DER ERDSTALL 48/49 (2023) – Abstracts

Translations by: Dirk Steinforth

Otto Cichocki, Michael Weissl, Mario Wallner

Excavation of the Erdstall in Eggenburg (Lower Austria)

After its discovery in 2022, investigation of an underground passage (about two thirds of which had been backfilled) under a house close to Eggenburg’s town wall yielded a large number of intact or originally complete ceramic objects (mostly pots, but also jugs and stove tiles of the fifteenth century). They were found in a sediment of loam and humus that was covered by a layer of broken-off material from the roof ridge. In the direction of the town wall, the passage is blocked after about three metres by large stones; two narrow dead-end passage extensions with light niches run in the other direction. It is as yet undetermined whether this is an Erdstall, an escape tunnel, or a mining gallery (the fortified town of Eggenburg frequently had been under siege).

Erhard Fritsch, Josef Weichenberger

The Erdstall of Köppach, Gemeinde Atzbach, Bezirk Vöcklabruck, Upper Austria

Occasion for the Erdstall’s documentation was the search conducted by the Gemeinde Atzbach for real estate that could be designated as building land. The choice fell on a larger-sized meadow in the village of Köppach. The Bundesdenkmalamt (Austrian Federal Monuments Office) pointed out, however, that in 1932, an Erdstall had been found on this parcel of land and that therefore it is considered a suspected archaeological site. Accordingly, test pits were dug, using an excavator, until the original entry was found. The shaft and the adjacent passage had been backfilled in 1932, and an elaborate clearing operation was necessary. Specialists from the Landesverein für Höhlenkunde in Oberösterreich (State Association for Speleology in Upper Austria) carried out this task and documented the structure.
As a ground plan had been drawn up in 1932, comparisons were possible. Only thirty-two metres survived of the Erdstall’s original length of forty-four metres. It featured one horizontal, one slanting, and three vertical slip-holes; in one chamber, two benches were located on opposite walls; three passage extensions were caved in. Special features that need to be mentioned are the sloping, five-metres-long entry shaft, the combination of horizontal, slanting, and vertical slip-holes, the very narrow vertical slip-holes, two construction shafts that are very close together, and the dates of three samples of charcoal, all of which were radiocarbon dated to the time around AD 1100.

Rainer Cramm

Household helpers from below the ground: Erdställe and the narrative motif of ‘final remuneration’

In a mythological context, Erdställe are associated with legendary figures from the dwarf family that – depending on a story’s content or setting – are called either ‘Unterirdische’ (‘sub­terraneans’) or ‘Hauswichtel’ (‘house gnomes’). Legends set in the milieu of Bavarian Erdställe strikingly often contain a certain narrative motif, in which helpful familiar spirits discontinue their services once they have been presented with clothes. It is said that after this act, they consider themselves paid off and discharged. This kind of behaviour is mysterious in both its origins and its significance. An interpretation is made even more difficult by the fact that individual elements of the ‘final remuneration’ motif are described inconsistently in the legends: sometimes the present has to be shoes, sometimes a hat, sometimes a suit, and sometimes only the garment’s colour is of crucial importance; then again, in other legends the gnomes quit their services due to wrong food or inadequate pay. This paper compares different variants of the narrative motif and presents a possible implementation of the ‘final remuneration’ theme in the context of practices of folk magic.

Martin Müller

The exploration of the Erdstall at the Petersberg in Kissing

The Erdstall at the Petersberg in Kissing (near Augsburg) has been known since 1853 and has been surveyed and described several times since then, most recently in 2013. The chronological presentation of the documentations and mappings obtained in these investigations on the one hand shows the development of the respective research methods that were used; on the other, it demonstrates a variety of changes to the Erdstall that occurred over the course of 160 years, due either to natural processes or to human intervention.

Otto Cichocki

The depiction of Erdställe over time

Pictorial representations of Erdställe were supposed to allow a wide audience to get an impression of these subterranean passages and chambers. As early as 1888, landscape painter Ignaz Spöttl tried to depict Erdställe in oil paintings, pencil drawings, or engravings. He was followed in 1902/03 by photographer Emil Wrbata, whose underground photography created a sensation in those days. In 1980, Eveline Tilley went on excursions into Lambert Karner’s Erdställe to take photographs for an art project she was engaged in with overpainting artist Arnulf Rainer. Today, several of the Erdställe of that time still are accessible to the camera lens. All these photos not only allow a comparison of the different ways to depict these enchanted places, but they also provide information about the (natural as well as man-made) destruction of surfaces and other details.

Martin Müller, Markus Hilpert

Surveying the Erdstall at the Petersberg in Kissing by means of 3D laser scanning

In 2013, as one of the first in the German-speaking area, the Erdstall at the Petersberg in Kissing (Landkreis Aichach-Friedberg) was surveyed with a 3D laser scanner by a working group of Augsburg University. This article for the first time presents the results in detail, particularly with the aid of various different visualisations, which clearly and precisely illustrate the Erdstall’s structure. The combination with data from topographic measurements shows the Erdstall’s position in relation to its surroundings above the ground. Comparisons with maps from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the procedures used previously to survey Erdställe; they also document changes in the Petersberg Erdstall in recent times.

Dieter Ahlborn

The ages of Erdställe in a European context

For a long time, the ages of Erdställe in Europe were uncertain. Until recently, research going back more than 150 years yielded hardly any results. This uncertainty led to numerous speculations about the date when these subterranean structures were constructed, including suggestions – without evidence – of dates from modern times back to prehistory. Ultimately, this resulted in many considerations on the function of Erdställe on the basis of only conjectures of their age. In recent years, an intensification of research on the settlement history of the regions in which Erdställe occur resulted – apart from new age determinations of Erdstall structures – in a narrowing of their periods of origin. The cooperation between research teams, particularly from France, Austria, Ireland, and Germany, had a positive effect on Europe-wide research. Thus today, it can confidently be established that there existed in many parts of Europe a phase of Erdstall construction during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries AD. 

Werner Breuherr

Surveying Erdställe with an iPhone

Since the last three generations, iPhones of Apple’s Pro Series feature a built-in Lidar sensor that allows the three-dimensional capturing of their surroundings. It is not advertised and actually only used in support of the camera. Yet with corresponding, in part freely available software, it can be used to capture rooms, houses, or Erdställe. First trials in a normal living room revealed numerous weaknesses: even though the resulting 3D object can be viewed and rotated on the iPhone, the furniture is contorted, the walls are full of holes, and larger floor plans bent out of shape. No wonder, therefore, that Apple does not advertise his feature; there are various problems and limits regarding image resolution, unsuitable surfaces, or software. Particularly for Erdställe, however, the procedure is ideal. With very little effort, it creates floor plans of unprecedented quality. Innovative 3D photos taken from any desired angle make an Erdstall understandable even for outside observers.

Anja Heidenreich, Alejandro Jiménez

Subterranean structures in the deserted settlement site of Cuatrovitas (province of Seville, Spain)

Despite the differences between the two great cultural areas – Christian-occidental Central Europe and the Islamic-dominated Iberian Peninsula – in regards of society, religion, and rural everyday life, the underground passages of Cuatrovitas readily fit in with the typology of Erdställe, which in Central Europe mainly are dated to the High Middle Ages. Even though research in Spain is rather infrequent at present and the fragile constructions due to ignorance not always are recognised as valuable archaeological monuments, a historical-cultural context still could be established. Through the slip-holes recorded in them, it is particularly the better-investigated structures in nearby Gines and in the more distant Elche as well as in Catalonia that provide clear evidence for the passages’ function as retreats during the period of the Almohad Caliphate in al-Andalus or rather in its northern peripheral zone. The structures in Cuatrovitas, too, apparently were perfectly suited as temporary refuges during attacks. In oral traditions, this function clearly is still present as well: whether in the legend of the ‘Four Moors’, who live underground with their hidden treasure, or in that of the statue of the Virgin of Cuatrovitas that also is safely hidden away in the ground. Even the concrete combination of ‘well shaft plus horizontal Erdstall’, as described in the discovery legend, has real parallels in examples in Central Europe. It must be noted that a careful archaeological examination of the passages of Cuatrovitas is necessary, and that most probably, such a study is going to confirm the hypothesis of hideouts. It would then be very easy to establish a connection between the refuges’ dating and function and the great political upheaval of the first half of the thirteenth century, when the inhabitants frequently had to react quickly to enemy attacks.

Martin Müller

The usefulness of Erdställe as places of refuge in medieval threat scenarios

In various scenarios of armed attack (raids, military campaigns, feuds), the inhabitants of a medieval farmstead often were threatened with both material damages and a danger to life and limb. Where flight was not an option and an Erdstall was available, it is probable that mainly women, children, and those who were disabled or too old to walk escaped there; a comparison with present-day empirical data suggests that the risk for pregnant women not to be able to pass through a slip-hole was very low. If the retreat into an Erdstall had been well prepared and the threat of being smoked out eliminated by sealing mechanisms, taking refuge there even for several days probably was quite safe – even without concealing the entryway and without a separate exit.
In two poems by thirteenth-century Lower-Austrian poet Seifried Helbing, a slauflueg is referred to as a rural facility in case of armed attacks, which substantiates the suitability of such a ‘crawl cave’ as a place of refuge in real historical situations as well.

Werner Breuherr

Circular storehouses
On the functioning of circuit Erdställe as granaries

In my opinion, the ‘mystery of the Erdställe’ remained unsolved thus far because further effort was not spent consistently on their classification into regional types according to Wimmer and on the definition of those types’ core elements. Accordingly, these types have not yet found their way into the general consciousness, and researchers are still waiting for the one, big solution that explains all Erdställe at the same time. This paper represents an approach to move towards a partial solution gradually by division into distinct types and elements. My basis is Vladimir Nekuda’s excavation of the deserted village of Pfaffenschlag; in it, two circuit Erdställe were discovered, regarded here in the context of the village. Nekuda also found remains of an earlier settlement under the houses. A comparison between the situations of the two houses with Erdställe and the predecessors shows that the Erdställe presumably were successors of the grain pits. The circular storehouse preserves grain in the same way as its successors, with carbon dioxide, and offers new benefits through shorter storage times and easier removal. This creates new perspectives for shutters, ventilation holes, and Kuchl (small side chambers or niches).

Marek P. Šenkyřík – Svámí Gyaneshwarpuri

Discovery of an ossuary with twelve painted skulls beneath the Pilgrimage Church of the Name of the Virgin Mary in Křtiny (Czech Republic)

An excavation was carried out in 1991 in the Church of the Name of the Virgin Mary in Křtiny, an important pilgrimage destination in Moravia in honour of Mary; in the crypt of the church, which was consecrated in 1771, painted skulls were found, among other bones. They had been painted with a laurel wreath (a symbol of a sanctified place) and a ‘T’ (Greek letter ‘tau’) on the foreheads. At the moment, their age cannot be determined. They probably were deposited between 1728 and 1750, but could be older relics from a preceding church.

Otto Cichocki

Three miniature vessels in the Erdstall Rasumofskygasse (Vienna)

In the first chamber beyond the entry shaft into the Erdstall, excavated by the Stadtarchäologie (‘Municipal Archaeological Service’) of Vienna, three miniature vessels, filled with sediment, were discovered. This kind of ceramics is interpreted either as children’s toys, as container for ointments or similar substances, or as objects with cultic significance.

Heike Gems-Müller

Three days in Austria – three Erdstall-themed exhibition openings

On three consecutive days in April 2023, exhibitions on the subject of Erdställe have been opened in Upper and Lower Austria: in Linz, an art exhibition in the Atelierhaus Salzamt was launched on 19 April, in which a young group of artists presented their Erdställe-inspired work. On the following day, an Erdstallzentrum in the market town of Thaya (Bezirk Waidhofen an der Thaya) celebrated its grand opening; in its permanent exhibition, it offers information about Erdställe as well as the opportunity to go down a faithfully recreated model of an Erdstall. On 21 April, the opening of a special exhibition took place in the Urzeitmuseum in Nußdorf ob der Traisen (Bezirk St Pölten-Land) that is dedicated to pioneering Erdstall researcher Pater Lambert Karner and Erdstall photographer Emil Wrbata.