This article appeared in the Winter 1970 (Issue #22) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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Digging up the Past -- Thanet.
"The scamperings of the Tosh Horse ridden hell-for-leather round Thanet"Ronald Jessup in Arch. Cant. IXII, 1949).
Of the myriad visitors to Margate, in the last 135 years, our readers included, there must be some who failed to pay their entrance fee in a rather unprepossessing shop, and thus missed an intriguing experience which has inspired countless writers to expound their views before the public. The "customer" descends a stairway cut in the chalk and follows a passage to arrive at last into what has been described as One of the World's Wonders, by no less distinguished an archaeologist than Miss Marie Corelli. Alternative names include England's Catacombs and The Grotto of Grottos.
At the end of the passage the visitor passes through an archway into a ringshaped chamber, under a dome through which daylight peeps, then into another winding passage ending in a foursided room. The walls of the "rotunda," the dome, the passage and the final chamber are faced with panels decorated with shells in complicated patterns-winkles, oysters, and some more exotic species, forming panels of flower-like and more abstract designs, some quite fantastic, and all remarkable in both execution and preservation apart from some bomb-damage at the end. Today, electric light is used; in other days, open gas-burners or even candles coated the shell work with a dusky patina, giving a rather mysterious air to the decorations.
First brought to the notice of the world about 1835, by what seems to have been accidental discovery in the grounds of a school by the master's son, it soon became better known and is now a tourist attraction.
Shell grottoesare well-known and well-documented, from the 18th century; Alexander Pope for instance, constructed one at Twickenham in 1725 with a tunnel leading to a
"temple wholly composed of shells in the most rustic manner," and of course, the word "grotesque" (with its modern version "grotty") is derived from the fashion for creating these fancy retreats. At Margate however, the creator of the Grotto is unrecorded, though a fantastic number of theories have been put forward.
Marie Corelli, best known for romantic fiction, credited it in 1885 to the Vikings; another writer about the same time blamed the Romans, and in more recent years, booklets staking the claims of Phoenicians, Cretans, Tibetans, and a certain ancient Hebrew sect have been published, along with many others. The propounder of the Hebrew theory cleared the way, incidentally, by demolishing any idea that it was a Mithraic temple -- which must have distressed anyone who had hoped to divert Bucklersbury-type crowds to Grotto Hill!
We are told by one claimant that "expert archaeologists believe it to be of Phoenician origin"; unfortunately he names no names. Another assures us that it was created as a mid-Minoan funerary mastaba; and it is reliably stated that the cement in which the shells are embedded, while defying analysis, is identical with the celebrated Roman cement at Dover Castle. A sample, presumably a shell, was sent to the British Museum some years ago to undergo tests by a "new machine," to ascertain its age; it would be interesting to know if the results have been published.
Observation by the present writer suggests that the backing on which one of the flowers was built up was a rather Welsh-looking slate, but this may have been a restoration. Suggested dates for the various theories range from 2800 BC to 1815 AD -- this last involving the help of French Prisoners of War after Waterloo, and rather scorned by the majority of the writers.
Frank Jenkins in 1952 drew attention to a diary entry made in 1900 by George Payne, who had met an old lady in Margate; she had known a blocklayer named Ward who dug and decorated the Grotto in his spare time; in 1850 Charles Knight mentioned
"an ingenious artisan" who had gone to America some years previously; a man named Wales is sometimes referred to as having worked with shells for the schoolmaster between the first discovery of the grotto and its opening to the public -- and so on.
And still the theories come out, more and more remote and curious, all. backed by earnest research or inspiration.
Lord Holland, owner of much of 18th century Thanet, contrived the follies of Kingsgate Castle, the Captain Digby Inn, the now lost Bede House, and a memorial to an otherwise unknown battle attended by tremendous slaughter as evidenced by a few bones unearthed on his land; and was a fair example of the romantic eccentrics of his day.
One point is worth considering. If Margate's grotto was a product of the prehistoric past, lost and forgotten, it is a strange coincidence that, a century before its rediscovery, later romantics were inspired to anticipate the patterns and ideas of this buried antiquity with such enthusiasm, all over England. There was even one open to the public before 1804 in Margate itself.
Still, of all the theories that have been put forward, not more than one can hope to be the true one, so, at least all but one must be wrong. It may well be that the true explanation has not yet been put forward, even now. So -- what next?