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The basic method for moulding the salt bed in the Wieliczka mine was to tear it out with the use of iron wedges; the cuboid blocks were then treated and transformed into barrel shapes or a cylinder for trading purposes. Those blocks were the main product of salt mines in the region of Kraków for six centuries — from the second half of the 13...

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The basic method for moulding the salt bed in the Wieliczka mine was to tear it out with the use of iron wedges; the cuboid blocks were then treated and transformed into barrel shapes or a cylinder for trading purposes. Those blocks were the main product of salt mines in the region of Kraków for six centuries — from the 2nd half of the 13th century to 1876. The elongated, oval shape made the transportation of salt cylinders easier, which were sometimes very heavy to move through the maze of underground excavations. Salt blocks were rolled by special teams of miners, making use of hard rods.
The production of salt blocks was first mentioned in the Wawel Cathedral Diplomatic Register in 1278. The note referred to the salt mine in Bochnia. Salt blocks in the Wieliczka mine were recorded for the first time in the incorporation charter of the town of Wieliczka issued in 1290. According to the regulation of King Casimir III the Great of 1368, blocks of salt weighed ca. 300–400 kg. In the 14th century, the Wieliczka salt works produced three types of salt blocks: the so-called Kraków style, Oświęcim style, and Slovak style, whereas in the 17th century there were 9 types of salt blocks weighing from ca. 1,000 kg to even 2,000 kg.

These are short descriptions of some of the salt blocks:
— Kraków-style salt block — the main product purchased by Polish merchants at a lower price, designed for the Polish market;
— Oświęcim-style salt block — of greater value, designed for the salt storehouse in Oświęcim (at the Silesia and Małopolska border), from where it was distributed to Silesia and Moravia as the major exportation direction;
— Slovak-style salt block — small salt block weighing ca. 600 kg; the size was adjusted for long transportation of these blocks in mountainous areas and the frequent change of means of transport;
— Noble-style salt block — weighed ca. 1250 kg and was designed for noblemen; this type of salt block resulted from the Nieszawa Statutes of 1454 when King Casimir Jagiellon ordered a special privilege for noblemen, which said that noblemen could purchase salt directly from salt mines on days of fasting (three times a year);
— Donative salt block — given freely to holders of certain privileges (e.g., churches, monasteries).
This salt block is of the Kraków style. It is a block (length: 1,640 mm, diameter: 600 mm) that was hewed with a pick and bears traces of treatment on the surface. The block’s ends were processed slightly slantwise and the side walls were slightly flattened.
One interesting fact is that in the early 16th century the average value of a small salt block was comparable to that of a saddled horse.

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

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Kraków Saltworks deposits

Salt exploitation history is connected in Poland, with the Miocen marine deposits filling the Pre-Carpathian basin. The salt series thickness varies from 250 m in Wieliczka up to 1500 m close to Wojnicz. It is built of five cyclothems, that is sedimentation cycles, beginning from aggregated  and argillaceous rocks (sandstones, mudstones, claystone), argillo-calcerous and anhydrite claystone to anhydrites and halites.

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Salt exploitation history is connected in Poland, with the Miocen marine deposits filling the Pre-Carpathian basin. The salt series thickness varies from 250 m in Wieliczka up to 1500 m close to Wojnicz. It is built of five cyclothems, that is sedimentation cycles, beginning from aggregated  and argillaceous rocks (sandstones, mudstones, claystone), argillo-calcerous and anhydrite claystone to anhydrites and halites. The Carpathian overthrust caused strong folding of the salt series and formed local concentrations of salt of industrial value. The Miocen halite deposits occure in the Carpathian forground, between Wieliczka (West) and Tarnów (East). The historical sources  of the 11th and the 13th centuries mention bestowments and privileges of salt  mining. The documents certify that salt exploitation has been continued in ”Wieliczka” and  ”Bochnia” salt mines for over 700 years. They belonged to the Kraków Salt Mines, that together with the Russian Salt Mines (Kałusz, Tyrawa Solna, Jasienica, Starasól, Stebnik, Modrycz, Solec, Sołotwina and Truskawiec) constituted the Royal Salt Mines. The salt mines brought profits for local people, tenants and the king. Archaeological investigations provide more and more proofs confirming salt exploitation in the area. About 3500 years BC. Bochnia area was already known as a place where salt was obtained by means of an evaporation method. Ancient coins dating back to the Emperor Hadrian times as well as chert and flint tools were found on slag heaps of the Russian Salt Mines.  Due to development of the bore-hole method in salt mining, wider exploitation of the Zechstein salt deposits, the old salt mines began to loose their importance. Currently they function mainly as tourist attractions and sanitariums. In Bochnia, the lowest levels (from the XVI to the X) have been backfilled and the historical part (from the level I to IX) has been adapted for touristic purposes. The ”Wieliczka” salt mine reaches the depth of 327 m. It has 9 levels and about 300 km of excavations (galleries, inclined drifts, exploitation chambers, salt lakes, shafts and pits). Most of them are open for tourists. 

Elaborated by the Geological Museum at the Faculty of Geology, Geophysics and Environmental Protection of the AGH University of Science and Technology, © all rights reserved

See also:
Halite with organic inclusions
Halite crystals
Halite crystals from Groty Kryształowe [Crystal Caves]
Halite crystals on the watering can

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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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