History of mining in Navarre

Areas of charcoal production and metallurgic centres at the end of the C.XVIII and beginning of C.XIX (Enciclopedia Auñamendi)

Areas of charcoal production and metallurgic centres at the end of the C.XVIII and beginning of C.XIX (Enciclopedia Auñamendi)

The evolution of mining activity in Navarre presents features in common with the rest of the peninsula and cannot be detached from that of its very close or neighbouring territories, with which it bears, on the one hand, geological and metallogenic similarities and, on the other, significant historical economic and social ties.

As in the rest of the Peninsula, there is evidence of mining activity in Navarre dating back to remote times although its importance has undergone very significant variations, depending on the degree of social and economic development, together with market and technological circumstances. Therefore, lengthy periods of largely non-existent mining activity have alternated with other cycles of mining growth and development, with the latter being the most common and important from the XIX century onwards and to-date.

Mining activity in Navarre first appeared in the Neolithic age, as evidenced by findings from the Urbiola Cave, known as the cave of “the green men”, from where malachite and azurite was probably mined in the Bronze Age.

In the era of Carthaginia as well as, above all, Roman domination, there was mining activity, mainly of copper and argentiferous lead, although they lacked the magnitude of others that existed in Spain.

After centuries in which mining activity was scant throughout the entire region, new policies favourable to mining reactivated the sector during the XVI-XVII centuries. During that period, diverse mines became active in Navarre (Betelu, Imizcoz, Urrobi, etc) to obtain metals such as alum, copper and, above all, iron, the exploitation of which led to the proliferation of foundries.

By the XIX century, mining had fostered the construction of mining railways that quickly turned into means of transportation for passengers and freight: Branch lines included: Irún-Endarlaza; San Sebastián-Pamplona (Plazaola-Pamplona leg); Artikutza-Rentería and Olvega-Castejón.

Ferretería Betelu S.XVIII

Ruins of the Betelu foundry (Foto de A. Sarasola / IGME)

Some sectors promoted the installation of factories, such as the asphalt factory of Bacáicoa, and local steelworks such as the Mina Ley Foundry in Vera which, once the mining activity had been shut down, turned to industrial activities (Fundiciones de Vera or Funvera).

The lengthy mining history of Navarre has created, particularly in the northern area, a real mining culture. When metal mining entered into decline in the middle of the XX century, two mining operations appeared in Navarre that represented important milestones in mining production at a national level. They consisted of the extraction of potassium salts and magnesite. The mining of both substances increased employment and considerably increased the value of mining production. Apart from in Navarre and Aragón, potassium salt resources are only found elsewhere in Spain in Cataluña, while existing magnesite mines were very small in size.

The production of potassium salts in Navarre, from the 60’s through to 1997, represented around 30% of the national total, although in some years it amounted to some 50% of national production.