Las Médulas de Oro: The Handiwork of Giants; Leon, Spain

Views of the Country-side from Las Médulas

Every year, at least once a year, I fly to Leon, Spain in order to visit my husband’s grandmother, Obdulia, with him. Obdulia, along with a handful of elderly residents, most of whom are blood relations of varying degrees, live in the tiny village of Cancela. Cancela is a few hours from Leon’s small airport, but a full day by car or train from Barcelona. With its scattering of old farmhouses and small garden plots, Cancela has charm and panoramic mountain vistas, though little else.

The village is no longer large enough to support any stores, schools or other establishments, although it clings dearly to its church and small cemetery. Fortunately for Cancela’s residents, a few times a week, a baker makes the rounds in her ancient station wagon,
and other necessary items can be purchased from another traveling vendor that comes through with a smorgasbord of supplies residents can’t grow or produce themselves.

Midwesterner Abroad at Las Médulas, Squinting in the Sun
Needless to say, upon my second visit to the village, I had already seen what little there was to explore, so my in-laws decided to take me to see one of the nearby local wonders. Just a short drive away, near the city of Pontferrada, exists a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Las Médulas de Oro. Las Médulas are what’s left of what was once the most important gold mine in the Roman Empire.

Vandalized Informational Sign

After parking the car and climbing the dramatic incline up into Las Médulas, we arrived at a landing of sorts equipped with benches and railings.

While the landing was ordinary enough, the landscape was the stuff dreams of moon landings are made of, the fluid and strange lines of the orange clay rocks sticking straight up out of lush green undergrowth. Their occasional sharp edges poking holes in a deep blue sky, the stone columns undulate and curve in unusual ways.

Far from natural, these crazy rock “formations” are a result of the toils of tens of thousands of workers employed by the Roman Empire. A technique called ruina montium (collapsing mountains) was used wherein huge quantities of water transferred via aqueducts were forced through networks of tunnels and galleries so as to cause their total collapse. This procedure was followed by further washing, and the discard of waste material in the tall piles that now form part of Las Médulas’ stunning landscape. The end products were gold, the science fiction landscape of Las Médulas and a high casualty rate for workers. To quote Pliny the Elder, a procurator in the region in 74 AD, this project was “far beyond the work of giants.”

Las Médulas de Oro

As I stand in the blinding summer sun, reflecting on the achievements of ancient man, I wonder at modern helplessness in the face of adversity. If ancient man could do all this without the help of modern technology, then what must we be capable of, with the right attitude, some direction and a little discipline? While gold holds little appeal for me (in jewelry tastes, I’m more of a silver girl), what would I work my fingers to the bone for? When I’m gone, will something I’ve had a hand in be looked upon as the work of giants?

First published in “The Tipton Times”

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