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Inside the Wieliczka salt mine

Timeless Stories Built on Grains of Salt: Examining the Masterpieces within a Polish Salt Mine

A travel along the corridors of the Wieliczka salt mine inspired Polish writer Bolesław Prus to write his most famous novel -''Pharaoh''. Over the centuries, all of the explored chambers of the mine have been transformed into masterpieces of art.

The mine’s deposit is dated back to the Middle Milocene – 13.6 million years ago. Currently, it reaches a depth of 327 meters (1,073 ft.) and it's 287km (178 miles) long. This site is one of the greatest attractions in southern Poland, but also one of the country’s most important natural treasures. The first people entered the mine and started using the salt from the deposit during the Neolithic period. The mine is a key part of the region’s culture and also a wonderful underground monument which commemorates many generations of miners.

Surface and underground views of the Wieliczka Salt Mine.

Surface and underground views of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Miners from the Past

The mine is one of the greatest cultural discoveries predating Christianity in this area of Poland. The southern part of Poland was home to many different tribes over the years. Actually, it is impossible to count all of the cultures who used the mine’s salt deposit, but researchers have been able to identify at least a few of them. Studies show that the exploration of the Wieliczka salt mine started about 6,000 years ago, or perhaps even earlier.

While searching for the footsteps of the early salt miners, researchers explored many Neolithic and other ancient cemeteries in this area. One of the most important sites was discovered in Brzezie. As Agnieszka Czekaj-Zastawny and Paweł Jarosz reported in their article:

''The site was discovered in 1992 during a surface survey carried out by Ryszard Naglik and Tomasz Wichman within a project of the Archaeological Picture of Poland (AZP). In 1996 a small part of it was examined […] In the years 2000–2007, prior to the construction of Motorway A4 (the Cracow-Tarnów section), the site was subjected to wide-area rescue excavations. On the Brzezie site the area of 6 hectares was scheduled for archaeological examination. The excavations revealed 2800 structures related to several cultures of the Neolithic Period and the Bronze Age and 110 000 small artifacts. Dominant are structures of the Linear Pottery culture. There are remains of settlement houses with post construction. The second most frequent Neolithic unit represented at the site is the Malice culture. There were also registered artifacts of the Baden culture and the Corded Ware culture. A pit grave is related to the latter. Numerous settlement traces from the Bronze Age are linked with the Mierzanowice and Lusatian cultures.''

Rock salt from the mine was also exploited from the 13th to the 20th centuries. The Wieliczka mine is connected with the Bochnia mine, and over the years they created an impressive complex of hundreds of kilometers of galleries.

Bochnia Salt Mine, Poland.

Bochnia Salt Mine, Poland. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Tale of Saint Kinga

Saint Kinga of Poland, also known as Cunegunda, lived March 5,1224 to July 24, 1292. She was a noblewoman from Hungary who married Bolesław V the Chaste, the Prince of Crackow (Kraków). The story of her life is full of scandals and romantic stories, however many books which describe her as a saint don't discuss these aspects of her life. 

She is also a main character of a magnificent legend connected to the mine. Kinga, who wasn't a typical medieval lady, but a woman whose temperament caused her many troubles, apparently threw her engagement ring into the Maramures salt mine near her family castle in Hungary. Legends say the ring traveled through the salt deposit to Wieliczka, where it was discovered by the miners.

After the discovery, this part of the mine was changed into Saint Kinga's Chapel because people believed that this was a miracle. They created a gorgeous statue of Kinga and made her the patron saint of salt miners. With time, the little chapel changed into a small cathedral dedicated to Saint Kinga of Poland. This site is located 101 meters (331.37 ft.) underground.

Saint Kinga’s Chapel depicting when a miner finds her ring.

Saint Kinga’s Chapel depicting when a miner finds her ring. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Kinga was beatified in 1690 and canonized in 1999. However, her rebellious nature casts some doubt over if she was a good candidate to become a saint. 

The Darkest Episode in the Mine’s History

During World War II, the Nazis controlled the area around the mine and transported several thousands of Jews to it. They were about to start work at the site when the Soviet offensive arrived and ended the Nazis’ dreams. However, the Nazis had expected the army’s arrival, so much of the equipment - including an electrical hoisting machine, was already disassembled and transported to the Sudetes mountains. The Jewish prisoners had also been taken to camps and factories in Austria, the Czech Republic, and Germany. This event was the beginning of the end for the mine.

An old corridor in Wieliczka salt mine, Poland.

An old corridor in Wieliczka salt mine, Poland. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

The Salt Mine Today

The hardworking salt miners transformed the mine into a magnificent piece of art. Most of the touristic part of the mine was created during the 18th and 19th centuries. Every chamber is dedicated to a different story. For example, one of the oldest chambers is devoted to Nicolaus Copernicus. The spaces used for exhibitions use just 3.5 km (2.2miles) - less than 2% of the length of the total mine passages. However, this area is full of historical and mythical statues and figures made of rock salt. Many people ask to get married inside of the salt mine’s cathedral.

St. Kinga's Chapel, deep in the Wieliczka salt mine.

St. Kinga's Chapel, deep in the Wieliczka salt mine. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Nowadays, the salt mine in Wieliczka is one of the most impressive attractions in Poland. A visit underground surrounded by beautiful pieces of art made of salt is an unforgettable experience. The Salt Mine in Wieliczka and the Bochnia Salt Mine officially became protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2010.

Top image: Inside the Wieliczka salt mine ( exciting-krakow.com)

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Antoni Jodłowski (ed.), Zabytkowa Kopalnia Soli Muzeum Żup Krakowskich Wieliczka, 2006.

Wieliczka, available at:
http://www.wieliczka-saltmine.com/about-the-mine

Wieliczka, available at:
http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/32

Grave of the Corded Ware culture from Brzezie, site 17, Wieliczka District by Agnieszka Czekaj-Zastawny and Paweł Jarosz, available at:
https://www.academia.edu/2348064/Grave_of_the_Corded_Ware_culture_from_Brzezie_site_17_Wieliczka_District_Gr%C3%B3b_kultury_ceramiki_sznurowej_z_Brzezia_stan._17_pow._Wieliczka

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