Legendary Mines of Rio Tinto and King Solomon’s Wealth

By Nasser Tufail

What could possibly be in common between Rio Tinto Mines, Mars, NASA and King Solomon’s wealth? Let’s talk Rio Tinto first.

Red Red Wine?

Red red wine, you make me feel so fine
You keep me rockin’ all of the time
Red red wine, you make me feel so grand
I feel a million dollar when you’re just in my hand

No, it’s not red wine flowing in the river, otherwise they’d be having parties daily with thousands of folks defying social distance and mask rules in these difficult Coronavirus times, merrily singing that signature UB40 song!

King Solomon's Wealth

There is a river in the province of Huelva in SW Spain called Rio Tinto that runs for about 100 kilometers and empties in the Gulf of Cadiz in the Atlantic. Rio in Spanish means river and Tinto means red, and so the river is called Red River for an obviously very good reason – it has a red wine color! The river’s reddish color is derived from the water’s chemical composition – high levels of iron, heavy metals and extremely high acidity.

Located in the town of Minas de Riotinto is the Rio Tinto mining park that is considered to have the oldest mines in the world. The mining operations were started about 5,000 years ago by the Iberians and continued during the times of the Tartessians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and Moors. Rio Tinto has been mined for gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, zinc and other alloys.

Large Scale Mining by Romans

At one time, Rio Tinto was the largest silver and copper mining operation in the entire Roman Empire. Many Roman artifacts and statues have been found around the mining area, including the (headless) statues of Roman Emperor Tiberius Claudius and Livia Drusilla, wife of Emperor Caesar Augustus.

In addition to metals, some really stunning semi-precious stones and rocks have also been mined at Rio Tinto over the years. Here are some pictures I took at the museum.

The scope and scale of mining at Rio Tinto by the Romans ensured a constant supply of fresh metal for minting of silver denarii and copper coins to pay and feed their armies and for funding public building programs. Employing many technical innovations and new exploitation systems, the Romans dug mining shafts over 450 feet deep, replete with elaborate ventilation and drainage systems as well as wooden water wheels which were so effective that they remained in use well into the 20th century! This is the entrance to one of the old mines.

  • King Solomon's Wealth

Here are a couple of pictures of underground mine shafts from Roman times. The ‘business model’ was simple: Miners, also known as slaves, were given some bread and a supply of millets and dropped down the shaft with the help of a rope in the morning. They were sent down naked (as temperatures reached up to 120 degrees F) with just boots and a protective hat, and made to toil the rest of the day till the oil in their lamps ran out – typically after about 10 or 11 hours. Just so that the “haves” could acquire their shiny gold and silver to flaunt, at the expense of “have-nots”!

The main extraction systems employed at Rio Tinto included underground mining using subterranean tunnels and open-cast mining. This is one of the old open pit mines no longer in use.

Here is the main horizontal tunnel, which connects other horizontal tunnels from which ore was extracted and loaded up in carts and later in train trolleys when steam power became available.

As part of the tour, one can also opt to take the train ride which goes around the mines and covers a distance of 22 KM in about 2 hours. It uses the same tracks that were put in place almost 150 years ago, and the ride is rather rickety due to uneven settling of tracks over the years. This was our original bright yellow carriage with wooden floor and benches that was once used to transport workers to the mines.

Let me then make the “what’s in common” connections…

Mars Landscape on Earth?

For long it has been the established view that no living thing could survive in the highly acidic water of Rio Tinto, and none were found. That is, until recently in the last couple of decades. Scientists discovered the presence of living ‘extremophile anaerobic bacteria’ that not only dwell but thrive in such a harsh environment. In fact, hundreds of varieties of microbes (such as yeasts, other fungi, amoebas and algae) seem to have successfully adapted to life in this river, despite the high acidity and almost non-existent oxygen.

The chemical processes taking place in the river use up almost all of the oxygen. The problem is further compounded by the fact that photosynthesis (which gives plants energy and produces oxygen) is very limited because sunlight cannot easily penetrate the tainted red water. The result is that there is virtually no oxygen, particularly at lower depths, to support the typical organisms in rivers.

The subsurface rocks on the river bed contain iron and sulfide minerals on which the bacteria feed, and the acid is the byproduct of the metabolism of iron and sulfur minerals. These extreme conditions (high iron, high acidity, low oxygen, etc.) in Rio Tinto are analogous to the subsurface groundwater and soil on Mars, and perhaps other planets/moons, including Jupiter’s moon, Europa, making Rio Tinto an important case study into astrobiology. If life can survive under these conditions here on Earth, then it’s quite possible that it also may have survived (or can survive) elsewhere, possibly on Mars.

NASA’s Research at Rio Tinto Mines

The scientists at NASA had heard of these microbes living in harsh conditions at the Rio Tinto mining area. When they retrieved data from Rover’s soil analysis, it revealed that conditions very similar to those at Rio Tinto had existed on Mars as well. The Mars rocks collected near the Rover’s landing site indicate that the chemistry of the water in which they were once submerged was also very similar to that of Rio Tinto water. So NASA approached the investigating scientists at the Spanish Center for Astrobiology, which lead to a joint project called MARTE.

Providentially for NASA, they were able to find Mars surface on planet earth right here at Rio Tinto mines! The 5,000 years of mining along the Rio Tinto river has left the landscape with dramatic hues of dusty pink, brown, yellow, red, black and grey, due to the various minerals, the mining tailings, sedimentation, erosion, oxidation, etc., rendering an otherworldly Martian-like environment.

Remarkably, when Rover analyzed the Martian soil data and relayed it back, it turned out that the geological and chemical element composition on Mars (which rarely occurs on earth) had an exact likeness to the mineral deposits of Rio Tinto – sulfates, hematite sedimentary rock and a composite called Jarosite! They have been developing deep drilling techniques (about 500 feet into the ground) at Rio Tinto mines using robotic systems that could be used on future Mars exploration programs to look for signs of underground life forms as well as for conducting various other tests.

Based on some of the evidence from the tests, the MARTE team’s scientists believe that an underground “biologically based chemical reactor fueled by organisms that do not need oxygen” may exist in the subsurface of the Rio Tinto area, and a similar “chemical reactor” may well exist on Mar’s subsurface. Here are some otherworldly pictures – rather surreal and Martian-like, which I took from a moving train.

King Solomon’s Wealth

I mentioned the Tartessians (Kingdom of Tartessos) as one of the civilizations who were also involved in mining activities at Rio Tinto. Several references can be found about their time and location in ancient Hispania, including specific telltale references to Rio Guadalquivir, Rio Guadiana, “a place full of innumerable treasures”, “gold, copper, silver, tin, minerals in abundance”, etc., made by Roman and Greek historians, as well as in religious texts.

The Kingdom of Tartessos was once considered to be located in present day Sardinia, but some evidence points more convincingly to its milieu in Spain. The one somewhat disputed point is whether “Tarshish” (also spelt as Tarsis and Tharshis) is the same as Tartessos, and there seems to be more unanimity amongst modern day scholars that they both refer to the same place and Kingdom, Tarshish being a Phoenician label.

Tartessos/Tarshish has been indicated on old maps as the area in Southern Iberia (Andalucia) shown in green. Malacca is the Phoenician name for present day Malaga – the little red circle! And the Phoenician name of the ancient city called Gadir (lower left), also known as Gadeira, Gades and Agadir at various times under Greeks, Romans and Moors, is the present day city of Cadiz.

There is anecdotal evidence that Phoenicians were getting silver from the Iberian Peninsula to decorate their temples and pay off Assyrian debts, and at that time their dealings were with the Tartessians. Shipwreck evidence also points to silver bars and ingots coming to Phoenicia/modern Lebanon as well as Israel, supplied by Tartessians in Spain.

When the Phoenicians came to the Iberian Peninsula, probably driven out by Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Tyre, they found silver, gold and copper mines run by an indigenous people called the Tartessians with whom they had been trading earlier. Given the aforementioned, it seems that we can corroborate with at least a fair degree of confidence, though not conclusively, that “Tarshish” is the same as Tartessos.

References to King Solomon’s Wealth in the Bible

It should also be mentioned that there is the Old Testament allegory about “mines of King Solomon” which has remained shrouded in mystery, but archeological and historical evidence now seems to suggest that one can at least conjecture that much of the opulence of King Solomon’s temples was in fact sourced from the Rio Tinto mines!

The man known as King Solomon did have expensive tastes and quite a penchant for building opulent temples and palaces, obsessively embellished with a lot of gold, silver and copper ornamentation. Not to mention his fine collection of 700 wives and 300 concubines, as well as a “personal” army of 12,000 soldiers and a fleet of ships (I am simply quoting biblical text)! It has been estimated that 25 to 30 tons of gold and about 30,000 tons of silver adorned his famous temples – now that’s a LOTTA gold and silver.

Here are some references to King Solomon’s riches, including gold and silver, mentioned in biblical passages that I came across:

  • For the king (Solomon) had the ships of Tarshish at sea with Hiram’s fleet, and once every three years the ships of Tarshish would arrive bearing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. [Kings 10:22]
  • Tarshish did business with you because of your great wealth of goods; they exchanged silver, iron, tin and lead for your merchandise. [Ezekiel 27:12]
  • For the king (Solomon) had ships that sailed to Tarshish accompanied by Hiram’s servants. Once every three years ships from Tarshish returned, bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. [Chronicles 9:21]

Anecdotal Evidence of King Solomon’s Connection to the Rio Tinto Mines

Finally, some other clues I came across that link King Solomon’s riches to Rio Tinto (anecdotal/circumstantial, of course) are that there are two ancient Pueblos/villages nearby which were (supposedly) built and inhabited by Solomon’s merchants who named it after Solomon – Zalamea la Vieja and Zalamea la Real. Zalamea was purportedly the Phoenician way of referring to Solomon; spellings differ, such as Zulema and Zalamea, but evidently they all refer to Solomon.

There is a section of the Rio Tinto mining complex that is still called “Cerro Solomon” (Solomon Hill) and there is also a bridge across Tinto River nearby called “Puente Solomon”, puente meaning bridge in Spanish.  Both show up on Google Maps (Solomon is just spelt differently in Spanish on the map).

Adventure Movies and TV shows referring to “King Solomon’s Mines”.

So whilst we still can’t say conclusively that King Solomon’s gold, silver and riches came from the Rio Tinto mines almost 3,000 years ago, however, circumstantial evidence does weigh in favor of such an idea. Regardless of what is the reality, it was a wonderful experience to examine and reflect on the 5,000 years of mining history at Rio Tinto, the fabled mines of King Solomon!


Click here for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings: The City that gave an Empire its First Defeat

Nasser Tufail

Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the USA where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies. After working in aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence/analytics and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.

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  1. Not only a storehouse of knowledge but written in an absorbing way! Does the writer write for National Geographic?

    • Thank you, Zakia, yes, Nasser enjoys traveling and putting his thoughts on paper – or our blog. I’m glad you enjoyed it. He is currently writing another piece for us to share.

  2. Wonderful; long time ago, aged eighteen, I had a holiday job as a clerk in a “stocks & shares” company in London stamping share certificates with the name Rio Tinto mining company. Stuck in that hateful office it was the best part of the job conjuring up visions of the mine, the colours of the metals. I thought it was in South Africa and now I find out it was in Spain and better yet quite possibly connected to King Solomon. What a great item to read on a Monday morning. Thank You.

    • Hello Margaret,
      Thanks for the nice comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. To be honest, while living in California, for some reason I just assumed these Rio Tinto mines would be located in Latin America – I mean, names like Rio Mar, Rio Grande, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Claro, Rio Bravo, etc. remind you of Mexico, Columbia, Brazil, etc. It wasn’t until I moved to Costa del Sol when I found out about the location of the mines in an article published by JPL/Caltech.
      The Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto Corporation does have mining operations in South Africa (heavy mineral sands extraction/refining), and so in your case at least there is some plausibility in your assumption and you were not totally off the mark 🙂
      Thanks for stopping by, and stay safe from the vagaries of this Pandemic. Cheers…

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