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."
(Image: Ben Behnke / DER SPIEGEL)