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Navigating Underground: wayfinding, mapping, and measuring in mines

Sat, March 28, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Delta Ottawa City Centre, Floor: Conference, Richelieu


This paper examines how people found their way around a dark and unfamiliar environment: mines and related underground spaces. Based on records of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Derbyshire lead miners, it traces the bodily experiences of people who worked in constricted, gnarly, and unlit environments, as well as the technologies they used to make sense of these spaces. The skills and tools to navigate underground served three key purposes. First, miners had to find their way to and from their workplace, an unfixed location that was always in flux as the mine progressed. Second, mine proprietors had to know the extent of their works to establish boundaries with neighbouring mines. Finally, certain underground passages such as adits had to meet other places underground to achieve mine drainage. In order to make sense of their environments, miners developed a lexicon to describe underground features, often based on bodily metaphors, such as veins that belly-out, elbows, and face. Measuring and mapping these spaces was challenging due to poor visibility, a short horizon and the mines being complicated 3-dimensional spaces. Cartography tools were adapted to employ underground and combined with ‘dialling’ a mine and projecting its extent at the surface. Using contemporary mine surveying treatises and written accounts of miners describing their sensory experiences of finding their way underground, this paper charts how navigational tools and skills were used to illuminate hidden subterranean environments.