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There Once Was a Goat Named Kåre—Over a Millenium of Mining at Falu Gruve, Swede

Last Updated: 31st Dec 2018

By Nathalie Brandes

Long ago, in what would one day be known as Bergslagen, Sweden, a young goatherd tended his animals. It was a lush, green land of forests, meadows, and some bogs. The animals grazed contentedly, all except a billygoat named Kåre. He wandered away from the rest of the herd. When he returned, his horns were bright red with some strange sort of mud.

“What did you get yourself into now, Kåre?” the goatherd asked as he cleaned the animal before heading home.

The following day, the same thing occurred. After disappearing for a few hours, Kåre returned to the herd with bright red horns.

“I am growing tired of your mischief, Kåre,” the goatherd chided as he cleaned the billygoat once again before returning home.

On the third day, when Kåre wandered away, the young goatherd followed him and found where he had been rubbing his horns in an unusual red mud. Curious about the brilliant colour, the goatherd dug into the mud and discovered a piece of chalcopyrite. Thus begins the story of Kopparberget, Sweden’s Great Copper Mountain, known today as Falun Mine.

Falun is located 250km northwest of Stockholm in the traditional but informal region of Bergslagen. The exact borders of Bergslagen are poorly defined and can include parts of up to nine counties in south-central Sweden where mining has been an important industry (Lasskogen, 2010; Angelstam et al., 2013; Angelstam and Axelsson, 2014). The climate of the region is humid continental with cold winters, warm summers, and no dry season. The mean annual temperature is 4°C with an average 700mm precipitation annually (Raab, 1995). The landscape around Falun includes numerous streams and lakes amid rolling hills. The area was severely deforested during the height of mining, but vegetation typical of the boreal forest has returned (Olsson, 2010). Common trees in the area include Scots pine and Norway spruce with lesser silver birch, grey alder, rowan, and aspen (Hammarlund et al., 2008). The forest floor is dominated by heather, bilberry, blueberry, lingonberry, and crowberry (Classen, 2012).

Bergslagen is located in the southwest part of the Svecokarelian orogeny in the Fennoscandian Shield (Stephens et al., 2009; Stephens and Anderson, 2015). Rocks of this region are dominated by 1.8 to 1.9 Ga Palaeoproterozoic metavolcanics known as leptites. These are interpreted as felsic pyroclastics and rhyolitic ash deposited in a submarine environment (Allen et al., 1996; Lundström, 1987). There are also some mafic and intermediate metavolcanics as well as metasediments interpreted as mudstone, turbidite, and greywacke (Ripa and Kübler, 2003; Stephens et al., 2009) in addition to some carbonate units (Allen et al., 1996). Plutonic rocks of various compositions intrude these rocks (Lasskogen, 2010). There has been debate concerning the tectonic setting of these rocks. Löfgren (1979) and Loberg (1980) suggested a volcanic arc over a subduction zone. Other researchers (Oen et al., 1982; van der Welden et al., 1982; Oen, 1987) concluded it was a continental rift. Most recent research concludes that this was an extensional back-arc environment in which there was early intense volcanism, thermal doming, and extension followed by a cessation of extension, thermal subsidence, finally concluding with compression, deformation, and metamorphism (Allen et al., 1996; Stephens et al., 2009). Deformation and amphibolite facies metamorphism affected the Bergslagen region during the 1.8-1.9 Ga Svecokarelian Orogeny (Lasskogen, 2010). Some parts of western Bergslagen were also affected by the Sveconorwegian Orogeny around 1.0 Ga (Stephens et al., 2009).

The ore deposit at Falun is hosted in the Leptite Formation, which is interpreted to be metamorphosed felsic volcanics and some sediments (Grip, 1974; Lasskogen, 2010). Most of these rocks are quartz and mica rich and traditionally called “ore quartzites” and “mica schist” (Geijer, 1917). Both calcite and dolomite marble as well as skarn are also found at Falun Mine. All these rocks have been folded into a large, steeply plunging isoclinal syncline (Koark, 1986; Kresten, 1986; Kampmann et al., 2016).

Falun is best known as a copper mine with the main sulphide ores concentrated at the hinge of the syncline. This is, however, an oversimplification of the complex nature of the ore deposit (Lasskogen, 2010). Törnebohm (1893) established four basic ore types. Further studies have expanded this classification to include seven ore types. Hard ore includes both veins and disseminated chalcopyrite, pyrite, and sphalerite with lesser amounts of pyrrhotite, cosalite, and galenobismuthite. This ore is hosted in quartzite. There is also compact pyrite ore, also known as soft ore, which includes massive chalcopyrite, sphalerite, and galena with minor pyrrhotite, magnetite, tennantite, tetrahedrite, and quartz and carbonate gangue minerals (Törnebohm, 1893; Weijemars, 1987). Sköl is altered rock related to fault zones that can be 5-25m wide. Occasionally, these zones contain chalcopyrite and galena (Törnebohm, 1893; Gavelin, 1989). Gold is found in the native state in quartz veins and lenses that were emplaced after the massive sulphides were deposited and deformed (Åberg and Fallick, 1993). Veins of galena with up to 47.7ppm gold occur along a fault in the mine (Gavelin, 1989; Lasskogen, 2010). Compact ball ore, which is massive sulphide ore containing spherical inclusions of quartzite host rock is found near sköl ore zones (Gavelin, 1989).Lastly, skarns host ore rich in zinc and lead but poor in copper (Gavelin, 1989; Lasskogen, 2010).

Several different hypotheses concerning the formation of the sulphide ores have been proposed. Early researchers suggested the ore was produced by metasomatism in the Leptite Formation (Törnebohm, 1893; Högbohm, 1910; Sjörgren, 1910). Others proposed that ore fluids from granite intrusions replaced limestones (Geijer, 1917; 1964; Hjelmqvist, 1948). Koark (1962) was the first to suggest volcanic exhalation as the source of ore bearing fluids. The currently accepted description of Falun is that the main deposit is a pyritic Zn-Pb-Cu-(Au-Ag) sulphide emplaced as a stratabound volcanic associated limestone-skarn (SVALS) deposit. The ore was formed in a submarine environment as volcanism waned but before deformation and metamorphism affected the area (Allen et al., 1986; Kampmann et al., 2016). Ore grades varied during the long life of the mine, but estimated averages are 5% Zn, 2% Pb, 0.6-4% Cu, 13-35g/tonne Ag, and 0.5-4g/tonne Au (Tegengrem, 1924; Grip, 1978; Allen et al., 1996).

There is much debate over the early history of Falun. Although the legend of its discovery by Kåre the billygoat is deeply lodged in the folklore of the region, the earliest known written account of this tale dates to 1651. Similar stories of animals discovering rich mineral deposits are associated with numerous older mining areas, including Sala, Røros, and Rammelsberg. Some scholars believe these legends exist to explain events that date back so far in time the true origins are lost (Olsson, 2010).

Archaeological evidence is equivocal concerning the origins of mining at Falun. An early radiocarbon and pollen study (Lundqvist, 1963) concluded the date for the onset of mining was AD 1080±60. Sediment cores analysed in a later study indicated mining began circa AD 700 (Qvarfort, 1984). Following improvements in radiocarbon dating, new analyses pushed back the earliest mining in the area to AD 589±97 (Eriksson and Qvarfort, 1996). Metal artefacts found on the islands of Björkö in Lake Mälaren and Gotland in the Baltic Sea are dated to the 10th to 11th Centuries and are believed to be made from Falun Mine material (Lindeström, 2002). All these dates, however, are contradicted by a recent study that reevaluated sampling methods and dating techniques and concluded that mining at Falun only began circa AD 1245 (Bindler and Rydberg, 2015).

The earliest written record of mining operations at Falun is a document from 1288. It outlines that Bishop Petrus Elofsson exchanged an estate with forests, fishing rights, and flour mills for a 1/8th share of the mine. In addition to being signed by Bishop Petrus, the document was signed by King Magnus, three other bishops, and an archbishop. This document shows that Falun was already operating as a shareholding company, one of the earliest known in history (Lindeström, 2002; Olsson, 2010). In addition to the king himself owning shares, by the early 1300s, the company grew internationally, with wealthy residents of Lübeck, Germany owning mining rights at Falun (Olsson, 2010).

Prior to the mid-1700s, mine workers were employed by “Master Miners,” who were shareholders in the venture. Ownership of a share in the mine was based on ownership of a share of a smelter (Blomkvist, 2013). The Master Miners needed to arrange their own labour force and the processing of extracted ore (Sundberg, 1991; Ridder, 2013). The actual miners were peasants who were granted special rights according to the Charter of 1347, including asylum right to criminals, exemption from military service, and tax reduction. By the 1600s, a minimum wage and official working hours were also guaranteed (Olsson, 2010; Angelstam et al., 2013; Blomqvist, 2013). At this time workers were also ensured paid funeral expenses for victims of mining accidents, a retirement, and free healthcare (Olsson, 2010). In the mid-1700s, employment shifted to the model of a more modern company, with miners employed by the mine, not a Master Miner (Lindroth, 1955; Olsson, 2010; Blomqvist, 2013).

The mine at Falun was originally an open cast mine. In the pursuit of the richest ore, however, miners soon worked underground (Classen, 2012). Firesetting, using very hot fires to soften hard rock, was originally employed to aid the mining process (Sundberg, 1991). The use of black powder was demonstrated in the 1670s by two German brothers. It was first adopted for surface use, but by 1710 black powder was used in both surface and underground applications (Olsson, 2010). As the extraction of ore pressed deeper underground, dewatering became a concern. Construction of dams and ponds began in the 1300s in an attempt to restrict water from entering the mine (Isacson, 2013). Dewatering of the mine was accomplished by hand or horsepower until the 1550s, when the first waterwheel was installed for this purpose (Lindroth, 1955; Sundberg, 1991). Waterwheels along dams and canals eventually provided the power for pumps, hoisting engines, and bellows (Isacson, 2013).

Following the extraction of ore, it was crushed, then roasted in open fires around Falun. The roasted ore was then smelted. After smelting, the copper was refined (Sundberg, 1991; Lindeström, 2002). Originally, crude copper was sent via the Hanseatic League for refining in Germany and Holland. After 1619, refining was completed in Säter, Sweden (Olsson, 2010; Hamrin and Olsson, 2011). In the 1800s, processing of ore moved from open roasting to other techniques and by the early 1900s new plants were constructed for various wet separation methods. (Lindeström, 2002).

Sweden became a major European power in the mid 1500s and enjoyed this status until the early 1700s (Sundberg, 1991; Hutchinson, 2001). This was in part due to the rich ore of Falun Mine providing wealth to the kingdom. The Council of the Realm even stated, “The kingdom stands and falls with Kopparberget” (qtd. in Olsson, 2010). Peak production occurred in the mid-1600s, when it is estimated the mine produced half the world’s supply of copper (Sundberg, 1991). At this time, Falun was the second largest city in Sweden (Liljas, 2013).

As a result of the large amount of ore being processed around Falun Mine, massive amounts of SO2 were released into the atmosphere during ore roasting. It is estimated that in the mid-1600s about 35,000 tonnes of SO2 per year were released (Ek et al., 2001). This had a profound impact on the environment around Falun. The pungent scent of sulphur could be smelled up the 80km away (Lindeström, 2002). Visitors often complained of thick smoke in the city that caused twilight conditions at midday and the overpowering fumes making breathing difficult as well as causing problematic coughs and nosebleeds (Olsson, 2010). By 1633, a statute banned ore roasting outside the immediate mining area during summer to prevent damage to crops. The sulphurous air, however, did have some benefits. There were no mosquitoes, fewer reports of contagious diseases, and when plague spread throughout Sweden in 1710, the disease did not strike Falun (Lindeström, 2002).

By the late 1600s, the Great Copper Mountain was a warren of hollowed out passages and galleries. A number of rock falls and collapses in the mine prompted an inspection by the Board of Mines in 1686 that concluded measures were necessary to secure the mine. Thus, it came as no surprise when the Great Collapse occurred in 1687 (Olsson, 2010). A massive amount of rock separating two galleries fell and produced a pit 100m deep with rubble filling the collapse up to 350m below the surface (Lindeström, 2002). This large area became known as Stora Stöten, the Great Pit (Olsson, 2010). Fortunately, the collapse occurred on Midsummer Day (25 June), and important celebration when no one was working in the mine, thus there were no casualties (Olsson, 2010). In the immediate years following the Great Collapse, production of copper remained high since the rich ore that had been in walls and pillars supporting and separating galleries was now available to mine. Soon, however, copper production began to decline, but the production of other metals, including zinc, gold, and silver, increased (Lindeström, 2002; Classen, 2012).

In 1888, the old shareholding system that had existed at the mine since the Middle Ages was modernised into a joint-stock company known as Stora Kopparberg Bergslags AB (Olsson, 2010; Wagner, 2012). This company expanded well beyond the mine at Falun, acquiring ironworks, steelmills, sawmills, and papermills as well as expanding operations at the mine to include such things as a sulphuric acid factory and an iron sulphate factory (Hamrin and Olsson, 2010). Falun Mine continued to operate until 8 December 1992. After over a millennium of mining, the economic ore had finally run out (Olsson, 2010). The joint-stock company, known as STORA, is still in business, now specialising in forestry and paper products (Olsson, 2010; Wagner, 2012).

Over the life of the mine, it is estimated that 30 million tonnes of ore were extracted (Lindeström, 2002; Haglund and Hanæus, 2010), producing around 400,000 tonnes of copper (Sundberg, 1991). In addition to the metal riches that shaped Sweden’s history, the ore at Falun also had an impact on the countryside and culture of the nation. Pyrite rich waste rock is used to create a unique paint known as Falun red (Sahlström, 2012). The earliest reference to this paint dates to 1570, when King Johan III ordered the paint for the roof of a castle. This red paint soon became very popular throughout Sweden. Artists, authors, and poets have used the Falun red painted farmstead as a symbol of Swedish heritage (Olsson, 2010). Paint is still produced today with the proceeds of its sale used to help support the upkeep of the historic mine (Isacson, 2013).

Falun Mine was declared a World Heritage Site in 2001 (Wagner, 2012; Isacson, 2013). Guided tours are offered to underground workings. Visitors can also walk around the mining complex, stopping at old wooden shaft houses and structures painted the famous Falun red. There is also a museum on site offering exhibits concerning the long history of the mine. Perhaps the most interesting thing to do is stand at the edge of the Great Pit viewing the work of over a thousand years, wondering if the legend is true, if it all started with a mischievous goat named Kåre.


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