In 1835, a laborer in Kent, England, was doing his usual field work. What wasn’t so usual was when he struck the soil with his spade and it just disappeared into the Earth. Apparently, he was standing on something hollow, but from the surface, could see nothing.
Word spread, and a local schoolteacher soon volunteered his young son, Joshua, to be lowered into the hole with a candle. If you think dipping your child into a mysterious cavern in the Earth seems a bit, well, unsafe, we do, too. Luckily, Joshua was fine, and what he saw underground was a breathtaking mystery.
When Joshua was pulled out, he described rooms filled with hundreds of thousands of carefully arranged shells.
Joshua’s father, the schoolteacher, immediately thought of the financial benefit that this place might have. He quickly bought up the land and began renovating the grotto, making it suitable for visitors. Two years later, in 1837, the Margate Shell Grotto opened to the public for the first time. And he was right; it did catch on with the public, and it’s still open and enjoying visitors today. Today, it’s also got a museum, gift shop, and cafe.
But there’s still a major question hanging in the air: who built this, and why?
With all these shells so carefully arranged, it’s clear that someone spent a lot of time — and money — on this creation. The shells are arranged in sun and star shapes, and vaulted ceilings and altar-like spaces lead some to believe it once had religious significance. Yet no one knows for sure, and no one is even sure how old the structure is.
Theories about its origin place it as being built as long as 3,000 years ago.
Shell grottoes were actually quite popular in Europe in the 1700s among the wealthy.
Visitors from the 1930s left their mark on some scallop shells in the grotto.
The arrangement of the shells must have taken countless hours of painstaking work.
Many of the shells in the grotto have faded over time and lost their luster through water damage. This recreation shows what they might have looked like at the time the grotto was built. It would have been full of dazzling color.
Via Kuriositas, Wikipedia
To determine the age of the shells, they could be carbon dated. However, on the Shell Grotto’s FAQ page, it’s stated that this process is very expensive, and other conservation issues are currently prioritized. Perhaps one day, we’ll at least know when this was built. For now, our imaginations can run wild with all the possibilities of the Shell Grotto’s mysterious past. Was it a smuggler’s hideout? A secret temple? An underground party room? The life’s work of a madman? Whatever it was, someone obviously cared about it enough to decorate it like this.