Wieliczka Salt Mine of Poland (Part 2)

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Khursheed Dinshaw (India)

This the second of two articles on the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland. The first (Wieliczka Salt Mine of Poland (Part 1)) covered some of the highlights that can be seen there. This one covers some more of these features, but also deals with the geology of the site.

The journey began in the Miocene period, which was about 13.5Ma, when the crystallisation of salt dissolved in sea water occurred. These salt deposits combined with rocks that normally accompany salt that occupied what was known as the Pre-Carpathian Sink. Subjected intensively to the tectonic process, these salt deposits shifted and folded. About 6,000 years ago, the local people of Wieliczka in Poland started to produce salt by evaporating salty water.

In the thirteenth century, when the sources of the salty water were almost exhausted, they began to sink wells hoping to find salty water under the ground. In 1289, at the bottom of one of the wells, the first lump of the grey rock salt was found and that was the beginning of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Today, the mine is divided into two portions. While its upper stratum is the block type, its lower stratum is of the stratified type; and visitors learn about salt, its excavation and types as they walk with their designated guides across chambers, pathways, tunnels, chapels and lakes.

In the olden days, the equipment to transport salt from one level to another included wooden carts and trolleys. At Wieliczka, these are well conserved because salt has preserved the wood by coating it. However, salt corrodes metal and, to slow the corrosion down, the wheels of the trolleys have been coated with tar. In fact, the salt mine has a unique collection of original miner’s equipment.

Four hundred years ago, the first horses were taken into the mine. The last horse, called Baska, left the mine in 2002. In most of Europe, ponies were used but, in this mine, horses were (Fig. 1). They lived and worked underground and were used as a counterbalance for a block of salt. Patrycya (our guide) explained how four or eight horses were used to operate the winch, by walking around the vertical drum to wind the rope around it to lift salt weighing up to a tonne. The biggest blocks of salt were given a cylindrical shape to roll them, as it was difficult to lift and load them on trolleys.

Four or eight horses were used to operate the winch
Fig. 1. Four or eight horses were used to operate the winch.

To remove water, pumps were used (Fig. 2). Water is dangerous for the mine because it dissolves the salt. There was a system of wooden pipes and different kinds of water pumps. The chain of a water pump called ‘Our Father’ resembles a rosary to pray as the miners were very religious and they prayed a lot for safety in the underground chapels. On our tour, we headed next to the St Anthony’s Chapel of the mine, which is the oldest preserved underground chapel. St Anthony is the patron saint of searchers and ore miners.

water pump to remove water which dissolves salt
Fig. 2. Water pumps are used to remove water, which dissolves the salt.

There are 20 chapels in the Wieliczka Salt Mine of Poland and, in the past and because it was wet, water dissolved some of the decorations in the chapels. In the Holy Cross Chapel, water has dissolved the features of the praying monks’ statues, which are made of salt. The statues of Our Lady the Victorious (Fig. 3) and Christ Crucified (Fig. 4) are well preserved, because they are made of wood and salt conserved them by forming a protective coating. Even the constructions built to support the ceiling, which are made of wood, have been naturally preserved by salt.

Our Lady the Victorious statue inside Holy Cross Chapel
Fig. 3. Our Lady the Victorious statue inside Holy Cross Chapel.
Christ Crucified which is well preserved inside the Holy Cross Chapel
Fig. 4. Christ Crucified, which is well preserved inside the Holy Cross Chapel.

The first miners used pine wood to build their constructions because it made a lot of noise as it would creak. This was the time when electricity had not yet been invented and the miners couldn’t see the tunnels and chambers very well without light. However, when they heard the noise of the splintering wood, they knew that something was wrong and that the construction was weakening. Very often they painted the wood white with lime wash for fire protection and to reflect candle light.

Inside the chapels and the reception halls, there are chandeliers that have salt crystals resembling glass. The interiors of the chapels are lit by these chandeliers, which were made of wood in the late nineteenth century. The biggest and grandest chapel of the Wieliczka Salt Mine is St Kinga’s Chapel (Fig. 5), which was erected in 1896. Kinga, who was a Hungarian princess and the daughter of Bela IV, King of Hungary, is believed to have made salt abundantly available in Poland. She was canonized in 1999 by Pope John Paul II.

St. Kinga's Chapel
Fig. 5. St. Kinga’s Chapel.

It took 67 years to complete the decorations of this chapel. Only three miners carved the decorations. Even today, services are conducted on Sundays, Christmas and Easter. Wedding ceremonies and concerts take place as well (Fig. 6). The solid salt floor has a pattern carved by the miners. The salt carvings of the last supper and turning water into wine are impressive. Both of the intricate carvings are 17cm deep. Carving in salt is not easy, as salt figures easily fall apart. The crib, which has baby Jesus, is made out of salt from central Poland.

inside the salt carved St. Kinga's Chapel a choir in progress
Fig. 6. Inside the salt-carved St Kinga’s Chapel, with a choir in progress.
salt sculptures of the Wieliczka Salt Mine (1)
Fig. 7. Salt sculptures in the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
salt sculptures of the Wieliczka Salt Mine (2)
Fig. 8. More salt sculptures.

All the photographs are by Khursheed Dinshaw.

The articles in this series comprise:
Wieliczka Salt Mine of Poland (Part 1)
Wieliczka Salt Mine of Poland (Part 2)

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