The Fournel mines and the Mine Museum
The galena deposit in the Fournel Valley was actively mined in the Middle Ages (10th – 13th century). Using the technique of excavation by fire, the galleries extended up to 100 m from the entrance. The silver that was extracted was used in the minting workshops of the archbishopric of Embrun, Cezana and Grenoble.
Then, during the Industrial Revolution, between 1785 and 1908, several mining companies successively continued to extract the ore up to 300 m below the mountainside. A factory was built at the bottom of the Fournel and the mining activity employed up to 500 people.
Since 1992, the site has undergone archaeological excavations and voluntary workshops with the aim of rehabilitating this industrial heritage, which today is open to the public.
The Fournel silver mines (10th – 19th centuries)
The quartzite rocks of the Fournel Valley contain important lead and silver deposits. Several veins appear in the rocky cliffs overlooking the town of l’Argentière down to the bottom of the gorges cut into a former glacial cross cliff. This abundant deposit was mined as early as the Middle Ages then again, more intensely during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. The mine closed in 1908 and the site was forgotten.
A multidisciplinary study of the mining site is in progress since 1991 in partnership with the Écrins National Park and with the help of geologists, archaeologists, geographers, sedimentologists, historians, etc.
The studies have illustrated the important mining heritage of the Fournel sector, which is quite remarkable due to the quality and originality of the remnants:
- An abundant polyphase operation on a galena deposit
- Organised underground medieval extraction (from the 10th to 14th century)
- A wide-ranging 19th century operation (a network of more than 20 km)
- Remnants from a mechanical treatment installation on the surface
- Underground remnants of the extraction machines (hydraulic pump, winch)
- The archives show that in the 19th century, the mine in l’Argentière was the most important and well-organised operation in the Hautes-Alpes. Despite the small size of the deposit, it was renowned on a national scale for the quality of the ore and for introducing new techniques (English or German) that made it more efficient and qualitative than many other major operations across France.
- The establishment is nestled at the bottom of the Fournel gorges and is particularly representative of a mining operation with a director’s house, forge, storerooms and workshops for preparing the ore, and so on.
- The higher structures are damaged. However, the buried remnants were found intact: wheel pit, water supply canal, paving, cleaning trays and canals, machine frames filled with sterile sands and abandoned ore. The most remarkable structures are the wooden tables that were used for purifying the finest sand.
- The Fournel is a good site for the archaeological study of industrial mining remnants from the Industrial Revolution. In addition, it is a remarkable example due to its physical setting and its eventful history.
- The underground tour illustrates how he medieval works were organised (extraction sites carved out using fire, the airing gallery, the draining gallery) and to understand how difficult work was in the galleries in the Middle Ages. The equivalent of the modern operations (19th century) is equally striking (machine room with remnants of the hydraulic machine).
- In addition to the archaeological and technical history interest, the mine is an excellent site for applied geology: observation of the veins and explanations of its appearance (hydrothermal vein, evidence of ripple marks) and the shifts that it underwent during the uplift of the mountains (faults, changes in inclination).
- The complex geology obviously had an impact on operations as the guides will explain.
Private vehicle from the Mine Museum (Château Saint Jean) and shuttle service for certain summer tours: walk to the bottom of the gorges: remnants of the 19th century plant; underground route in the modern works – Galerie de Rebaisse, machine room – old works (medieval part).
- ‘Discovery’ tour: quick and partial (350 m of underground routes) Commentary underground only. Duration 75 min, 30 min inside the mine
- ‘Classic’ tour: Full (600 m underground) duration 2 hours, 1 hour underground. Recommended for families
- For groups all year by reservation (except when there is snow).
- For individuals: from April to October, check days and times, tours by reservation.
- May and June: tours by reservation beginning at 9:30 am and 2 pm.
- Daily during peak season: tours from 9 am to 5 pm
*From April to October, tours of the mine depending on snow conditions.
In addition to the guided tour, this exhibition shows the historical and archaeological research, a 15-minute video, temporary exhibitions. The museum is open all year (for groups by reservation). Open daily from 1st June to 31st August
- ‘Discovery’ tour: €8 adult, €5 under 16s, €6.50 adult discount and groups (> 10 people)
- ‘Classic’ tour: €14 adult, €9 under 16s, €11.50 adult discount and groups (> 10 people)
- Museum only €3
Mine tour from age 5, not recommended for people with frail health (footpath leading to the mine: 10–15min) Walking shoes recommended and suitable clothing advised
(temperature in the mine: 12 °C). Group numbers limited to 19 underground.
Information:Fournel Silver Mine Museum Telephone reception from 9 am to noon and 2 pm to 5 pm. Tel.: +33 (0)4 92 23 02 94