Across Europe, there are hundreds of underground tunnels that, apparently, lead to nowhere and about which any historic records have ever been found.
They are mostly located in the southern German state of Bavaria and the nearby Austria, where they are known by the German name “Erdstall”, which literally means “place under the earth”.
Locally, they are also called by various names such as “Schrazelloch”, or “goblin hole”, but also “Alraunenhöhle”, meaning “mandrake cave”, which reflects the various theories and legends associated with the mysterious tunnels.
Some believed that they were built as a dwelling for helpful goblins, while others believed they were supposedly built by elves, and legend has it that gnomes lived inside.
But, according to some sagas, they were parts of long escape tunnels from castles.
A typical tunnel is very low requiring an adult human to walk in a hunched position, but some are so small that explorers have to get down on all fours.
They are also very narrow, and most tunnels are longer than twenty meters, but not more than fifty meters long.
Some tunnels have more than one level with a tight passageway, known as “schlupfe” or “slip”, connecting the higher tunnel with the lower one.
But the passages are so tight that an average person needs to crawl under the slip hole, stand up thereby sliding the shoulders through the uncomfortably tight hole, and squeeze his way out and into the higher tunnel.
A schlupfe can also occur horizontally connecting two tunnels in the same level.
Erdstall tunnels are also known to have only one narrow concealed entry point with no separate exits. The tunnel entrances are sometimes located in the kitchens of old farmhouses, near churches and cemeteries or in the middle of a forest, and the atmosphere inside is dark and oppressive, much as it would be inside an animal den.
The tunnels usually end in a much larger gallery known as Schlusskammer or “the final chamber”.
Scholars have wondered what purpose the final chamber could have served, and theories include to store food, or to hide villagers when their homes were raided by passing hordes.
However, not many evidences could be gathered from the tunnels, as most of them are almost completely empty.
A few contained some medieval tools like iron plowshare and heavy millstones, and radiocarbon dating analysis of artifacts retrieved from inside the tunnel indicates that they date back to the 10th to the 13th century.
However one Austrian researcher from Graz, Heinrich Kusch, believes that these results are incorrect and suspects that some of the subterranean systems could be 5,000 years ago, in Neolithic period. However all of the radiocarbon dating analyses completed to date indicate that the tunnels were built in the Middle Ages and, more precisely, It holds that the tunnels were built during the Migration Period (known as the “Völkerwanderung” in German) in the 5th and 6th centuries, when entire tribes left their homes and abandoned the cemeteries of their ancestors.
The assumption was that the tunnels and galleries were created so that the dead could still be venerated.
In any case confusion over the tunnels is hardly surprising.
They show no sign of mining, they are too small to be used as cellar, and they make poor space for habitation. But they even could not have served a practical purpose, to store food, for example, if only because the tunnels are so inconveniently narrow in places and, in addition, some fill up with water in the winter. Also, the lack of evidence of feces indicates that they were not used to house livestock.
They are definitely not tombs as no human remains have been found and thus the only remaining theory is that they were pretty poor hideouts without a second exit, which makes it easy for pursuers to cut off the air flow and kill all people inside.
Some believe that they were used as dungeons for criminals, while others see them as places of healing, where the sick could cast off their afflictions, and still others speculate that they were used by druids.
Erdstall tunnels are found all over central Europe.
The ground beneath Bavaria, where there are about 700 such tunnels, is literally perforated with these underground mazes, and no one knows why.
In Austria, there are about 300. but some are also found in France, Spain and Great Britain.
In total, some 2,000 tunnels are known to exist in Europe, including in parts of Ireland and Scotland.
This distribution bears intriguing parallels to the routes of the Irish-Scottish traveling monks who, coming from the Celtic north in the 6th century, traveled across the continent as missionaries.
The tattooed monks made the passage to the continent from the islands, carrying long staffs and wearing coarse habits.
Some speculates that these early Christian missionaries also brought along heathen ideas, the remnants of Druid scholarship or special Celtic concepts of the afterlife, which led to the construction of the subterranean galleries.
But it was possible that the tunnels were also prisons for demons, evil dwarves and the undead.
But not everyone finds these spiritual interpretations convincing.
Historically, in Austria, around 1700, the Hungarian rebels known as Kurucs, with the backing of the Ottoman Turks, ransacked the countryside, but robbers also posed a threat in the region. They raided remote villages and used crowbars to get into the houses. Probably the farmers quickly fled underground, taking their valuables with them.
This speculation also offers written evidence, as an old account of a death tells the story of a woman who was so afraid of being discovered that she suffocated her screaming baby in an Erdstall.
But, if the terrified villagers were tightly packed into the subterranean vaults during attacks, why did nothing fall out of anyone’s pockets, if there are no food remains or traces of torches?
For these reasons, among others, most experts attribute a sacred and ritual function to the underground landmarks, and many find the idea of a “chamber of souls” particularly attractive.
According to this theory, the galleries were essentially waiting rooms in which the souls of the dead were to spend the period until the Second Coming of Christ, the Day of Judgment, when Jesus Christ would judge “the living and the dead.”
But why are there no Erdstalls in Italy, Switzerland or in the Black Forest?
For now, the mystery must remain unsolved….
Images from web – Google Research