Of Moles and Men

Back to Mining in Canada

From The Canadian Rockhound, February 1975

By Sid Wayland

When the late author Robert Ruark was once asked if he would go underground in the event of an atomic attack, he answered, “Mother never meant me to be no mole”, meaning that he preferred to take his chances above ground. But, down through the ages men have been showing mole-like tendencies for various reasons, often risking their lives underground.

It soon became apparent to me after working at a mine for a short time, that miners are a breed apart from other men, many preferring to work underground even when offered another job on the surface. I remember one of my room-mates in the mine bunkhouse who had been injured underground when he fell forty feet down a mine shaft, landing on a three foot wide ledge. He lay still on the ledge until rescued which was a good thing because the shaft continued down another two hundred feet. He returned to the mine to work underground again.

roughly sketched image of a mole lying down

Men must have been mining for thousands of years, often being forced to search underground when they exhausted the supply of minerals found on the surface. This happened during the Stone Age when the supply of good Flint nodules diminished. At Grimes Graves, which is near Weeting, Norfolk, England, is the most famous of these Flint mines. Here, men sank shafts twenty to forty feet below ground level through the Chalk until they reached the layers of good Flint nodules. They followed these layers as far as possible, leaving columns of Chalk standing as they went to support the roof along these galleries. The tools used were heavy stone axes to break the tougher Chalk, deer antlers, with some of the points removed, were used as wedges, levers and picks, the shoulder blades of cattle were used as shovels. Wicker baskets were used to haul the nodules to the surface and abandoned galleries were filled with the Chalk rubble. Small Chalk bowls of animal fat with a floating moss wick, were used as a light source.

The workings extend for over thirty four acres and some of the three hundred and sixty shafts have been excavated and are open to the public. Old clothes and a lamp of flashlight are a must, if you wish to enter and explore the galleries.

The various networks of subterranean chambers and galleries known as Catacombs near Rome, Italy, are another good example of man’s mole-like tendencies. What started out as simple burial chambers for Christian landowners and their families (cremation was forbidden) evolved into the Catacombs as we know them today.  There are fifty separate unconnected Catacombs which extend for a total of over three hundred and fifty miles, usually thirty to forty feet below street level. The position of the various Catacombs were decided by the geological factors of the area, which consists of various sedimentary and volcanic formations. A soft granular Tufa rock which was easy to work and resistant enough to prevent cave-ins, was found to be the most satisfactory. In this rock the galleries, some three to four feet wide and ten to fifteen feet high were cut. The burial chambers were then cut in the sides of these galleries. The Christian excavators soon found that the geological strata’s weren’t continuous and so they had to search for new locations of the soft Tufa rock, which accounts for the fact that the Catacombs of Rome are widely scattered.

During times of persecution, the Catacombs were places where Christians could avoid arrest and also pray to their God in peace.

I visited the Catacomb of St. Sebastian, which I found most interesting from a geological as well as historical point of view. The narrowness of the galleries seems to be the main safeguard against cave-ins, as I can’t remember seeing any other means of roof support.

Visitors to the 1973 and 1974 Britich Columbia Gem Craft Shows, were able to see excellent slide programs, presented by the B.C. Speleo Research Group. This group of Cave explorers by natural processes. A unique and rewarding pastime, not recommended for the faint of heart.

Sometimes, before starting to dig, man receives help in his search to discover the secrets hidden beneath the surface of the earth, from the burrowing animals. The excavated materials from burrows and dens have been known to contain interesting rock, mineral and fossil specimens.

A good example are the Harvester Ants, which are fairly common communal insects often found in the arid regions of North America. As a protection against the sun, these Ants roof their nests with any available materials that will serve the purpose. In fossil localities, the roofing materials are often pieces of fossils gathered from around the nest, and from the excavations underground.

Much information can be obtained by scientists from these industrious little roofers, by just examining and sorting gathered materials.

During my foot-loose and fancy-free days, I wandered the highroads and byroads, trying to satisfy my wanderlust that kept eating at me. With my pack on my back I walked or hitchhiked wherever my fancy directed.

While walking along an English country lane, I came upon an unusual but sad sight. I saw the bodies of forty-nine little Moles handing from a wire fence, the work of a Mole-catcher. The little bodies had been hung there to visually prove to the farmer that the hired Mole-catcher had done his job. These little creatures had been caught mining on a human’s claim and for this offence, they had paid the supreme penalty.

Humans, including some rockhounds, are sometimes guilty of the offence of trespassing on private property, also claim jumping, but I have never heard of any being treated this way.

Read well and follow our Rockhound Code of Ethics, then all of us rockhound-moles will be able to continue to search and dig on property that would otherwise be closed to us. I’ll close this article with a short poem.

The best dug holes

O’men and moles

Mostly turn up gangue.

(apologies to Robert Burns).