John Barnatt
Historic England, £30
ISBN 978-1848023819
Review Rob Ixer

It is little surprise that geology initially evolved as a British science, for within a set of smallish islands the British Isles have been blessed by an almost unseemly range of rocks of all ages. Beneath our green and pleasant land sits a varied mineral wealth that has been exploited for four millennia (metals) and tens of millennia before that (lithics).

This abundantly illustrated paperback gives a brief account of all this, but is restricted to England (by the organisation behind it) and, in truth, to the last 250 years (by the author’s expertise and passion). This unbalances the picture of economic geology in Britain, leading to some distortions in the text: small English mines (especially copper mines) are given undeserved weight, but their world-dominating Celtic neighbours are hardly mentioned.

The first three chapters discuss and list mines by product, both metals and non-metals; Chapter 4 repeats this, but now listed by region. It is excellent to have a collation of metal, coal, and stone workings all in one volume, augmented by the comprehensive reference list, including local, regional, and minor titles. There are minor factual errors and incorrect spellings, but as a primer this is good enough. Chapters 5 to 10, the bedrock of the book, then describe and illustrate most of the archaeological features and artefacts to be found underground (including, if not the kitchen sink, double-seated lavatories; we are spared the coprolites).

The illustrations are remarkable for their quality. They are beautifully lit, well-staged, in clutter-free spaces, and so, astoundingly, are vaguely Vogue-like, with the same soft-focused truth, for there is no hint of the unpleasantness (being wet, smelly, bruised, and cramped) inherent in mine exploration, especially in abandoned old man’s workings. As ever, longer captions are needed: without them quite a few photographs are interchangeable. But they are works of art, with few stones left unturned or out of place, and may outlast the text.

Within its imposed restrictions and its intent – to introduce and enthuse amateurs to go underground and then recognise what they see – this is a successful book. But don’t forget the liniment.  

This review appeared in CA 350.

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