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Falun Copper Mine UNESCO site in Sweden

“It’s a big hole in the ground.”

I think “underwhelmed” is a good word for my first impression of the Falun Copper Mine in eastern Sweden.

A deep pit at Falun Copper Mine, showing bare rock around the sides, some of which is reddish. A dirt road snakes down to the bottom and two tractors are visible, very tiny, at the bottom.
The “Great Pit” at Falun Copper Mine. For scale, notice the bulldozers at the bottom.

We were on our way south on a road trip from the northernmost part of Norway back home to the Netherlands after our Hurtigruten cruise up the Norwegian coast. As usual, I looked up any UNESCO sites we happened to be passing, and this was one of them.

It wasn’t until we took a closer look – and read the UNESCO site’s description – that we understood the place’s significance. In any case our visit was educational and interesting.

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Text: Sweden's Falun Copper Mine: Ever wonder why so many houses in Scandinavia are painted red? Here's why! (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo) 
Image: close-up of a wooden wall painted red, showing the wood's texture and grain.

Falun Copper Mine and the UNESCO designation

It’s easy to forget that UNESCO sites are about humanity’s cultural and natural heritage. It’s not necessary for the place to be really old or particularly beautiful. It has to have “outstanding universal value” from whatever point of view: art, history, science, aesthetics, architecture, conservation, habitat, natural beauty, to name just some of the categories. The sites also have to be actively protected by the country or locality.

In this case, the mines were important in the Swedish economy over centuries, and they’re in good condition, providing “a vivid picture of what was for centuries one of the world’s most important mining areas.” (from the UNESCO site).

Called “Mining Area of the Great Copper Mountain in Falun” on the UNESCO site, the UNESCO designation isn’t just for the “Great Pit.” It includes the planned town of Falun that dates to the 17th century, as well as remains of the copper industry across much of the region.

The mine building is a 3-story yellow-painted structure, symmetrical, with neat rows of windows on the ground floor and first floor. A door in the middle and 5 window on each side. The top floor is under a green roof, and only two windows near the center show, with a round window centered above them.
The mine administration was in this rather grand building. Today it is the mine’s museum.

History of the Falun mine

Copper mining in Falun probably started over a thousand years ago. It produced copper and other metals, and the industry in turn contributed enormously to Sweden’s development to a modern state, especially in the 17th century.

At its height, the mine produced more than two-thirds of all European copper and more than a thousand people worked there. This includes children who worked picking ore from gravel.

Technology improved, bringing tools like dynamite and drills that were powered by steam and later electricity. Electric lighting replaced oil lamps. It wasn’t until the 20th century that mine workers gained some protections in terms of things like helmets and an eight-hour work day.

The mine didn’t close until the late 20th century, and the remains of the machinery, the mine shafts, as well as the town are still in excellent condition. They illustrate the mining industry as it was conducted both in the pre-industrial period and later, as the technology improved.

Underground at the Falun copper mine

Getting back to my first impression, we saw a very large, very deep pit. What helped us understand it more was to go down a mining shaft. Not surprisingly, this is only possible as part of a guided tour.

The heads of several people are visible at the bottom of the photo, wearing hardhats of orange or yellow (the tour guide). Indirect lights reveal two parallel stairways up a slope to a tunnel that disappears into darkness. The stairways are wooden with a broken railing on the side between the two stairways. ON the outside is rock walls. The stairway on the left is partly covered in rubble The one on the right has a broken tread toward the top and rubble toward the bottom.
Remains of some stairways inside the mine.

The tour takes about an hour and goes to a depth of about 67 meters out of the mine’s 610 meters total depth.  Before descending, we put on bright orange rain ponchos and hardhats. It’s wet down in the mine, and presumably not 100% safe, or we wouldn’t need hardhats.

A photo of me, smiling at the camera. I wear an orange hardhat and an orange rain poncho, jeans and sneakers. A camera hangs around my neck.
Me, ready for the tour.

The tour involved first going down a lot of steps, then walking some damp gravel-floored tunnels, some with wooden boards to walk on. They were dark, despite the electric lights shining at intervals. We stopped at various points to hear stories from the mine’s history, along with descriptions of how the workers extracted the copper.

Looking down a long dark tunnel, with a downward-shining light perhaps every 5 meters going off into the distance. The nearest lamp shows that the wall is rough cut stone and that the floor is fine gravel and quite wet.
One of the tunnels the tour goes through.

It wasn’t pretty. We could see for ourselves how in some places the reddish walls were supported by massive wooden beams holding back rubble, and could easily imagine how common wall or ceiling collapses must have been. In some places we saw the remains of rickety-looking ladders or stairs made of wood. We saw side tunnels filled with rubble. Was someone there when the rubble came down?

We looked up a shaft, light filtering down dimly through the dust, with a large pail hanging on the end of a chain. While the pail was mostly used for carrying ore, sometimes it carried the workers themselves. They would be lowered into the mine with that pail, several at a time with one leg in the pail, one leg out, hanging on to the chain with their hands as they descended.

A pail hangs on a chain that connects with the pail at 3 points. Behind the pail, the wall is made of parallel horizontal strips of wood with much larger wood beams going horizontally. The whole scene has a greenish cast with indirect light from above.

While the route we took had been widened and smoothed for visitors like us, I could imagine how miserable the job must have been for those miners. Breathing in dust all day as they worked at the rock, always wary of collapses, backs bent. The whole thing made me nervous, and I was happy to arrive back above ground after our one-hour tour.

Inside a large cave, stone walls on left and right. The far wall, though, is large round logs laid horizontally, like a log cabin, but with spaces between the logs, which show rocks. All of it is a bit reddish. At the bottom is an old wooden ladder and lots of rocks.
To get a sense of the size of this log wall, notice the old ladder at the bottom.

Above-ground at the Falun mine

Above the ground there is more to see. A path two kilometers long runs along the edge of the Great Pit, and signposts explain the items along the way. Mostly the landscape is dotted with slag heaps or “tips,” i.e. huge piles of rock tailings. This rock was pulled up out of the mine shafts and dumped here after the ore was removed. Little grows on them; they’re just piles of rocks.

The Great Pit was not always so big, of course. In the 17th century it was actually two large pits. In 1687 a huge landslide collapsed the wall between the pits and caused landslides underground inside the tunnels. No one was hurt, fortunately, because it was Midsummer and the whole staff had a free day.

Several buildings edge the pit, and each served a function. Some of them are called a “lave” and sit on top of shafts from various periods. A wheelhouse holds a huge water wheel used for power to haul the ore and rock out of the mine.

In the foreground, the side of the pit: stone walls. On the flat land edging the pit are several buildings. Left to right: a larger tall red tower, square, like a very large chimney. Next to that a long low building with a taller section at one end, darker brick. To the right are 4 more small red-painted buildings that look like cottages, but are actually mine-related buildings.
In this shot taken from across the pit, you can see several buildings: the large one was housing for miners while the others are laves or other functional buildings.

The Mine Museum

We took a little time as well to visit the Mine Museum in the old mine office next to the pit, and the quality of the exhibits surprised us. It’s very interactive, and the number of children focused on the various activities testifies to its success at making the science surrounding mining interesting.

The side of the pit is visible in front: a rock wall. A small brown roofed structure hangs on the edge of it, with a stairway down to it from the top edge of the pit. Beyond that is the mine office building, painted yellow with a green roof. Smaller yellow buildings on either side of it: 2 stories on the left, single-story on the right. A church peeks from behind the mine building and a whole village can be glimpsed behind that.
The yellow building is the Mine Museum, in what used to be the mine offices. View from across the pit. The little brown roofed structure on the edge of the pit on the left is where the tours descend the visitor shaft.

Another museum of a sort is Eriksson’s cottage, where employees in period costume show what life was like for the miners’ families in 1897.

Falun Red paint

It wasn’t just copper that came out of the mine, by the way. Zinc, lead, gold and silver also came from Falun mine. But the most famous product, besides copper, is Falun Red paint, also called Falu Red. This is the dominant color you’ll see on houses all over Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia. The traditional big red barn in the US may derive from this too.

The house is 2 stries high, painted deep red with white around the windows and roof, and two white strips down around the central two windows. Four windows on each of 2 floors.
A house in Falun town.

Falun Red paint is a byproduct of heating copper ore. The color varies depending on how much it gets heated. Mixed with oil and starch and other trace ingredients, it becomes an excellent protective paint. Over time it fades, rather than flaking, so it’s easier than other paints to repaint it without having to sand.

At the Falun Copper Mine, a small craft company still produces Falun Red pigment from the tailings found around the mine. You can visit their gift shop on the site.

Falun town

The extraction of copper from the pit evolved over the centuries, as did the town serving the mine. That town, also called Falun, was planned and built in the 17th century and is today a charming collection of wooden houses, painted red, of course. Make sure to leave time for a stroll around the town.

A row of red-painted houses. The nearer ones are very small and just one story. The furthest one is 3 stories tall.
A street in Falun.

Other UNESCO sites nearby

If industrial history is a particular interest of yours, don’t miss Engelsberg Ironworks, south of Falun Copper Mine. It’s UNESCO-listed because it’s a well-preserved ironworks that, like the Falun Mine, contributed to Sweden’s prosperity in the 17th to the 19th century. I didn’t get there, but it sounds from the UNESCO site like it includes a whole complex of original ironworks buildings as well as offices and residences.

Moving north of the Falun Copper Mine, you’ll head into the region of the Decorated Farmhouses of Hälsingland. You can read about them in my separate post here.

The painting depicts what I think is a boat (but may be a church since it's got a cross on the top) in blue, red and yellow, seen from its end. A man stands on shore next to it, pointing a rifle to the right. A tree on the left and a decorative flower design on the "sky".
A painted wall inside Ol-Anders, one of the Decorated Houses of Hälsingland.

Way up at the top of the Gulf of Bothnia – the body of water between Sweden and Finland – you’ll find the city of Luleå and the absolutely charming UNESCO site called Gammelstad. My separate post about that is here.

Pretty little red houses with white trip line a grassy "street. At the end, a tall church tower in white with a yellowish top.
Gammelstad UNESCO site.

If you visit Falun Copper Mine

If you go to Falun, here are some suggestions:

  • Wear strong, closed shoes. You’ll walk a lot of steps and it may be wet.
  • Wear several layers, even if it’s warm out. It’s cold in the mine.
  • If you’re traveling with children, keep a good hold on their hands to keep them on the path and safe.
  • The tunnel is not at all accessible if you can’t walk stairs. There is a video tour of the tunnel in the Mine Museum.
  • If you’re claustrophobic, don’t do it. Watch the video in the museum instead.
  • I think the path around the edge of the mine is wheelchair accessible, but some of the small buildings are not.
  • We spent probably about 3-4 hours there, what with the tour, the path around the pit, and the Mine Museum. With kids it could easily take quite a bit longer in the museum.

Where to stay

If you need a place to stay, there’s a B&B on the mine site called Gruvortens in an 18th century building that once was the residence for the chief engineers of the mine.

There are plenty more places to stay in or near Falun. Use the map below to see the listings:

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Text: Falun Copper mine UNESCO site: Down a mine shaft to learn about mining history in Sweden
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