Rio Tinto Mines - History

Lunar landscapes at the Rio Tinto Mines © Michelle Chaplow
Lunar landscapes at the Rio Tinto Mines  



The Rio Tinto mines, located in the north of Huelva province, are reputed to be the oldest mines in the world; with the exception of mines in Cyprus, they certainly have most longevity of those being worked today - since before 1000BC. In the late 19th century, they were the world's leading copper producer.

Their eight square miles have provided a major source of European copper in both ancient and modern times. Rio Tinto contains the largest mass of cupriferous pyrite (one of the minerals from which copper is extracted) known to man, together with some gold, silver, sulphur and iron. The red soil that dominates the landscape is caused by the oxidation of metal-bearing rocks over many millions of years.   

Rio Tinto mines are part of the 230km-Iberian pyrite belt, extending from Aznalcollar near Seville to Aljustrel in Portugal. Pyrite is a mineral containing a combination of sulphur with iron and copper, with a metallic lustre which lends it the name "fool's gold". At certain places this mining field showed surface signs of two other vividly-coloured copper minerals: bright green malachite and deep blue azurite. This must have attracted the curiosity of the area's prehistoric inhabitants.




During the latter part of the Bronze Age (2,500 to 1,000 BC) the region was controlled by the Tartessans, who probably mined silver at Rio Tinto.

The Phoenicians were merchants who founded Cadiz in 1100BC and with whom the Tartessans traded. They certainly mined silver after 800BC at Rio Tinto and according to classical historian Diodorus Siculus, when their ships were freighted to the full, they threw away their anchors and substituted new ones of silver.  

Read more about History of Rio Tinto Mines - Tartessans and Phoenicians


In the period of the Roman Republic (up to 27BC), the state exercised ownership of the mines but let out claims to individuals or small prospector groups. However during the Roman Empire, cartels of bankers took over mining operations. Considerable capital investment was required in order to get below the veins on the surface down to the deeper deposits. The mining industry began to be dominated by syndicates about Vespasian's time (AD 69 to 96).  The copper mines had by then been developed and quickly surpassed all others in the entire Roman Empire.    

Read more about History of Rio Tinto Mines - Romans

Francisco de Mendoza expedition from Madrid, 1556 

On the orders of newly crowned King Felipe II in 1556, Francisco de Mendoza, a member of the Council of Finance, travelled to Rio Tinto to inspect and report on a number of Roman mines found in Seville province.

In June 1556 Mendoza visited shafts in Aracena and Valverde del Camino and noted them for further investigation. He and his accompanying group heard tales of abandoned shafts and galleries near Zalamea La Real, some two miles (three kilometres) away. They cleared a ridge and were astounded to see great mounds of slag standing out in dark contrast to the green shrub-covered hillside. After further inspection he soon realised that he had rediscovered some of the greatest mines of the ancient world.

Read more about the Francisco de Mendoza expedition

Liebert Wolters: the bachelor from Stockholm, 1724

Liebert Wolters, a Swede from Stockholm, took part in the War of Spanish Succession as an ensign in the Dutch regiment. He was discharged from the army in Spain toward the end of the war in 1713 aged 48. On renewal of a salvage contract in 1724 he also requested a mining concession for Rio Tinto, Guadalcanal, Cazalla, Aracena and Galaroza. Unusually, this was granted to a foreigner - for a 30-year term. Wolters did promise the provision of a group of Swedish miners and two modern drainage pumps.

Read more about the Liebert Wolters mining ventures

Lady Mary Herbert de Powis, 1740

Lady Mary Herbert de Powis was a remarkable women who had a long and interesting life. In 1727 she emigrated to Spain and, like many expats who followed her, the motives were to escape debt and to seek a fortune.

Read more about Lady Mary Herbert de Powis' mining ventures

Thanks to David Avery and RTZ for their 1974 book Not on Queen Victoria's Birthday, which is the definitive history of the Rio Tinto Mines. Thanks to William Giles Nash for his 1910 book The Rio Tinto Mine: Its History And Romance, from which much of this information was sourced. You can buy a second-hand copy of Avery's book, and a scanned on demand reprint of Nash's book, from Amazon. (Click on books in right hand margin of this page)