“In God’s name I enter”

Amelia Hutchinson (University of Cambridge) on Managing the Body and the Environment in Early Modern Mining

Early modern mining was precarious. It involved deep, tacit knowledge about how the environment functioned, and how bodies functioned in such environments. This project explored how those who worked in German mines sought to understand, protect, and regulate their bodies and the environment. This blog takes the example of an 18th century pickaxe to show how objects held multiple meanings, and connected body, landscape, and matter.

The fruits of Labour

The Landeskrone mine, located at Wilnsdorf in the Siegerland, is a complex system of winding tunnels. In places, bacterial stalactites hang overhead, and iron deposits line the walls in bright orange. The relatively sharp changes in height require careful attention, and, of course, the use of protective headwear. The history of the mine is just as amalgamated as it’s tunnels. While recent archaeological findings date the beginning of the Ratzenscheid to the Middle Ages (Zeiler et al, 2018) modern visitors to the Landeskrone pit are also confronted by its more recent past of brickwork and industrial technology.

The Landeskrone mine is one of many that were operational during the early modern period and was depicted by Jeremias Beier in 1607. The striking oil painting measures a substantial 57 by 110 centimetres and can be found in the collection of the Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum.

Landeskrone Mine, Oilpainting by Jeremias Beier, 1607. Source: Deutsches Bergbau-Musem Bochum.

The painting can be ‘read’ from left to right. The viewer is guided through the schema by a series of figures and three allegorical trees which populate the foreground. The far left of the composition begins with the mine complex in the background, with several shaft entrances visible on the hillside. Out of one, a miner can be seen wheeling a cart full of ore. The tree in the foreground, planted directly before the mine complex, is relatively sparse, except for the ornate crown perched on the trunk near the top. It is the only one of the three trees where the bare branches and roots are visible. Penetrating the landscape, the roots sit above the surface like a cross-section; the subterranean made visible above ground. A miner is depicted to the right of the tree wearing traditional miner’s dress. In his right hand, he holds a divining rod, in his left, a lump of ore which he offers up to the tree.

The painting depicts productivity and process: the miner extracts his ore, the artisan is surrounded by his tools, the fruits of their labour are gathered, and eventually, the profit is collected and calculated. The progress of the ore, which gains value through each stage of this process, is mirrored by the trees which grow ever more fruitful at each juncture. Through a combination of allegory and naturalistic imagery, the productive process of mining becomes entangled with the surrounding landscape and the bodies of those involved in its many stages.

Pathway to the underworld

In October 2023, I spent a month working at the DBM, looking at their collections dating from 1650-1800. The museum’s self-professed aim is to ‘spread the knowledge and experience of mining’, with a significant emphasis on public engagement. This aim is reflected in their variety of tours available of the exhibitions, as well as their events and lecture programme.

With a large emphasis on classical, industrial, and post-industrial mining, my work formed part of a larger impetus within the museum’s research department to consider mining in the early modern period, and how – by considering early modern mining practices – we can reflect on our use of resources today. As such, my project used sources on early modern mining to reflect on the historical roots of environmental and climatic trauma, and the long history of human engagement with and concern for the productive landscape. It focused on how the human actors involved in the mining process (from those who worked with a quill (Bergschreiber), to overseers (Bergmeister), to officials, (Bergrat), to workers (Bergmann)) sought to protect the bodies of miners, and the mined landscape.

The mine was a place of precarity. The shaft was a liminal space, bridging the gap between the underworld and the Earth’s surface, a passageway through which man could travel between them. Though created by God, conceptualisations of what took place below the Earth’s surface often centred around notions of hell, fire, and the heat of production. At the same time, the bowels of the Earth were a place of fertility and great riches, waiting to be discovered. As such, the mine was positioned, literally and conceptually, between two worlds. This instability – of knowledge, of environment, and the minerals to be mined – resulted in various strategies to create stability.

Religion as the miner’s protector

One theme which stood out amongst the printed texts, manuscripts, images, and objects in the DBM was the centrality of religion. A fascinating example can be seen in the form of an eighteenth century pickaxe, dating from 1715. The ivory handle is divided into eight segments, with differing designed on each side, including four inscriptions: 

In God’s name I enter, Jesus shall be my guiding light.

I hope for God [‘s grace] and happiness in every moment.

We pray for fortune and blessings, that God will fill us with joy.

We carry mallets and iron in our hands, this shall be our sustenance.

The decorated pickaxe from the 18th century, Source: Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum.

The axe is an example of the potency of material objects. Imbued with active, tangible power, the tool was not only a tactile reminder of prayer, but itself channelled protection towards the body of its owner/user. Indeed, the axe displays clear signs of use, with damage along the blade. Furthermore, the imagery on the handle reveals marked wear in the positions in which the handle would likely have been grasped (the uppermost and lowermost segments). The variety of images on the handle are significant, demonstrating not only the themes at the forefront of mining consciousness, but that these things were connected: of Christ on the cross, of miners at work, of mining technology and landscapes.

God, the original miner, creator of everything on Earth and within it, was understood to have placed such riches there for human intercession; mining therefore was his work that was being carried out. Thus, God also played the ultimate role in protecting the body of the miner as workers navigated the unfamiliar, changing landscape. Crucially, this landscape, though dangerous, was not one being destroyed or plundered, but rather discovered. As such, it was the role of God, and of the miner, to understand and care for it, just as with the corporeal body.

The collections of the DBM clearly evidence such a relationship, exhibiting how the nexus of ‘body’, ‘landscape’ and ‘production’ was articulated, and offer a fruitful space for further study.

Amelia Hutchinson (University of Cambridge) received the Leibniz-Cambridge Museum & Collection Fellowship in 2023 to visit the Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum.

Header picture: Entrance to the Landeskrone mine close to Wilden in 2009. Wikimedia Commons.

OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Leibniz Fellows (2. Juli 2024). “In God’s name I enter”. Value of the Past. Abgerufen am 14. Juli 2024 von https://doi.org/10.58079/11xft

Autor: Leibniz Fellows

Der Leibniz-Forschungsverbund Wert der Vergangenheit vergibt jährlich Stipendien für herausragende internationale Forscher:innen und Early Career Researcher. // The Leibniz Research Association Value of the Past annually awards scholarships to outstanding international researchers and early career researchers.

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