The Hollow Hills

In a quick read through the consistently – and often amazingly – interesting links supplied by Archaeology Magazine, I came across an example of what is easily one of my favorite nonfiction plot twists: someone discovers that what they thought was a natural hill somewhere on their family property is actually an extremely ancient building.
It has an interior, perhaps even underground corridors linking to other, nearby hills.
It is not the surface of the earth, in other words, but a piece of architecture. Your backyard, to this way of thinking, might actually be a roof; you simply have to discover a way inside the building deep below.

[Image: The artificial hill at Cuween, an Orkney burial cairn, perhaps anticipating by thousands of years the architecture of Vicente Guallart; photos by Sigurd Towrie of Orkney Jar].

In this case, we read, a farmer in the Orkney Islands of northwest Scotland, while plowing a relatively untouched field on his family land, uncovered a Neolithic chambered tomb just sitting there beneath the soil.
It was a room – and suddenly he had access to it.
“The structure itself is neat drystone construction,” a local archaeologist explains, and “the wall curves round tightly and is beehived in by corbelling at the top. On the opposite side to the wall is a space topped by lintels, and indeed it was breaking one lintel that caused the site to be found. It’s early days yet, but it may be a Neolithic chambered cairn, some five or six thousand years old.”
Of course, readers of The BLDGBLOG Book, finally published this week in the United States, will recognize this same idea from the beginning of that book’s “Underground” chapter (where the discovery of a tomb now known as Crantit Cairn is described in slightly fictionalized form). The bare bones of that story, however, are worth repeating here: one day, back in 1998, we read, a farmer “decided to plough [his] field in a different direction to normal – a seemingly insignificant decision that led to the discovery of what was hailed as one of ‘the greatest archaeological finds of recent years.'”
Specifically, “While ploughing, the tractor disturbed the roof of the tomb, dislodging a roofing slab. The slab fell to reveal a hole and daylight streamed into the underground chamber for the first time in millennia.”
With today’s penchant for green roofs and other forms of “vegitecture,” one wonders if similar such experiences might become exponentially more common in the distant future; two kids, playing around in the garden, pull a stone up from the flowerbed only to discover that they are standing atop the main gallery of a science museum constructed back in 2009 A.D.
Zork Begins.
In fact, as I mentioned in my lecture at the School of Visual Arts in New York back in April, a similar sort of idea made a cameo appearance in The Day After Tomorrow. There, we watch as Dennis Quaid and his two colleagues are hiking across a rapidly forming glacier – only for one of them to crash through a skylight into the snow-buried mall below.
It was not a glacier at all, in other words, but an unrecognized architectural form.
In any case, perhaps the great human adventure of the year 45,000 A.D. will not be in outer space at all, but a terrifying Dantean super-tour through the deeply buried cities of our present age. People stumble through this seemingly endless underground labyrinth, spanning nearly the whole surface of the globe, utterly unaware of who created these buildings and why.
In this context, old Celtic/Britannic myths of the Hollow Hills take on an especially interesting architectural resonance. I’m yet further reminded of many bunkers in the hills around San Francisco; seen from one side, these buildings appear to be mere mounds covered with gravel and weedy vegetation, like a gently rolling, even bucolic American landscape – but, from the other side, you find that they have heavily rusted metal doors…
The implication here, that you could open a door and walk inside a manmade earth, where the hills around you are actually the roofs of old buildings, will never cease to amaze me.

6 thoughts on “The Hollow Hills”

  1. This reminds me of a BBC documentary I saw a while ago, The Lost Pyramids of Caral, in which pre-Columbian pyramids had eroded until indistinguishable from hills. No vast buried chambers, though. Perhaps, I mused, hills were the point?
    King: I ordered you to build a HILL! What in Xibalba is THIS?!
    Architect: It IS a hill, Sire. It's designed to weather…
    King: …How long?
    Architect: *shrug* couple millenia, give or take…

  2. Hm, this reminds me of a story that was popular few years ago in my country (Bosnia & Herzegovina). Local amateur archeologist claimed that three hills nearby a city of Visoko are actually pyramids built some 12.000 years ago. If we put aside some pretty ridiculous pseudoscientific claims, the fact is that they actually found ''something''; long narrow underground corridors, dry stone walls, all covered under a few feet of dirt, and a shape of hills somewhat resembles a pyramid. If someone is interested you can check it here: Bosnian pyramid I dont say that anything there is true, but it would be fun if it were

  3. While playing soccer during a recess break at my elementary school, a peer of mine got a bit of a surprise when the ground beneath him caved in, nearly dropping him into a hidden concrete room filled with – what was to my 8-year-old mind – ancient and mysterious machinery.

    The third incarnation of our school was built in the backyard of the second. When they finished with the new building and demolished the old, they left the basement intact (including the old furnace, oil tank, and related equipment), and put a thin layer of fill over the original floor, which then became the new playground.

  4. Just imagine that in the future someone discovers an abandoned subway line — providing an ancient tunnel that serves as a map to a long-forgotten city. "Falling" into this might lead to many, many findings…

  5. The setting for author Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series is just such a world – full of repurposed, abandoned, forgotten, and buried structures.

  6. Here in Ireland these constructions are quite common. The technical term is souterrain and many of them are Iron Age (or last Tuesday in archaeological terms) but fascinating nontheless.

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