A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[LINK] “A visit to the underworld: the unsolved mystery of the tunnels at Baiae”

Mike Dash’s account of a remarkable Roman complex at the seaside resort of Baiae is superb. What was going on?

Two thousand years ago, Baiæ was a flourishing spa, noted both for its mineral cures and for the scandalous immorality that flourished there. Today, it is little more than a collection of picturesque ruins–but it was there, in the 1950s, that the entrance to a hitherto unknown antrum was discovered by the Italian archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri. It had been concealed for years beneath a vineyard; Maiuri’s workers had to clear a 15-foot-thick accumulation of earth and vines.

The narrow entrance to the tunnel complex at Baiae is easy to miss amid the ruins of a Greek temple and a large Roman bath complex.

The antrum at Baiæ proved difficult to explore. A sliver of tunnel, obviously ancient and manmade, disappeared into a hillside close to the ruins of a temple. The first curious onlookers who pressed their heads into its cramped entrance discovered a pitch-black passageway that was uncomfortably hot and wreathed in fumes; they penetrated only a few feet into the interior before beating a hasty retreat. There the mystery rested, and it was not revived until the site came to the attention of Robert Paget in the early 1960s.

Paget was not a professional archaeologist. He was a Briton who worked at a nearby NATO airbase, lived in Baiæ, and excavated mostly as a hobby. As such, his theories need to be viewed with caution, and it is worth noting that when the academic Papers of the British School at Rome agreed to publish the results of the decade or more that he and an American colleague named Keith Jones spent digging in the tunnel, a firm distinction was drawn between the School’s endorsement of a straightforward description of the findings and its refusal to pass comment on the theories Paget had come up with to explain his perplexing discoveries. These theories eventually made their appearance in book form but attracted little attention–surprisingly, because the pair claimed to have stumbled across nothing less than a real-life “entrance to the underworld.”

Paget was one of the handful of men who still hoped to locate the “cave of the sibyl” described by Virgil, and it was this obsession that made him willing to risk the inhospitable interior. He and Jones pressed their way though the narrow opening and found themselves inside a high but narrow tunnel, eight feet tall but just 21 inches wide. The temperature inside was uncomfortable but bearable, and although the airless interior was still tinged with volcanic fumes, the two men pressed on into a passage that, they claimed, had probably not been entered for 2,000 years.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 30, 2015 at 3:57 am

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