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Tunnels under Rome: Ancient tunnels for secret passageways, catacombs sink Rome

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Tunnels under Rome that date back to ancient times are threatening modern Rome today as the tunnels under Rome are caving in. “The tunnels are something of an open secret in Rome. Over the years, once quarrying ended, people repurposed the underground labyrinth as catacombs, for mushroom farming and as an unofficial sewer system. During World War II, people used the tunnels as bomb shelters,” reported Scientific American on Dec. 2, 2013.

Unfortunately, those ancient tunnels under Rome are today a threat to the city because modern structures and streets are crumbling into the hollow tunnels below.

Even though the tunnels under Rome are known to older generations, younger generations continue to build in Rome, forgetting that the building is being done on secret tunnels. The challenge for city officials who provide permits for modern structures is that while many people know that there are tunnels under Rome, nobody knows exactly where they are and how far they extend underground.

In 2011, the tunnels under Rome contributed to the collapse of 44 streets or structures. In 2012, there were 77 incidents, and in 2013, there have been 83 cases of the ground giving in.

To prevent the tunnels under Rome from sinking the city any further, geologists from the George Mason University and scientists from the Center for Speleoarchaeological Research (Sotterranei di Roma) are now mapping out the ancient tunnels under Rome.

Before scientist took action, residents tried to fix the tunnels under Rome by using plastic bags, filling them with cement, and sticking them in the holes. Taking into consideration that the tunnels under Rome extend far underneath the city, some of them going on for miles, sticking a plastic bag full of cement into one of those tunnels is like filling water into a bucket that has a hole on the bottom.

In ancient times, the tunnels under Rome were used as catacombs, or underground burial places. While most of them were used for Christian burials, some of them were used for pagan or Jewish burials. Originally, catacombs were supposed to be dug outside of Rome. However, over the centuries, the tunnels extended farther and farther under Rome because of the soft volcanic rock that Rome is built on.

In order to map the tunnels under Rome, scientists are using laser 3D scanning to detect any structural weaknesses. Once a tunnel is safe enough, researchers can enter the tunnel through manholes and map the labyrinth in person.

One geoscientist who has explored some of the tunnels under Rome reported that it is quite a unique experience. "It's interesting, because at times when you are down there, you can hear people on top.”

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