Behind the cliff


The state of preservation

What is remarkable about the tunnels at Baia is that although the surface buildings show many signs of repeated repair due to volcanic activity and rock falls, the interior tunnels show no signs of movement, nor cracks of any kind due to seismic events or pressure. Everything is in an extremely good state of preservation.

The entrance tunnel under the Grotto and beyond

We have dropped below the surface buildings and have now entered what Doc Paget named the Great Antrum, aligned on 270º, in other words it runs due east-west.

The tunnel continues into the volcanic crater wall in a perfectly straight line for 124.5 metres (408 ½ feet), maintaining its narrow width and a height of about 1.8 metres. There are centuries of crystalline deposits on the floor, so the height is now somewhat reduced from the original. At the entrance, where the excavators dug down to bedrock, the height is about 2.5 metres (Over 8 feet).

The South Stub

The first feature of note we encounter on entering the tunnel is a short side tunnel to the left (south), mentioned in passing by Doc Paget but left un-named. In recent discussions with two living members of Doc’s Paget’s original archaeological team from the late 1960s and early 1970s, we have been calling this feature among ourselves the South Stub, for want of a better description.

The Southern stub tunnel

There are square recesses cut into either side near the entrance. Did they hold part of some kind of barrier across here?

Ahead of us is a curious angled shelf, carved into the left side of the main tunnel.

Doc Paget thought this was a later Roman adaptation and that this shelf once supported a pipe that channelled steam or hot water into the back of the Tholos, whose back entrance lies further along. Doc thought he saw traces of pipe and cement on the shelf.

The Southern stub tunnel

Above: the view looking directly into the South Stub, which as far as anyone knows appears to lead to a dead end.

When we read the stories of Homer and Vergil, featuring Odysseus and Aeneas respectively, they are both required to lead a sacrificial beast into the tunnel behind them. It seems to me that this side tunnel may have been a holding pen for the animal before a person’s descent to the underworld. The square holes in the sides were perhaps associated with some kind of gate or barrier to prevent the premature escape of the animal. This is pure conjecture of course, but what other use could this side tunnel possibly have had?

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Mini location plan

The Original Entrance

Looking back toward the entrance. On the left (north) side is the junction of brick with solid tufa walls and a little further back an opening with access tunnel to Paget’s Original Entrance. On the right (south) side is the shelf and opening to the South Stub.

The Original Entrance exits to daylight in the building adjacent to the Greek Temple Beneath the small passage is a Roman pipe.

The small piece of tile cemented over the lip of the pipe under the Original Entrance passage clearly shows that this was a drainage pipe for waste water, conveyed from under the hypocaust bath floor that the Romans built in front of the Original Entrance. This is significant because it shows that hot steam for the bath was not conveyed in here – there was no connecting pipe to this point. This is in contrast to the official story.

If we look at the Original Entrance, we can see that there have been several adaptations here, from a man height entrance, to the smaller passage open today. The small pillars would have supported the hypocaust floor, hot steam was conveyed underneath the floor to make the forecourt room into a bath house.

At the top of the arch we can see there are remains of stucco moulding, on top of Roman ‘opus reticulatum’ diamond brickwork*. Doc Paget saw that there were metal staples in the wall which indicated that this entire wall was blocked off in Roman times. It was entirely faced with stucco, the passage was unused except for the drainage pipe cemented below the small remaining concealed passage.

Detailed research here would determine the original size of this much-diminished passage.

* Opus reticulatum brickwork is formed by setting cubes of tufa, pointed at the back, into wet cement in a diamond pattern.

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Mini location plan

The Tholos tunnel

On the left (north) wall we are at a point where we can see the tunnel from the back of the Tholos has been crudely bricked in. Top right can be seen a Roman tile set in the tunnel roof, opposite the Tholos entrance.

In a similar way to the Original Entrance, this wall also has a pipe through it, leading to a tunnel behind. We can see where large cemented blocks have filled in a much larger entrance here.

Doc Paget seemed to think the pipe through the wall here once joined up with traces of pipe that he thought he saw on the curious shelf discussed above, yet if this is so it throws up some questions.

  • Why was the pipe laid on the opposite side of the tunnel to the Tholos entry?
  • Where is the débris from this missing pipe and when was it removed?
  • Why doesn’t the shelf continue all the way to the Tholos entry, if its purpose was to support its pipe?

I am inclined to think there was another purpose to the shelf. However, there have been modifications and adaptations to the surface buildings and it is likely to be the case in the areas within the various entrances also.

Looking at the pipe, we can see daylight at the entrance to the Tholos building.

View of the Roman pipe through the bricked up tunnel wall.

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Vesuvius equinox

The Tholos Entrance

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the significance of a tholos. A tholos is a Greek beehive or bottle shaped building, associated with burials and the dead. There is another Greek tholos at Cuma, not far from Baia. Originally they may have arrived in Greece from Libyan settlers. With their open top holes to allow the dead one’s spirit to depart, they bear similarities to the spirit houses found in African tribal villages.

This particular tholos is likely to have played an important part of any rituals associated with the tunnels.

From the outside, the Tholos is currently not open to visitors; it is only possible to peer through the gate. Doc Paget felt that this was one of the oldest rooms at the site, but it shows obvious Roman adaptation. The walls have been reinforced with opus reticulatum and it has had a hypocaust floor added.

The gate to the Tholos and the tunnel in the floor at the back.

Historical stories of Greek oracles tell of a descent through a restricted hole of some kind, such as at the Oracle of Trophonius at Lebadeia.

The Baia tholos has a circular hole through which a descent could be made, directly down into the tunnel which accesses Doc Paget’s proposed Oracle of the Dead (This is the access which can be seen to be blocked within the tunnel in the earlier large photo above). The ruins of the building above suggest there was a domed room over the top of the tholos at one time. There is a marble ring in four sections still in place above the hole – we can even see it on Google Earth. Doc Paget thought it probably had a lid to it at one time. It is not possible to access the upper terrace to examine this ring today, but we can see through the hole from below:

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Mini location plan

The Tholos on Google

The four marble quadrants of the top of the Tholos ring are visible on Google maps.

The tile in the roof

Returning for a moment to the Great Antrum tunnel, opposite the Tholos entry to the tunnel there is a Roman tile set in the roof. Doc Paget noticed this and made no attempt to remove it. It remains sealed in place.

Doc Paget estimated that a tunnel above here would probably meet the tunnel in the south west corner of the Greek Temple. What was its use? Did priests pour down smoke and incense or make eerie wailing noises here?

Left: the tile in the roof opposite the Tholos entry. Right: the probable entrance tunnel leading to the roof tile.

A tunnel above here probably exits into the back of the Greek Temple where we see an opening, but this tunnel has been deliberately blocked up with soil. Clearing this tunnel may reveal other features, as yet undiscovered.

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Mini location plan

Beginning the descent

Our survey of the entrance areas and access tunnels is now done: let us continue our journey to the underworld.

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