Visitors offered richly
woven tapestry of history
A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE, the Falu Gruva mine – about three hours northwest of Stockholm, Sweden – is more than just a big hole in the ground.
This map shows the location of Falu Gruva, about three hours north west of Stockholm in central Sweden.
It is a complex of structures, some hundreds of years old, others less than 10 years. Some of the buildings have been moved more than once.
A trip to this unique and (in America, little known) site offers visitors a richly woven tapestry of history – not just local history, or even just Swedish history, because the economic influence of the Falu Gruva was felt throughout the world during its heyday.
THE MAIN MUSEUM – a three-story tall structure – has had to be moved back from the edge of the mine due to a series of cave-ins. Today, it stands behind the disused railroad tracks that once passed behind it.
One of the standout features of the museum is on the third floor, devoted to an exhibit of the hospital where injured and sick miners were “treated.” One could hardly call it “medicine.”
Bleeding the patient (the cure in this case being worse than the disease and often fatal) was routine; leeches were standard treatments.
These details are all revealed in marvelously presented exhibits; we spent at least an hour in this one facility.
The main entrance to the facility features this giant globe suspended from the ceiling. Tiny LEDs indicate major mining operations around the world. They look like glowing diamonds. © SGE, Inc. All rights reserved.
Those with broken limbs had to endure the leg or arm being sawed off with a carpentry tool like a hack-saw – without anesthetic, of course.
Washing of hands, now routine, was a procedure arrived at only later, so infections (and their fatal consequences) were common.
It was not a pleasant experience to view this part of the exhibit, but definitely a necessary one.
Depicting the harshness of life in these times gives one a new appreciation of the conveniences – and longer, more fulfilling lives – made possible by modern technology.
Without knowing it, Bjorn Palenius and I did something right. We arrived about three hours before the next tour underground, and spent this time visiting and closely examining the various buildings and their contents.
The presentations are meticulous, with signs often – but not always – in English.
This way one can learn all the stories before going underground for the evidence that backs them up.
The entire complex underwent a major reorganization and modernization in the late 1990s, ending with a grand opening by the Swedish queen in 2005.
My companion and translator Bjorn confirmed it was totally different than the previous time – some 20 years ago – that he had visited.
It would appear – though I was unable to be confirm – that during the 1990s a master plan envisioning the site as it is today, was prepared. It took about a decade to fully implement.
AMONG THE ADDITIONS is the new visitor center, a modern, imposing entrance to the history awaiting behind. Its lobby features a giant globe suspended from the ceiling; major mining centers around the planet are highlighted with embedded tiny light emitting diodes which resemble diamonds.
A similar model is depicted in the marble floor beneath.
Just behind the obligatory gift shop is a video screening room where the story of “Fat Matts” is first told. (Remember him from Part I? He fell in the mine and his body was petrified – preserved for a long time in its original condition.)
The video is all done in clay-mation – the historical characters are brought to life in an amusing way, not at all intended to be real. But one gets a sense of the hilarity of this poor man’s body being abused for 300 years as it is shifted from place to place, denying its previous owner the eternal rest we all deserve after life.
The main museum building, an imposing three-story yellow structure, once sat perhaps a hundred yards closer to the mine pit. As the sides of the pit collapsed, the mine grew ever closer to the original structure, which was then moved behind the old railroad tracks and is now a good hundred yards from the steeply sloping mine pit (which is no longer expanding because mining operations were halted in 1990.)
Bjorn Palenius stands on the viewing platform overlooking the giant mine pit. The erroneous annotated illustration can be seen in the foreground. © SGE, Inc. All rights reserved.
One amusing feature we discovered at the lookout platform extending over the edge of the hole: it affords a spectacular view of the big pit, and features an annotated illustration – perhaps eight feet wide – depicting the structures one can see around the edge of the pit. Each, like the three different mine shaft housings, was built during a different time period and represents the state-of-the art during its era.
There is a brief historical description with an illustration beneath the 10 structures one can see. Each is numbered, so we started with No. 1 on the extreme left.
When we reached No. 9, it wasn’t there!
Bjorn spotted it first. It had been moved, perhaps 200 yards around the perimeter, but we could clearly match it with the illustration on the board in front of us.
Same with No 10.
Then we looked and found the date on the illustration: 1998! The answer was clear.
The structures had been moved during the reorganization implemented in the early 2000s, but the illustration had not been updated.
ONE OF THE BYPRODUCTS of the copper mining turned out to become ubiquitous in Sweden.
It is known as Fauln Red!
Our guide, Emma Larsson, told us that one of the residue chemicals (hematite) derived during the processing of the ore was discovered to make a most enduring red paint when combined with two other ingredients – one of which is flour.
It’s not truly red; it’s more like the color of red bricks. All the homes and many other structures in the area are built of wood, which is abundant in Scandinavia.
I am seen sitting on a canon in the main museum building. Use your imagination. © SGE, Inc. All rights reserved.
However, the wood veneer was not considered nearly as attractive as the brick facades common in more southern parts of Europe, Larsson said, so those who found out about Falun Red early on decided to paint their homes with it to make them look more like brick structures.
They soon discovered the painted wood lasted much longer than unpainted panels.
The use of the paint became widespread and now, as I write this looking out over one Falun neighborhood, almost every house is painted with the same color on the exterior.
It might sound rather unimaginative, but the trims and finishes and shapes are all different, so instead of a sense of uniformity, one gets a sense of unity – it is visually appealing, even more so when one knows the history and practical reasons behind the color.
In fact, American cookie-cutter subdivisions, with rows of identical structures, are far duller and visually unappealing than Falun Red.
A paint factory became a major ancillary part of the mine operations, and remains part of the historic exhibit today.
(A separate story about our guide, Emma Larsson, a fascinating tale, will appear on “In the (K)now” soon.)