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We see them everywhere, the shiny red houses. Malin Kim, a doctor with an interest in cultural history, writes about the heart of Swedishness itself.
Ask a Swede to visualise the most raraste summer village there is and it is invariably red.
This is not the case in other countries; from an international perspective, red is an unusual colour for building facades. The fact that Sweden in particular has developed an unusual taste for red is due to a practical circumstance: the mining of copper ore in the Falu mine.
Falu mine was once the world's foremost copper mine and was called Sweden's treasure chest. "He who has not seen the Great Copper Mountain has not seen Sweden", the saying goes.
The history of the mine goes back to the Viking Age. Spectral analyses of bronze objects from Gotland have shown that copper was probably extracted from the Falu deposit as early as the 8th century. It is first mentioned in written documents in 1288 and King Magnus Eriksson's letter of privilege from 1347 contains detailed information about the mining operation.
During the Middle Ages, the mine contributed a significant part of Europe's copper production, but it was only during the period of the Great Power that mining reached its greatest extent. At times, 2/3 of Europe's copper was mined in the Falu mine. In the 17th century, the mine was Sweden's largest and most modern workplace, employing around 1000 workers and characterised by a high level of technical know-how and world-leading engineering skills. Copper from Falun was used for castle roofs, church bells, household utensils and coins around the world. The mine was Sweden's main source of export income for a long time and influenced the economic, social and political situation in Sweden as well as the rest of Europe. In the 1630s, the Swedish Council of State stated that "Sweden stands or falls with the Copper Mountain".
After a collapse of the mine in 1687, copper production decreased. Instead, an organised production of red dye pigments from the by-products of mining developed. There is evidence that the red pigment began to be used as early as the 16th century, and production took off in the 18th century. Copper-bearing ore that is allowed to weather forms 'red ore' consisting of copper, iron ochre, silica and zinc. The red ore is washed, sieved and burnt before being ground into a fine-grained colour pigment. The mineral combination began to be mixed into wheat flour paste and linseed oil and used on house facades for its wood preserving and decorative effects. The red colour was felt to make houses look like the more upmarket brick buildings and thus became a way for the commoners to add a touch of distinction to their homes. In the 19th century, the colour red became very popular. The red-painted cottages have since spread throughout the country and become a national symbol.
When the mine closed in 1992, mining had been going on for over 1000 years. The red dye works on the mine site are still alive and produce one of the most Swedish products in existence: Falu rödfärg. The paint is marketed - which must be said to be entirely accurate - as Swedish cultural heritage in a can.
Since 2001, Falu Mine, together with parts of the town of Falun and the surrounding mountain villages, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mine is thus considered so valuable that it is a matter of concern for all mankind.
Harrison, Dick (2011), Experience the history of Sweden, Bonnier Facts
Originally published on Cultural memory
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