Monday, September 27, 2010

Speaking of Morlocks: The Malta Catacombs

From Drow elves to the devil himself, we rarely imagine good-natured, caring folks when we imagine secret underground races. Generally speaking, if it comes from the ground, we loathe and despise it. Perhaps we're compensating for some internal self-awareness of our more soil-bound genetic ancestors? Whatever the cause, it makes for some dang fine horror. The tales from the Maltese Catacombs may have more to do with superstition and poor history preservation than secret races, but they still get my imagination piqued.

via Listverse
The Malta Catacombs
Malta01 01
"In 1902, in the town of Paola on the island of Malta, workers making way for a new housing development stumbled across a vast subterranean complex that dated back to Malta’s prehistoric period, some 3000 years ago. The sight has since became a UNESCO world Heritage site, and was officially named the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. A more extensive archaeological survey of the site was undertaken, and it became clear that all was not as simple as it seemed. Over 30,000 human skeletons were found in burial chambers dotted across the site, including men, women and children. Many skulls had unusually widened craniums and baffled scientists in terms of ethnic origin. Stories began spreading that it was tangible evidence of a subterranean human species.
"The islands earliest inhabitants engaged in human sacrifice to appease their god of the underworld, who they believed dwelled beneath the island itself. The name they gave to him roughly translates as ‘Serpent’. When Saint Paul was shipwrecked on the island as recorded in the bible, he documented this, and even claimed to have been bitten by the serpent himself. He also spent a great deal of time there converting the people from their primitive worship of a reptilian deity to Catholicism. It is believed, by some scholars, that the human sacrifices were involuntarily cast down into the catacombs, to be devoured by the serpent and prevent the islanders from incurring his wrath.
"Rumors of a cover-up, by the Maltese government and other authorities, are rife with stories including the scrubbing of texts and ancient drawings from the catacomb walls, and the mysterious and sudden death of the sites first head archaeologist. The underground complex still hasn’t been fully explored. A British embassy worker in the 1940’s, gave an account of foraying into the sites lowest room on the last level, after convincing the tour guide to allow her access to an area usually off limits to the public. Upon entering a small portal in the wall she claimed to have seen 20 reptilian beings covered in white hair on a ledge across from her. One raised his palm and subsequently her candle extinguished. She made a quick exit but upon returning some days later she was told that the guide who had shown her the portal had never been employed at the site and no such portal existed."

Monday, July 12, 2010


James M. Tabor on supercaves - the deepest, baddest caves on Earth. Talking about the physiological effects, he notes:

"Another thing is that each human brain has a unique tolerance for darkness. Some individuals reach their limit after a certain number of days or certain number of feet below the surface, and then they have an attack called The Rapture, which is like a panic attack on speed. I’ve interviewed people who’ve experienced it and they say it’s like a panic attack but multiplied a hundred times in intensity..."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Man vs. Dungeon

I've been watching a lot of Bear Grylls lately - yes, I know it's mostly staged, but I still like it. A few episodes I've watched have really given me that patented Old School Dungeoneering feel. He's out there, ostensibly by himself, and what matters most is his scarce equipment and the kinds of things that the 1e Wilderness Survival Guide and Dungeoneers Survival Guide were full of. Plus, episodes like the one in Romania are full of the kind of terrain that a good fantasy campaign will thrive on.

In this part of the episode, he has to deal with descending a scree slope (now imagine combat on such a slope, where the enemies are at the top!). Then he goes dungeoneering with an improvised torch. Note that the reason he's using the cave in the first place is to save himself from the time, pain, and effort of dealing with the wilderness! Of course, a fantasy cave would never be quite that uninhabited - we'd always put at least one encounter in it - but I think the idea of having a subterranean cavern (with frigid swim at the end) as a means of travel is actually pretty cool. Remember that one of the original inspiration dungeons, Moria, was traversed by the Fellowship of the Ring for precisely the same reason: it was too hard to go any other way.

Another real danger: claustrophobia and panic. Also, don't forget about "rising floodwaters" - lots of game caverns and dungeons have rivers or waterways or flooded sections, but except for the occasional trap, I don't know that I've ever dealt with rising floodwaters as a dungeon hazard. I rather like the idea. If nothing else, it can be used to cut off a party from retreating to the surface.

There's loads more examples I could pick out, but for now just one more:

Hunting bats for food with a vine racket is a part of the 'Forage' skill that rarely gets described in-game, and maybe that's our loss.

Happy Delving!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Cave Texting and Magic

Consider this item from Engadget:

You know what's really annoying? Teenagers. Even more annoying? Teenagers inventing legitimately useful things and getting awards for it. Meet Alexander Kendrick, the 16-year old inventor of a new low-frequency radio that allows for cave-texting, which isn't some fresh new euphemism, it just means people can finally text while deep underground. How deep, you ask -- well, Alexander's team of intrepid explorers went far enough (946 feet) to record the deepest known digital communication ever in the United States. What you see the young chap holding above is the collapsible radio antenna, though plans are already afoot to ruggedize and miniaturize the equipment to make it more practical for cave explorers and rescuers. Way to go, kid.

Now imagine if you were doing underground work in a world where any magic that existed were somehow atmospheric in nature. Magic would get fainter and fainter and eventually cease to function altogether the deeper you got, unless you had some kind of amplifying device, like this huge collapsible antenna. Beyond a certain point underground, in order for the wizard to be useful in combat, he first has to deploy (and defend) a huge wire cage to draw down magical energies from the distant surface. Afterwords he has to fold it all up again and cart it along, hoping everything still works the next time he has to cast a spell.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

"The Megadungeon Design Review Committee"

Over at Unfrozen Caveman Dice-Chucker, they get into checking the slopes of corridors in their Mega-dungeon in order to make sure the math is right. Then it just gets better. Check it out.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Academic Dungeon-Construction Journal

The Journal of Tunnelling and Underground Space Technology (incorporating Trenchless Technology Research) is available online. It's extremely technical, but I'd still love to read some of the articles (sadly not free). Here are a few that caught my eye:

"On utilization of underground space to protect historical relics model", by Zhang Ping, Chen Zhilong, Yang Hongyu, Wang Hui

"Nowadays, under the condition of economic globalization, a lot of valuable historical relics all over the world are in danger because of natural environment and disasters caused by human destruction. The large-scale development and construction of cities and rebuilding of old cities also bring serious “constructive destruction” for all kinds of historical relics. Therefore, it becomes more important to strengthen historical relics protection than ever before. The article expounds the importance of historical relic protection through underground and proposes different models of development of underground space in allusion to relic classification. The use of underground space cannot only alleviate contradiction of urban development and relics protection, but also provide effective measures for protection of valuable relics which are restricted by surface condition, thereby can realize sustainable development of relics protection."

Which seems to be, literally, about building underground complexes to store your treasures in. I've a feeling many of us have an urge right now to reach for the nearest graph paper.

"Tunnel boring machines under squeezing conditions" by M. Ramoni, G. Anagnostou

"Squeezing ground represents a challenging operating environment as it may slow down or obstruct TBM operation. Due to the geometrical constraints of the equipment, relatively small convergences of one or two decimetres may lead to considerable difficulties in the machine area (sticking of the cutter head, jamming of the shield) or in the back-up area (e.g., jamming of the back-up equipment, inadmissible convergences of the bored profile, damage to the tunnel support). Depending on the number and the length of the critical stretches, squeezing conditions may even call into question the feasibility of a TBM drive. This paper sets out firstly to give an overview of the specific problems of TBM tunnelling under squeezing conditions; secondly to analyse the factors governing TBM performance by means of a structured examination of the multiple interfaces and interactions between ground, tunnelling equipment and support; and thirdly to provide a critical review of the technical options existing or proposed for coping with squeezing ground in mechanized tunnelling."

Primarily this is an issue when an umber hulk gets stuck and can't back himself out. Not pretty.

Case studies of groundwater flow into tunnels and an innovative water-gathering system for water drainage, by Diyuan Li, Xibing Li, Charlie C. Li, Bingren Huang, Fengqiang Gong, Wei Zhang

"Groundwater inflow into tunnels can constitute a potential hazard and also is an important factor influencing the speed of tunnel excavation. In this paper the results of numerical modelling are presented to investigate the groundwater flow and the distribution of the pore pressure around tunnels. Two types of tunnels, double-arch tunnel and twin-tube tunnel, were studied. Potential leakage places are identified for the two types of tunnels. The most permeable place in the double-arch tunnel is at the contact interface between the middle wall and the overlying rock. The results of numerical modelling are compared with field observations in the case studies. Based on the results of numerical modelling and the field investigations, an innovative water-gathering system for reducing water leakage was proposed and applied in some tunnels on ChangJi Expressway in China. The water-gathering system can be quickly glued to the rock surface and easily installed for tunnelling. It can be applied in tunnels where water-bearing fractures are well-developed in the rock mass."

I've had numerous issues with groundwater seepage in my underground constructions (except when I've actually used reputable dwarven contractors with a proven track record), so this one holds promise.

Natural ventilation, harnessed by New Kingdom Egyptian tomb builders, may explain the changed floor levels in the Valley of the Kings tomb KV5, by Don Grubble

This article offers a plausible explanation for the floor level changes made during the construction of tomb KV5 in the Valley of the Kings. The construction of ancient Egyptian single entrance subterranean corridor tombs would have required a natural ventilation system; otherwise workers would have suffocated from the diminished oxygen in the depths of the tunnels and from the dust that resulted from the construction. This article postulates that the ancient Egyptians understood the concept of air exchange where, when in the desert, the outside air temperature drops dramatically in the evening causing a cool air draught to flow into the excavations that flushed out the stale air and dust, and replaced it with fresh air, enabling the workers to continue working day after day.

Here's your chance to learn from the experts.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Architecture of World Subways

Via DesignBoom:

London’s underground became the first subway system in the world when it began operation in 1863. Since then, underground subways have been built in almost every major city of the world. From New York and Paris to Hong Kong and Dubai, subways are an essential part of public transportation in cities. Within these systems, architecture plays a big role in defining the environment of the subway. here is a collection of some of the most architecturally interesting subway stations.

t-centralen station (photo via flickr)

Stockholm Tunnelbana
The subway system in stockholm, sweden features art installations in almost every station. The city’s 100 stations feature art by almost 140 artists and it is often called the world’s longest art gallery. The system may focus on artwork, but it also features a number of stations with unusual architecture. The t-centralen station is one of the most distinctive designed by Per Olof Ultvedt in 1975. The station features a massive mural painted on the cavern-like ceiling that exposes the rocky core of the city. many of the system’s stations also feature this unique cavern ceiling that gives them an organic feeling and unique atmosphere.

solna centrum station (photo via flickr)


Friday, January 8, 2010


Right. Here's some links since we've been too lazy for real posts:

Abandoned Subway Stations around the world (Infrastructurist)

Disused tunnels and stations on Boston's T (Infrastructurist)

Newly rediscovered 'Beer Caves' in the Bronx (Edible Geography)

Underground residence in Switzerland (Freshome)

The Tunnel that Saved Bosnia (Mental Floss)

Colorful deposits in caves may be microbial waste (io9 - original on National Geographic but their server seems to be having issues)