Tunnel of the Dead

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Welcome to my weekly series “Designing from Bones”, using archaeology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. This week we will take a tour through the darkened recesses of three ancient tunnels in search of a wealth of ideas.

Tunnels are creepy. Tunnels are dark. Every twist and turn becomes a question of the unknown that can only be answered by exposing ones head. Every tremor or explosion threatens collapse and instant burial.

If this last should happen to you, perhaps one day, thousands of years from now, an archaeologist will find you and create a story about you and your world based on the best science and understanding of the day. Experience in reading these types of stories tells me that the things the archaeologist doesn’t know will be filled in with a healthy dose of conjecture, what we writers call fiction, to give a full picture of a person, place and time.

Follow me through the cobwebs and into the mysterious corridors of the past. Light a torch. Stay close and you may be safe. Wander and none may find you for eons.

The shaman waits in the chamber ahead.

Mayan Underworld

To say that the Mayans held strong beliefs about death would be an understatement. They firmly believed that the dead inhabited a land deep beneath the surface and that their ancestors could be called on to assist the living from the spirit world.

The living above and the dead below is often seen in the architecture that the Mayans left behind. Mountainous temples climb towards the sun and stars while below them lie tunnels used for ritual and the burial of central figures to their culture. Kings and Shamans.

Below the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan lies a representation of their belief in the underworld that is currently being explored by archaeologists. The tunnel, believed to be 400 feet long, descends 40 feet below the temple and was intentionally blocked at some point between 200 A.D. and 300 A.D.

As writers, intentional actions without a known explanation should catch our imagination. The unknown breeds thoughts of “what if “naturally. Call it organic brainstorming.

What if a king and his treasure lie buried in the chamber that must be at the end of the tunnel? What if a great plague descended and the Shamans, failing to stop the devastation, were walled inside by an angry populace? What if either of the previous two never died, forcibly trapped within for the past 1800 years, bound by curse or spell, dreaming of release and carnage?

What if the chamber turns out to be empty but on the walls are carved the sacred texts of an ancient people? What adventure would our heroes find crafted into the age-old script?

Brush off the cobwebs my friends, we have reached the first turn in our tunnel tour and the air now bakes our skin and turns the oases of our mouths into dry barren wells.

The lone traveller pulls back his hood to reveal a grisy visage.

The Salt Men

West of the city of Zanjan, Iran lie the Chehrabad salt mines. In 1993, miners discovered a body encased in salt. The salt had preserved not only the corpse but some of his clothing and gear as well. One foot was still in its leather boot, trousers still shrouded the legs, iron knives, a silver needle, a walnut and other sundry items adorned his leathery remains. His skin turned to the consistency of beef jerky.

The body lay in a 140 foot long tunnel and over the course of several years excavation, five more bodies were unearthed from their salt-laden grave in this tunnel, including a woman and a teenager.

Were these people here to mine the salt, victims of a cave-in or were they brought here for crimes unknown and made to bake in the sun, dying slowly in the depths? Perhaps they were prisoners or kidnap victims who never lived to see a ransom. What if they returned to life as Salt Zombies? What! Never heard of Salt Zombies? A new twist to spice the imagination.

Ah, the final turn in our journey. Here, wear this mask. Foul vapors await ahead and I’ll not have you become faint and fall behind for the Salt Zombies to devour.

Even in death the Persian grins at his lethal joke.

Chemical Warfare

In 256 A.D. the Roman-held Syrian city of Dura-Europos came under siege by the Persians. In an attempt to undermine the cities walls the Persians attempted to dig tunnels below them. In response, the Romans dug their own tunnels outward, hoping to head off any incursion before it could create a breach.

During this subterranean battle of cat and mouse, a Roman patrol of 20 soldiers heard the digging of the Persians and angled for them. As the two tunnels met the Persian sapper lit a device made of sulfur crystals and bitumen creating a hot fire and a rapidly expanding cloud of noxious gas. The first known use of chemical warfare. It is believed that all of the Roman soldiers and the Persian that lit the device died as a result of this gas.

The tunnel was abandoned, the bodies left out of fear the gas would cause others to die or possibly that evil spirits would claim any that entered. Here they lay forgotten, until Robert du Mesnil du Buisson, a French archaeologist began excavating the ruins in the 1920’s and 30’s and discovered the grisly scene.

From the writers perspective, the story of these twenty-one men can be placed in any time frame. Two trains on a collision course, unable to stop or turn aside. Character arc and a sense of the inevitable ring paramount in this story.

Another option that could be explored here is if one of the twenty-one, preferably the Persian or the Roman leader carried a significant item. This item could be turned into the first clue of many, leading the reader on an adventure to solve an age old mystery and reveal a potential answer to a question that still plagues the understanding of the modern age. You know, the concept that Dan Brown uses regularly in his novels.

And now friends we come to the end of tunnel. The favorite moment of the living, a reemergence into fresh air and sunlight with renewed hope and a wealth of powerful ideas.

How do you feel about tunnels? Creeped out by them? Love to adventure? Have you heard of any tunnels not mentioned here that others might find fun to explore as well? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments.

Looking for more great ideas and information on writing? Check out my previous “Designing from Bones” entries. Want to know how to make blogging and social media a powerful tool? Try Kristen Lamb, author of We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social MediaAre you there blog? It’s me, Writer

Peaceful Journeys!

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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13 Responses to Tunnel of the Dead

  1. Oh how fun! Great imagery! I feel the creative juices pumping.
    Other tunnels – how about all those creepy ones in Rome filled with bodies of the dead. Paris has something similar too, I believe.
    The old Chicago Prohibition Tunnels and the parts of the city buried beneath.
    For even more fun, how about the tunnels through mountains in Japan – where you never know if you won’t make a mistep and end up in the spirit world on the other side rather than your road! Hee!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hi Gloria!

      Wow! All excellent ideas. The Roman Catacombs are a fun place that is still being explored. Vast tunnel complexes lay beneath most of the major cities in the world. San Francisco and a few others are actually built on the remains of an older version of the same city.

      Japan and China are both known to have many mountain tunnel complexes. And this is just tunnels, add in cave complexes and one could wander for a lifetime, seeing new sites constantly and never needing to resurface. Or surface to begin with. On second thought, just be careful digging holes 🙂

  2. Kerry Meacham says:

    Cool stuff Gene. How about tunnels in Egyptian pyramids, caves, and old abandoned mines?

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hey Kerry!

      All great ideas. What it boils down to is the enclosed passageway. The sensation this brings, closed in, only two ways to run in most cases, the unknown around every corner, every sound difficult to locate due to echo…all of this serves to drive tension. Caves are excellent for their variety and mines for the vast amount of information people carry on them. Think of the recent mine collapses. The subterranean realm is less explored than the ocean depths, always a good bet for writers.

  3. Lynn kelley says:

    This is such an interesting and well written post. Good job, Gene.

    My co-authors and I were taken on a private night-time tour of the catacombs under the historic Mission Inn in Riverside, CA years ago when we were working on our first Monster Moon book, which has scenes with spooky tunnels. Being in the tunnels gave us a lot to work with to enrich our story, like just the dank, musty smell as we descended deeper.

    And funny that you mentioned the salt mummy’s skin being like beef jerky because my co-author Kathy Sant, a retired doctor, explained what mummies are at a school visit one time when a student asked, “What’s a mummy?” Kathy explained it and then summed it up as being like human beef jerky! Wow, it got quite a reaction from the kids and the teacher, too. I enjoyed this post and forwarded it to Kathy. Thanks.

    Actually, I’m going to share this on FB!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hi Lyn!

      Nothing beats being able to take a personal tour of a location. To see it, smell it, feel the surface textures and experience the overall feel of a place is irreplaceable. I’m sure the trip through Mission Hill helped to deepen the setting for your writing considerably.

      Kathy has a great mind! Jerky is an apt visual reference to sun-baked and shrunken skin, leathery works as well but isn’t as accurate or visual.

      Thanks for sharing this across so many platforms, appreciate it 🙂

  4. Personally, I vote for salt zombies!!! LOL. Seriously though I love stuff like this. It’s always fired my imagination. I guess that’s typical of writers, huh? I think it would be fun to actually explore these places someday. I imagine being there adds a sense of mystique that is hard to really capture otherwise. But I don’t travel much, sadly. So I’ll have to live vicariously.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hey Lisa!

      The great thing about writers is that with our imagination we can not only live vicariously in a place we have never been but we can also live that way while it is right in front of us. All we need to see are the elements and they twist and turn in our heads to become something greater. One day, I hope, you get to travel more, I know I’m hoping for the same, but until then we are free to travel anywhere we wish with our minds 🙂

  5. I love this setting too! Dark, creepy tunnels. Risk of a cave in…or getting lost and never being able to find your way out. *shudder*

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hey Sonia!

      Separated from your group, wandering through the darkness, light sputtering about to die and that is when the first ghoul shuffles into view. Saliva dripping from the corner of ice cold lips. Eyes white, a thing that never sees light. The light you carry goes out and the blackness closes in like the scraping footsteps of the ghoul.


  6. Elle B says:

    I adore this series, Gene, especially given I’m a former archaeologist. Real archaeology, unfortunately, is far less fascinating (not the field work, which is brilliant, but the “publish or perish” mentality that drives academics), which is why I slipped into fiction. You’re helping rekindle my passion for a lost love!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hi Elle!

      Thanks for the compliment. While it’s true that real archaeology is less exciting than the fiction possibilities it holds, I still find it to be rich. The chance to discover something that has been lost from the human record, to uncover its secrets and give it new life remains an incomparable thrill (at least to me, but I know I’m not alone). Having read the subject for years I do agree that often archaeologists and historians are forced to produce something tangible and marketable in order to retain their funding, which I find sad at times, but such is the nature of the economic engine that drives modern philosophy. I often wonder what a future archaeologist will surmise about our era once the nature of our society is surmised.

      Our passions never leave us, although sometimes, when they have been battered by the realities of life they just need time to heal and refresh. I’m glad to be able to help in renewing your passion for archaeology 🙂

  7. Pingback: Mind Sieve 6/20/11 « Gloria Oliver

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