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Erdstall (wikipedia.org)
75 points by _of on Dec 17, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 18 comments

> Given their abundance, it is remarkable that there is no hint of their existence in the records of the Christian kingdoms of the time. In combination with the impractical layout of the tunnels this has engendered the suspicion that the tunnels were used for a non-Christian cult that developed in the 10th century and later disappeared. In that case the slip passages might be a ritual element to slip off diseases and guilts (rebirth).

Forgive me, because I know little about how these types of things are determined, but I'm curious how anthropologists/archaeologists/etc. arrive at these types of conclusions. Is there evidence of a cult that existed around that time that thought this way, or is this just an educated guess based upon society at the time?

I remember when I was a kid there was a picture book (by David Maccaulay, I think) about future archaeologists digging up a present day motel, and trying to explain the things they found.

The default explanation for everything (coffee makers, toilet seats, etc) was that it served some religious purpose, because if you can't figure out a useful purpose for some object, "religious relic" can pretty much fit anything.

"Motel of the Mysteries" by David Macaulay (978-0395284254).

There's a lot more in the German version of the article, including a second possibility of what they were used for. A number of reasons is listed why it might make sense to consider them places of refuge in case of an attack:

- entrances are generally hidden

- narrow slip holes make defense simple

- locking mechanisms that can only be operated from the inside were found

- some are directly connected to fortifications

But it would also be excessively easy for an attacker to just kill the inhabitants by sealing the entry / smoking them out if they were found. They're also rather unsuitable for prolonged hiding (little space = little air, need to bring food, no way of getting rid of faeces other than burying them), but 48h have been experimentally confirmed as possible for 3 adults.

It'd be jarring enough to climb through such a small tunnel. But to hide there, while someone who wants to kill you waits outside? I'd go crazy.

I'd assume that you would only hide in such a tunnel temporarily and not in sight of an attacker. Just stay in there until it's night, the situation calms down and it's easier to slip away completely.

Yeah, I'd assume the point would have been not to be found in the first place (otherwise, why hide the entrance?) and to be able to defend against attackers if they do find you but didn't think of just letting you suffocate in there or smoke you out. In that case, you'd probably have a better chance of survival in an Erdstall than pretty much anywhere else, right? The scenario might be a bit contrived though (wouldn't attackers pick up on the "just let them suffocate" tactic rather quickly?), but then again if the explanation were on hand then there wouldn't be a mystery to debate :)

Many Christians in those regions were recently converted through violent means, see the Saxon Wars in the 8th century. It's to be expected that crypto-paganism would survive a long time after such events, but inherently difficult to find written traces: not only were these traditions oral, but now they had to be hidden.

One piece of evidence that comes to mind is recorded before the Stellinga uprising in the 9th century. Lothair, in his rebellion, got support of the local Stellinga (of doubtful religious allegiance) by promising them "if they should side with him, that he would let them have the same law in the future which their ancestors had observed when they were still worshiping idols." (From Scholz's Carolingian Chronicles, translations of Nithard's Histories).


Unfortunately, hints such as this are few and far between, but it still supports the idea that older cults may have been enduring. And of course, the last sentence about slipping off diseases, guilts and rebirth... that's just the little Wikipedia touch.

Many of these conclusions aren't actually from archeologists. The actual research is often very explicit about what is unknown. It's just as you get further away from it that people fill in the holes with guesses to get a picture, tell a story and imagine what life might have been like.

I guess it's just speculation because of the lack of any clues what they could be used for. You can only eliminate some possibilities, if they were used for food storage or people staying in there temporally you would find some rests of food on the ground, but they didn't.

I've always been amused that we tend to guess religious motives for ancient artifacts/places. Is there enough evidence to default to this where no practical uses can be found?

The Jews built hiding tunnels ahead of the 132 CE Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans.

They are all around my home village.


The historian Cassius Dio wrote "[The Jews] did not dare try conclusions with the Romans in the open field, but they occupied the advantageous positions in the country and strengthened them with mines and walls, in order that they might have places of refuge whenever they should be hard pressed, and might meet togethere unobserved under ground; and they pierced these subterranean passages from above at intervals to let in air and light".

And Palestine is full of tunnels today.

Here's a 3D schematic of what an Erdstall would look like:


orange: entrance

yellow: shaft used during construction, later filled up

Hah, these are like the cave designs in video games that are comically unnatural but convenient for explory games

When you open a Wikipedia page and see an old school friend on one of the photos.



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