Time Team Series 20, My Fourth Episode: Coniston Copper Mines

The film to be shown this coming Sunday (February 3rd) at 4.20 (yes, that’s 1620 hours) was filmed high in the Cumbrian Fells, within the shadow of the Old Man of Coniston. We actually did the filming in the last week of July and it was that rarest of rare things last summer: a dry week – except for our small corner of Cumbria, where there was an isolated and stubborn area of low pressure, which meant it rained almost continuously. I’d get back to the hotel in Coniston in the evenings and speak to Maisie, who was busy supervising contractors making our hay. She was complaining about heat and dust, while I was frozen and drenched. Funny old place, England. Still, there are compensations: it was a record crop of hay and the quality was quite good. The sheep are munching it contentedly, as I write.

Time Team: Coniston lake

Looking down on Levers Water reservoir, with one of the Tudor period miners’ huts being excavated in the foreground.

Laying aside the weather, the site was very good. We were over a thousand feet up, overlooking a small reservoir known as Levers Water. The area had been mined for copper on and off, since the Middle Ages, but we were after evidence for the first intensive modern mines, which were dug and worked, not by the British, but by Germans. We tend to think that all early industry was led and developed by us Brits, but I’m afraid much of that is simply propaganda, because when it came to mining in the early 1500s, nobody could touch the Germans, who had the skills, the experienced workforce and viable companies, able to travel. In 1563 Daniel Hechestetter Senior, a master miner was approached by the Crown to operate new mines in the Coniston area, under the auspices of the newly established ‘Company of the Mines Royal’. That’s the basic history. Anyhow the mines prospered until the mid-17th century when cheaper Swedish copper began to take the upper hand. They then revived, massively, in the 19th century and it was these later workings that made our task so much harder. Almost everything we thought at first to be Elizabethan turned out to be Victorian. It was very frustrating. Then, by Day 3, we began to get the hang of things and made some remarkable discoveries – which you’ll have to watch the film to discover.

Good dateable finds were very hard to come by, as it would seem the early German miners tended to use leather or wooden domestic utensils – either that, or they were very, very tidy and rarely broke any glass or crockery. But on Day 3, good old Phil came down on a doorway threshold, roughly fashioned from oak. Anyhow, we sampled it for radiocarbon dating and got the result just before Christmas: 1490, plus or minus a bit. If we assume the wood was from a mature tree, then that’s pretty much spot-on. So the stone huts we were digging high above Levers Water do seem to have been genuinely Tudor – and probably German, too. It’s great when things pan out like that…

Time Team: Coniston hut

The Tudor miners’ hut was entirely filled with 19th century mine waste. This is a view from the outside, looking down onto the clay subsoil.

Time Team: Coniston hearth

Inside the hut, we found a low hearth or fireplace let into one wall. This was probably used to melt small quantities of copper to test, or assay, its quality.

Time Team: Coniston falls

Further down the valley towards the town of Coniston, far below, was a second level of horizontal mine shafts. Some of these were Tudor. One (maybe early 18th century) can be seen immediately to the left of the falls, in the very centre of the picture.

Time Team: Coniston floor

Close to the stream, below the falls of the previous picture, the ground levelled out and here we found a high quality cobbled floor that almost certainly went with a dressing mill. This was where ore was further sorted and broken down into smaller pieces, to be taken down the valley to the main smelting furnaces, nearer Coniston.

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