May 8, 1991
First of all I must apologize for not answering your letters or phone calls. I was in hospital for a while, and I've been ill on and off ever since. Every bout makes it harder to handle everyday life. Staying in touch with friends and family becomes almost impossible. But it was never my intention to drive you away. I hope you understand.
In any case, I've seen your name in the newspapers every now and then. I'm glad you've been able to make your dream of becoming a speleologist come true. And it's been fun for me to be able to feel some contact with a mystery I believe I have myself played a small part in. The other day I read in the Daily News that you've found a fourth exit from the cave system and that this one too ends at the bottom of a disused mine—and is “guarded” by a Mine-Wife. One coincidence too many, don't you think?
I've put into this folder everything you sent me during our correspondence in ’85, together with copies of things I sent you then and later, plus a few newspaper clippings. It is all in chronological order, and I've put the date and a description at the top of each item. I thought this might help with your investigations. I felt silly just sitting on all this information. I don't know how far you've come, but maybe you've reached the same conclusion as I have. It all points one way: we were about to be invaded, but for some reason we escaped. Why? What happened?
Your first letter to me along with the four sketches you sent:
June 26, 1985
I'm writing from Viterbyn, where I'm helping with the national archaeological survey. It's such a large-scale operation that they even let a few amateurs (like me) come along to help out. Viterbyn is next to Ovart parish. Does that ring a bell? Because it happens to be Ovart that I have to help survey. I'm not alone here—a couple of professional archaeologists are covering the villages, the foundry and the mine (though one would think those areas have been researched so thoroughly by now that there can hardly be anything more left to find). They are staying in another village on the other side of the parish. I guess they let me stomp about the mountain because they didn't think I'd find much there, so a lay person would do for that. But it was me who made the scoop!
There's no camera shop in the village, or I'd have had some express prints made to send you today. But here are some sketches and descriptions of what I found. Sorry if they're not very good, but I had to sketch from memory. You can't hold a flashlight and sketch at the same time.
Sketch 1: The entrance to the cave. This is about two meters high and a meter wide at its broadest point. If I hadn't approached it from a particular angle, I would never have noticed it at all. It could easily be mistaken for a mere fold in the hillside. I roughly paced out the first fifty meters of the tunnel beyond, which slopes downward in a clockwise spiral.
Sketch 2: The door at the end of the tunnel. This is a wooden door with beaten metal fittings. Traces of Dalecarlian floral motifs in blue and red. Approx. 2 meters high and 80cms wide.
Sketch 3: The cavern. Hard to estimate the size of this, but maybe thirty meters across and with a ceiling three or four meters high. The floor is covered with dead bodies that look mummified. Their well-preserved clothes are nineteenth-century peasant costume, like a painting by Carl Larsson. I only sketched the nearest ones in any detail (I didn't go in). There are also life-size dolls standing along the wall, about fifteen of them.
Sketch 4: One of the dolls. Height approx 1 meter 70. Skirt and bodice in red wool. Hair made from yarn sticking out from under a white head-scarf. The feet look like wood, with grooves to indicate toes. The hands have articulated fingers made from wood and bone joined together by pegs. Surely this must be a Mine-Wife?
I think I've found the people who vanished from Ovart parish in 1867. In fact I'm sure of it. I couldn't get your phone number through Directory Inquiries. When did you switch to an unlisted number? Please send it to me. The cottage I'm renting has no telephone but there's a payphone in the street. You'll find my address on the back of the envelope.
Swedish Tourist Board: Welcome to Jämtland (You sent me this with your first letter)
Ovart, the Parish that Vanished.
1867 came to be known as the Year of the Great Famine. Several years of crop failures were followed by a winter that refused to end. Snow lay on the ground till June, and no seed could be sown before midsummer. Only a few weeks after that the cold returned and the crops were destroyed by frost. The whole of the north of Sweden was cut off. The Gulf of Bothnia iced over, country roads became impassable, and Norrland starved. But the Year of the Great Famine came to be remembered for more than crop failure and starvation. It would also be remembered for the most sensational mass disappearance in Swedish history.
In the eighteenth century Ovart had been a flourishing mining community, but after the local copper mine closed in 1830 it was reduced to a mere shadow of its former self, in winter often completely isolated from the surrounding area. The winter of 1867 was no exception. And when spring finally arrived in 1868, people in the neighboring parishes began to worry. No one came from Ovart to Höstvåla post office to collect their mail. And those who visited Ovart brought back tales of empty houses.
It became clear that no one was left in the parish at all. But their homes still contained furniture, clothes and even valuables. Nor could any graves or bodies be found. A hundred or more people had simply vanished into thin air.
The whole of Sweden became engaged in a huge search operation involving the army, police, and volunteers. The parish and its surroundings were fine-combed. Even the disused mine was examined in case anyone had sought shelter there. But no trace of the vanished people could be found.
What happened is still a mystery. Further investigations have been made at regular intervals but with no result. The most likely explanation is either that the inhabitants of Ovart crossed the nearby border to Norway and were absorbed into the local population, or that they sought refuge in the mine and died in a landslide or flood that hid all trace of them.
But there is no evidence to support any of these theories. The simple fact is that more than a hundred people vanished from Ovart parish, and no one knows where they went or why.
Ovart is still uninhabited to this day. Over the years many of the houses have been moved to other villages, though a few buildings of cultural significance still remain, including Ovart chapel with its beautiful painted ceiling.
Sent by me to you June 30, '85: Schön: The Spirit of the Place—On Brownies, Wood-sprites and Similar Guardian Figures
The Mistress of the Mine
The mine has always been inhabited. In former times people believed it was guarded by a being known as a Mine-Wife. It was important to keep on the right side of the Mine-Wife, since she could give warning of disasters and help find ore. But anyone who provoked her, for instance by making a mess or swearing, could expect very serious trouble.
In the north of Sweden a doll was sometimes found right at the bottom of a mine, supposedly an image of the Mine-Wife. No one has ever admitted to making such a doll, and these figures seem to have appeared from nowhere. It is interesting that Mine-Wives never have any metal parts, something one might otherwise reasonably have expected—after all, cold steel is one of the best possible protections against the supernatural. Instead, they are made from carefully carved wood or bone, with painted faces and beautiful clothes.
These Mine-Wives are believed to date from the nineteenth century and all look almost identical. This may be the consequence of some accidental “Mine-Wife trend,” or because a particular group of miners took a tradition with them when they moved from one place of work to another. Altogether, eight Mine-Wives have been found in Jämtland, Härjedalen, and Medelpad. Two of these can be seen in the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm.
Letter from you to me, July 3 ’85
It was lovely to hear your voice. I tried to call you again today to update you, but no answer. I suppose you were having one of those days. I hope things will be better tomorrow!
I reported back to Pusnik (my boss) two days ago. She got very excited and came out yesterday with the two other archaeologists to have a look. With four flashlights rather than one things were very different.
The people on the floor are lying in each others' arms. Somehow it reminds you of Pompeii. But they don't seem to have suffered or been struck down, more as if they had simply settled comfortably to sleep. It doesn't seem quite natural, more like an art installation.
One thing more: there's an opening at the far end of the hall. We're going to investigate that later.
Photocopy I sent you of an article from World and Wisdom, November 1980
The De Wall Couple and the Ovart Sect: a Swedish Jonestown?
What happened in Ovart parish some time in 1867 is still a mystery. Establishment researchers have come up with a mass of theories, but one possibility has rather strangely been brushed aside, even though there is a sound basis for it. Perhaps some people don't want the truth about the black sheep of the De Wall family to see the light of day?
It was no accident that revivalist movements spread like wildfire through Norrland in the mid-nineteenth century. Norrland's condition during the years of famine was the worst in modern times, and it is during such periods of destitution that extreme religions take root. In Ovart a married couple called Emile and Anna De Wall founded a new movement. It did not last long, but the little we know of it is frightening.
Emile De Wall was descended from Walloons who moved into the area in the seventeenth century and started the Ovart mine. As an apprentice in Belgium, he had learned to build robots or, as they were then called, automatons, an increasingly popular activity on the continent at that time. But Sweden was not ready for them (and even today we are have absolutely no time for the robot craze). After a failed attempt to establish an automaton factory in Östersund, Emile returned home and married his cousin Anna De Wall. Together they manufactured dolls and mechanical cuckoos to sell to tourists in nearby Åre.
Ovart was completely snowed up during the terrible winter of 1867. Almost the last information to come out of it was that the De Walls were building a steel automaton, a “shepherdess” that would protect the villagers from “evil forces” during an “extremely difficult time.” It was not clear what these evil forces were, but the De Walls were Catholics. Perhaps they were making some sort of protective saint?
By the spring of 1868 the parish was deserted. There was no trace of the famous automaton; all that was known was that the charismatic couple had made a “protective saint” to save their village in time of need. Perhaps De Wall and his followers, like the sect in Jonestown in 1978, had decided to kill themselves rather than face the terrible end they had otherwise been warned to expect.
Letter from you
July 10, ’85
Don't be afraid to answer the phone, I'm not angry. I do realize you were speaking to Kent, and it is of course his special subject. Say hi to him from me and thank him for his help. I wanted to show the article to Pusnik, but she got cold feet when she heard which paper it came from. To me at least it seems a reasonable theory, just so you know what I think.
Remember I mentioned an opening on the far side of the large room, which they've started to call the “ballroom”? A little way beyond that opening was a heavy door (like the one on the other side). It led to a workshop full of workbenches and tools and all kinds of trash. But the remarkable thing is that everything beyond that door was wood, bone, or copper. I couldn't see a single iron or steel tool in the whole room. But in one corner there was a deep alcove. And deep inside the alcove was something that persuades me the article from World and Wisdom does make sense: it was an old-fashioned robot.
This robot has no clothes, so you can see its structure clearly: a steel framework and mobile limbs. The skull is covered with leather and the face painted. The hands have had a leather covering but to a large extent this has been worn away. The metal parts are covered with engraved crosses and quotations from the Bible. The crosses have been slashed with deep cuts as though someone had tried to obliterate them. Engraved in large letters above an opening in the robot's chest are the words In the name of Jesus protect man and beast from the followers of Satan. The chest cavity was open when we found it and the clockwork inside badly damaged, though it seems to be of complex design. Apart from the fact that it is metal it seems exactly like a more sophisticated version of the Mine-Wives in the ballroom. As if those in the ballroom were copies of this metal original. And one of its collarbones is inscribed D.W. Anno 1867.
Behind the next door is a room furnished like a fairy palace with thick mats on the floor and walls, a large open fireplace, carved furniture decorated with folk-art painting, and candlesticks made of what could be real gold . . . and beyond that, a bedroom with two enormous four-poster beds. Four bodies are lying on the beds under skin rugs. The archaeologists will lift off the rugs when they have finished taking photographs and making sketches.
There are two more rooms, one that looks like a washroom or bathroom, and a cave that seems full of animal bones. Who on earth would want to keep cows underground inside a hill in that manner? Is this where our fairy tales come from? Beyond this you climb a slope and emerge into a clump of birches right in the middle of the bog.
The others push me aside but that suits me very well. They are so absorbed by their discoveries that they have no time for me. I go around with a notepad and flashlight and am virtually invisible.
No more today. I'll be in touch later. How can it be possible that no one discovered all this before?
Extracts from Ostedt: Folk Legends of Norrland. Sent to you by me on July 12.
226. The White Cow of Arnberg (Woman, 87, Resele)
That year of famine was the worst in my life. I was twenty-three and just married. We made bread and porridge from straw and dried lichen and pine bark and that was all we had. I remember I got chest pains from eating lichen bread. I gave birth to a little boy, but he died because I had no milk in my breasts.
At Arnberg they were so hungry they slaughtered their white cow. You could borrow white cows from the people underground if you were careful to treat them well. But people were starving, and the white cows were fat even if they could no longer give milk. So at Arnberg they slaughtered their cow, and next night their farm burnt down. When the snow melted at midsummer we put our own two cows out to graze, but both disappeared. We heard similar things happened on other farms in the area. We knew who had taken our cows, and we knew it was the revenge of those underground for the Arnberg cow. They always struck back tenfold.
232. Enraged Ulda (Man, 69, Arvidsjaur)
We believed the Uldas lived side by side with us Sami people and moved when we moved. People said further south there were Uldas who stayed in one place and kept cows and worked with the new settlers there, but the settlers did not know to be careful and not try to steal the Uldas' cows. If you stole from the Uldas you would regret it. My grandfather used to say the villagers once made a shepherdess from cold steel to keep the Uldas from being able to reach their own cattle and get them back. That made them so angry they spirited the whole village away into the mountains.
Letter from you, 18 July 1985
You can stop sending me things now, because they've thrown me out. Of course I'm not a trained archaeologist or speleologist and so have nothing to contribute. But it's incredibly frustrating, because this is such an enormous thing.
I did get a bit more out of Pusnik before I went home. She said the local pathologists who performed post-mortems on some of the bodies found those lying in the ballroom had stomachs full of gravel, while those in the “cave home” were exceptionally tall, the shortest being 1 meter 85. Remember, the average height of a man in the nineteenth century was just under 1.70. And I was able to pick up one more thing: there are lots more tunnels. I want so much to find out where they lead.
Clipping from the Daily News, July 22, 1985
Lost Population of Parish Found in Mine
The National Office of Antiquities held a press conference this morning to announce a sensational find in a previously unknown part of the Ovart mine.
“We believe we have discovered the hundred or so people who vanished from the parish of Ovart in 1867,” says Magdalena Pusnik, the archaeologist directing the excavation. Pusnik adds that the place where the bodies have been found is cut off from the rest of the Ovart mine and that they are still trying to find out if the two are connected in any way. “Perhaps an ancient access tunnel has fallen in so the place was missed by earlier searchers.”
The actual discovery was made by a volunteer working for the national inventory of ancient monuments.
The site is closed to the public till further notice while investigation continues.
ENCLOSURE: The parish that vanished—all you need to know about the Ovart mystery.
Clipping from the Evening News, August 14, 1985
Gigantic System of Underground Caves Explored in Jämtland
Researchers have found a previously unknown series of caves under Ovart parish in Jämtland. The discovery was made in relation to a system of natural caves.
“We don't know if the disused mine's owners ever knew the full extent of these caves, says archaeologist Magdalena Pusnik. “They do appear to have been penetrated in a couple of places, but there seems to be no sign of any further investigation. Perhaps this was because there was no metal-bearing ledge, or the area may have been thought too dangerous. We have found no sign of human activity in the tunnels.”
The newly discovered tunnel system branches out in many directions. The first tunnel to be explored runs all the way under Kallsjön lake and ends at the bottom of a shaft in the abandoned mine at Fröå.
“As with the Ovart mine it seems this system was known but never further investigated,” says Pusnik. “Perhaps they thought there might be a bigger system behind it, because in fact we found a Mine-Wife in the opening between the cave and the shaft. It is interesting that she was standing with her back to the system of caves, almost as if she had been on her way out of it.”
Several tunnels lead from the newly discovered section of the Ovart mine, and it may take several years for the system to be completely mapped. “The tunnel between the Ovart and Fröå mines was broad and easy to go through, but of course we cannot assume that it will be equally accessible throughout its full length. In any case we may very well end by not arriving anywhere in particular.”
Read more about the vanished parish, the excavation, and Mine-Wives on page 24.
Daily News, May 3, 1991. This was what got me started again.
New Finds in the Ovart Caves
The great system of caves that lies under the greater part of Jämtland and Härjedalen regularly offers new discoveries. A third place where a tunnel opens into an old mine has now been found, this time in the abandoned Kruke mine in west Ångermanland. Just as with the earlier cases the opening had not been noticed before.
“Presumably the reason the system was not discovered earlier is that it involves old abandoned mines,” says speleologist Inez Kronberg. “Old mines were often badly mapped out, and it is quite possible that this hole was discovered long ago but never recorded at the time, or that if any documentation did exist it has since been lost.”
Read more about old mines in Sweden on page 29!
What have you found, Inez? More Mine-Wives? Have you any idea what happened?
Here's what I think:
In an attempt to stop the underworld taking back their cows, people created a shepherdess from cold steel. The underworld stole it and made their own copies of it. I can imagine shepherdess automatons made of bone and wood creeping up out of Ovart mine and going round the parish, shepherding people into the caves and shutting them inside. Then the people of the underworld came and forced the villagers to dance until they dropped dead. But even then they were not satisfied, oh no . . . they wanted to take their revenge on the whole of humanity. So they sent their shepherdesses out through the caves to emerge in other places. But for some reason this process was interrupted . Perhaps because of the famine. Or perhaps just because they couldn't keep going any longer. You wrote to tell me that they were found dead in their beds. Perhaps the shepherdesses couldn't continue to exist without the underworld people. I don't know. What do you know about it, Inez?
May 20, 1991
I thought I'd lost you. See attached photo, taken in the cave system outside the Kruke mine. I've no idea how many there are. A hundred? Two hundred? Standing in dead-straight rows. I've called Pusnik. There'll be a press conference. I don't know when, and I don't know how she'll explain it.
Once I saw pictures of a stockpile of American missiles. We don't know when, if ever, they'll be fired, or in response to what wrong or injury. All we can know for sure is that there they are, lying in the darkness and waiting.
"Gruvmaja" © by Karin Tidbeck. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Silvester Mazzarella. All rights reserved.