Thursday 2 December 2010

Why's There A Dungeon Under Your City?

1. The city was flooded over 100 years ago. After the flood, the powers that be decided to raise the ground level 10-15 feet by importing massive amounts of earth. On top of the flood deposits, this buried - partially or completely - all the buildings in the flooded area. The underground rooms are the remains of completely buried buildings, cellars that once were ground floors, and tunnels that once were alleys and thoroughfares connecting them all. (Chattanooga, Tennessee)

2. The city is built on sandstone hills, with natural caverns underneath that were used for storage and cellars, and latter enlarged, connected, and linked with other chambers and complexes cut into the soft sedimentary rock. At one time or another the caverns have housed inns, taverns, breweries, bowling alleys, industrial shops, and sewage disposal. (Nottingham, England)

3. The city prospered at an amazing rate, but was hampered by natural barriers - rivers, gorges, steep rock faces. A bridge built across one of the dry gorges proved more popular as a place to settle under than to cross, owing to a superstitious incident that cursed the span in the eyes of the cityfolk.The bridge arches were walled and floored, and a series of vaults created, which held masses of the dregs of society living in appalling conditions. The vault-dungeon today is inhabited by a few degenerate hold-outs, the ghosts of murdered people, and whatever it was that caused the exodus of squatters some twenty years ago ... (Edinburgh, Scotland)

4. Followers of a persecuted religion needed a place to bury their dead. In the outskirts of the city, they tunnelled into deposits of soft tufa stone. A refuge in times of danger, these catacombs also housed rich treasures of devotional objects and grave goods. (Rome, Italy)

5. In the busy and disreputable seaport, captains who needed sailors could turn to gangs of waylayers, who used elaborate ruses and trapdoors to abduct able-bodied men. A network of tunnels, chambers and holding cells supported all kinds of kidnapping, forced prostitution and slavery. When contraband substances came to the city, the tunnels were not just the means of smuggling, but housed sordid vice dens where anything could be had ... for a price. (Portland, Oregon)

6. As the city grew, the stench grew intolerable until the king ordered a sewer to be dug. Later monarchs hired more and more sophisticated architects until the sewer network branched all over the city, on many levels, and with some tunnels big enough to drive a cart through. "Crime, intelligence, social protest, liberty of conscience, thought, theft, all that human laws pursue or have pursued, have hidden in this hole..." Yes, and rats. (Paris, France)


  1. This is excellent! I very much appreciate real-life examples for sound gaming choices :)

  2. We don't have much of a dungeon in the area but we do (according to some accounts) have a few thousand year old ruin:

  3. Great post, thank you!

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  5. Seattle also built up its 'ground floor' twice.

    The first time, in rebuilding after a fire the mayor decided to raise the ground level so sewage would flow easier/quicker into Elliott Bay. But the business leaders of the town balked at paying for it. The mayor raised it anyway (!), and for some years the level of the streets were 15' feet above the entrances to down town businesses. Several people died from falling down from the 'street' to the 'sidewalk'. You can now take a tour of the 'underground'; one of the 'tourist destinations' that I recommend even residents take.

    2. The Denny Regrade. A scheme to make some wealthy landowners rich, hills north of downtown were sluiced (water pumped from lakes and sprayed on the hills composed of glacial deposits which easily eroded) down into the bay. I've read that more cubic feet of earth were moved for the Denny Regrade than were excavated in the Panama Canal. I currently live in building that was built before the Denny Regrade and has its lower floors buried by it. When the sub basement was excavated to be finished, a whole Model T Ford was discovered in the dirt. Later, when a modern condominium high rise was built next to us, they couldn't find the bottom of our (pre-regrade) foundation when they placed their modern (built for the big earthquake) foundations.

    More on Rome:
    Rome also has sewers, and has been an active city long enough for simple DEBRIS to have buried earlier levels of the city. There are apartment buildings whose lower basements were once pre-Medieval ground floor housing.

    There is a history channel series called "Cities of the Underworld" that is very educational (occasionally sensational, but otherwise lacking in the typical 'hitler channel' nonsense.) Rome, Instanbul, Rome, London and several other cities are covered. The cisterns of Constantinople (now it's Instanbul, not Constantinople) are pretty incredible.

  6. @Red, JDJarvis: Thanks for the extra sites!

  7. Very, very interesting list.

    Then there's the city built atop the shafts of silver mines, some of which have been abandoned, others reused for storage, still others incorporated into the streetscape (Guanajuato, Mexico). And the underground city for a persecuted religious minority that was carved out of Tufa (the waste being dumped little by little in the river), but located away from other urban centers to maintain secrecy (Kaymakli, Turkey).

    I've always just gone with remains of older cities buried under their conquerors' buildings (Tenochtitlan) or the giant middens turned city foundations you get all over the near east (Catalhoyuk, any Tepe/Tell). These, especially the bridge example, are well worth some serious thought. Thanks.

  8. Great examples - thanks Richard! Gotta love tufa ...

  9. By weird coincidence this morning I received notice of the Canadian Center for Architecture's upcoming Underground Labyrinths tours under Montreal.
    The two big projects I'd like to explore are the bomb shelter/subway system under Moscow and the G-CANS storm sewers under Kasukabe, Japan.

  10. Awesome list. My first thought was the Seattle Underground, which I see above in the comments.

    A prosperous city in a magical realm might have magically heated steam pipes housed in tunnels much like those found under some university campuses in the U.S.!