Exploration of an old mining complex in Co Kerry, in the south-west of Ireland, has revealed that prehistoric tribesmen were mining for copper - and possibly lead - in 2200 BC.
Apart from mines of similar date in southern Spain, the Kerry complex is the oldest found in Western Europe.
Archaeologists discovered the evidence while they were examining an early 19th-century mine. Among the debris they found hundreds of prehistoric stone hammers. It appears that the mine was an ancient one, re-used in the last century.
The prehistoric workings date from what archaeologists regard as the late neolithic period (the New Stone Age) - up to 200 years before the dawn of the Irish Bronze Age. Technically it shows that in Ireland there was a Copper Age sandwiched in between the Stone and Bronze ages.
To extract the copper ore, the prehistoric miners drove tunnels at least 15m (49ft) into the hillside. Rock was removed by heating it with fire and then shattering it with stone hammers. Rubble was removed with shovels made from the shoulder blades of oxen.
The archaeologists - led by Dr William O'Brien of University College, Galway - also discovered the area where the miners lived. Excavations have yielded the remains of eight pottery beakers, dozens of stone hammers and traces of copper ore.
The site overlooks a large lake called Lough Lein. Remarkably, the discovery confirms an ancient legend of mineral wealth.
An anonymous ninth-century historian - the first author to record the legends of King Arthur - referred to Lough Lein in the Historia Brittonum, written about AD830.
Although the Historia was written in the ninth century, the archaeologists have found no trace of any mining activity from that period. It is therefore likely that the account is merely a writtenversion of a much earlier spoken legend.Reuse content