Saturday, February 25, 2012

The tin miners

Tin Miners in England. A 1939 painting by Harold Harvey (1874-1941). Image from Bonhams art auctions

There are very few paintings of miners at work. The dark and cramped world of mines was not accessible to painters and probably it wasn't even interesting for them. There are just a few exceptions; one is the painting above, made by Harold Harwey, a painter from Cornwall who was interested in the local life and the local characters.

The two miners in the painting have names: Sidney Angrove (left) and Nicholas Grenfell (right) (as reported by Bohhams). The painter shows the miners in a moment of relax; while one of the two smokes a pipe. There is no hint of the hard work in the tunnels, below, but the image is nevertheless permeated of a certain melancholy. It was a world that was already in decline when the painting was made, in 1939.

It is in Southern England that we can find the earliest mines in the world. 10,000 years ago there were already mines where ancient miners laboriously broke the fine limestone that we call chalk with deer antlers to seek for ochre and flint. Today, the ancient tunnels dug at that time still exist, we can still see the smoke left by the miners' oil lamps and find the tools left by them. In some tunnels, we can find human skeletons; perhaps miners surprised by a collapse or, maybe, sacrifices to the divinities of the depth.

Mining tin in Cornwall is somewhat more recent, but it still goes back to about 2000 BCE. It continued for millennia, throughout the 20th century. The last tin mine in Cornwall (also the last working tin mine in Europe), was closed in 1998. There is an old Cornish ballad, reported in wikipedia that goes "Cornish lads are fishermen and Cornish lads are miners too. / But when the fish and tin are gone, what are the Cornish boys to do?"

Slowly, we are emptying the Earth of its mineral treasures. Then, what will we do?

h/t to my wife Grazia for the image of the tin miners


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)