There exists a mystifying place in England, a subterranean world of man-made tunnels and passageways completely covered in sea shells.
An estimated 4.6 million of them adorn the walls, ceilings and altar in an array of artistic patterns and abstract symbols. There exists no historical information on the Shell Grotto’s origins, purpose or age. There isn’t even any local folklore. But many historians believe what we are looking at could be thousands of years old.
School headmaster James Newlove and his son Joshua were clearing land in the seaside town of Margate, Kent, in 1835 when a cap stone was moved resulting in a deep hole opening up in the earth. Armed with a lamp and tied to a rope, story has it that young Joshua was lowered down by his dad for a closer look. And so goes the first known account of what would soon become known as the Shell Grotto.
Gaining popularity, the site became a tourist attraction in the Victorian era where oddities of any kind were all the rage. But as is often the case with ancient discoveries, these first visitors unintentionally caused severe damage.
Chemical residue from their lamps would make carbon-dating the site extremely expensive. Equally as disappointing is the damage caused by the soot which darkened many of the multicolored shells which when washed turned up plain white after the soaking.
There are several snaking 8 ft high passageways, small rooms and arched tunnels. There sits an ornate altar with a half-moon niche in a chamber and overhead a giant dome which opens out into the sky.
While most of these shells would have be readily sourced from the locality, others such as queen conches are believed to have come from the Caribbean, hinting that the Shell Grotto may have been a large project that spanned various countries and was the work of several contributors.
It’s generally agreed upon that the project would have been immensely time consuming and in all probability the work of several generations. The excavation of the chalk tunnels and removal of earth would have taken considerable time.
Collecting the shells themselves from far and wide may have taken decades. But the most time consuming of all would have been the painstaking effort which has been taken to glue and diligently place each and every individual one of the 4.6 million shells into the myriad of symmetrical patterns, intricate designs and decorative mosaics.
Some designs are considered to be Egyptian or Indian in style, while others are ambiguous enough to allow for a variety of interpretations; stars, a skeleton, a crocodile, an owl and phalluses.
“Some historians believe the grotto as a whole symbolizes the journey from birth to death and on to the afterlife. As you walk the halls, you are walking that journey through the associated shell mosaic symbols, and end up in the altar chamber of heaven.”
Jim H Historic Mysteries
There are some who believe that the Shell Grotto is the work of very ancient artisans and predates the Roman Empire, dating back as far as 3,000 years.
It may have been in honour of a Greek sea god, a Phoenician temple or a place of pagan worship or ritual – it does have an altar within it that is surrounded by celestial bodies and some mosaics are which are believed to form symbols of life, death, and love. Others are convinced it was a secretive place for the Knights Templar, Freemasons, mystics or other secret societies of the 18th century.
It had long been suspected that the altar was aligned with celestial activity and may function as a solar calendar. And so this was investigated by a team who opened up the giant dome during the Summer Solstice. When the sun shone directly down in through the dome people were able to use reflectors to deflect the sunlight through the passageway and in turn illuminate the altar.