by Wanderer Werewolf
©2010 Wanderer Werewolf

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   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.

Burial sites

   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 didn’t 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:

Protective catacombs

   It’s not just ironic that something strongly associated with the dead should be used to keep people from dying. After all, catacombs are highly defensible (there’s 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. They’re 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 Kataev’s 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 isn’t perfect, however. Living underground carries with it several problems:

   Now: With all this information, what can you do with a catacomb in your games and stories?

   On reflection, I’m 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!

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