Friday 25 October 2013

Why Peter Cook and Diodorus agree about mining

Sengenhydd Mortuary, 100 years ago
Aberfan school buried under coal slag

‘I would much prefer to be a judge than a coal miner because of the absence of falling coal.’ So said the comedian Peter Cook. In my teens I was taken down a Nottinghamshire mineshaft by an enlightened history teacher, and it changed me forever. 

The last fortnight has seen the anniversaries of two terrible Welsh mine-community disasters: the centenary of the death of 439 miners at the Senghenydd Colliery and the anniversary of the collapse of the slag heap on the school in Aberfan (Wales) on 21st October 1966, killing 116 children and 28 adults. 

In his 1938 painting ‘Symbolic: miner enslaved,’ Gilbert Daykin, himself a miner, implicitly alluded to the historic iconography of the technological Titan Prometheus. But this week I was aghast to discover that the year after he painted his South Yorkshire Prometheus, Daykin was among six men killed when the roof of Warsop Main Colliery collapsed on them.  

Daykin: Painter and Pitman
The ancient Greek historian from Sicily, Diodorus, thought that life for the slaves sent down the Spanish goldmines was actually worse than death. We have no subjective account from the mouths of any ancient miners, but Diodorus’ text, from his fifth book, provides us with a rare and precious glimpse into the suffering of so many in antiquity to line the pockets of so few: 

The slaves produce, for their masters, revenues in sums defying belief, but they themselves wear out their bodies both by day and by night in the diggings under the earth, dying in large numbers because of the exceptional hardships they endure. For no respite or pause is granted them in their labours, but compelled beneath blows of the overseers to endure the severity of their plight.’

A Rare Self-Portrait by Ancient Miners? (Corinth 6th-C. BC)
I still don’t know how I got through my entire BA without any lecturer ever pointing out this ancient text to me. I stumbled upon it as a PhD student. But I do know that I would very much rather work, as Peter Cook put it, in the absence of falling coal.

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