Research Notes on mule power in the Sierra Gádor,
Almeria, Spain: A significant mining landscape
Notas de investigación sobre el poder mula en la Sierra de Gádor,
Almería, España: Un paisaje minero importante
The Sierra Gádor is one of several significant mining landscapes to be found in the
Autonomous Region of Andalucía, Spain (Vernon 2013). Compared to the mining
landscapes of Linares, and the Sierra Almagrera, it is not easily accessed, frequently
covered in snow in the winter and hot and dry in the summer.
The author has made several visits to the Sierra Gádor, in addition to
conducting a desktop study of aerial photographs, to identify structure elements
within the mining landscape and has discovered a wealth of mining remains probably
associated with the lead mining boom period of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
They deserves serious study and to be accurately surveyed. To date, very little has
been written about this aspect and only the more obvious mining structures have been
noted in literature.
In many instances, mine workings are simplistic in nature, for example
footway shafts surrounded by walling, but scattered throughout the mining region
there are a significant number of stone walled circular structures; malacates, or mule
operated whims, used for winding ore to the surface from the deeper workings, and
are the subject of these notes.
Figure 1. Sierra Gádor: Location
Location, Geology and Climate
The Sierra Gádor is located immediately to the west of Almeria city on the south
coast of Spain (See Figure 1).
It is a high (over 2000m), relatively dry, plateau composed of Triassic
limestone (See Figure 2). The north side of the limestone outcrop is dissected by the
east-west aligned valley of the Rio Andarax. Although lead has been found in many
locations on the plateau, it tends to be concentrated in three specific areas: i) Between
the towns of Fondon and Almócita on the north side of the Rio Andarax, ii) Centrally,
east of the towns of Berja and Dalias, and iii) Immediately north and west of Almeria.
Figure 2. Sierra Gádor: Geology (Limestone outcrop in blue)
(Mapa Metalogenetico de España. 84-85 Almeria-Garrucha. IGME, Madrid)
Water drains freely though joints in the limestone, a process that has evidently
been occurring for a long time, as underground the joints are heavily filled with re-
deposited calcium carbonate. The few mines located close to the floor of the Andarax
valley would have needed some form of mines drainage, but on the plateau areas,
mines drainage doesn’t appear to have been a problem.
The climate is generally hot in the summer and very cold in the winter, with
snow on the ground for up to three months some years. There are occasional periods
of heavy rainfall. The area in the past was relatively isolated with very few access
tracks, and ore was probably taken out of the area by mule train.
Major capital investment was not required for mining operations so the mines
tend to be small units. Several studies have been made on the mining operations,
notably Pérez de Perceval Verde (1984, 1989) and Picón (1983), whilst some mention
is made of the mining archaeology in Barrionuevo (2002). The mines were worked
predominantly in the late 18th and early 19th century.
It is evident from aerial photographs that much of the plateau surface is bare and the
metalliferous areas are pockmarked with numerous shafts, many of which are
surrounded by low walling. More rarely the area around a shaft may have been
covered with a roofed structure, probably for the storage of equipment. There is also
some evidence of adjacent declines into the mine workings.
There was never a practical reason for a high level of technology to become
established in the Sierra Gádor as the mine workings were generally shallow, and
relatively dry, with little need for mines drainage.
Mule-Whims and Gins
Examples of horse, mule, donkey and even camel whims are found in mining districts
throughout the world. They can roughly be divided into two types, a whim where the
winding shaft is located outside the circular animal walkway, and gins, where the
shaft is inside the circle (Gill et al, 2014).
A whim typically has a vertically mounted axle through a drum. The winding
rope is wrapped around the drum. A top bearing, held in position by top beams keeps
the axle vertical and central. A gin usually has a tooth-geared mechanism located in
the centre of the circle at ground level, and doesn't usually need a top support (See
del cojinete Pozo
Ruta de mula
Aproximadamente 10 metros de diámetro
Ruta de mula
Aproximadamente 6 metros de diámetro
Whim Circle Gin Circle
Figure 3. Whim and Gin Circles: Typical layout.
Figure 4 shows a typical whim worked by two mules. Halse (1914, 218) provides
some statistics for horse-whims. A double horse, and presumably mule whim, requires
the use of 24 horses per day, each working 2 to 2½ hours in a 24 hour period. Halse
indicates that usually one man was in charge with two drivers and six further helpers.
A malacate working to a depth of 300m was capable of raising 190 tons in 24 hours.
The Sierra Gádor is mentioned specifically as a place where malacate de rosarios are
used working an endless rope on which large ore baskets where hung.
Figure 4. Mule whim: Abundancia mine, Linares in 1905
(Bonham Carter Archives, Hampshire Record Office, Winchester, UK)
Mule-Whims and Gins in the Sierra Gádor.
Several patents for malacate de rosarios exist in the Spanish National Patent Office,
Madrid, and are presumed to be complex variations to the simpler form employed on
the Sierra Gádor. Patent PR 4088 (dated 1865) and PR 4149 (dated 1866) were filed
from Berja and show a method of taking an endless rope ore-raising system through a
series of offset underground shafts. Interestingly, both patents show the winding drum
mechanism in an undercroft in the centre of circle. However none of the Sierra Gádor
malacates in these notes exhibits this feature. The ropes appear to run overhead as
confirmed by the location of apertures in the walling to take the rope from the whim-
circle drum to a pulley over the shaft.
Figure 5 Sierra Gádor: Remains of a mule-whim circle (Malacate B7)
Snow-capped Sierra Nevada in the background
It is apparent that for much of the Sierra Gador mining area ore was raised with a
simple windlass, or carried manually up shafts in sacks. It was only when the
occasional workings became too deep to wind ore by hand, that more elaborate
methods of ore-raising using mule-powered malacates were required. This is
illustrated by the numerous examples of mule-whim circles that are scattered
throughout the mining landscape (See Figure 5). They are sometimes clustered on a
particular site, but typically occur as individual structures. They are about 10 metres
diameter and more unusually they are walled, perhaps offering some protection from
the harsh climate. They are not as elaborate as the larger and tile roofed Baritels,
found in the Almadén, Castille-La Mancha (See Figure 6), or Hiendelaencina areas,
for example. Another unusual feature of the Sierra Gádor whim circles are the
structures built onto the side of the circle that in some examples surround the whim
circle completely. They were probably used for stabling and storage of fodder, water
etc., for the mules, and storage of basic mining equipment and ore.
The walls are constructed from limestone blocks and survive as complete
whim circles, although the circular walling surrounding the circle is often in a semi-
collapsed state. Internally the circle walls often show signs of being rendered with
plaster, presumably to seal them from cold winds.
The Sierra Gádor malacates are typically 9m to 10m in diameter, but
there are examples 12m diameter (B10). Four sections of the wall are often thicker,
and are usually about 90º apart, and would have supported the top cross members for
any roof structure, but more importantly centred the top bearing of the vertical axle
for the winding drum. There was also a lower bearing for the axle that was fixed into
a square central hole in the floor of the malacate. Several examples were noted in the
centres of malacates B3 and B4.
Figure 6. Almadenejos, Castlle-La Mancha: Baritel San Carlos (2014)
About 20 metres diameter.
Whilst whim-circles are found in other mining districts of Spain at La Union
(Murcia), Linares (Jaen), Hiendelaencina (Guadalajara), to cite a few, their remains
are never in significant numbers to form a major component of the mining landscape.
Sierra Gádor: Malacates and similar features
It would seem that there are very few references to the mule-whims in the
Sierra Gádor mining landscape. A pair of whim circles at the La Solana mine near
Fondon (Torres Ruiz 2008, 53 to 54) and a mule gin, another form of malacate with
central gearing, at the San Diego mine, Dalías (Barrionuevo 2002, 37), have been
briefly describe, but no mention has been given to the large number that exist in this
area. So far a total of 30 have been identified on aerial photographs and a number of
the sites have been visited for verification / ground-truthing purposes. They can be
broadly divided into three groups based on location: Fondon-Almócita (8), Berja (16),
Dalías (6). Figure 7 shows the general areas of distribution.
Figure 7. Sierra Gádor: Distribution of whim and gin circles
Fondón - Almócita Group
FA1 515112 4093619 c9m W E
FA2 516150 4093999 c10m W
FA3 516208 4094020 c9.5m S W-S-E
FA4 516223 4093912 c11m W-S-E
FA5 516453 4095020 c10m S E
FA6 516773 4094523 c9.5 S
FA7 517145 4094916 c9.5 SE SW-NE
FA8 516656 4094699 c5.5 gin circle?
Table 1. Fondón - Almócita Group: Mule whims and gin circle
(Diameter scaled from aerial photographs)
Table 1 provides details of the eight circles identified in the Fondón - Almócita area.
Their locations are shown on Figure 8.
FA8 is a small diameter circular feature and could be a gin circle?
Figure 8. Fondón - Almócita Group: Locations of mule whims and gin circle
Figure 9. Fondón - Almócita Group: FA3 (centre) and FA4 (background)
Figure 10. Fondón - Almócita Group: FA3 shaft.
The open shaft associated with whim circle FA3 is located on the south side of the
structure. The aperture between the circle and the shaft that carried the rope has
undergone some modification, which suggests that it was once deeper. It is possible
that the horizontal winding drum may once have been at floor level in this whim.
Overall the structure is robust compared to similar structures found in the Berja Group
to the south, for example.
x coordinate y coordinate
B1 509336 4087428 c9m NW SW
B2 510013 4086346 c15m E
B3 510095 4086313 c10m SE NW-SE
B4 509986 4086190 c12m W W
B5 510014 4085762 c9m SW
B6 509661 4085538 c10m SW NW
B7 509833 4085557 c11m WSW
B8 509725 4085378 ? Overgrown
B9 509973 4085532 c9.5m W NW
B10 509163 4083662 c12m SW N & S
B11 509146 4083546 c11.5m N N & S
B12 509124 4083541 c10.5m Possible?
B13 510907 4084219 c10.5m SE S & SE
B14 511578 4083624 c8.5m W Gin circle?
B15 511593 4083410 c10.5m W
B16 509925 4085806 ? Ruinous
B17 508847 4087450 ? W Built over?
Table 2. Berja Group: Mule whims and gin circle
(Diameter scaled from aerial photographs)
Figure 11. Berja Group: Locations of mule whims and gin circle
Table 2 provides details of the seventeen circles identified in the Berja area. Their
locations are shown on Figure 11.
B2 is a paved circular feature c15m diameter.
B14 is a small diameter circular feature and could be a gin circle?
B17. Aerial photographs from 1977 suggest that there was a whim adjacent to
what appears to be a run in shaft. The area is now built over by an agricultural
Figure 12. Berja Group: B2
B2 is a circular paved area about 15m diameter with a structure on the east side (See
Figure 12). It is possible that the area may have been used for hand-dressing ore,
however there is a lack of waste material. It is probable that it may have been for
agricultural use - a threshing area for example, although it is hard to believe that
cereal crops could be grown in this environment.
Figure 13. Berja Group: B3
Figure 14. Berja Group: B3 - centre stone.
Figure 15. Berja Group: B3 - entrance to mine workings?
B3 (Figure 13) is located down-slope and east of B2. There is a rough stone with a
square hole in the centre of the circle (Figure 14). The buildings immediately to the
south contain a possible decline down to mine-workings (Figure 15).
Figure 16. Berja Group: B4 - shaft collapse
Figure 17. Berja Group: B4
B4 (Figure 16) has been partly destroyed due to the collapse of its companion shaft on
the western side. However, there is a substantial stone with a square recess at what
would have been the centre of the circle (See Figure 17).
Figure 18. Berja Group: B6 - centre overgrown
B6 (Figure 18) is a substantial circle but is overgrown in the central area.
Figure 19. Berja Group: B7
Figure 20. Berja Group: B7 - open shaft with arch structure in shaft wall.
B7 (Figure 19) is an interesting circle as it is possible to see the grass covered track
around the outer edge of the circle where the mules walked. This is probably more
fertile ground than the central area that is stonier. The open shaft (Figure 20) is on the
west side, with a shaft top below the level of the circle floor, has an arch structure in
the shaft side.
Figure 21. Berja Group: B8
B8 (Figure 21) is in a very ruinous state and not discernible on aerial photographs due
to trees. It is probably that tree planting, that was conducted throughout the area in the
1970s, damaged the circle.
Figure 22. Berja Group: B10, 11 and 12
B10, 11 and 12 (Figure 22) lie to the southeast of Lavadera Sugunda. They show up
clearly on the 1977 aerial photograph, although the 2013 aerial photograph suggest
the site has deteriorated. The site has not been visited but there is a suggestion on the
photographs that a third whim circle (B12) may exist immediately to the west of B11.
Figure 23. Berja Group: B13
Figure 24. Berja Group: B13 - Shaft
B13 (Figure 23) lies on the limestone plateau to the east of Pozo Lupion. It is a
substantial construction rendered internally and partly externally in the shaft area. The
square aperture where the winding rope went from the drum to the shaft pulley is still
intact. (Figure 24) The open shaft is covered with timber planking.
x coordinate y coordinate
D1 516247 4082788 c9m NW Ruinous
D2 516429 4082975 c10m S S
D3 518584 4081642 c9.5m N E
D4 518287 4081704 c10m E N
D5 518636 4081823 c7.5m N
D6 518555 4081828 ? Gin circle
Table 3. Dalías Group: Mule whims and gin circle
(Diameter scaled from aerial photographs)
Figure 25. Dalías Group: Locations of mule whims and gin circle
D1 to 5 appear to be conventional whim circles but D6 is a gin circle.
Figure 26. Dalías Group: D4
D4 (Figure 26) is a relatively simple site. It does have an arched aperture on the shaft
side of the whim circle.
Figure 27. Dalías Group: D6 (with D5 in the background)
Figure 28. Dalías Group: D6 prior to safety work
(Barrionuevo, L. C. 2002, 37)
D27 (Figure 27) is a small horse gin, used for winding at the San Diego mine. The
structure is quite unique for the area (Figure 28). Unfortunately it has undergone
safety work with steel mesh and breeze blocks cemented in around the shaft, and this
has destroyed the interpretation quality of the site completely.
A1 523357 4093314 ? Gin circle for ochre crushing
Table 4. AlcoraGroup: Gin circle
Figure 29. Alcora: Ochre (?) crusher - gin circle.
A gin circle arrangement used to work a roller crusher. Weights were hung on the two
levers to keep the correct gap between the two rollers.
Statement: These notes were put together to make others aware that there is a unique
mining landscape to be properly researched in the Sierra Gádor. I hope they might
inspire others. There is much more work to be done recording this fascinating mining
Robert W. Vernon
4th July 2016
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