As promised, this month we take a look at the most classic of dungeon settings: The catacomb. After all, we may call it a dungeon, but the original donjon was a tower at the center of a castle, more commonly known as a keep; what your characters venture into when they pass underground is a catacomb.
Catacombs, as a rule, come in two varieties: Burial sites, and protective catacombs.
These are the earliest type known, and the type of underground complex which originated the word catacomb when one was discovered at Catacumbae, a site between the second and third milestones of the Appian Way in Rome. Originally, of course, the name was strictly local; other such places included the longbarrows of the Neolithic Age (most common in England) and the Egyptian Necropolis (as at Giza). Over time, however, the Roman word supplanted the rest in popularity; by 1836, it was the default term for underground burial complexes.
One of the reasons for this popularity is the rich trove of archeological wealth in the catacombs of Rome. Begun in the 2nd Century A.D. by Christian fossors (excavators, from the same root as fossil; fossus, dug up), they served as a resting place for Christians and Jews well into the 4th, when Christianity became a state religion under Constantine. As the burial site for many martyrs of the faith, it merited the finest works, including some only now coming to light. (In July, the oldest known images of the Saints were turned up in the catacomb of St. Tecla under Rome through the use of laser restoration technology.)
The other (and arguably more important) reason for their popularity is that the catacombs were used as emergency churches during the periods of persecution under Diocletian and other Roman emperors of the period. With their churches razed and their bishops executed, the only safe place lay among the dead. This cemented the importance of the Roman Catacombs in Christian history
but I digress.
Of course, they didnt stay down there. The burial chambers were designed for the dead, not the living, so any such services would have been rushed amid the stuffy confines of the bruial chambers. No, for long-term residence, we turn to the second type of catacomb:
Its not just ironic that something strongly associated with the dead should be used to keep people from dying. After all, catacombs are highly defensible (theres only so many ways in or out), remain cool year-round, and are relatively easy to expand. The catacombs of the city of Znojmo (in the Czech Republic) are a classic type; built in the Fourteenth Century (by connecting the cellars of all the houses) to house the entire population of the city during times of invasion. Theyre well-ventilated through air shafts, have properly flued fireplaces (originally connecting to the chimneys of houses above ground), and even have a water supply and drainage system. The locals could stay down there for quite some time if need be.
(N.B.: The catacombs of Znojmo are also famous for something found in any good dungeon: Classic traps. From the classic trapdoor pit trap to slippery slides that dumped intruders into a deep, smooth hole (and even some perfect choke points), the Znojmo catacombs were a tactical nightmare for unauthorized visitors.)
(Note: A choke point is any location designed to limit access by others. In the Znojmo catacombs, the choke points restrict access to one person at a time. Remember the old saying: One man can destroy an army if he can face them one man at a time.)
Of course, not all protective catacombs are (or were) authorized. The Odessa catacombs in Russia, developed from the local limestone mines, were the headquarters for smugglers (and those with unpopular political views) from the 19th Century well into WWII. (Valentin Kataevs The Waves of the Black Sea gives a first-person view of the tunnel warfare when the fascists tried to take the Odessa underground.)
Catacomb living isnt perfect, however. Living underground carries with it several problems:
- Air: In burial catacombs, the oxygen soon gives out, combining with other materials to form oxides. Without a steady supply of fresh air through vents, areas past the first few hundred feet quickly become either dry and noxious (where the water table is below them) or dank and fetid (where the water table is high), with an atmosphere of nitrogen and carbon dioxide. (A good test for oxygen, naturally enough, is a gas flame. The stages are simple:
Oxygen content is 18.5% and upSteady flame; youre fine for now.
18.5% OxygenThe flame flickers and develops a gap between the gas source and the fire. This is because the lower oxygen content doesnt allow the gas to burn until it gets farther from the jet. Youre all right for now, but watch it.
17.5% OxygenThe flame is flickering badly, and the gap has grown to a full inch. It may even go out, but you can relight it. This is no place to hang around.
17% and lessThe flame is out and cant be relit. Youre probably breathing hard by this time; thats your body wondering where the air is in this air. Backtrack to your last good air position immediately! (Miners in ancient Rome used to test for this level below them by lowering an oil lamp on a chain. If the fire goes out, you dont go down. It just cant test for the other levels.)
Of course, if you dont have a gas jet to work with, theres the older, rougher method: Small, active animals. Because of their faster metabolisms and lower reserves, small animals like mice and ferrets (and the ever-traditional canaries) show signs of oxygen starvation much faster than humans do. (Songbirds, such as canaries, are the preferred atmospheric sentry. Not only does their normal noise level give you a constant audio measurement of the situation, but their position on a perch makes it obvious when they begin to lose control of their muscles.)
(N.B.: Hypoxia, the condition of not having a sufficient oxygen supply, has two sets of symptoms. If its a slow onset (as when the air is exhausted over time), the symptoms are headaches, nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath, and a feeling of euphoria. In rapid-onset hypoxia, your state of consciousness changes, and you can experience seizures, fall into a coma, and even die
yes, death can be classed as a symptom. (Theres also one rather unusual symptom among men: Priapism. As the body is starved of oxygen, it dilates the blood vessels to increase blood flow in an attempt to absorb more oxygen. This includes the blood vessels of the male member, resulting in an erection that will not reduce until oxygen is restored to the lungs. Connections to erotic asphyxiation are obvious, but unexplored.))
Even in catacombs with air shafts, air is a precious resource; not only are the shafts an obious weak point in the defenses (where a fire of green wood will ruin everyones day), but the maximum depth for natural ventilation (going by the Roman catacombs and the Egyptian Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa) is about three stories, or 52.5 feet (9.9 meters). To go any deeper, some form of forced air must be employed; miners in ancient Rome, for example, drove horizontal shafts at the further depths, allowing the rising warm air (warmed both by them and by a gradual increase of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) for every 30 feet (9 meters) down due to pressure) to be replaced with cooler air from the outside. Using this system, they were able to reach depths of up to 656 feet (200 meters) (Man and Metals, T.A. Rickard, p. 447). Modern mines and catacombs use electric fans, and so are able to go deeper.
(Important note: Roman mines were quite small, no more than 3-4 feet (1-1.5 meters) in height on average and roughly three feet (one meter) in width. While cramped, this tight space prevented atmospheric eddys from retaining isolated pockets of stale air.)
- Light: Once you get any distance below ground, whether in a buraial catacomb or a protective one, illumination becomes an issue. In ancient times, unless you had a chimney for a fire (as at Znojmo) or a shaft to daylight, your best bet was either a torch, a candle, or an oil lamp. Nowadays, of course, electric lights and light sticks are much more convenient (and less likely to foul the air).
- Drainage: Its seldom hard to get water into a catacomb; sooner or later, youre bound to hit the local water table. The problem comes when, rather than a well, you have that same water table seeping into your excavations. At that point, unless youre willing to abandon the site, you need to figure out some way of drawing off the water. Shallow catacombs, like Znojmo, can simply dig a drain; if you cant dig a drain (and dont have a nice modern pump handy), there are three other ancient options: The bucket brigade, the Screw of Archimedes, and the old-fashioned water wheel. Of these, the screw is rather faster; the version used by Roman miners has been calculated at 35-40 gallons moved every minute, even though you needed three units of screw to raise the water one unit. The wheel, though it could raise water 12 feet (almost 4 meters), could only move about 19 gallons per hour, according to J.G. Landels Engineering in the Ancient World. (The bucket brigade comes in last, though only because of the turnaround time for each bucket. Bronze buckets found in depleted Roman mines could hold almost 40 gallons (150 liters). (O. Davies, Roman Mines in Europe)
(The problem of water in the mines has been around since time immemorial. The steam engine of Thomas Savery was developed to improve upon the hand pump, which itself was created to improve upon the ancient methods.)
- Food: While obviously not a problem in burial catacombs (at least usually), protective catacombs suffer from an obvious resupply issue. The only reason the inhabitants of Znojmo could last so long in their underground stronghold was because it was made from their storage cellars; as long as theyd been careful to lay up stores, they could go months without seeing daylight and be none the worse for wear. At Odessa, however, the Soviet partisans hadnt been planning to stay for the three years they spent as a literal underground resistance; after the fall of Odessa in 1941, malnutrition entered the tunnels by April of 1942.
Food is the hardest problem in living underground for any length of time. Cut off from light, the human body quickly runs through its stores of Vitamin D (produced in sunlight), A, C and K (produced in green, leafy plants). This same problem of scarcity affects any plans to harbor food and milk animals underground, and leads directly to the age-old RPG joke, What do dwarves eat?. (The punch line varies; examples include, Rocks and Bread. Mushrooms. Goblins. In no particular order. Not to mention the inevitable Soylent Green gags
) Even modern food processing and vitamin supplements provide only a temporary answer to the problem; vast underground kingdoms without surface support tend to have a diet rich in handwavium.
maybe I should cover the foods of fiction next. Sound like an idea?)
- Safety: As many magicians who tried the Buried Alive trick will tell youat least, the ones who survivedDirt And Rocks Are Heavy. Even the shallower catacombs need careful reinforcement if you want to avoid a cave-in; the tunnels at Znojmo rely on the cellar walls, while other areas rely on reinforcing walls (such as the masonry walls in the Roman catacombs and the wooden reinforcements in the ancient Roman mines). Some larger subterranean galleries even use unmined columns of stone as supports, with severe punishments for tampering with them. (The Romans punished any attempt to mine the support pillars with death. Appropriate, given how many people such a fool would endanger.)
Beyond just keeping the walls and roof up, though, protective catacombs also need esacpe routes. Znojmos tunnel system extends to a hidden location outside the town (where it was presumably guarded at the far ends), as does Odessas. (The lesson of the badger: Always have at least three holes. One to enter, one to leave, and one to use if something finds the first or second hole.)
Now: With all this information, what can you do with a catacomb in your games and stories?
- The easiest, of course, is the burial catacomb. Dark, winding pasageways; pockets of stale air; pools of water where the excavation impacts the water table. Even if your setting doesnt have room for the undead, though, there can be more than just a new environment down there; as noted in the previous article on sewers, those who want to keep their actions out of the light of day tend to pick the least desirable locations. Not that they have to be evil, or even wrongloyal rebellions can hide in the burial chambers just as easily as depraved cultists. Misunderstood creatures have just as much place in the tunnels as vicious beasts. Just ask yourself what people would want to hide down there
it can be a great deal of fun to decide.
- Any well-built protective catacomb, such as the ones at Odessa and Znojmo, is a perfect dungeon. Whether youre dealing in swords and sorcery, or sixguns and stallions, it gives you the opportunity to slant the odds in the bad guys favor. With traps at verying levels of deadliness, coupled with choke points, even a small group can hold off a superior force for a while.
- Never forget the air. Assuming the characters survive, theyll quickly learn the advantage of sending a torch or oil lamp into the room ahead of them. Of course, those with small animals about their person are likely to have major issues with bad air; whether its a familiar or a pet, people dont tend to take it lightly when their animal friend acts sick.
(Conversely, this allows a whole new level of trap; when you want to use a poison gas, just have the release point located in a ventilation shaft and give it a low point int he room where it can collect. The same goes for smoke from exterior fires.)
- Water can be a trap all by itself. One blocked drain hole, and suddenly you have a time-limit trap
especially if someone (i.e., the person behind the traps) sabotages the exit from the room. Not to mention the comic tragedy that ensues whejn someone accidentally (or not-so-accidentally) opens that barricade closing the tunnel that hit the local sea..
- Water can also be a barrier. In the Egyptian catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, many areas of archaeological interest are hidden beneath water. While Kom el Shoqafas flooding is because of the damming of the Nile, the same rule can work for exploring an ancient mine. Imagine your characters having to rebuild the sumps and pumping mechanisms in order to reach their next goal
and then having to decide who stays behind to keep the pumps running.
- An age-old favorite is to take the light from your characters and face them off against creatures that can see in the dark. Especially when you know that anyone striking a match or flint will be a more popular target than a biscuit in a dog pound.
Hey, I got it -- (three arrows puncture him as a sling stone bounces off his head) -- lit
(Not that darkness is any better. You are likely to be eaten by a grue, anyone?)
- Safety not only first, but always. Those who live underground on a regular basis (even if theyre not dwarves) are likely to have the same sorts of draconian rules about safety as the Roman miners. Damaging a support, clogging a vent hole or a drain hole and even spilling flour are all likely to carry a severe penalty. (As the webcomic Freefall pointed out not long ago, dust suspended in air, plus enclosed space, plus ignition source, equals boomf! For a real-life version, see the Imperial Sugar Explosion in 2008.
- A catacombs escape passages can be a godsend when youre trying keep your recurring villain, well, recurring. Of course, if you want to get fancy, you can include an underground river or chasm or something for them to disappear into at THE END..? Of course, if your hero plans ahead, they can be helpful to him, as well!
On reflection, Im going to devote the next three columns to the culinary arts of fiction and history, beginning with the past and proceeding on through the present to the future. So bring your flatware next month, as we explore the Fictions of Food!