In 1835, an unknown laborer in Kent, the UK, was doing his usual fieldwork. When he struck the soil in what could be classified as a lucky spot, his spade disappeared into the Earth upon impacting the ground, breaking a doorway into an underworld like no other.
The lad soon realized that he was standing on an entrance to hollow underground caverns that could not be seen from the surface.
Word quickly spread regarding the find, and the curiosity to see what was down there soon began to boil over. A local schoolteacher kindly volunteers his young son, Joshua, to make the dangerous trip down beneath the ground to see what was down there.
When Joshua was luckily pulled out alive, he described rooms encrusted with millions of carefully arranged shells. People were a little skeptical regarding the claims initially, yet when the hole was eventually widened, allowing all to see for themselves, they were stunned when the boy’s accounts were confirmed as entirely accurate.
Now known as the shell grotto of Margate, its origins or purpose remains a complete mystery to this day. Almost all the walls and roof surface area are covered in mosaics created entirely out of seashells, totaling about 190sq meters of mosaic, calculated to be around 4.6 million shells.
The underground caverns consist of a passage, a dome, and even an altar chamber, the whole thing completely covered in a mosaic of shells.
Several questions obviously, arose from this astonishing discovery under a field in Kent. Firstly, how old could shell grotto be?
Who could have built such a thing, and why bury it hidden underground? And probably the most important of questions, where did you get 4.6 million seashells from?
Steps at the upper end of the cave lead into a passage about 1.07 meters wide, roughly hewn out of the natural chalk, winding down in serpentine fashion until it reaches an arch, the walls, and roof of which here onward, are covered in the shell mosaic. Various hypotheses have dated its construction to any time in the past 3,000 years.
Theories have included that it was an 18th or 19th-century rich man’s folly, a prehistoric astronomical calendar, and even that it could be connected to the Knights Templar.
Interestingly, No publicly known scientific dating of the site has yet to be completed…The most frequently used shells throughout the mosaic – mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops, and oysters – are primarily local. They could have been found insufficient numbers from four possible bays: Walpole Bay in Cliftonville; Pegwell Bay especially at Shellness Point, Cliffsend, near Richborough; Sandwich Bay, Sandwich; and Shellness on the Isle of Sheppey. Yet, most of the mosaic is formed from the flat winkle, which is used to create the background infill between the designs…
However, this shell is rarely found locally, so that it would have been collected from shores west of Southampton. Shell grotto is undoubtedly an amazing yet not very well-known find. More scientific research is needed to unravel the mysteries of its incredible construction.