The development of coal forests during the Carboniferous is one of the best-known episodes in the history of life. Although often reconstructed as steamy tropical rainforests, these ancient ecosystems were a far cry from anything we might encounter in the Amazon today. Bizarre giant club-mosses, horsetails and tree ferns were the dominant plants, not flowering trees as in modern rainforests. At their height, coal forests stretched all the way from Kansas to Kazakhstan, spanning the entire breadth of tropical Pangaea. Most of what we know of their biodiversity and ecology has been quite literally mined out of the ground through two centuries of hard labor. Without coal mining, our knowledge would be greatly impoverished. Over the past few years, we've been exploring underground coal mines in the United States, where entire forested landscapes have been preserved intact over huge areas. Never before have geologists had the opportunity to walk out through mile upon mile of fossilized forest. In this feature article, we describe some of our recent explorations and attempt to shed new light on these old fossils. Abstract Copyright (2009), Blackwell Publishing Ltd, The Geologists' Association & The Geological Society of London.