I've been curious about just how well RPG mining would compare to real world mining. Assuming the proper ore was visible on the surface (therefore easy to find), how well would ol' John be able to figure out how to mine it? I'm assuming it'd be more complicated than the usual 'bang pick on rock' mechanic. Or is it? Could John Layman just decide one day to take a pick and cart from his village and go mining?

On a related note, how easy would it be for a layman to find traces of desirable ores in a Medieval setting anyway?

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    $\begingroup$ Lots of details are missing here. Does John Layman know what to look for? Who owns or holds the land where he wants to mine? What do the laws of the realm say about mining? In some countries the owner or holder of the land has the right to mine, in other countries he would need a license from the sovereign. How precious is the ore? How concentrated is the ore? If the ore is super concentrated, even iron ore may be the basis of gaining his daily bread; but in most cases, not even gold ore will pay for his sustenance. Is John Layman free to do what he pleases, or does he have obligations? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 25, 2021 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ "How feasible?" very, because they did. they were mining in Wales b4 the Romans & the Romans mined on industrial scales in Wales, even the most basic research (aka a Google search) b4 posting would help avoid this kind of hopelessly uninformed question // (very) obviously a layman then would be no more likely to recognise ores than a layman today. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Aug 25, 2021 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ One of the major approaches I like to consider on these type of questions is: if John Layman can do this today, why didn't anyone do it yesterday? Metals are valuable, and if a non-expert could locate and extract them, wouldn't they have done so long ago? $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Aug 26, 2021 at 18:54

2 Answers 2


Some ores are soft and easily dug (surprisingly, that includes some ores of iron). Some ores are in hard rock that's heavy, hard work to mine even with modern power tools and explosives.

Desirable ores might include cinnabar (mercury ore), gold sand (weathered quartz-based rock with veins of gold, usually mixed with silver and copper), iron sand (one of the original sources of steel), bog iron (naturally occurring source of wrought iron) -- all of which can be dug in quantities sufficient to make it worth a single miner's time with primitive tools.

How easy are these to find? All were known to the ancients, and in ancient and Neolithic times hadn't yet been heavily mined except near the largest concentrations of population -- so if Joe Layman's farm is pretty far out in the sticks, there might well be outcrops of these minerals where he could spot them.

Now, whether Joe Layman would have the knowledge that this particular sort of black sand can be melted into iron with a clay cupola and a very large quantity or charcoal, or that this other one can be heated in a clay pot over an ordinary fire and yield quicksilver is the other question -- and the answer is probably a resounding NO! Before the modern age, few people had any knowledge beyond what it took to make their own living, and the few who did were typically what passed for wealthy (because only the wealthy would have the leisure time to spend learning things they didn't need to know today to put a roof over their heads or food in the stew pot.

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    $\begingroup$ Not only before the modern age. Even today, with universal education and Wikipedia, the vast majority of people have no idea how iron ore looks like. And iron ore is very often conspicuously red... Not to speak about must less visually striking ores. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 25, 2021 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Yep, I chose iron sand, gold sand, and cinnabar because they're conspicuous as well as soft digging... $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Aug 25, 2021 at 18:00

Let's start with the first metals that were mined, copper and gold (which are often found together). Copper and gold nuggets were first discovered loose. Then, getting copper from rocks was probably first discovered when people heated some green rocks by using them in a fire pit and found copper melting out. The first copper mining was probably done by just a few people. Smelting of copper is done better with two people as it can take one to run the air pumps and another to work the smelting pot.

This discovery was not widely shared over the Internet. People kept knowledge as how to identify ores and how to process them to themselves. The burial found near Stonehenge of a copper working person who came from near the Alps to England suggests that at that time, people who could work copper were given honor. (Yet, the copper buried with him came from Spain and France.)

By the Medieval times, most of the easy to find ore deposits had already been found and exploited. The Hallstatt salt mine in the Alps has been mined for 7,000 years or more. In the Bronze age, tin was mined in Britain and shipped to the societies in the Middle East. The Romans heavily mined deposits in Spain. There are even hints of trading metals with the Americas by the Phoenicians.

So, John Layman would find slim pickings if he simply wanted to go out and mine somewhere. (It would be much like trying to find a big gold strike in California today. Most of the good places already have claims on them.) I suspect there would have been a mining guild that would want to have a say in if he could do any mining.


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