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The parade miner’s axe inlaid with a bone base. The shaft ornamented with inlay in the form of plates with plant and geometrical motifs. The miner’s emblem (crossed hammers) and the inscription “17 DS 01” engraved on the base, on the other side there is the coat of arms of the Elector of Saxony.

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The parade miner’s axe inlaid with a bone base. The shaft ornamented with inlay in the form of plates with plant and geometrical motifs. The miner’s emblem (crossed hammers) and the inscription “17 DS 01” engraved on the base, on the other side there is the coat of arms of the Elector of Saxony.
The metal parts are rectangular, made of iron, slanted in the lower section and elongated in the upper section in the shape of a long spike with visible traces of fixing of a brass or a bone ball (not preserved). In the middle there is a hole in the shape of a shamrock. In the corners of the metal parts are two groups of small holes (five in the upper part, three in the lower part of the axe). Its frame is unsymmetrical and metal parts have a clearly distinguished hammer (head butt).
The shaft is decorated with inlay in the shape of bone plates with plant and geometrical motifs. The shaft’s lower part ends with a characteristic bone base under which there is an additional bone plate and a ball. Crossed hammers and the inscription “17 DS. 01” (on the rim) engraved on one side of the base, on the other one — the coat of arms of the Elector of Saxony (in a garland).
The mining axes (Bergbarten) come from Saxony and are related to the excavation of silver ore, copper and lead. Initially, in the 17th century, axes were carried as tools and the symbol of miners’ status; they had the privilege of carrying a weapon. Then they rapidly started to be carried by princes and high officials of various mines. In the early 18th century they became restricted only to diggers (who owned shafts) and the highest officials. Miner’s axes, just like little hacks, were like honorary badges carried during ceremonies as a decoration and an element of miner clothes. They were used, e.g., during parades at the Freiberg Mining Academy in the 18th century.
Motifs carved on the shaft of an axe were very often repeated. On the upper parts there was usually a cross adored by miners. On the lower parts — on the base — there was the coat of arms of the Wettins (electors of Saxony), while on the other side there were crossed hammers, the miners’ emblem. Sometimes the base showed when the axes were manufactured (in this case “1701”) and the initials of its owner (“DS”). Many axes bore religious motifs (resurrected Jesus, saints), portraits of Saxon electors. What is interesting are the representations of various ranks of miners, often shown during work, representing their clothes, tools (hammer, pickaxe, wedge, ladder, oil lamp, rod, axe, cane), machines (clock reel, pump), musical instruments and personal items (pipe). Spaces between individual images are filled with plant and geometrical motifs. On some axes there are also interesting inscriptions related to the mining industry or to praying. Drawings on bones (or horn) are generally carved awkwardly and conventionally, yet there are exceptions sometimes.

Elaborated by the Kraków Salt Works Museum in Wieliczka, © all rights reserved

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Digger’s axe depicted in Matejko’s “Battle of Grunwald” painting?

Everyone knows the monumental painting Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko. Spectacular in its size, it shows very dynamic scenery, full of bodies of knights, warriors and horses. Only after a while,
the spectator is able to spot the central scene – the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, sitting on a white horse...

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Everyone knows the monumental painting Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko. Spectacular in its size, it shows very dynamic scenery, full of bodies of knights, warriors and horses. Only after a while, the spectator is able to spot the central scene – the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, sitting on a white horse and wearing a white coat, who is trying to defend himself with a sword held high above his head against two infantry warriors, who look like members of a social class lower than knights. Close to the half-naked man aiming at the Grand Master’s chest with the spear of St. Maurice (it is a replica of the spear given to Boleslaus I the Brave by Emperor Otto III during the Congress of Gniezno in 1000) there is a second warrior in a red hood who is aiming at his enemy with his axe held in his right hand. This weapon has a very characteristic shape — the shape of a miner’s axe.
Of course, this item could not have been used during the Battle of Grunwald on 15 July 1410 and, additionally, it could not have been carried by warriors from a lower social class. However, Jan Matejko did such things often and purposely, trying to add new allusions and signs of symbolic meaning. The axe painted by Matejko is a miner’s axe with a bone handle. It is a very decorative and spectacular type of a miner’s axe. Such an exhibit is kept in the National Museum in Kraków. It is possible that while painting the Battle of Grunwald, Matejko had an opportunity to see it up close and used it as one of his props. Did he make a mistake putting the parade mining weapon from the 17th century into the hands of a warrior? It is not so obvious, as the origins of such axes are not completely known. A great dispute has been held on this matter in German literature for many years now. Some researchers talk about the evolution of the  working tool – the typical woodwork axe while some others derive the shape of a miner’s axe from the battle axe. Indeed, among late medieval knight axes we could find one very similar to a miner’s axe. It would have been a dangerous weapon used for both slaying and stabbing (thanks to its characteristic spike), like a bardiche.
The Kraków Salt Works Museum has the largest collection of miner’s axes in Poland. Unfortunately, none of them could be linked with Wieliczka as they were brought there much later. It is possible that a Saxon official brought such an axe with himself during the reign of the Saxon dynasty of Wettins in Poland. Johann Gotffried Borlach, the geometer and designer of the plans of the Wieliczka salt mine and the initiator of significant projects for technical progress was such an extraordinary Saxon expert. However, it is not known whether he brought the miner’s axe with himself to Wieliczka or not.

Elaborated by Kraków Salt Works Museum in Wieliczka, © all rights reserved 

See miner’s axe in the collection from Małopolska’s Virtual Museums.

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“A two-bit thing made of salt tops a crappy sack of gold” – a few words about miners

In the Middle Ages and modern times, mines were very profitable. Cities were springing up around them all over Europe. This was no different in the Kingdom of Poland, where “Wieliczka grew into a city from a vile hovel” (a quote from Zygmunt Gloger, Encyklopedia staropolska, vol. 4, Warsaw 1901, p. 522). In Poland, mines, or as they were formerly called żupy or gory were concentrated in the south of the country. Salt was extracted in Wieliczka and Bochnia, and in Olkusz, Chęciny, Sławków, Trzebinia, Jaworzno and Miedziana Góra metal ores – lead, silver and copper.

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In the Middle Ages and modern times, mines were very profitable. Cities were springing up around them all over Europe. This was no different in the Kingdom of Poland, where “Wieliczka grew into a city from a vile hovel” (a quote from Zygmunt Gloger, Encyklopedia staropolska, vol. 4, Warsaw 1901, p. 522). In Poland, mines, or as they were formerly called żupy or gory were concentrated in the south of the country. Salt was extracted in Wieliczka and Bochnia, and in Olkusz, Chęciny, Sławków, Trzebinia, Jaworzno and Miedziana Góra metal ores – lead, silver and copper.

Mining trolley, 19th century, Kraków Salt Works Museum in Wieliczka, public domain.

Where there were mines, there were also miners, otherwise known as diggers. As early as in the Middle Ages, they performed the hardest and most dangerous work, which is why it is not surprising that there were slaves and convicts working on many excavation sites. Sometimes they did not even have the right to be buried in the same cemetery as free people.

Criminals sometimes volunteered to work in mines in order to avoid justice. People who preferred to serve in the army or toil away on a ship rather than to meet the master headsman were driven by a similar motivation. Miners from the Lesser Poland province were no saints either, as we know from the written accounts of the transgressions committed by diggers from Bochnia and Wieliczka. On the 10th of November 1593, a certain Stanisław, “a miner from Bochnie” (the original spelling) who belonged to a gang of bandits led by harnaś Paweł Swastak from Sobolów stood in front of a court in Sanok. Stanisław was caught together with several companions during the robbery of a synagogue in Rymanów. It is also known that in 1664 the city guard of Kazimierz had to defend the city against a group of over 100 armed miners who wanted to rob rich Jewish stalls and shops.

However, it was not the rule that the miners had an unenviable position and low social status. They mostly enjoyed personal freedom and their profession was treated with respect. Until the 20th century, even wealthy peasants, for whom a miner’s salary was only an addition to the basic income from their farms, worked at the mine in Wieliczka. They often did so to keep the tradition of practising a prestigious profession in the family. The respect for work underground is also confirmed in a proverb from Wieliczka: “A two-bit thing made of salt tops a crappy sack of gold”. The sense of self-esteem and being different from people doing "ordinary" work on the surface resulted in the creation of a peculiar mining culture which – although regionally diverse – was similar throughout the whole of Europe.

Horn of Salt Diggers Brotherhood of Wieliczka, 1534, Kraków Salt Works Museum in Wieliczka, public domain.

In the Middle Ages mine administrators and diggers of precious ores as well as ordinary diggers, was a multinational environment, similar to city merchants and craftsmen. Germans and inhabitants of other Central European countries were attracted to Wieliczka as early as the 13th century. In the second half of the 14th century, they were joined by less numerous groups of Italians and French. Encompassing many different ethnicities, the profession of miners was similar to the urban environment of merchants and craftsmen. Fraternities of miners, similar to guilds, were established in Bochnia and Wieliczka as early as in the 13th and 14th centuries. A memorial of the greatness of the mining profession in the 16th century is the Horn of the Brotherhood of Diggers from Wieliczka presented on the website, carried on a chain by the fraternity’s elder during major holidays, like in the case of the silver fowler of the Krakow Fowler Brotherhood.

Miners also founded religious fraternities. They had their patrons, to whom they prayed in underground chapels, often decorated with statues and altars made by the miners themselves. Amateur sculpture was something that many diggers dabbled in. In the past, it was an activity particularly popular among disabled miners. The salt sculptures in Wieliczka are the most famous in Poland. Two of them can be seen in three dimensions on the website of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums.

St. Dorothy, St. Vitus, St. Procopius of Sázava, St. Clement, St. Anthony, St. Barbara and St. Anna enjoyed special religious significance in European mining centres. The choice of patrons was not accidental. For example, St. Antoni, who is the guardian of the missing, was to offer assistance when a miner got lost in the tangle of passages, and St. Clement, as the patron of drowners, was helpful in the event of mine flooding.

Painting “St. Kinga praying in the mountains” by Jan Matejko, 1892, public domain.

The most popular patron of miners was, and remains, St. Barbara – the guardian of hard work and a good death. The current liturgical memorial of St. Barbara, known in Poland as Barbórka, is the most important holiday in the calendar of mine employees. On this day, various traditional rituals are celebrated, such as the awarding of skewers to deserving employees and jumping over leather – a leather apron, also known as a backsider because it was used for the protection of miners’ buttocks while descending to an adit or resting on damp rocks. Miners also have songs traditional to their profession and even dances, like the famous sword dance performed among others by miners from Sankt Martin in Lower Austria. In Wieliczka and Bochnia, a special cult was enjoyed by  St. Kinga, with whom many legends are associated.

On the occasion of holidays such as Barbórka, miners wear a formal uniform. Diggers wore a distinctive outfit as far back as the Middle Ages – simple kaftans with a hood and mining leather garments which, at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, became part of the festive outfit of mining elites – although it was not a genuine uniform. The first uniforms appeared in the 17th century in Saxony, and in 1719 a real mining fashion show took place. More than a thousand miners appeared in festive uniforms on the occasion of the wedding of Frederick Augustus, the future Polish king Augustus III. In Bochnia and Wieliczka, the first uniforms were introduced by Austrians, a year after the first Partition of Poland. In the nineteenth century, wearing a uniform became common in most mines, and on the territory of the Austrian Partition, the final legal regulation regarding its appearance took place in 1850.

The uniforms from Wieliczka and Bochnia have not changed much since the partitions and in the 20th century, they became a model for mining uniforms for the whole of Poland. After the World War II, a women’s uniform was also introduced. Nevertheless, it was only in 2008 that Poland terminated the convention banning women from working underground. However, there is still a lack of relevant provisions which would fully regulate this issue.

Traditional mining sword dance, Sankt Martin (Lower Austria), photo by John Asher, CC BY-SA 3.0, source: Wikimedia Commons.

Miners, as free people, also had the right to carry weapons, which to this day are part of the festive uniform of mine workers. On the portal we present a “bart” from Saxony, a miner’s axe (Germ. Bergbarten), and the parade miner’s sabre. High-ranking Wieliczka miners, like all officials in the Habsburg Monarchy, had the right to carry this type of weapon with their ceremonial uniform. In Upper Silesia, which belonged to Prussia since the 18th century, tradition says that a sword is an integral part of the uniform.

In addition to holiday customs and costumes, miners are distinguished by their professional jargon, which is not limited to the sphere of spoken language. In many mines, due to the noise, miners have developed a gesture communication system and even a way to broadcast messages by tapping on pipelines. Metal pipes carry “encrypted” information over long distances.
Today, many souvenirs of old mining can be seen at the permanent exhibition of the Kraków Salt Works Museum in Wieliczka, and some of them are worth viewing on the website of the Małopolska’s Virtual Museums.

Elaborated by: Adam Spodaryk (Editorial team of Małopolskas Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License..

Bibliography:

  1. Brückner Aleksander, Encyklopedia staropolska, vol. 2, Warszawa 1939, columns 378–382.
  2. Burke Peter, Kultura ludowa we wczesnonowożytnej Europie, Warszawa 2009.
  3. Gloger Zygmunt, Encyklopedia staropolska, vol. 2, Warszawa 1901, pp. 224–226.
  4. Tenże, Encyklopedia staropolska, vol. 4, Warszawa 1901, pp. 521–522.
  5. Janicka-Krzywda Urszula, Górnicy wielickiej kopalni, Kraków 1999.
  6. Sasin Ewelina, „Gdzie diabeł nie może, tam babę pośle”, czyli dlaczego świat się kończy. O ślunskich dziołchach i ich szychcie z Karoliną Bacą-Pogorzelską rozmawia Ewelina Sasin, „Ha!art”, no. 49: Praca, pp. 39–44.
  7. Tenfelde Klaus, Bergarbeiterkultur in Deutschland. Ein Überblick, „Geschichte und Gesellschaft”, vol. 5 (1979), no. 1: Arbeiterkultur im 19. Jahrhundert, pp. 12–53.
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