Total darkness – a Maastricht-experience*

Last weekend we visited the Caves of St. Pietersberg Hill in Maastricht, a town in the South of the Netherlands. Though they’re called ‘caves’, these are actually a subterranean network of tunnels built between 1575 and 1875. They worked as casemates and were using during times of war for surprise sieges. These tunnels have played a key role in the history of the region. In the 18th century, during one of Napoleon’s raids, thousands of local citizens hid here for two weeks. During World War II, they worked as shelter for 25,000 people during air raids, and about 780 art works were stored here for safety – including Rembrandt’s famous painting Night Watch (Yes, yes, just like in Monuments Men)

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The St Pietersberg Caves in Maastricht are set on top of one of the few hills in the Netherlands

Set beneath a picturesque hill (a hill, a real hill in Netherlands!), the caves have different entry points. Once there were 20,000 tunnels in the labyrinth, today about 8,000 remain. Only restricted areas are open to the public, that too with a tour guide. There are fixed hours for tours, ours began at 2pm. We left a lovely sunny day to walk into absolute darkness.

Our group comprised Australians, a Spanish couple, a family with kids from France and another from Singapore, Italians and Indians. The guide assigned two people as her “lantern assistants” and handed them old gas lamps. Akshay was one them. He was assigned to the rear guard, so our little entourage stayed at the back of the class with him. As the narrow entrance shut behind us and cell phones lost network, we found ourselves in the middle of space and time.

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Akshay – the lantern assistant

Our first stop was a map etched into the cave walls. We were told a about the caves and what they meant in different periods in history. The tour was designed chronologically, however, markers from different eras clashed with each other.

For instance, we stopped at the tunnel where people hid from Napoleon’s army by living here for two weeks. Ovens had been carved into the rock and the walls nearby bore the marks of baking burns. Just around the corner, someone had painted a lady wearing attire that could only belong to the 20th century.

The caves’ historic importance pre-dates their creation. We walked forward to the point where fossilised remains of Meuse Lizards (of the Dinosaur family) were found in the 1770s. Our guide informs us that those fossils are in France and a custody battle is on. However, in 1998 more remains were found (now in the Maastricht museum) and as of 2012, another set of bones has been discovered, which is slowly being excavated.

The map of the labyrinth

The map of the labyrinth

From there we walked to a more recently inhabited tunnel – the World War II hideout. On the walls were drawings of planes, heroes, Dutch sayings and even Mickey Mouse (who was used in a lot of military propaganda).

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People hid in these caves during the Word War II bombing. The drawings reflect their times.

The most interesting part for me had nothing to do with what we could see, but more to do with what we couldn’t see. 20 minutes into the walk, the guide made everyone stand in a line – our right hands pressed against the tunnel wall. She took all the lanterns and turned them off. “Everyone must experience absolute darkness once in their lives,” she said walking away. It took everyone a couple of seconds to reconcile with the darkness. Our eyes weren’t going to adjust and start seeing shapes – there was not a drop of light to make that possible. Ghost hushes and fearful giggles went through our row. A child screamed. We walked forward in a row, a hand on the person in front of us, feeling our way along the wall. Needless to say, once we caught up with our guide, “seeing the light” had a more powerful impact on us than any epiphany every would.

*This is a shortened version of a submission written for a course called Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets, taught by Sue Alcock of Brown University on Coursera.org. It’s an absolutely fabulous course for anyone with even the littlest interest in history!

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