Deep 200ft under the Forest of Dean, UK, we venture underground through limestone caves in search of ochre pigment with a seventh generation miner
From Neanderthal cave paintings to Renaissance masterpieces, to modern eco-paint products, the ochres have been used as a mark-making medium for millennia, and are amongst the oldest pigments known to man. It is the indelible nature of these pigments that has enabled modern historians and archaeologists to date their usage back so far. They were greatly valued by many ancient civilisations, used in ritualised burials, religious ceremonies, for medicinal purposes (both internally and externally), as well as for personal decoration: tattoos, body paint and even reportedly to 'rouge' the lips of Egyptian women.
Much like common rust the ochres are composed of iron oxide compounds, and are found in natural deposits in the earth at many sites worldwide. The colour is mostly dependent on the level to which the compound is hydrated, but there can be other attributing factors. In the Tuscan regions around the city of Siena, for example, a yellowy-brown pigment can be found. Along with the iron oxide, it contains small amounts of manganese oxide. The ancient Romans - who would have known it by its Italian name, Terra di Siena - made vast use of this pigment in painting their illustrious murals. Today it's known simply as Sienna.
Clearwell Caves, situated in one of England's last remaining ancient woodlands, the Forest of Dean, has been mined for pigment - or 'colour' as it was known to old mining folk - since Neolithic times. From early material culture, mining at Clearwell turned into a buoyant industry. Although, over time the mineral deposits depleted and after a long, fruitful life, the mines slowed. Today it is one of the last British producers of ochre pigment, albeit on a very modest scale, but otherwise it functions as a working museum and tourist attraction. The caves themselves are a natural formation - having been hollowed out by ancient waterways - but due to deep mining and excavation these caves now extend far beneath the Forest of Dean.
Nowadays father and son team, Ray and Jonathan Wright, run Clearwell Caves and it is Jonathan that still mines the caves for the ochre. Today, however, he is acting as our guide as we venture two-hundred feet underground into the twenty mile network of limestone caves. As we descend there is a dramatic shift from a light summer breeze to a much cooler stagnant air. In comradery with the drop in temperature, natural light is extinguished. As we further into the barren landscape, concealed in darkness, I fall subject to instinct and erratically whip my headlamp back and forth to expose the rock-faces. The hollows are deceptive in their semblance to one another and it is clear that getting lost in this labyrinth wouldn't be difficult. However, Jonathan is more than familiar with this underground landscape, and in the company of a seventh generation miner there's much comfort and trust. Upon questioning him whether he ever worried about becoming lost, in a jolly tone, he responds, 'you wouldn't get lost in your living room, would you?'
As we journey deeper we begin to see the remnants of mined pigment pockets within the rock crevices. We reach an area rich in deep, dirty violets and purples -as revealed by my headlamp - where tools lie on the cave floor. Without a word, Jonathan proceeds to pick up an old spoon and with very little effort begins gently prising the pigment away.
Jonathan's disposition is calm and pleasant and, in his softly spoken manner wrapped up in modesty, there is an enthusiasm and passion as he speaks about his excavations underground. His slow paced and contemplative demeanour seems a fitting attribute for these caves: a reflective and meditative space. As we follow him, ambling our way whilst precariously negotiating our footing, he speaks of his short stint in his youth when he lived and worked as a photographer in London, but, he tells us, he soon returned to the Forest as that busy life just wasn't for him.
Our path leads us through giant caverns that then tighten, forcing us to crawl on our hands and knees. As we journey deeper we begin to see the remnants of mined pigment pockets within the rock crevices. We reach an area rich in deep, dirty violets and purples -as revealed by my headlamp - where tools lie on the cave floor. Without a word, Jonathan proceeds to pick up an old spoon and with very little effort begins gently prising the pigment away. I hadn't expected the pigment to be so readily available and in this friable state. Jonathan tells us that he regularly returns to this deposit for the purple ochre; purple is the least common of the ochres, but yet at Clearwell, it is the most prominent. The purple ochre has the same anhydrous (dehydrated) chemical composition as red ochre; however, due to larger particles, the light is diffracted differently to give the purple hue.
Beneath the earth, in the quiet and the dark, it feels as if time has stood still and yet, when we re-emerge to the surface, hours have passed. My senses are immediately reawakened by the audibility of commonplace - the birds, the wind in the trees, distant cars - and the embracing warmth and illumination from the sun are thankfully welcomed. Completely covered in a fine layer of dust and dirt, we march back to the workshop in our wellies, clutching our newly excavated ochre.
The workshop feels like something between a history museum and an industrial junk yard. Jonathan says that a lot of what is piled up in this cramped space is old mining machinery that he can't face scrapping; it tells stories and histories. All around is evidence of pigment production; everything subtly sooted with traces of colour. There are no contemporary machines, or, for that matter, anything that looks remotely from this century; the whole place feels a little lost in time. But, this only adds to the character and charm of the place, and a fitting tribute to, and reflection on, the processes Jonathan uses which haven't changed much for hundreds of years.
The workshop feels like something between a history museum and an industrial junk yard. Jonathan says that a lot of what is piled up in this cramped space is old mining machinery that he can't face scrapping; it tells stories and histories. All around is evidence of pigment production; everything subtly sooted with traces of colour.
Jonathan empties the contents of the waterproof bag, containing the newly acquired purple ochre, into a metal bucket. He then adds water and stirs it vigorously. This vigorous stirring, as Jonathan explains, is how the pigment is extracted from the clay and silica. It causes the particles to separate leaving the finer lighter pigment particles floating in the water, and heavier particles to sediment at the bottom. The liquid, retaining the pigment, is then decanted into a new bucket and Jonathan says that "by morning the pigment will sink into a slurry with clear water on top." This clear water will then be drained off to reach a finer, more refined and purer pigment; then poured into open containers and left to air dry and set. John continues, "The coarse residue of lumps and gritty material left after the first wash are milled for a short time to break up the remaining colour. The milled material is then washed again and the process repeated until only clean limestone is left which can be discarded. This is to get the maximum amount of 'colour' from the hard-earned ochre."
The whole process is quite simple in its science, involving no chemical processing and even on an industrial level it is only marginally more sophisticated than the process used here today.
Jonathan carefully meanders his way through the many buckets of pigments, all at varying stages of the process. He begins to rearrange trays of dried ochre pigment, all holding different colours that have cracked like a parched earthy desert. They are ready to be ground into the fine powder, and will be sold here at Clearwell Caves - often mixed with an oil or base to create paint. In true Blue Peter fashion, Jonathan hands us one that he made earlier; a fine and delicate full-bodied powder that, despite its colour, feels far removed from the rough material taken from the caves. •