Occasionally, we encounter an image that seems so ludicrously out of kilter with the modern world that we can only flounder in antiquity for appropriate descriptions. We see a black and white photograph that shows a swarm of tiny figures, ant-like in their relentless pursuit of some mysterious purpose around the edges of a dark, cavernous maw, and we say it’s biblical, epic, ancient.

We invoke the building of the pyramids, the Tower of Babel or Dante’s Inferno. Our artistic sensibilities might point us towards the darker paintings of Jan Brueghel the Elder or the apocalyptic waxwork tableaux of Gaetano Zumbo. What we seldom imagine is a 1980s Brazilian gold mine.

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