The mysterious shell grotto of Margate – Part 2
Ninety-nine per cent of the shells that were used in the Margate shell grotto (eg mussels, oysters, clams, whelk, razors and limpet) are from shellfish that occur along the English coast. Only in the altar room one can find some exotic shells from the Caribbean, such as the pink wing horn. In earlier times it must have been a beautiful, colorful place, but nowadays the shells have a dirty and drab appearance. That is due to the use of the gas lamps in the past that left a layer of soot behind on the shells. Cleaning with water would have a devastating impact and one stresses now on conservation.
(Image: Example of an original wall decorations and a replica to indicate the difference in colour)
Some panels have some sort of medallion. These were made above ground and later
fastened on the wall in the grotto. Approximately 100 of these medallions are gone because visitors took them as souvenirs. Unfortunately, the documents with graphics of the original decorations were lost in the relocation of the library of Margate. The route one navigates through the grotto could be a symbol for a lifetime: the entrance is your birth, you walk the path of your life and the journey ends at the heavenly afterlife.
Illustration of the many symbols and decorations. Created by the previous owners Nellie and Conan Shaw.
How old can the grotto be?
Researchers have dated the grotto everywhere from prehistoric to Roman and Ancient Phoenician to the 18th century!
Because of the poor and dirty condition of the shells, it is almost impossible to determine the exact age of the cave with radiocarbon dating. Because traces of the use of tools is absent it is not possible to investigate the age of the grotto accurately.
There have been several different samples taken of the mortar with which the shells are mounted on the wall. It showed that several compounds had been used, mostly based on fish-like material known as Roman cement.
According to locals it is most logical that the grotto dates from the time of Queen Victoria. At that time fishing for shellfish increased to such an extent that there were enough shells left as a byproduct to use as decoration. Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901. That would mean that the shell grotto was probably built less than 100 years before the rediscovery in 1835, without anyone remembering that. In a village there are always oral traditions of huge construction projects such as the grotto would have been.
However, until the opening of the shell grotto in 1837 no one was aware of its existence. The arch construction of the ceiling might indicate creation in the 14th century. This construction however, is not chosen for its architectural design, but for practical reasons. A flat roof would bring a collapse hazard. The argument that the grotto may have been built after 1600 because they did not use wheelbarrows before that year to bring the carved limestone to the surface is not credible.
The claim that the cave originates from the Phoenician period would seem far-fetched. The highlight of this civilization was based in what is now Lebanon and Syria and was between 1500 and 400 BC. The Phoenicians were known as excellent sailors and are responsible for our use of the alphabet. However, the town of Margate is the most easterly point of Kent. This part of Kent was formerly separated from the mainland by the River Wantsum and is called Isle of Thanet . The name Thanet comes from the Phoenician goddess Tanit. Often depicted as a stylistic figure which shows great similarity with an Ankh.
Image of Phoenician goddess Tanit. Source: Wikimedia
Early June 2013, the Society of Wessex archeology announced that at Pegwell Bay (5 miles from Margate) an old cemetery was found with bodies dating from the early Bronze Age (ca. 1500 BC). In those days, the deceased were usually cremated and it was not customary to bury them. Could this be a cemetery of the Phoenician navigators ? (Source: the Daily Mail, June 5, 2013)
What is the purpose of the grotto?
Was the grotto used as a temple by old pagan religions or as a meeting place for a secret society? Oriental motifs found on the walls of the grotto have led to speculations about Phoenicians, Romans, Knights Templars, mystics and magicians. The fact is that no one really knows why the shells grotto was built. Some obvious statements however can easily be refuted.
It is not logical that the grotto was used as a dungeon as some have suggested. Dungeons clearly do not need beautifully decorated walls and ceilings.
The grotto was also not used as a quarry. There are other, more obvious places to acquire limestone and quarries are not excavated in the shape of arch structures.
It also can not be true that the grotto was used as a smugglers cave. They certainly use to smuggle a lot in this region. However, the grotto is situated on a hill too far away from the sea. There would be tunnels that run to the shore and at least one escape tunnel. They are not there. A repository for contraband would not need to be decorated so beautifully.
Throughout the whole of England you can find so called Follies. These are useless structures with no other purpose than decoration and displaying wealth to the outside world. After 1700 A.D. the rich built arbors and grottos near their stately homes, which were richly decorated, often left with shells. The shell grotto was built on what was once farmland and no one could perceive the wealth because it is underground. The theory of a Folly therefore does not make sense.
That the cave was used as a place of worship is obvious. At the end of the hallway is an altar. The roundabout might have played a major role. In several World Religions running or walking concentrically is common to get in touch with the gods. The Dervishes dance endless laps to get in ecstasy and thus get closer to God. The Bible tells us the story of the people of Jericho needing to walk seven rounds around the city to bring down its walls. Muslims walk seven rounds during their Hajj around the sacred stone of the Kaaba in Mecca to be elevated. Was the roundabout in the cave also walked around as a way of getting in touch with a higher power?
Researcher Mick Twyman of the Margate historical society thinks that the grotto might have been built in the 12th century. He explains the link between the grotto and the temple knights. During his research, he did not let himself be distracted by the possible significance of the designs in the shells. He just looked at the size and construction of the grotto itself. He came to his conclusion by carefully measuring the angles in the grotto and observing the position of projected sunlight on the dome. On June 21st at 12:00, the light that is passing through the dome looks like an egg that reflects on the belly of a mosaic snake. Then the light is reflected by square openings in the top of the cave that directs the light to the altar in the rectangular altar room. Can there be a link to the Mayan culture who allowed, in the construction of Chitzen Itza, the serpent to descend along the steps of the temple on the exact same day and time?
Between March and October (the fertility season according to the Ancient Celts) the projection of sunlight on the dome might have been used as a sundial. Based on this phenomenon and complex mathematical calculations, taking into account the changing angle of the equinox every 72 years,Twyman calculated that the construction of the grotto must have taken place around 1141 AD.
According to Twyman, the designs in the cave show references to early Masonic rituals. Above the entrance to the altar room was a cornerstone and for performing Royal Arch Masonry (an initiatory degree in Freemasonry) they needed an altar. Masonic symbols such as compass, square, star of David, pentagram, tetrahedon, panels with symbols of Ancient Gods like the two heavenly light rays and the Pleiadian constellation can be found in the grotto.
During my visit to the cave I had a strong feeling that a female power was worshiped in the cave. The fact that shells resemble a womb reinforced that feeling. During my research for writing this article, I noticed the resemblance between the 8-pointed star (an important symbol in several cultures, associated with creation) as it occurs repeatedly on the walls of the grotto in Margate and the star of Ishtar, the goddess of Mesopotamia (or known as Inanna in Sumeria) that represents fertility, love, war and sex. Ishtar is also associated with the planet Venus. Could it be that the opening in the dome was used to observe the planet Venus to determine the correct time of worship?
Who created the grotto and for what purpose will always remain unclear. It is clear that the designer must have been highly trained and must have had knowledge of other cultures to merge in patterns made of millions of shells. Every theory concerning the grotto is based on wisdom hidden in the design. If the builder had no other goal than speculation, conjecture and controversy, his mission is accomplished.
The Victorian novelist Marie Corelli blamed the lack of recognition for the shell grotto to its location "as the special and beautiful underground temple was found in anywhere else than Margate, it would certainly be recognized as one of the wonders of the world."
The grotto can be visited untill the end of the tourist season daily between 10.00 and 17.00.
Address: Grotto Hill, Margate.
Admission is only £ 3.50 per person