The River Styx

Descent to the Styx – 290

The descent to the Styx, 290, lit with candles placed in the wall niches. From the documentary "Descent into Hell". The row of tiles in the roof at the start of 290 can be seen here, looked at from both directions.

At the Dividing of the Ways we had already reached a point 124.5 metres (408½ feet) from the Greek Temple at the surface. We had also undergone a shallow descent, just 3 metres (about 10 feet) in this distance and are now at a point about 17.5 metres (57½ feet) above sea level.

Doc Paget examines the line of Roman tiles in the 1960s.

Points of interest

  • 290 is very slightly wider at 66 centimetres (26 inches) than 270, which is 53.4 centimetres (21 inches).
  • 290 is a ramp and step stairway, 45-70 metres (148-230 feet) long, which descends a total of 12-20 metres (39-65 feet) in its length.
  • The rate of descent is not uniform. The first 8 metres (26 feet) have a fall of one in two, the next 33 metres (108 feet) about one in three, and the last 8 metres (26 feet) at the bottom are level.
  • At the commencement of 290, a line of heavy red tiles can be seen in the left half of the roof extending for 5-20 m.
  • The frequency of lamp niches increases. They now appear opposite each other rather than staggered on alternates sides. There over 100 lamp niches in 290, far exceeding what is necessary to guide a person down the passage. They must surely be for dramatic effect and ritual use.
  • At the bottom of 290 there is another S bend, which effectively prevents premature sight of the River Styx.
  • 290 ends at a step beyond which the tunnel is filled with water. At this point there is a change of bearing to 300º.

Left: the slight S bend before the landing at the River Styx. Right: the view looking back at the S bend in 290.

Architectural details

Left: traces of painted rendering. Right: fragment of masonry wall.

Having arrived at the landing to the River Styx, we can see traces of some structures that once existed here. Perhaps there were walls made of wood that have since decayed?

Where am I?

The Dividing of the Ways is behind you and are on your way to the River Styx.

Soil in S120 tunnel

At the River Styx

Features of the Styx area of tunnels

Diagram of the furthest extent of the tunnel system.

Submerged areas of the Styx are in blue/green. We can imagine that originally the water level was below the roof of the flat stretch of the river.

We have arrived from 290 at the bottom left, to find ourselves at the water’s edge.

The 290 Tunnel ends at this step, beyond which the tunnel is filled with water. At this point there is a change of bearing to 300.

In this picture can be noted several features. To the right is a lamp niche. Above is a square hole that Doc Paget called the Chimney, blocked with a Roman tile when first discovered.

In Doc Paget’s own words: "Here we were stopped as the tunnel opening on the north side of 290 about 1.5 metres (5 feet) from the step was filled with earth, and there seemed no means of further progress. At this point also there is a sudden rise of temperature to over 120º F (49º C) and a marked lack of oxygen in the air. Until we had cleared some of the passages of their fill of earth we could only remain at the water’s edge for a few minutes. Under these conditions we found that coloured flashlight photographs which could be studied at home was an efficient method of procedure. In this manner we saw on one of the photographs a tile in the roof over the water." (The ‘Great Antrum’ at Baiae: A Preliminary Report, p108)

Looking at the surface of the River Styx.

Looking at the picture we can see a lamp niche in the right hand wall. These lamp niches continue into the water, proving that the water level here is much higher than it was originally. We can observe lines along the wall where the water level has changed at various times in history.

Robert Temple crouches at the edge of the underground river. From the documentary: ‘Descent into Hell’.

Features of the River Styx

  • The river is fresh, drinkable, water. There must therefore be a flow of water in and out, yet the water level stays more or less constant and it is not known why this should be so. It is independent of rainfall, for example.
  • The deepest part of the river is just a few metres above sea level.
  • The river is about 1.6 metres (6 feet) wide at the water’s edge, and here the water is about 60 centimetres (2 feet) deep.
  • The height from the roof to the water at the step is about 1.5 metres (5 feet).
  • The water level suddenly dropped in May 1965.
  • The underground river as far as we know is completely man-made. Like the rest of the tunnel complex it seems to be part of a pre-conceived design, made in solid rock without alterations, yet how did the designers know they could harness a water source deep within the hillside to their purpose? This is probably the most difficult question to answer of all concerning these tunnels.
  • Where the water flows out from is not yet known.
  • Fluorescein dye was put into the water, but did not reappear anywhere within the surface buildings, where various springs emerge. When Doc Paget wrote his book, where the water went to was a mystery.

    It possibly still is a mystery, as observations by Paul Wale that the fluorescein reappeared near Capo Miseno seems improbable according to a local geographical expert who has studied this.

Diving the Styx

In May 1965 Colonel David Lewis of the US army and his son Warren explored the underground river with scuba gear, in extremely hazardous hot, and cramped, conditions.

Colonel David Lewis of the US army diving the River Styx in 1965.

The tunnel narrows vertically and horizontally for a distance of 7.3 metres (24 feet) at which point the tunnel disappears under the water and is just 90 centimetres (3 feet) wide.

What Colonel Lewis discovered

  • Where the river tunnel disappears, it takes a sharp steep slope down, as does the floor of the submerged tunnel. It drops about 1.5 metres (5 feet). In this distance it travels about 2.1 metres (7 feet).
  • At this point the river tunnel levels out again for at least 9.1 metres (30 feet).
  • When Colonel Lewis dived, there was only about 45 centimetres (18 inches) headroom between the top of the tunnel and the deposits of mud and silt. Presumably the tunnel is much deeper, but we don’t yet know how deep.
  • About 90 centimetres (3 feet) from the levelling out in the left (south) wall there is the first of two man-made arched openings, both 45 centimetres (18 inches) wide, which are feeding the river with very hot water. The second of these openings is 60 centimetres (2 feet) beyond the first. In keeping with Greek mythology Doc Paget named the two openings Acheron and Phlegeton, after the rivers that fed the Styx.

    How did the designers know to cut through here to find the source of a hot spring? How were these entries cut without instantly drowning the people doing the cutting?

  • In spite of the unbearably hot water, Colonel Lewis continued on to see that the river took a sharp bend to the right and began to rise steeply.
  • Colonel Lewis again dived the Styx on November 26th, 1965, taking care to disturb the mud less on this occasion. He was able to reach the back of the Styx and confirm that there are stairs leading up. To say where they lead is to pre-empt our story at this point, but will be fully explained in due course.

What Robert E. Love, Jnr. discovered

Robert E. Love, Jnr. also dived the Styx on February 13th, 1966. He was able to squeeze through one of the openings where the hot springs feed the Styx to find that both the openings lead into the same rough-hewn underground cavern.

What Paul Wale discovered

A comment surfaced on the website H2G2 where Paul Wale described working with Dr Paget in the early 1970s. Paul describes also diving the Styx to penetrate the side opening into the cavern feeding the river. He says the experiment with fluorescein dye was repeated and that he saw the dyed water emerge 14 days later on the northern side of Capo Miseno. Please read the side note for Paul Wale’s description.

Where am I?

You have arrived at a small landing in front of the River Styx.

Soil in S120 tunnel

The water of the
River Styx

"There is a fount of potable water, but people refrain from its use, because they say it is the water of the River Styx."

Ephorus, Greek historian,
c. 360 BC.

Although Greek mythology states that the only thing that will resist the water of Styx is a horse’s hoof, the water is pure and drinkable, just as Ephorus stated.

The Lupercalian dive

In addition to Colonel Lewis, Robert E. Love, Jnr. also dived the Styx on February 13th, 1966, the auspicious date of the Roman festival of Lupercalia, celebrated to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. Probably from the Ancient Greek festival of the Arcadian Lykaia.

An eye-witness account

"I worked with Dr Robert Paget in the 70’s up until the time he died. We worked with him on the oracle project and many others in the area for some five years. I went down the tunnel to the ‘River Styx’ and with a co–worker [most likely LREM Phil Blake, RN] we dived the paved walkway down into the ‘river’. There were caverns off to the sides which were thermal and my mate nearly got cooked. We had to get out as the water temperature was too hot to proceed. We then put dye in the water to see where it came out around the Cuma peninsular. It took 14 days to emerge on the northern side of Capo Miseno."

"About 2004 my partner at the time of our explorations picked up on an article which said that Robert Temple was the first person to discover this tunnel. I contacted him and told him that we had already been down there many years previously. After our explorations the Italians closed the entries which we had opened."

Paul Wale, 2008

To the Sanctuary

Our extraordinary journey into Doc Paget’s oracular underworld continues, with more surprises in store at a hidden sanctuary, located above the underground water course.

One Response to The River Styx
  1. Gene Page Reply

    I lived near by as a teenager in the mid 1970’s, and one day we dropped down into this tunnel and made our way down to what I remember was where the stairs descended down into water but around the corner and before that was a smaller passage that went up to an area that looked like it had caved in.
    While we were down there, (I was accompanied by another US teen), one of the archaeologists found us in the tunnel and walked us out telling saying it had been used as a place where sacrifices had been made to the Sun god.
    I am a cave diver now living in Florida and I have often thought of coming back to explore this area either with a ROV and/or scuba.

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