The Great Antrum – 270

Introduction to the main entrance tunnel

Doc Paget called the main entry tunnel the ‘Great Antrum’ or simply ‘270’ because of its compass direction.

Key points to note are:

  • The tunnel cut in solid tufa rock starts 8.6 metres (28 ⅙ feet) from the narrowing under the Greek Temple.
  • It is a constant 0.55 metres (21½ inches) wide, hot and dusty. There is enough headroom to walk, but progress has to be made at an angle to avoid one’s shoulders scraping the walls.
  • At 124.5 metres (408½ feet) there is a small wedge-shaped enlargement of the passage formed by a 100 mm (4 inch) enlargement on the south side and a 150 mm (6 inch) widening on the north side. This point marks the end of the Great Antrum.
  • About 7 metres (23 feet) before the end the walls make a very shallow ‘S’ bend, the only purpose of which seems to obscure the view beyond.
  • The Great Antrum tunnel slopes downwards, 3 metres (about 10 feet) in its 124.5 metres (408 ½ feet) length.
  • There are lamp niches every 2.65 metres (8 feet 8 inches) on alternate sides. Some still bear imprints where oil lamps once sat. Oil stains can be seen running down the walls.
  • The Great Antrum – 270 has a rendered coating applied to the tufa walls and curved roof, whereas the rest of the complex remains rough carved tufa stone in its native state.
  • The workmanship and alignment show a high degree of accuracy. There are no signs of earthquake damage or cracks due to pressure from above.
  • The state of preservation is excellent and shows no signs of modification or adaptation.
  • Hot water could not have been conveyed to the surface via this entrance tunnel, as the Great Antrum tunnel slopes downwards, with the lowest point beyond at the underground river being over 20 metres (65 ½ feet) below the entrance.

Angular measurements

Doc Paget named the tunnels according to the compass directions they followed.

Compass rose

The Great Antrum, the long entrance tunnel, is thus called 270, as it lies on 270º.

The descent to the Styx is called 290, on 290º.

The twin return tunnels from the Sanctuary are called North and South 120.

(North and South 120 are on 300. Paget was working from the Sanctuary, the opposite direction. 180º rotated, thus 300º-180º gives Doc’s 120.)

The lamp niches

As we progress, we start to be aware of lamp niches set in the walls at regular intervals, spaced alternately on each side. In some cases oil stains are visible running down the walls and sometimes it is possible to see where the bases of the lamps once sat.

Utilitarian use of the tunnels would suggest carrying a simple hand-held torch in with you. Who is going to go in before you and light over 500 oil lamps? Who will go after you and extinguish them again?

For the film made in 2003 Olivia Temple placed about 150 nightlights in niches. Olivia told me she went in alone to do this and it took her well over an hour to place and light them all.

Above: the pockets in the walls are lamp niches, where once sat small oil lamps to light the way.

Descent into hell

The Great Antrum 270

Photo: Michael Baigent

This extraordinary picture was taken by Michael Baigent, with the assistance of Robert Temple, who simultaneously fired a flash gun from the opposite end of the 122 metre (400 foot) tunnel.

The regular lamp niches can be seen along the walls.

Soil in S120 tunnel

Robert Temple and some of the 150 niche lamps lit by his wife Olivia in 2003.

The Great Antrum

Having set the background to the scene, we are now prepared for our descent.

Entering the Oracle of the Dead, we become aware of the smooth and regular walls and see the lamp niches. We can see the stains of the oil lamps running down the walls. If we were to look closely, in some places we could even see the rings of the bases where the oil lamps once stood.

The walls are smooth, narrow and down its entire length remarkably consistent in profile and surface finish.

We are constricted to the shoulder width tunnel and quickly prefer to walk crab-fashion. The walls tend to make us bounce from side to side.

What lies before us?

Where am I?

Our journey has only just begun. We leave the entrance far away, to descend into the volcanic hillside.

Soil in S120 tunnel

Left: the tunnel widens briefly, before right: continuing its journey onwards.

We have walked now for about 46 metres (150 feet), where we see the tunnel has widened to about 800mm for about 1.8 metres (6 feet). Why this should be so is unknown. Doc Paget suggested it was because they hit an anomaly in the rock of some kind. Whatever is the case, the tunnel is still not wide enough here for two people to pass each other side by side.

Where am I?

Our journey has only just begun. We leave the entrance far away, to descend into the volcanic hillside.

Soil in S120 tunnel

Left: approaching the end. Right: we reach the The Dividing of the Ways.

Ahead we finally see a wall. We have travelled 124.5 metres (408½ feet) into the hill down this tunnel.

According to eye-witness Peter Knight, who went down here many times as part of Doc Paget’s archaeological team in the late 1960s, it is hard to realise in the dark that a very shallow S bend has been negotiated to obscure the view we now see in the right picture above.

Walking back out




Above: a series of pictures taken walking back out towards the entrance

If, at the end of the Great Antrum 270, we were to turn around and walk back out again we can see in the first image the very slight curve of the S bend before the dead straight path to daylight, which we start to see as a speck in the distance in the middle picture.

But we should not turn back now, let us explore further…

Where am I?

Our journey has only just begun. We leave the entrance far away, to descend deeper into the volcanic hillside.

Soil in S120 tunnel

Descent into Hell

Robert Temple walks the Great Antrum. Stills from the documentary ‘Descent into Hell’ made in 2003.

Soil in S120 tunnel

The Dividing of the Ways

Our story begins to get even more extraordinary and parts of it still remain a complete mystery, but what we know so far is enough to give us much to consider, as we approach the Dividing of the Ways.

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