Cavers find pristine mineshaft frozen in time for 200 years
Cavers have discovered a well-preserved cobalt mineshaft in the United Kingdom that has remained undisturbed since the early 19th century, offering a rare view into the life of miners operating at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.
Personal objects, equipment and inscriptions have all remained in near-pristine condition due to the low-oxygen environment in the mineshaft, which has been likened to a “time capsule” by British archaeologists.
The mine was discovered by members of Derbyshire Caving Club at a site in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, that has been mined since prehistoric times and is now owned by UK heritage conservation charity the National Trust.
Cavers have been permitted to explore the site since the 1970s, though discoveries of mineshafts in such good condition are exceedingly rare.
“Many mines have been filled in with rubble over the years or with sand washed into them by heavy rainfalls or they have been accessible in some form since they were abandoned, so anything of interest had been removed,” said Ed Coghlan, who is a member of the Derbyshire Caving Club.
“To find a mine in pristine condition, together with such personal objects and inscriptions, is rare. It is a compelling window into the past and to the last day when the mine workers stopped their activities.
Leather shoes, clay pipes, a metal button from a jacket, crockery and mining machinery were among the objects found. An inscription written on a cave wall in candle soot reads “WS, 20th August 1810”, which is around the time the mine is thought to have been abandoned.
One of the largest items found was a windlass, which was a piece of equipment used to shift large weights or quantities of raw materials.
The abandonment of a valuable piece of machinery suggests the miners were instructed to halt operations abruptly, perhaps because the cobalt had been exhausted.
In the 19th Century cobalt was mainly used to make blue pigment for glass, pottery, jewelry and paint. Prior to the Napoleonic Wars, which ran from 1803-1815, cobalt was mainly imported into the UK from continental Europe, where the resource was plentiful.
Imports ceased during the conflict, provoking domestic cobalt operations to spring up in the UK, though the industry collapsed soon after imports resumed.
“This discovery is helping us understand a less well-known chapter in the story of mining at Alderley Edge, which has been explored and exploited for 4,000 years,” said Jamie Lund, who is a National Trust archaeologist.
Cavers have accessed portions of the vast network of tunnels, and the National Trust has used 3D scanning technology to plot inaccessible areas.
Lund said that all discovered objects have been photographed and documented, and will remain in the mine in the underground conditions that have preserved them so well.
“It leaves the mine as a time capsule, protecting a place that was once a hive of activity for future generations to explore and enjoy,” said Lund.