Why were vast networks of carefully constructed “goblin tunnels” built below Bavaria during the Middle Ages? Why is there not a single written word about their purpose or construction? Der Spiegel delves into the darkness:
There are more than 700 curious tunnel networks in Bavaria, but their purpose remains a mystery. Were they built as graves for the souls of the dead, as ritual spaces or as hideaways from marauding bandits?
At least 700 of these chambers have been found in Bavaria alone, along with about 500 in Austria. In the local vernacular, they have fanciful names such as “Schrazelloch” (“goblin hole”) or “Alraunenhöhle” (“mandrake cave”). They were supposedly built by elves, and legend has it that gnomes lived inside. According to some sagas, they were parts of long escape tunnels from castles. Similar small underground labyrinths have been found across Europe, from Hungary to Spain, but no one knows why they were built.
The tunnel entrances are sometimes located in the kitchens of old farmhouses, near churches and cemeteries or in the middle of a forest. The atmosphere inside is dark and oppressive, much as it would be inside an animal den.
There is not a single written record of the construction of an Erdstall dating from the medieval period. “The tunnels were completely hushed up,” says Ahlborn.
Archeologists have also been surprised to find that the tunnels are almost completely empty and appear to be swept clean, as if they were abodes for the spirits. One gallery contained an iron plowshare, while heavy millstones were found in three others. Virtually nothing else has turned up in the vaults.
Until recently, the secret caves were explored only by amateur archeologists. The pioneer of Erdstall exploration, Lambert Karner (1841 to 1909), was a priest. According to his records, he crawled through 400 vaults, lit only by flickering candlelight, with “strange winding passages” through which “one can often only force oneself like a worm.”
But how old is the vault? A few radiocarbon dating analyses have also been performed, and they indicate that the galleries date back to the 10th to the 13th century. Bits of charcoal recovered from the Erdstall tunnels in Höcherlmühle date back to the period between 950 and 1050 A.D.