Question: Where in the world did miners turn water and fire into gold?
Answer: Las Médulas, Northern Spain
Before Galicia was a province in Northern Spain, it was part of the sprawling Roman outpost known as Hispania, which saw literally untapped potential in the region. Emperor Augustus learned that the indigenous population at Las Médulas had been chipping gold out of ancient stone deposits and he rightly surmised that this meant there were greater stores of the treasured ore to be mined.
The Romans settled on a method called “wrecking the mountains,” in which mountains were destabilized by flooding them with massive quantities of water, the force of which would strip away outer soil (and loose gold) and to expose bedrock. The bedrock was then heated with direct flame to weaken it, and then flooded again, cracking and shedding the desired mineral.
For this to work, the Romans needed great amounts of water at their disposal—which nature was not readily providing. But there’s a reason the Romans were famed for their engineering. They built a series of seven aqueducts stretching almost 40 miles to draw water down from the rivers and streams further up in the mountains, a process that offered not only volume but force.
Pliny the Elder, who oversaw the region, found the result both majestic and terrifying. As he wrote late in the first century, “What happens is far beyond the work of giants. The cracks made in the entrails of the stone are so dangerous that it would be easier to find … pearls at the bottom of the sea than make scars in the rock. How dangerous we have made the Earth!”
But his qualms were no match for the lure of riches. The operation lasted 250 years and harvested 3.6 million pounds of gold.
The Long Reach of Rome: 7 Facts about Life in Hispania
- Roman camps soon began to turn into Roman cities, but since any new infrastructure paid for by Rome required approval of the emperor, local communities often built themselves. After planning their own water districts, neighborhood maps, public plazas, and amenities, the construction was completed by local craftsmen, soldiers, and the servants of the wealthy.
- In many of these towns throughout Hispania, local authorities built towers, not only for guard purposes, but for prestige, as way to announce the Roman presence. The best preserved is the Hercules lighthouse in A Coruna on the coast, said to be built atop the skull of Hercules’ enemy, but researchers say evidence of the oldest Roman tower (dating to the first century at the latest) lies beneath the Torre de San Sadurniño of Cambados.
- The greatest concentration of towers can be found in Lugo, the only city on earth still surrounded by intact Roman walls, a 7,000-foot ring of masonry studded with 71 towers and ten gates. The entire route is walkable and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- The Romans tried to recreate the feel of cities at home in settings like Clunia, near Burgos, which had public baths, taverns, a shopping district, and a 10,000-seat theater carved out of rock.
- Never the all-work-and-no-play types, Romans loved their baths. Complete with hot and cool pools, sometimes with heated floors, these were the first spas (the name given to the separate women’s and men’s chambers). Most fell into disuse, but remnants have been found, including second-century baths discovered beneath Santa María Cathedral in the city of León.
- From their thriving new territory, the Romans exported not only gold but silver, olives and olive oil, salted fish, and wines, trading the goods throughout the far reaches of Europe and the Mediterranean.
- When the Roman Empire fell, its role on the Iberian Peninsula faded. After Visigoths and then Moors took control of the region, everything from language to architecture changed. While Roman culture largely disappeared, its influence remains: Spain’s very name came from the long-lost Hispania.
Step into the stream of time from ancient Hispania to modern times when you join us for Northern Spain & Portugal: Pilgrimage Into the Past.