Under a Gold Blanket: Discovery Guide Tours Famed Mine in Minas Gerais

by “Cretaceous” Chris Wells

The City of Ouro Preto, “Black Gold”. It was the largest City in Latin America for a while in the 18th Century, during the Brazilian gold rush. Today the city is famous around the World for it’s preserved, Baroque Architecture.

The city of Ouro Preto, “Black Gold.” It was the largest City in Latin America in the 18th century during the Brazilian gold rush. Today the city is famous around the world for its preserved Baroque architecture.

Brazil is a beautiful country, but not in the same way as the Florida Keys, Hawaii, or Aspen. Everywhere in Brazil you have a wonderful dichotomy between the grotesque and the graceful. The entire country is like an impressionist painting — up close you see sloppiness and imperfection, but if you stand back, all of the colors and textures come together to create a stunning portrait, a portrait based in reality, not contrived. Throughout my July 2015 trip through the state of Minas Gerais, in the mountainous interior of Brazil, I had been awed by the natural beauty of the country, and also with the artificial splendors. I was always amazed by what people who have so little can create with what they do have.

The scenic train ride to the city of Mariana, where the mine museum was. Minas Gerais is famed in Brazil for its natural beauty

The scenic train ride to the city of Mariana, where the mine museum was. Minas Gerais is famed in Brazil for its natural beauty.

I was basking in the adrenaline and the charm of exotic travel, but the grotesque crept back into my perception as I sat in a rickety old mine car, suspended above the mouth of a mineshaft on a track with a forty-five degree slope. The rusted mining equipment and dilapidated offices and supply sheds had blended nicely with the mountainside when I first viewed them from across the valley during the train ride over, but up close it was less than dazzling. The only thing keeping us from sliding hundreds of feet into the earth was a steel cable hooked up to a winch probably as old as my grandfather. There were no seat belts in the cart, and the angle of the tracks was so steep, I had to press my feet against the seat in front of me to keep from sliding off. There were no other people visiting the mine — it was only Fernanda and I — and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a sinister reason for that emptiness. I was a bit nervous as the little old lady manning the craft announced in Portuguese that we were about to descend, but then the buttons were pressed, the car slipped slowly and smoothly into the darkness and it wasn’t that bad.

he entrance to the mine. Until only a couple decades ago, miners would make this descent every day.

he entrance to the mine. Until only a couple decades ago, miners would make this descent every day.

The trip down was noisy. The wheels of the cart screeched against the steel tracks, and every once in a while the cart would jump on a connection between two rails and snap back down loudly. The sound would bounce off the solid stone walls around us and pound our eardrums. The shaft was dark. Lamps, bare bulbs budding from a ragged wire that crept like a vine along the walls of the shaft, emitted a honey-colored glow that lent the place a very intimidating and volcanic atmosphere. But it was actually quite cool down there. The earth insulated us from the sun up top; we were no longer subject the conditions on the surface.

Our descent into the earth, in a simple old cart that used to ferry the miners down to their work.

Our descent into the Earth in a simple old cart that used to ferry the miners down to their work.

Beside us, embedded in the rock walls of the mine, ran a sliver of milky white quartz. The shaft followed it until we reached the bottom of the mine. At the bottom, the path flattened out and the rails ended. Men were laboring with shovels, loading rocks into a pile for transport back to the surface. The mine was not active anymore; these were simply employees of the museum that owned the mine clearing debris for the safety of the guests. Their store-bought, not-too-dirty clothes belied their fortunate position as men who did not permanently work in a mine. Still, they looked tired and unhappy, and generally ignored our presence, which I don’t blame them for. I have often said that I can do physical labor or customer service, but not both.

Milky-white bands of quatz running through the stone walls of the mine.

Milky-white bands of quartz running through the stone walls of the mine.

The vein of quartz that we had followed down was thicker at the bottom of the shaft.  Here it became apparent that it was not just a small sliver of quartz we had seen, but a thin cross-section of an entire layer blanketing the Earth for who knows how far in every direction. Originally, it would have formed as a flat layer, but like a massive, restless sleeper, the Earth had shrugged its silvery blanket during bouts of tectonic activity. The quartz layer had been folded into the Earth’s crust, resulting in a slumped, angled descent beneath the surface. This is why the mine goes so deep. It follows the descent of the quartz vein. The Portuguese had mined near the surface in the 18th century, but with their limited technology, they didn’t go very deep. The shaft we visited was dug much more recently.

Bands of quartz, along with other minerals, lined the walls.

Bands of quartz, along with other minerals, lined the walls.

The mine wasn’t a quartz mine. The reason this vein was so important is that very often gold is found in quartz. Down in the mine, we could see no gold, but it was there, trapped in the quartz. The mining companies had cleared the shafts with explosives, creating a maze of passages spreading in all directions. To keep these shafts from collapsing under the millions of tons of sediment above, they left columns of rock standing, like pillars in an Egyptian temple, throughout the galleries. Like the walls of the mine, these pillars had diagonal layers, alternating between rock and quartz, like a layered cake. In these columns, quartz and gold still rested, impossible to get to without collapsing the mine.

At the Bottom of the mine, passages like this one meandered in every direction. There were some passages that went deeper, but those had been flooded.

At the bottom of the mine, passages like this one meandered in every direction. There were some passages that went deeper, but those had been flooded.

And although the gold itself was invisible, pyrite (fool’s gold) was everywhere, so in places the mine shafts really did look like they were covered in gold. There were also tourmaline and garnet, a menagerie of natural splendor, though none of them were of gem quality. The good stuff would have been plucked out and sold. Museums around the world buy specimens from Minas, even our museum. A notable portion of the pieces in our Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals came from the region. Our hall is what inspired me to travel there in the first place. Our great collection of gold does not come from Minas, but like the mine I visited, our gold was found in quartz veins. We have a wonderful, natural gold “sculpture” called “the dragon,” a sliver of gold that actually looks like a rearing reptile with spread wings. We have other pieces of gold in all sorts of abstract, contorted shapes as well. Since gold doesn’t grow (unfortunately), the way it acquires these weird forms is by being trapped in quartz. As the quartz grows, it manipulates the gold inside into all sorts of interesting shapes. So originally our gold was trapped in quartz crystals, and was extracted by dissolving the quartz in a mild acid that does not harm the gold. A similar process is used to extract gold from quartz in mines like the one I visited.

My girlfriend and I.

Fernanda and I, overlooking the valley.

Editor’s Note: “Cretaceous” Chris is a Discovery Guide for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Thank an archaeologist for human history on International Archaeology Day!

On Oct. 17, we celebrate International Archaeology Day. Last year, the Houston Museum of Natural Science participated on a large scale for the first time in a long time. This year, we will have our “Second Annual” version of the same. So what is archaeology and who are these characters that practice the art of archaeology anyway?

Ask anyone and they will answer “Indiana Jones!” when asked to name a famous archaeologist. Hollywood and the media in general tend to gravitate to this entertaining, but totally off the mark, representation of what it is to be an archaeologist.

archaeology1

Archaeologists are people who study the past. They do so with one goal in mind: reconstructing what our ancestors were up to. In the end, while we might find broken pottery, stone tools, or more sophisticated or larger artifacts, what really counts is the answer to questions like these: Who made this? Why? How? How long ago was this?

It takes a special person to be an archaeologist. Patience truly is a virtue. Doggedness comes to mind as well. It won’t hurt to be lucky, but having knowledge will guide you to that breakthrough you’ve been looking for. You’ll need willingness to continue learning, going hand-in-hand with the admission that you really don’t know all that much. All of these are good traits to have.

Luck is part of all this, but the insights archaeologists come up with and share with all of us can be a whole lot more interesting and head-scratching than any Indiana Jones movie. In that regard, archaeologists are like time travelers, our contemporaries who bring ancient cultures back to life, sometimes so much so that you can almost feel it and smell it.

Recently, I’ve been reading up on the presence of early humans in what is now called the Amazon rainforest. My perception of the prehistory of this huge area is changing quickly. Yes, there were early settlers in this part of the world. Paleoindians did reach Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and the Guyanas. Our knowledge of these early immigrants in this part of the world is so small compared to what we know of North American Paleoindians. But… all that is changing, thanks to the determined efforts of a handful of archaeologists, the very same people whose work and insights we celebrate on Oct. 17.

Take Dr. Anna Roosevelt, for example. A professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and a curator at the Field Museum in the same city, Dr. Roosevelt has been investigating early human presence in the Amazon for decades now. The information she and her team have uncovered now point to an Amazon region that was very different thousands of years ago — well before the arrival of the Europeans. It was so different that these Amazonian Paleoindians would have a hard time recognizing the current landscape, just as much as we have a hard time coming to grips with the existence of large, densely populated settlements in many portions of the Amazon.

Marajo Island - location (2)

Map of Brazil, with the location of Marajó Island.

To get to this point, Dr. Roosevelt and her colleagues worked for years in the Amazon, in places like Marajó Island as well as rivers further inland. Marajó, an island the size of Switzerland located at the mouth of the Amazon River, yielded evidence of densely-populated settlements, occupied for centuries. This research took years to complete in circumstances where creature comfort was sometimes a distant notion. It took perseverance as well, as the new data and new interpretations ran counter to older, more established explanations of the prehistory of the region. Research in the interior relied on the willingness of non-archaeologists to share news of interesting finds on private properties. Sadly such willingness is not always forthcoming, resulting in the loss of an unknown quantity of materials all over the world.

Building trust among the locals and upholding that reputation is not easy. One has to be determined, focused and dogged in the pursuit of knowledge. Dr. Roosevelt’s team checked off all these boxes, and came up with cool finds, some on land, some underwater.

Diving in the Xingu River, 2001

Archaeologist Dr. Anna Roosevelt diving in the Xingu River, 2001.

On International Archaeology Day, we pay homage to the work done by people like Dr. Roosevelt. Local archaeologists, professional and avocational, physical anthropologists, and artists who work on facial reconstructions will all be at HMNS. Museum docents will share their insights and enthusiasm about archaeology with hands-on experiences, pointing to the various halls in the museum where archaeology is covered. These include the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the section of human evolution in the Morian Hall of Paleontology. The event starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. Dig it!

Next stop: BRAZIL! Jet-setting at home with World Trekkers this Friday

Think Brazil is all Carnival and beaches? Think again. Here are three things you probably didn’t know about Brazil:

MERCHANTS NAMED IT, NOT COLONIAL POWERS

When Portugal started to colonize Brazil, they named it Terra de Santa Cruz (Land of the Holy Cross) in their official manuscripts. However, as sailors and merchants began to exploit the plentiful natural resources, a new name took hold, Terra do Brasil (Land of Brazilwood). They also called it Terra di Papaga (Land of the Parrots), but luckily that name didn’t stick.

TWENTY PERCENT OF WATER EMPTYING INTO OCEANS COMES OUT OF THE AMAZON

That’s not just 20 percent of South America’s water; that’s 20 percent of the river water in the world that empties into the ocean! The Amazon river basin is crazy huge — largely located in Brazil, but covering 40% of South America. It’s no wonder then that the Amazon Rainforest is one of the major areas in the world for plant and animal life.

 

THEY’VE GOT THE COOLEST BUILDINGS

Ranging from pre-Colombian monolithic structures to Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Modern … you name it, they’ve got it.

Wish you could be in Brazil now? We’ve got something better — we’re bringing Brazil to YOU with World Trekkers this Friday, June 27!

Brazil is known worldwide for its vibrancy, love of life and endless beauty. Now, you can experience it all at HMNS.

Featuring Brazilian dancers courtesy of LD Dance Company, animals from Brazil and South America with Pacodu Exotics, crafts, balloon art, face painting and a screening of the animated hit Rio 2 in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre, we’ve got fun for the whole family!

Don’t miss this chance to travel the world right in your hometown. Come to World Trekkers at HMNS on June 27 and get a taste of Brazil.

Viva Brasil!

 

Glimpse: Spirits & Headhunters [12 Days of HMNS]

Today is the Seventh Day of HMNS! In the spirit of the classic holiday carol, we’re taking 12 days to feature 12 different videos that preview or go behind-the-scenes of a holiday museum activity, here on the blog (or, you can get a sneak peek at all the videos on 12days.hmns.org – we won’t tell).

Many of the exhibits we host here – like Genghis Khan or the Terra Cotta Warriors – present objects from long-dead cultures, and the wonder comes from the experience of coming face-to-face with artifacts that were created so long ago. And when you walk through our current Spirits & Headhunters exhibition, and contemplate the absolute beauty of the vibrant, intricate feather art and objects on display, it’s easy to forget that the cultures that created these works are very much alive – though also fast disappearing.

Learn more from Adam Mekler, associate curator for Amazonia, who believes, “When a culture disappears, I think an aspect of all humanity disappears.”

Click play to explore the exhibit and discover these vanishing worlds.

Need to catch up?

The First Day of HMNS – Explore: Snow Science
The Second Day of HMNS – Preview: The Chronicles of Narnia Exhibition
The Third Day of HMNS – Preview: Disney’s A Christmas Carol
The Fourth Day of HMNS – Investigate: The Star of Bethlehem
The Fifth Day of HMNS – Shop: The Perfect Gift
The Sixth Day of HMNS – Marvel: Faberge

Get into the holiday spirit! Visit our 12 Days of HMNS web site to see the videos and get more information about each event, exhibit and film: 12days.hmns.org Happy Holidays!