Strange tunnels of Austro-Germany

German and Austrian archaeologists are taking notice of an extensive network of tunnels that riddle central Europe. These tunnels -- thought to date from the 10th to 13th century -- have fanciful names like "goblin hole" and their exact historical function is somewhat mysterious. A group of female healers, noting the exit looks "like a vagina," re-enacted their births using Austrian "Schlupf" tunnels. Others attribute them to the druids, or Christian rituals, or believe they were used to hide from bandits in the lawless "medieval clearing period."
The tour begins in the taproom and proceeds down a stone stairway into the cider cellar, where there is a trap door that opens into a gaping hole. "We don't let people with heart conditions do the tour," Wösner says in his thick Austrian accent. He keeps a large sling on hand for emergencies, so that if anyone faints he can pull them out of the narrow tunnel.

The vaults could not have served a practical purpose, as dwellings or to store food, for example, if only because the tunnels are so inconveniently narrow in places. Besides, some fill up with water in the winter. Also, the lack of evidence of feces indicates that they were not used to house livestock.

There is not a single written record of the construction of an Erdstall dating from the medieval period. "The tunnels were completely hushed up," says Ahlborn.

Archeologists have also been surprised to find that the tunnels are almost completely empty and appear to be swept clean, as if they were abodes for the spirits. One gallery contained an iron plowshare, while heavy millstones were found in three others. Virtually nothing else has turned up in the vaults.

Until recently, the secret caves were explored only by amateur archeologists. The pioneer of Erdstall exploration, Lambert Karner (1841 to 1909), was a priest. According to his records, he crawled through 400 vaults, lit only by flickering candlelight, with "strange winding passages" through which "one can often only force oneself like a worm."

Experts Baffled by Mysterious Underground Chambers (via BLDGBlog)

(Image: Ben Behnke / DER SPIEGEL)


  1. I bet this is where the terrestrial cousins of the Soup Dragon used to mine their soup. I predict the explorers will shortly find dustbin lids near the exits. 

  2. This is how the knights templar and the illumanti carried out their medieval banking, avoid the catholic church’s oppression and consolidated their grip of power over the western world. 

  3. Interesting, but the article was very poorly written. I wonder how accurate the information in the article really is. Unfortunately for us English speakers, the only information on Wikipedia about Erdstalls seems to be in German.

    Anyone have more information on this?

    1. MrEric: The article is from Der Spiegel, one of the world’s premier news magazines. If you’ve ever trusted any form of print media you can certainly trust this. Furthermore whatever you may think of the style (which I would argue is fairly consistent with that of other “serious news” outlets) I’m sure you can acknowledge that the article is written in excellent English.

  4. A group of female healers, noting the exit looks “like a vagina,” re-enacted their births using Austrian “Schlupf” tunnels.

    I don’t want to know what the group of proctologists think the exit looks like.

  5. Der Spiegel has some decent articles and I read it regularly but this one by Matthias Schulz is mostly filler that betrays his unscientific bias. Matthias provides the common-sense solution towards the end of the article but chooses to de-emphasize it for the sake of the “mystery”.

  6. Whenever I see anything on the internet about tunnels all I can think is “this hole was made for me”. And then I don’t sleep that night.

  7. These are almost certainly underground stone quarries… Before the 18th century nearly all building stone was ‘mined’, not cut from a quarry face.

    There are extensive medieval stone quarries under Paris, Nottingham and Bath in England and ancient Greek ones near Syracuse in Sicily.

    The Paris quarries were re-used to house the bones from cemeteries cleared in the 19th century.

    (there are some caves under Naples, however, which NO ONE knows what they’re for)

    1. Austrian site with lots of photos:

      These are almost certainly underground stone quarries…

      Hm… actual archaeologists have been examining these tunnels for the past couple of years (they are in the news a lot recently). Presumably an archaeologist would know about medieval stone quarries, especially if they are that common?

      Also, why would quarries be rather short, feature benches and have extremely narrow passages (“Schlupfe”) that connect tunnels? Wouldn’t that be rather inconvenient for mining? Medieval British stone quarries seem to be rather spacious from what I’ve seen.

      1. good points! Sometimes older quarries are more irregular and have narrower ‘pilot’ passages or passages cut to get ‘behind’ (hewing out blocks from a tunnel requires cutting a channel behind the face)… however completely narrow and winding doesn’t sound like a quarry.

        A tour of the caves at Beer in Devon recommended if you want to know about ancient stone mining (Beer caves were re-used as an underground secret chapel).

        Or the Hellfire caves at West Wycombe (bucks, England) are just the thing for boing boing readers – especially if they still have the really awful tableaus with recorded voice over.

      2. My attempt to translate some of the text from the site you linked:

        Often benches have been crafted from the walls of the chambers, however, they are only about 30cm in height and therefor seem to be unsuitable for use by humans.

        Experts are unsure about the purpose of the Erdstalls. Two hypotheses exist:

        a) They could have been hideouts. Supporting this hypotheses is the fact that the entrances are often well hidden and pursuers would have a hard time following someone through them.
        On the other hand, hideouts in the woods nearby would have been more suitable as protection from enemies, since there is no way of escape from the Erdstalls in case of house burnings. There are no spare exits, older family members could not have entered the Erstalls, there is no way to dispose of waste and air circulation is very limited.
        There are reports from people who actually used Erdstalls as hideouts in WW2 and those seems to confirm they are not suited for that purpose.

        b) They could be ritual sites. There is a theory they could be “Leergräber”, empty graves housing the souls of the deceased. Some chambers with pointed arched niches and ornaments have a sacral appearance.

        Also, a lot of Erdstall systems have been severely damaged by construction of wine cellars, so any inference of the appearance of larger Erdstall systems is not possible.

  8. “…damp tunnel that led diagonally into the earth, like the bowels of some giant dinosaur.”

    Now THAT’S great writing :)

  9. That photo pretty much displayed my worst nightmare. You’d never, ever get me down one of those.

  10. the more I think about the picture the more my heart is racing.  I’m beginning to feel a little nauseous. good lord that’s awful.

  11. Without knowing more about the geology of the region, I would think “all of the above” is the most likely answer… if you can carve out stable, dry caves, they’ll be the most secure and temperature-controlled option for most of human history.

    What I’d find really interesting would be some way to trace the explanations different cultures came up with as they rediscovered long lost networks of passages.  We could list endless examples.  What a grip the lower world has on our psyche.

  12. These remind me of the “mysterious” underground cities in Cappadocia.  Although these incorporate lots of rooms, air shafts, and interior windows (into other rooms), they were built by unknown people for unknown reasons. They were certainly occupied by various people at different times, but I believe the consensus is that they were not permanent dwellings, rather places of refuge in difficult times. 

  13. in my hometown of Tabor (Czech Republic) there is a network of tunnels and subterranean passages all through the old town. Many passages are yet to be excavated, and reportedly go far out of town. Which would be handy in the many times the town was under siege. Though these are a little different I certainly think it would be quite possible these could be hideouts. If you take a look at any of the older farm estates in Europe, they invariably have a wall surrounding them. It is not just ‘bandits’ but  roving armies, even from their own side that posed a danger.  As armies moved they lived off the land.  Decades after the Thirty years war, in Bohemia more than half the farms were still abandoned.

    I also remember seeing tunnels around Newgrange in Ireland. 

  14. In an experiment two members of the recent team stayed down in some tunnels for an extended period of time and when oxygen ran short just moved to another section.  It worked; so they could have been places to hide for short periods of time.  It is the simplest explanation that they were used when armies were approaching; but over hundreds of years they would naturally have had other uses, some even religious.  Also, one’s life expectancy in those years was not long so there probably weren’t any “old” people unable to get into those spaces.  I’m also thinking that without any form of communication enemies could be upon a village before they knew what was happening and they would not have had time to run to the forest; but they could hopefully reach the entrances hidden in homes and churches or under castles.  I’m just putting myself in their position and asking myself what would I do if threatened periodically and in danger of being burned out or overrun by enemies or foraging armies.  Or just thieves.  This would be a good place to hide for a few days if roaming gangs came upon my village.  and historical references to a crying baby smothered by her mother when hiding in an underground tunnel support this.

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