In the volcanic depths of the Mediterranean’s largest island lies a sculpted subterranean world filled with giant machines and strange lights; a place where whiteness meets darkness, and where thousands of tons of a precious yet familiar substance are excavated and shipped away every day.
The vast, white underground tunnels and chambers almost look as if they were dug out of snow or ice. Huge caverns underneath some Arctic wasteland, perhaps. Frozen water wouldn’t last long in these temperatures, however. Indeed, the hot, dry climate of these vaulted alabaster corridors – which form part of the rock salt mines of Sicily – is anything but Arctic.
Photographer Antonino Savojardo has an interesting way of describing the strange, monochromatic world of Sicily's rock salt mines at Realmonte, Petralia and Racalmuto – said to be some of the largest salt mines in Europe: “I was struck by the contrast between total darkness and the white salt, a strange 'white darkness',” he says – and we can certainly see what he means.
The heavy mining machinery and red lights of pointer lasers in the huge tunnels only add to the otherworldly atmosphere of the place. “The vaults and galleries seem like a scene from the movie Alien,” says Savojardo. Or the icy rebel hideout in The Empire Strikes Back, maybe? Either way, they don’t appear of this Earth, but rather as products of the sci-fi imagination.
Being Sicilian, Savojardo had long known of the salt mines and their history, and indeed had seen old pictures of the sites. Armed with this knowledge, one day he and a journalist colleague came up with the idea of doing a story on the mines, with Savojardo taking his own photographs of the tunnels – the stunning results of which we see here.
We can only imagine how strange it must have felt down in the mines, surrounded on all sides by the white crystals of pure rock salt. Yet, despite being closed in by millions of tons of the mineral, Savojardo says he didn’t notice there being a particularly salty smell. He does say, however, that he could taste the salt, “because I had salt dust on my lips at every moment.”
Although, with their strange, otherworldly appearance, these tunnels may not look like those of other mines, mining for rock salt is actually much like mining for any other mineral. Deep shafts are sunk into the ground – up to 100 meters (328 feet) deep in Sicily – with ramps and tunnels for access and an air well in the center to keep the mine ventilated.
The mines in Sicily also look to utilize a system known as ‘room and pillar’ mining, common in the industry. Using this method, shafts are drilled down to the bottom of the mine and chambers are hollowed out by cutting, drilling or blasting from one to the next. As you can imagine, vast quantities of salt must have been removed to create the massive rooms and miles of tunnels you see here.
When we speak of someone going ‘to the salt mines’ we mean that they have hard labor ahead of them – a phrase that may have its origins in one of the forms or punishment meted out in Imperial Russia. Before the advent of heavy machinery, salt mining was indeed backbreaking work, frequently assigned to prisoners or slaves before the Industrial Revolution.
The autocrats of both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany had prisoners sent to work in the salt mines right up until the last century. Indeed, historically it has been considered one of the most dangerous occupations, and those made to work in salt mines had a very low life expectancy as far back as Roman times. No wonder nobody did it by choice.
Fortunately, today conditions are much improved. The hard work is done by heavy machinery, or by blasting. Salt meant for consumption is ground off the walls using special cutting heads, while explosives are used for salt to be used for industrial and road safety purposes. The ‘white gold’ is then brought to the surface by means of long conveyor belts and large trucks.
Although the sight of so much salt might give your dietician a heart attack, there’s no denying our love, and need, for the mineral. Not only do we sprinkle it on our food to preserve it and make it tasty, but salt is also of vital importance in the chemical industry – to say nothing of the fact that it keeps us from slipping on ice during the winter.
Just how Sicily came to have all this salt is interesting in itself. About six million years ago, much of the area we now know as Sicily was a giant salty lagoon, part of a Mediterranean Sea entirely cut off from the Atlantic. Gradually this lagoon evaporated, causing the minerals in the water to solidify into stratified layers of sediment.
This geologically produced salt is what we call ‘rock salt’, and is generally much purer than sea salt. Part of the reason for this is that rock salt originates from a time before man-made pollutants made their way into the ocean. Here in Sicily, this precious, uncontaminated mineral is transported to Porto Empedocle, from where it makes its way to the north of Italy and elsewhere in Europe.
Antonino Savojardo has certainly met his aim of capturing the strange, alien atmosphere of the Sicilian salt mines. As the photographer himself says, when it comes to taking pictures of mines, "you need to forget the obsession of having to see and show everything. You need to get used to the darkness and enjoy the contrasts."