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Firesetting in Bronze Age copper mine

The earliest mining at Ross Island (2400-1800 BC) was carried out at a very primitive level, using techniques from the Stone Age. Bronze Age miners relied on their own strength, combined with the use of fire and simple work tools, to extract copper minerals. Converting this mineralised rock into metal through the process of smelting was a considerable technological achievement, as was the ability to refine, alloy and cast molten copper at high temperatures to make implements, ornaments and weapons.

To extract this copper ore, the miners lit wood-fuelled fires against the rock face, as part of a daily work cycle. The heat-fractured limestone was pounded using stone hammers and prised out by hand with the aid of bone and wooden tools. The scale of mining is best seen in the many thousands of stone cobble hammers found here. These were collected from local river sources and grooved to secure rope or wooden handles. They were used as rock-breaking tools at the mine face and in the sorting of copper ore prior to smelting. Other items of equipment included the shoulder bones of cattle used as crude shovels to move broken rock, which was carried in leather or wooden containers. A range of wooden implements and support timbers were probably used also.

Today, it is not possible to explore the underground mines at Ross Island, as they are permanently flooded and were damaged by mining in recent centuries. The size of these workings is unknown, as is the amount of copper extracted in ancient times. We do know that the copper ore was very rich and close to the surface, which made this an attractive location for Bronze Age miners. The commitment they showed in mining here is testament to the great value which society placed on copper metal at that time.