas.

As a result of all this, an outstanding landscape has risen in the area, highlighted by the odd shapes of the land, covered in red looking sand which is now the standard look for the area.

Among its wildlife species we can find boars, venison and wildcats. Regarding the poultry, we can find over 100 species, the majority of them specifically located in the Cabrera River downstream.

In the Carucedo lake proximities, the most common plant is the orchid. Its flower resembles a bumblebee, with the solely purpose of catching the insects attention and therefore facilitate the pollination process.

Las Médulas Foundation

For the value and conservation area

The Las Médulas Foundations’ goals are to contribute towards the protection, development and caring of this old Roman mine as a true natural landscape, source of development for the area.

The Foundations’ work fields are many: cooperation with the different public administrations with competence in Las Médulas for the creation of activities towards the protection, preservation and development of the area, as well as their cooperation in the investigation works, empowering its dissemination and awareness not only in Spain but also abroad, by organizing courses, expositions, conferences, publications…