Heritage Discoveries: The copper mines at Ross Island, Co. Kerry

The copper mines at Ross Island, Co. Kerry, the earliest known from Britain or Ireland, were the main supplier of copper to Britain and Ireland at the beginning of the metal age.

David Hill's reconstruction of the Ross Island Copper Mine, from O'Brien 2004.

On the shore of Lough Leane near Killarney, Co. Kerry Britain and Ireland’s earliest known copper mines came into use about 2,400 BC and remained in use until 1900 BC. Excavations carried out here between 1992 and 1996 by Prof. William O’Brien uncovered copper mines and tens of thousands of stone hammers used to work them. The mines were worked by lighting fires against the rock face and using hammers and other tools to detach the rock. The main eastern mine is flooded by the lake but the western mine is 10.8m wide and 2.7m high at the entrance and narrows as it extends over 8m into the limestone. Over the five hundred years they were in use the mines may have produced up to 25,000-35,000 tonnes of arsenical copper. Immediately adjacent to the mines the work camp was uncovered where the extracted rock was processed into copper ore. Here at least eleven houses were identified. These were lightly built oval to sub-rectangular structures with walls supported by stakes and bedding trenches that may have had walls of wattles or animal skin. The houses were associated with mining tools, stone tools, animal bones and hundreds of sherds of beaker pottery representing 25 vessels.

The importance of Ross Island is that it is the earliest known copper mine in Britain or Ireland. Analysis has shown that it was the origin of most of the metal used in Ireland and probably in Britain in the early stages of copper use and clearly associates early copper metallurgy with the users of beaker pottery.

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