Friday, 6 July 2012

Kutna Hora - Silver Mine Museum

I recently had an email from someone who came on the May archaeology tour. She wrote: "The silver mine has to be one of my all-time holiday highlights". I’m not surprised – the tour of the medieval silver mines in Kutna Hora is utterly unique.

Kutna Hora was quite literally built on silver, the hill on which the old town stands is riddled with mine shafts and galleries, where men toiled to in the darkness to dig out by hand the precious silver ore. You can read about how hard their work was and think you understand, but it takes a visit to the mines to really bring it home to you. By the time you finish you will understand why their life expectancy was 35.

You are kitted out in a white coat (similar to those worn by the miners), lamp and protective helmet (which the miners did not have) and then you walk a few hundred metres uphill to where you enter the shaft. The first part of your visit consists of climbing down several flights of stairs to the first level of the mine. The miners would have had to climb or slide down thin ladders. It is a long way down to the first level, there are four more below you.

A medieval miner was a lot shorter than a modern man – only 1.5 metres high – and so you are warned to watch your head as you walk along. You soon are grateful for your helmet. You are also grateful for your lamp. At one point the guide asks you to switch off your lamps and you are plunged into darkness, s/he then lights a torch and placing her hand over the light tells you that that is the total amount of light available to our medieval forebears. For that reason touch and feel were used to identify the ore deposits. Once a vein was found it was followed into the rock, some of the tunnels being so low that even a medieval man would have to crawl.

Having hacked the silver from the rock it was then carried or dragged back to where it was raised to the surface (via the horse-powered winch you saw in the museum or by a man-powered one). Human beings had no such luxury, the only way back to the surface was a long climb in the dark. Fortunately for wimpy modern visitors the exit to the mine is via a door lower down the hillside.

This is not a tour for people with claustrophobia (the mine-shaft gets so narrow at points that I feared I would get wedged like Winnie The Pooh in Rabbit’s hole) nor is it for people with mobility, heart or breathing problems. But if you can, it is well worth doing - an extraordinary experience.

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