Les Mines d'Argent du Fournel (Fournel silver mine) and le Musée de la Mine (mining museum)
The silver-lead deposit in the Fournel valley was substantially mined in the Middle Ages (10th to 13th Centuries). Using a digging technique with fire, the excavation went down to 100 metres. The silver extracted was used by the archbishoprics of Embrun, Cesana and Grenoble in their money minting workshops.
Then during the industrial revolution between 1785 and 1908, several mining companies in succession continude to extract the mineral, up to 300 metres under the mountainside. A factory was built in the depths of the Fournel gorges and the mining activity employed up to 500 people.
Since 1992, the site has been the object of various archeological excavations. Volunteer organisations have helped to rehabilitate the site which today is open to the public.
The Fournel silver mines (10th to 19th centuries)
The quartzite rocks of the Fournel valley enclose important lead and silver deposits. Several seams can be found in the rocky escarpments dominating the town of Argentière down to the bottom of the gorges carved out by a glacial rock bar. This rich deposit had been exploited during the Middle Ages and then again during the industrial revolution of the 19th century. The mine closed in 1908 and the site was left abandoned. A multi-disciplinary study of the mining site was started in 1991, in partnership with the Parc National des Écrins and associated geologists, archeologists, geographers and historians …
The studies revealed that the Fournel sector constituted a remarkable mining heritage because of the quality and unique character of its remains:
A rich, multi-phased exploitation of a silver lead (galena) vein
An underground extraction system from the Middle Ages (from 10th to 14th centuries)
An extensive 19th century exploitation (over 20 kms network)
Surface remains of mechanical treatment structure
Underground remains of extraction machines (hydraulic pump, winch)
An examination of the archives show us that the Argentière mine was, in the 19th century, the largest, and best organised operation in the Hautes Alpes. Despite the relatively small deposit, it was nevertheless recognised on a national level for the quality of its minerals, and the introduction of new techniques (English or German) made it better as regards quality, than certain leading exploitations elsewhere in the country.
The establishment, nestled deep in the Fournel gorges, is a perfect example of a mining exploitation: Manager’s house, forge, shops, machine workshops …
The structures aboveground had deteriorated considerably; however those underground were found intact: wheel channel, water courses, paving, stone hopper, canals and basins for washing, machine chassis filled with sand and abandoned minerals. The most remarkable structures are the wooden tables for the purification of the finest sands.
The archaeological remains at the Fournel site allow one to understand industrial and mining relics dating from the industrial revolution. Moreover it is a remarkable example of mining from that period, because of its physical location and eventful past.
The underground visit allows one to understand how work was organised in Medieval times (the extraction site using fire, the airing gallery, drainage gallery) and to appreciate the difficulties facing workers in these galleries during this epoch. Comparison with the more recent exploitation (in the 19th century) is also interesting (machine rooms with relics of hydraulic machinery).
In addition to the archaeological and technical interest, the mine is a good place to do some applied geology: observation of the seam in situ and explanations of how it was formed (hydrothermal seam, traces of ripple marks) and the upheavals it underwent during the formation of the Alps (cracks, changes and dips).
This complex geological state evidently had an effect on the mine’s exploitation, all of which can be explained to you by the guide.
Mine museum at the Château St Jean
The silver-mine museum displays 15 years of archaeological research carried out at the Fournel mining site.
The silver-mine museum is located in the former stables of the 18th century Château Saint Jean, which has been restored and is included in the supplementary inventory of Les Monuments Historiques. You can reserve tickets and is also the starting point for your visit to the mining site. There is a small library and information point for the Parc National des Écrins.
There is a permanent exhibition where diverse themes relating to the local mineral and galena exploitation are addressed:
Geology – geomorphology: Sedimentary rocks, metamorphism, hydrothermic seams (formation), structural geology (formation of the Alps), mineralogy
History: local history, technical history of mining exploitation (medieval, Renaissance, 19th century)
Socio-ethnology: the lives of miners in mountainous areas, technical aspects and history of techniques, hydraulic mining, mechanical treatment of minerals (mineralogy), Industrial Revolution
Objects collected from the site show us the techiques used and also the daily life of miners at that time.
Lastly, two documentaries (lasting 23 and 45 minutes) can be shown in the projection room.
Depart with personnal vehicules from the mine museum at Château Saint Jean ; Services of shuttles on certain visits the summer
Descend on foot to the bottom of the gorge; factory relics from the 19th century; underground visit of the modern installations - Galerie de Rebaisse, machine room – Vieux Travaux (medieval part).
Shorter visit: lasts 75 minutes, 30 of which are inside the mine (350 m of underground passages)
Classic visit: lasts 2 hours of which 1 hour is spent inside the mine. (600 m of underground passages)
Visits: 9 am to 11 am and 2 pm to 5 pm.
For the groups established all year long on reservation (except period of snow coverage)
For the individual: from April till October, inquire about the days and the schedules.
Every day in haute-season: departure of the visits of 9:00 am at 5:00 pm.
* Silver mine visits from April to November depending on snow.
In addition to the guided visit, the museum presents the result of historical and archaeological research, a 15 min video and temporary exhibitions. Museum open year round (groups must reserve). From 15th June to 30th September, open daily.
Short visit: Adult: 8€, child <16 years olds 5€, Reduction adult or group (from 10 pax): 6.50€.
Classic visit: Adult: 14€, child <16 years olds 9€, Reduction adult or group (from 10 pax): 11.50€.
Museum only: 3€
Visit not suitable for people in poor health and children less than 5 years old (Footpath of access to the mine). Walking shoes recommended and appropriate clothing (temperature inside the mine: 12°c). Groups underground limited to 19 people.
Fournel silver mine museum
Tel : 04 92 23 02 94
Site : www.ville-argentiere.fr
email : firstname.lastname@example.org
Crédit photos : Jan Novak Photography