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Tunnels under Rome: Catacombs, secret passageway tunnels caving in under Rome

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Tunnels under Rome that were used in ancient times as catacombs or secret passageways are caving in today and are threatening structures and streets in modern Rome. “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 are crumbling into the hollow tunnels below.

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 other 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 can be found under Rome.

Even though the tunnels under Rome are known to some, many people continue to build in Rome, forgetting that the building is being done on tunnels that once had a purpose. Unfortunately, while the tunnels under Rome are an “open secret,” many people, including city officials, do not know how far those tunnels extend underground.

In 2011, the tunnels under Rome contributed to the collapse of 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 destroying more structures and streets, geologists from the George Mason University and scientists from the Center for Speleoarchaeological Research (Sotterranei di Roma) are in the process of mapping out the ancient tunnels under Rome.

So far, residents have tried to fix the tunnels under Rome by using plastic bags, filling them with cement, and sticking them in the holes. But taking into consideration that the tunnels under Rome extend far underneath the city, it was an effort that could not prevent the tunnels from collapsing.

In order to map the tunnels under Rome and to prevent more major damage, 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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