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Mining in the Upper Harz – the region’s backbone

Nachbau eines Bergarbeiters mit einem Wagen in Miniatur  (Copyright: Anselm Neft)

The Oberharzer Bergwerksmuseum (Upper Harz Mining Museum) in Clausthal-Zellerfeld offers a vivid portrayal of history, up close: we braved a glimpse into the depths – and the past – on your behalf.

Without mining, the Upper Harz would look very different today: its approximately 70 lakes, which were all created artificially to provide water, wouldn’t be here, nor would the rich population of spruce, which was cutivated here from the 18th century to build the shafts. The region had mining to thank for its wealth, its comparably high number of residents and inventions such as the wire cable. It is highly likely that there would be no University of Technology in Clausthal-Zellerfeld and certainly not the Upper Harz Mining Museum, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2017.

This history of mining in the Upper Harz

Ore was already being mined in the Upper Harz due to its silver content back in the third century AD. Regional mining first blossomed in the Middle Ages under the leadership of the Cistercian monks from the abbey in Walkenried. However, the mining of minerals came to a halt following the plague in 1350, as people left the area.

Only in 1520 did they begin to move back into the region. The chronically cash-strapped Duke of Wolfenbüttel craved the mineral resources in the Upper Harz, but needed workers to mine them. Because he needed ‘his own’ residents for field work, he attracted miners to the Upper Harz from the Ore Mountains with the promise of certain privileges. These included exemption from military service, exemption from tax, religious freedom, and the right to brew beer, keep a cow and chop wood in the forest. The people came and, along with their knowledge, also brought their language with them. Even now, some older people in the Clausthal-Zellerfeld and St. Andreasberg region still speak the ‘Erzgebirgisch’ dialect. The local Goslarsche Zeitung newspaper also often features articles in the dialect that came with the miners. We thus learn that, in this dialect, the German word ‘Vogel’ is pronounced ‘feucht’, ‘Nagel’ ‘nààchl’ and ‘Mädchen’ ‘maadl’.

Upper Harz Mining Museum – the oldest German museum of its kind

The Mining Museum in Clausthal-Zellerfeld is a traditional institution of the town and Germany’s oldest mining museum. It opened its doors back in 1892 and had welcomed more than 5.5 million visitors by its 125th anniversary. Thirty exhibition rooms await in the main building; they show how the work to extract silver ore used to take place, what equipment was used for this and what life was like for the miners. The highlights of the collection include the historic teaching models from the collection of the Mountain School, the precursor to today’s University of Technology in Clausthal-Zellerfeld. The detailed wooden models serve as replicas of conveyor belts, winding shafts, stamp mills and whole mines and are considered the most important collection of their kind.

But the smaller objects in the collection are also well worth seeing. You will discover what the ‘Hillebille’ signalling device, ‘Mooskappe’ head cover, ‘Arschleder’ miner’s apron and the ‘Oberharzer Frosch’ lamp are all about. And you will learn that Clausthal in no way stood for alcohol-free beer in the past; rather, hectolitres of Nordhäuser Doppelkorn were enjoyed here – as was also the case in the six other ‘free mountain towns’ in the region. The museum includes an outdoor area, a minerals cabinet and a video room, in which you can take a closer look at the tough life the miners had underground.

A glimpse into the exhibition mine

The tour of the exhibition mine offers a particularly good insight into the region’s mining history: thick spruce trunks, which grow particularly straight and are easy to cut, support shafts and tunnels, while drilled-out trunks serve as pipes for the pumps. The wagons, also referred to as ‘dogs’, travelled on narrow rails. The ‘casualty container’ was used to transport injured miners up to the ground. If a corpse arrived above ground, the workers burned the whole container straight away. Wherever there are daily risks to life and limb, superstitions also flourish. The underground chapel, in which the miners gathered in the early hours to pray, is impressive. This strengthened the community – and, at the same time, made it possible to see who was still sleeping off their hangover...

Mathematician, natural scientist and aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg noted in 1780: ‘The miners’s paychecks, as well as their worries, only extend from one Saturday to the next. Despite rough food and hard work, they are cheerful and funny, play their zither and sing their mountain songs and fear death so little, although it threatens to ambush them so often and so obviously during their work.’

Searching for traces in the UNESCO World Heritage Site – even via e-guide

The Upper Harz Mining Museum provides anyone who is interested with an electronic outdoor guide system. The EMIL e-guide takes people of all ages to special places and reveals hidden connections: from the iron winding tower of the Ottiliae shaft, to the mine railway on the daily conveyor line, to the wheel chamber for the Rosenhof pit tower with its huge protected reversible waterwheel, or the Kaiser Wilhelm II shaft.

In 1992, UNESCO  named the former Rammelsberg ore mine and the historic town of Goslar a World Heritage Site. This was the first time that a relic of industrial culture in Germany was added to the World Heritage Site list. In 2010, the World Heritage Site was expanded to include the Upper Harz Water Management System, which was of key importance for mining. This 200-square-kilometre region features reservoirs such as the Oderteich and the Ottiliae shaft – evidence of a great past that continues to shape the region economically, technologically, societally and culturally to the present day.