Cavers in Cheshire have discovered a pristine 200-year-old mineshaft, undisturbed since it was abandoned by miners during the Napoleonic Wars, revealing an almost unique ‘time capsule’ of their underground life.
The cobalt mine at Alderley Edge was sealed by miners when the shaft was abandoned, on a date fairly certain thanks to a man who used candle soot to write his initials ‘WS’ and the date August 20, 1810 on it can become the rock face.
The resulting lack of oxygen in the two centuries since means the mine is in an exceptional state of preservation, according to the National Trust, which owns the land. While the items left behind are modest – clay whistles, a leather shoe, a small bowl – the context in which they were found is “really very unusual,” said Jamie Lund, an archaeologist with the trust.
“This mine was not disturbed by later mining, it was not broken up by children in the 1960s, it was not filled with bottles or other rubbish. It is literally a time capsule to provide a glimpse of the environment these miners encountered while mining cobalt.”
Blobs of clay stuck to the walls to hold the men’s candles still show their fingerprints, while one wall bears an imprint of corduroy where a miner leans against it. Wooden support braces and a windlass still wrapped in hemp rope are remarkably well preserved.
Intriguingly, the small bowl was intentionally set on the ground and surrounded by a rock face, leading to an interpretation that superstitious miners might have placed it there to show their gratitude for a rich stitching of the material prized for adding colour became blue and white pottery.
An inscription on the wall of “WS” dates the mine to August 20, 1810. Photo: Ed Coghlan/Derbyshire Caving Club
However, Lund said he was “paid to always be skeptical when someone says an object might have ritual or auspicious connotations”.
He continued, “The explanation that appeals to me is a little more facetious,” suggesting it may have been bricked up by the miners to annoy one of them who always brought his breakfast down to the mine. However, no one will ever know. “At the end of the day, it’s a bowl. We’re sure of that,” said Lund.
Attempts to identify WS have also been unsuccessful so far after wage documents were lost in a fire.
Alderley Edge, a dramatic escarpment overlooking the Cheshire countryside, has been mined for copper, lead and cobalt since the Bronze Age. The mine in question, which extends 10 meters underground, was discovered in the fall of 2021 when a depression was discovered in the landscape, suggesting a collapsing manhole seal. Members of the Derbyshire Caving Club, who manage the underground spaces in the landscape on behalf of the Trust, were the first to explore and secure them before archaeologists invaded.
Unusual for a find so rare that it will not be studied much longer, Lund said. “We quickly agreed that the real importance of this site lies in the fact that it has this pristine nature of an environment that the miners might have abandoned yesterday,” he said. As a result, it will shortly be resealed with the artifacts inside, the oxygen allowed to leak out, “and the policy will be to stay out”.
Fortunately, however, a detailed 3D scan of the mine has been created, which can be navigated interactively. “That’s the benefit of living and working in the 21st century,” Lund said. “It feels like we timed this discovery really well.”