Members of the Derbyshire Caving Club have uncovered a cobalt mine in Cheshire, England, that operated in the early 19th century.
Sealed off from oxygen, the site contains a “time capsule” of artifacts from the day workers abandoned it, shedding light on what mining was like some 200 years ago, according to a statement from the National Trust, which owns the site.
The small town of Alderly Edge has been a mining destination since the Bronze Age. While the caving club, which has leased the mines since the 1970s, has discovered other mines in the past, the newly-discovered mine is in “pristine condition,” says caving club member Ed Coghlan in the statement.
“This mine hasn’t been disturbed by later mining, it’s not been broken into by kids in the 1960s, it’s not been filled with bottles or other rubbish,” Jamie Lund, a National Trust archaeologist, tells the Guardian’s Esther Addley. “It literally is a time capsule in terms of giving a glimpse into the environment that these miners, who were extracting cobalt, encountered.”
Artifacts found in the mine include shoes, clay pipes and a windlass—a type of winch that would have been used to lift heavy objects. On clay handle holders, the miners’ fingerprints are still preserved, as is the imprint of one miner’s corduroy pants where he leaned against a wall.
One miner even left his initials using candle soot, writing “WS 20th Aug 1810.”
“Someone has autographed the roof,” says one of the cavers, looking up at the initials, in a video. “That’s very nice of him.”
So far, however, nobody has tracked down any more information about the mysterious “WS.”
“Our research so far has not identified who this could be,” says Coghlan in the statement. “Was it just an individual wanting to say, ‘I was here,’ or from a visit by a mine manager or estate owner, or could it have been to indicate the last day this mine was in use?”
Another mysterious find is a bowl with a rock wall built around it, and the National Trust speculates that miners may have placed the bowl in this spot as a superstitious gesture of gratitude. Lund, however, tells the Guardian that he is skeptical of this explanation. His theory is that the bowl was part of a friendly joke or prank, though he acknowledges that we’ll never know the true story.
“At the end of the day, it’s a bowl,” he adds. “That much we are sure of.”
Nobody knows why the workers left the site, but the tools left behind indicate that they may not have been given much notice, per the statement. The mine likely closed around 1810, around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, which had made imported cobalt harder to come by.
Mining at Alderly Edge dates back to 1900 B.C.E., when people mined the area for the copper necessary for making bronze. Tools have been discovered dating back to 1750 B.C.E., as well as a Roman mineshaft from the first century C.E.
Cobalt is a metal still used today, but historically it was used to create a rich, blue color in glass, pottery and jewelry. Evidence of cobalt use has been found in statues from ancient Egypt, glass from the ruins of Pompeii, and porcelain from China’s Ming dynasty.
To preserve the mine and its contents, the entrance will be sealed again. But first, experts made a 3D scan, which allows anyone to explore the site online.