Great Copper Mountain
Great Copper Mountain was a mine in Falun
Falun is a city and the seat of Falun Municipality in Dalarna County, Sweden, with 36,447 inhabitants in 2005. It is also the capital of Dalarna County...

, Sweden
Sweden , officially the Kingdom of Sweden , is a Nordic country on the Scandinavian Peninsula in Northern Europe. Sweden borders with Norway and Finland and is connected to Denmark by a bridge-tunnel across the Öresund....

, that operated for a millennium
A millennium is a period of time equal to one thousand years —from the Latin phrase , thousand, and , year—often but not necessarily related numerically to a particular dating system....

 from the 10th century to 1992. It produced as much as two thirds of Europe's copper
Copper is a chemical element with the symbol Cu and atomic number 29. It is a ductile metal with very high thermal and electrical conductivity. Pure copper is soft and malleable; an exposed surface has a reddish-orange tarnish...

 needs and helped fund many of Sweden's wars in the 17th century. Technological developments at the mine had a profound influence on mining globally for two centuries. Since 2001 it has been designated a Unesco world heritage site as well as a museum.


There are no written accounts establishing exactly when mining operations at the Great Copper Mountain began. Archaeological
Archaeology, or archeology , is the study of human society, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artifacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes...

 and geological
Geology is the science comprising the study of solid Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the processes by which it evolves. Geology gives insight into the history of the Earth, as it provides the primary evidence for plate tectonics, the evolutionary history of life, and past climates...

 studies indicate, with considerable uncertainty, that mining operations started sometime around the year 1000. The mine was definitely operating by 1080, but no significant activities had begun before 850. Objects from the 10th century have been found containing copper from the mine. In the beginning, operations were of a small scale, with local farmers gathering ore, smelting
Smelting is a form of extractive metallurgy; its main use is to produce a metal from its ore. This includes iron extraction from iron ore, and copper extraction and other base metals from their ores...

 it, and using the metal for household needs.

Around the time of Magnus III of Sweden
Magnus III of Sweden
Magnus III Ladulås of Sweden, Swedish: Magnus Birgersson or Magnus Ladulås was King of Sweden from 1275 until his death in 1290....

, King of Sweden from 1275 to 1290, a more professional operation began to take place. Nobles and foreign merchants from Lübeck
The Hanseatic City of Lübeck is the second-largest city in Schleswig-Holstein, in northern Germany, and one of the major ports of Germany. It was for several centuries the "capital" of the Hanseatic League and, because of its Brick Gothic architectural heritage, is listed by UNESCO as a World...

 had taken over from farmers. The merchants transported and sold the copper in Europe, but also influenced the operations and developed the methods and technology used for mining. The first written document about the mine is from 1288. It records that, in exchange for an estate, the Bishop of Västerås acquired a 12.5% interest in the mine.

By the mid 14th century, the mine had grown into a vital national resource and a large part of the revenues for the Swedish state in the coming centuries would be from the mine. The then King, Magnus IV of Sweden
Magnus IV of Sweden
Magnus Eriksson as Magnus IV was king of Sweden , including Finland, as Magnus VII King of Norway , including Iceland and Greenland, and also ruled Scania . He has also vindictively been called Magnus Smek...

, visited the area personally and drafted a charter for mining operations, ensuring the financial interest of the sovereign.


The principal method for extracting copper was heating the rock via large fires, known as fire-setting
Fire-setting is a method of mining used since prehistoric times up to the Middle Ages. Fires were set against a rock face to heat the stone, which was then doused with water...

. When the rock cooled down, it would become brittle and crack, allowing manual tools such as wedges and sledge hammers to be brought to bear. After the ore had been transported out of the mine it was roasted to reduce sulfur content in open hearth
In common historic and modern usage, a hearth is a brick- or stone-lined fireplace or oven often used for cooking and/or heating. For centuries, the hearth was considered an integral part of a home, often its central or most important feature...

s. The thick, poisonous smoke produced would be a distinguishing feature of the Falun area for centuries. After the roasting, the ore was smelted; the output of which was a copper rich material. The cycle of roasting and smelting was repeated several times until crude copper was produced. This was the final output from the mine; further refinement took place at copper refineries elsewhere. This process was used without any major change for seven centuries, until the end of the 19th century. It is likely that the methods and technology for fire setting and drainage were imported from German mines, such as in the Harz Mountains.

Free miners

The organizational structure
Organizational structure
An organizational structure consists of activities such as task allocation, coordination and supervision, which are directed towards the achievement of organizational aims. It can also be considered as the viewing glass or perspective through which individuals see their organization and its...

 of the Great Copper Mountain created under the 1347 charter
A charter is the grant of authority or rights, stating that the granter formally recognizes the prerogative of the recipient to exercise the rights specified...

 was advanced for its time. Free miners owned shares of the operation, proportional to their ownership of copper smelters. The structure was precursor to modern joint stock companies, and Stora Enso
Stora Enso
Stora Enso Oyj is a Finnish pulp and paper manufacturer, formed by the merger of Swedish mining and forestry products company Stora and Finnish forestry products company Enso-Gutzeit Oy in 1998. It is headquartered in Helsinki, and it has approximately 29,000 employees...

, the modern successor to the old mining company, is often referred to as the oldest company still operational in the world.

Golden era

In the 17th century, production capacity peaked. During this time, the output from the mine was used to fund expansionary politics of Sweden during its great power era. The Privy Council of Sweden
Privy Council of Sweden
The High Council of Sweden or Council of the Realm consisted originally of those men of noble, common and clergical background, that the king saw fit for advisory service...

 referred to the mine as the nation's treasury and stronghold. The point of maximum production occurred in 1650, with over 3,000 tonnes of copper produced.

The mountain had been mined for nearly half a millennium towards the end of its golden era. Production had intensified in the preceding decades, and by 1687 the rock was crisscrossed by numerous shafts and cave-ins were not unusual. Great effort went into producing maps of the mine for navigation, but there was no overall organization nor any estimation of the strength of the mountain. In the summer of 1687, great rumblings could be heard regularly from the mountain. On Midsummer's Eve of that year, the dividing wall between the main pits and the foundations gave way, and a significant portion of the mine collapsed. This could easily have become a great catastrophe, killing and trapping the hundreds of men working in the mine, had it not occurred on Midsummer's Eve, one of the two days of the year which the miners were not working (the other being Christmas).

Life in the mine

Fires were lit at the end of the day to heat the ore and allowed to burn through the night. The next morning the fires would be put out and the ore broken loose. In this manner, the miners could advance about 1 m (3 ft) per month. The miners working the fires and breaking the rock were the best paid and most skilled. Hand barrows were used to transport the broken ore, in relays of about 20 m (65.6 ft) with multiple teams working long distances. This was usually the work newcomers were assigned to prove themselves. The work was hard and the mines very hot from the constant fires so it was not surprising that the miners were good customers of local drinking establishments. Drunkenness was considered quite normal for miners.

Carl Linnaeus visited the mine and produced a vivid description of the life of the miners. He described that the miners climbed rickety ladders with sweat pouring from their bodies like "water from a bath". He continued: "The Falun mine is one of the great wonders of Sweden but as horrible as hell itself". Linnaeus' description of the environment the miners worked in is as follows: "Soot and darkness surrounded them on all sides. Stones, gravel, corrosive vitriol, drips, smoke, fumes, heat, dust, were everywhere".

Economic impact

Sweden had a virtual monopoly on copper which it retained throughout the 17th century. The only other country with a comparable copper output was Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

, but European imports from Japan were insignificant. In 1690, Erik Odhelius, a prominent metallurgist, was dispatched by the King to survey the European metal market. Although copper production had already begun to decline by the time he made his report, something Odhelius made no secret of, he still stated "For the production of copper Sweden has always been like a mother, and although in many places within and without Europe some copper is extracted it counts for nothing next to the abundance of Swedish copper."

But by modern standards, the production was not large. The peak production barely reached 3,000 tonnes of copper, falling to less than 2,000 tonnes by 1665 and from 1710–1720 it was barely 1,000 tonnes per year. Present worldwide copper production is near 15 million tons
Peak copper
Peak copper is the point in time at which the maximum global copper production rate is reached. Since copper is a finite resource, at some point in the future new production from within the earth will diminish, and at some earlier time production will reach a maximum. When this will occur is a...

 per year.

Modern history

Copper production was declining during the 18th century and the mining company began diversifying. It supplemented the copper extraction with iron and timber production. Production of the iconic falu red
Falu red
Falu red or Falun red is the name of a Swedish, deep red paint well known for its use on wooden cottages and barns. The paint originated from the copper mine at Falun in Dalarna, Sweden. The traditional colour remains popular today due to its effectiveness in preserving wood. In Finland, it is...

paint began in earnest. In the 19th century, iron and forest products continued to grow their importance. In 1881 gold was discovered in the Great Copper Mountain, resulting in a short-lived gold rush. A total of 5 tonnes of gold would eventually be produced.

But there was no escaping the fact that the mine was no longer economically viable. On December 8, 1992 the last shot was fired in the mine and all commercial mining ceased. Today the mine is owned by the Stora Kopparberget foundation which operates the museum and tours.

World heritage

In 2001 the Great Copper Mountain was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of 12 in Sweden. In addition to the mine itself, the world heritage area also covers the town of Falun, including 17th century miners’ cottages residential areas and Bergsmansbygden, a wider area which the free miners settled and often built estates mirroring their wealth.


The museum has around 100,000 visitors per year. It displays the history of mining at the Great Copper Mountain through the centuries; including production of minerals, models of machinery, tools and the people at the mine. It also has a large collection of portraits, starting from the 17th century, of significant people at the mine.
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