What did the Romans ever do for us?
OK, there were the aqueducts, the road building and the fabulous feats of engineering… plus sanitation, public baths and medicine, as the famous Monty Python sketch reminds us!
There were also great buildings and monuments like the Pantheon in Italy and Hadrian’s Wall in England plus pioneering city planning projects like the Forum, an ancient forerunner of the shopping mall.
So it’s a surprise to find that Las Medulas, a Roman site in northern Spain, paints a very different picture of the Romans and their contribution to society.
For it was here in the 1st century AD that the Romans created one of the world’s first major ecological disasters.
It started when they noticed that the orangey-red soil around Ponteferrada was sprinkled with gold dust.
The Romans lost no time in developing a gold mining operation that was huge in scale, employing up to 60,000 slaves working around the clock.
Unfortunately, the price of this business enterprise was to be enormous in terms of the loss of human life and its impact on the environment.
Today Las Medulas has the power to shock and mystify the modern visitor with its lunar landscapes and weird rock formations caused by environmental exploitation on an unprecedented scale in the ancient world.
Greed for gold was at the heart of the Romans’ ruthless exploitation of the landscape at Las Medulas.
Slaves were brought in to dig the complex network of galleries, dams and canals needed to extract and transport the gold for processing and sale.
Whole hillsides were dug out, blown up and destroyed – and the soil in this mining area became so badly eroded that devastating landslides were commonplace.
The slaves worked long hours to move an estimated 300 million tonnes of earth from which 90 tonnes of precious gold was extracted.
Thousands of workers and slaves died as a result of the punishing work practices.
It’s a sobering experience to look down on the gutted landscape and imagine them labouring in the heat and dust till they dropped like dead flies.
Whole hill sides were blown up in controlled explosions as the Romans tried to reach inside the mountain in search of gold.
Water was carried down from the nearby mountains via canals to a series of pools or piscinae – also appropriately known as stagna – until it was needed.
Engineers created a network of channels and when the sluices were opened, a huge volume of water was released, leading to compression of the air which acted as an explosive.
Once the hill was destroyed, large pebbles were piled high in ‘walls’ or ‘murias’ whilst washing activities took place in flatter areas of pits.
The gold mining led to many unexpected side effects on the local landscape.
Soil or sludge settled at the end of the washing areas – and water accumulated, leading to the formation of artificial lakes down the hill at Carucedo and Somido.
Today you can take a walk around these scenic lakes and admire their unusual habitats, but behind the pretty landscape there remains one big, dirty secret.
Slavery, exploitation, degradation of the landscape and a complete disregard for human life – this is what the Romans did at Las Medulas, all in the name of gold.
At the end of the 3rd Century the mine was abandoned when the gold bearing seam had been exhausted.
The Romans moved away, leaving slurry pools, a despoiled landscape and pit heaps.
The landscape has remained almost untouched until today with the exception of a few sleepy farms which lie under the shadow of the half-destroyed hills.
Spires, ampitheatres and caves
Las Medulas is a place of visual surprises and hidden histories, of untold tales and characters who have been written out of the history books.
As you approach the sensational landscape, you could be mistaken for thinking you’d arrived at Bryce Canyon in Utah, USA.
Both share the same remarkable rock formations and colour – a sandy orange red landscape which looks like burnished gold at sunset.
But the key difference is that Bryce is a natural canyon and its stalactite shapes and hoodoos have been formed by natural wind erosion not human intervention.
Las Medulas is one of the weirdest places I’ve ever visited – and one of the most fascinating. How was this environmental and human disaster allowed to happen?
What did the Romans think they were playing at with such a risky and dangerous venture?
It’s hard not to be ovewhelmed by the sheer scale of the despoilation of the area and its long-lasting impact.
So why visit Las Medulas as a tourist destination?
Apart from its unique historic and environmental interest, the landscape is fascinating and strangely beautiful in its own way.
Visitors can wander amongst the spectacular rock formations through orchards, chestnut trees, meadows and fields of vegetables which now cover the area.
This chestnut tree (see below) made a lasting impression on me with its knarled trunk and hollowed interior straight out of a Brothers Grimm tale.
Chestnuts are a delicacy in Castille and Leon so look out for regional cuisine featuring this edible nut.
Further along the walk there are two large caves to explore, both created by the explosive mining works.
The cave shown below is a huge expanse of overhanging rock which has been hollowed out, creating a dramatic artificial ‘hole’ in the hillside.
Once inside the cave, the rock looks a little unstable… with tiny, muddy piece occassionally dropping off.
I wouldn’t fancy standing under here with several tonnes of sandstone above me on a wet day when the porous rock might start to crumble and collapse!
Looking at the solitude and beauty of the landscaps you have to remind yourself that working in this environment must have been like Dante’s Inferno.
The temperatures would have been as hot as hell – akin to working inside a fiery furnace, even though the mining was largely outdoors.
The writer Pliny the Elder described a visit to Las Medulas in 74Ad when mining was at its peak…
“What happens is far beyond the work of giants. The mountains are bored with corridors and galleries made by lamplight with a duration that is used to measure the shifts. For months, the miners cannot see the sunlight and many of them die inside the tunnels.
“The cracks made in the entrails of the stone are so dangerous that it would be easier to find purpurine or pearls at the bottom of the sea than make scars in the rock. How dangerous we have made the Earth!”
Las Medulas offers a lesson for all of us in human greed and destruction… and is as pertinent today as it was in ancient times.
So next time someone asks ‘what did the Romans do for us?’, you’ll be able to tell them the honest truth about their legacy.
It wasn’t all aqueducts, Roman roads and baths!
Tammy’s top tips
Las Medulas is located in northern Spain not far from the town of Ponteferrada in Castille and Leon, close to the village of Carucedo.
Follow the road signs to Orellan and Las Medulas south west from Ponteferrada – eventually you’ll see the tourism signs to this UNESCO World Heritage site. Follow these to the village of Las Medulas.
This website provides some basic information about visiting the area – and there’s also a small Archaeological Information Centre (closed lunchtimes) next to the car park in Las Medulas (admission fee).
The Las Medulas site is actually split into two main areas, about 3 km apart. Initially the road signs will take you to the main village where you can park up and walk 200 metres into the centre.
In the village centre you’ll find a small tourism office so pick up a map so you can decipher the walking routes (they aren’t always well signposted on the ground!).
Two walking routes start from the back of the village so take one of these circular paths to see the first section of Las Medulas.
Then drive to Orellan about 2kms up the road. Continue to drive through that village up a series of hairpin bends towards the main amphitheatre where you’ll find a large car park.
Walk 100 metres up the hill to find a natural balcony which boasts amazing views over this strange landscape. The balcony viewpoint is open all hours and admission is free.
There’s a small indoors display at the amphitheatre whch allows visitors to don hard hats so they can walk into an old mine. But be aware that this has short opening times and closes for a very long lunch.
From here you can also walk a couple of kilometres to see further evidence of the canal system, although there’s also a small section of this next to the display centre.
Another interesting walk runs from the back of Las Medulas village into a nature reserve and farmland with a couple of lakes created by the gold mining. There are good panoramic views of the pinnacles and mining landscapes from here.
The wildlife is intriguing down by the lake with croaking toads making the biggest racket in the small ponds whilst a variety of birds and plants have moved in to make the most of this artificial environment.
One of the lakes, Lake Somido, is very scenic but take a map because the signposting is intermittent. In early summer look out for the stunning display of water lilies on the lake.
Accommodation in Las Medulas is mainly limited to self-catering cottages and apartments in the village but it is a charming place with a few decent restaurants and bars.
It is also permitted to park motorhomes overnight in the small car park by the heritage centre in Las Medulas or up at the Orellan amphitheatre car park. It’s free of charge although neither have hook-up facilities.
But we loved waking up in this wonderful and curious-looking landscape as the sun rose in the morning.
The walking terrain is easy-going and generally flat in most places – but you’ll need transport to get up the hill to the amphitheatre.
Also worth a detour: Other places of interest nearby include Ponteferrada, with its impressive Knights of the Templar castle, and the unspoiled countryside of El Biertzo to the north west which has changed little since medieval times.