Shell Grotto at Margate
The Shell Grotto is an ornate subterranean passageway in Margate, Kent. Almost all the surface area of the walls and roof is covered in mosaics created entirely of seashells, totalling about 2,000 square feet (190 m2) of mosaic, or 4.6 million shells.
The Grotto’s discovery in 1835 came as a complete surprise to the people of Margate; it had never been marked on any map and there had been no tales of its construction told around the town. But James Newlove could clearly see the commercial potential of his find and he immediately set about preparations to open the Grotto up to the public.
The first paying customers descended the chalk stairway in 1837 and debate has raged about the Grotto’s origins ever since: for every expert who believes it to be an ancient temple, there’s someone else convinced it was the meeting place for a secret sect; for every ardent pagan, there’s a Regency folly-monger ready to spoil their fun. At first glance the Grotto’s design only adds to the confusion, with humble cockles, whelks, mussels and oysters creating a swirling profusion of patterns and symbols. There are trees of life, phalluses, gods, goddesses and something that looks very like an altar.
The most recent findings point to the Grotto functioning as a sun temple, the sun entering the Dome (which extends up to ground level, with a small circular opening) just before the Spring Equinox, forming a dramatic alignment at midday on the Summer Solstice and departing just after the Autumn Equinox, thus indicating the fertile season.
However, there’s only one fact about the Grotto that is indisputable: that it is a unique work of art that should be valued and preserved, whatever its age or origins.
(sources: 1, 2)
One of the most amazing things about the Shell Grotto, I think, is how little we know about it. It is a complete mystery.
We have no idea how long it has been there, because when it was open to the public in Victorian times it was lit with candles and gas lamps so can’t be carbon dated because of the soot.
It’s also very grimy because the shells are too delicate to be cleaned up. They have tried to restore it to its original glory but the shells just crumble, so it stays as it is.
It’s completely astonishing.
Who built it? Why did they build it? When did they build it? What was the story of the people who decided this should be done, and the people who spent so much time and effort creating this amazing thing? We know nothing.
When I went there I was just buzzing with questions. Normally in museums and stuff they have an explanation, even if they don’t know for sure, even if they offer you one or two hypotheses. But here, I was just firing off questions and all there was to say was “no one knows”.
There’s something really magical about that.