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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

The Rape of Wales

Dolaucothi gold mine

In AD 76, after conquering the Silure, the last resisting Welsh tribe, Governor Frontinus began the next phase of Roman occupation; exploiting Welsh natural resources for the benefit of Rome. The Romans needed iron to make tools and weapons, lead for water pipes and coffins, copper and tin to manufacture alloys such as pewter and bronze, silver to mint coins and, most importantly, gold for fine jewellery and other luxury items. Many of the metals had been mined in small quantities in Wales for centuries but Frontinus was not interested in small scale production, the Roman planned to operate on an industrial scale.

Carmarthen, once the chief village of the Demantae tribe, was a Roman ‘Civitas’. Established as a fort, in AD 75, it grew into a market town where retired soldiers and other free men lived. The town included a public baths, forum and amphitheatre, one of only seven surviving in Britain. From the name ‘Civitas’ we get the words citizen and civilisation.

The first step was the creation of a useable transport system, suitable for moving soldiers and heavy materials quickly and efficiently. Routes were surveyed and roads constructed between principle sites; from the planned ironworks at Monmouth to Carwent on the Severn, to Isca, Abergavenny and Llandovery and the Dolaucothi gold mines, from Y Gaer to the port of Neath, to the rich coal seams of Penydarren and Gellygaer, to the garrison town and port of Carmarthen and from there to the estuary at Loughor, the lead mines of Lower Machen and Cardiff. It was a massive undertaking that required a huge workforce. The conquered Celts, now Roman slaves, provided the labour. The new roads needed an infrastructure of forts, stables, lodgings for wagon drivers, blacksmiths, leatherworkers and other essential services. In just a few years, the landscape of South Wales changed beyond all recognition. In the north of Wales, Roman lead and copper mines began production. Ingots of lead were shipped by sea from Chester. Silver, extracted from the lead deposits, was sent to the Roman mint at Lyon, France to manufacture coins.

Further south, ironworkers began to craft newly smelted iron, firing their forges with charcoal from the forests of Gwent. But the greatest treasure, prized above all others, was Welsh gold. The Celts had been mining gold in Wales before the Roman occupation, digging and panning for the precious metal in rivers. Because of its rarity, gold was expensive and only used for high status objects, often of great beauty. Celtic jewellery attracted the attention of the Romans and when they discovered that Welsh gold came from Dolaucothi the mine became a prime target for further exploration.

Governor Frontinus’ engineers drew up plans to exploit the mine to its maximum extent. A fort and mining camp was built nearby named Luentinum. Located beside the River Cothi, the 5 ½ acre (2.25 hectare) settlement included barracks, a heated military bathhouse house for the legionnaires and extensive earthwork defences.

The name Luentinum comes from the Brythonic word for washing, a reference to the practice of panning or washing gravel to find gold. Luentinum’s ruins lies beneath the village of Pumpsaint.

Digging for ore was impractical and the Roman devised a new technology to get at the gold; they would use hydraulics to remove spoil from the mine and large washing tables to find the gold. Ponds were dug upstream of the mine and aqueducts built to channel water into the mine. There were a number of different water supplies feeding the mine but the longest aqueduct drew water from a pond 7 miles away. Water was diverted to fill the ponds and, when ready, sluices opened to allow water to gush through the mine removing topsoil, revealing bedrock and gold bearing quartzite. The quartzite was then heated and quenched with water to crack it before slaves used spikes, hammers and crowbars to break out the ore and remove it. Once on the surface, water powered wheels drove hammers which pulverised the ore into fine gravel before it was washed on large tables to extract the gold. Finally, the gold was smelted into ingots for transportation. It was back breaking, dangerous work. As the mines went deeper the water stopped draining away naturally. Undeterred, Roman engineers installed water driven lifts to empty the flooded mine.

Dolaucothi gold mine

Pumsaint (Five Saints) takes its name from the legend of five saints who fell asleep against a boulder where they left the impression of their heads. The boulder, which stands near Dolaucothi Mine, was in reality an anvil used by the Romans to crush the quartzite. Turning the anvil after intervals of use created the different impressions.

When, in AD 78, Governor Frontinus finished his tour of duty as Governor of Britain, he returned to Italy, used what he had learned at Doloucothi to improve the aqueducts supplying water to Rome and wrote a two volume treatise on the subject of aqueducts. The fact that the Sextus Julius Frontinus, Governor of the British Isles and a distinguished Roman aristocrat was so intimately involved with the Doloucothi mine demonstrates how important its output was to the Roman Empire.

As years passed the threat of attack from outside Luentinum receded and, for economic reasons, the Romans needed to reduce the garrison. Keeping and guarding so many slaves was expensive. Gold production was privatised by Emperor Hadrian, famous for building Hadrian’s Wall, and the slaves indentured with the promise of pay and Roman citizenship. The Roman garrison left in AD 125.

Dolaucothi gold mine

Gold artefacts recovered from Dolaucothi include brooches, snake bracelets and a 1 metre long gold chain, weighing a staggering 1.2kg, dated to the 2nd-3rd century A.D. are now held at the British Museum as part of the Payne Knight Collection.

Roman gold production at Dolaucothi continued for another 300 years by which time an estimated ½ million tons of rock had been removed. The mine was abandoned when the Roman Empire began to collapse and the Romans left the British Isles in AD 410. The rape of Wales by Roman invaders was over but they would not be the last people to exploit the riches that lay hidden beneath our mountains and valleys.

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