By the light of torches, candles or miners lights, haunting scenes centuries old appear to unfold. Scenes of skulls, bones and death are everywhere. The passages can be as low as three feet overhead or even less. The air heavy with dust, and the ground underfoot flooded with grimy water splashing way over your shoes. In tunnels up to 100 feet below the surface bustle of one of the world’s great cities, another clandestine world exists.
Consulting maps, self-trained guides lead the way, while others look for opportunities to take photographs. Exploring the Paris Catacombs, also known as the Mines of Paris, carries risk. For one, it is strictly illegal, with special police and their dogs patrolling the vast subterranean network. There is also a very real danger of getting lost, as well as the chance of cave-ins in some places.
The Amazing Medieval “Hobbit” Stone Houses of Staffordshire
Welcome to Holy Austin Rock in Staffordshire, England. These medieval cave houses carved from sandstone were abandoned by the last residents in the 1960s, but people were living happily inside them for over three centuries before that, possibly even earlier. Today the National Trust has faithfully restored the houses belonging to the last near dozen families that lived in the community, using early photographs, postcards and records to re-create what the houses would have been like in the late Victorian era.
The first official records of the Rock Houses appear in an 18th century book, Letters on the Beauties of Hagley, Envil and the Leasowes with Critical Remarks and Observations on the Modern Taste in Gardening by Joseph Healey. In the book, Healey gets caught in a thunderstorm when he finds the cave homes and asks to take shelter. He describes the homes as well-furnished, ”curious, warm and commodious and the garden extremely pretty”. Healey also notes that the residents had access to water and were extremely welcoming and proud of their homes, delighted even to recount the stories of their ancestors who had built them.
With stunning views over the woodland from the rosy sandstone ridge, these white-washed houses are something out of a storybook. In fact, many people believe that they are featured in a very well-known book published in 1937, The Hobbit. The opening line of J. R. R. Tolkien’s book states, “The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats – the hobbit was fond of visitors.” Tolkien was famously reluctant to name the places that inspired his stories. In fact, there are so many similarities between the 18th century Holy Austin Rock Houses and Tolkien’s description of the Hobbit holes that it becomes an obvious assumption that he must have seen or read about these remarkable dwellings.
Being the last occupied troglodyte dwellings in Britain, Holy Austin Rock has been an off-beat tourist attraction since Edwardian times. Residents would welcome visitors and serve refreshments right in their living room or in their front gardens taking in the views of the English countryside. Sadly, there are no cave dwellers to welcome tourists today. A single cafe remained open until 1967, by which time all other families had moved away and their homes had already begun to decay. The majority of residents left their homes between 1900 and 1935 to find work in cities following an economic crises in the area which halted the local ironworks production.
Graffiti taggers and local teens made their mark on the empty caves until 1968. At this point they were sealed off, deemed a safety hazard and seemingly forgotten by England. Over 20 years later funds were made available by the National Trust to embark on an ambitious restoration project, as the caves were declared a national treasure.
The Remarkable Dinosaur Footprint Wall
Located 3 miles (5 km) from Sucre, Bolivia is Cal Orko, an imposing limestone slab 0.9 miles (1.5 km) long and over 328 feet (100 m) high. On this steep face with an inclination of 72 degrees, visitors can look back in time to when dinosaurs roamed the Earth over 68 million years ago.
At Cal Orko you will find 462 distinct dinosaur tracks from at least 8 different species, totaling an incredible 5,055 dinosaur footprints. So how do thousands of dinosaur footprints come to be, on a seemingly vertical rock face hundreds of feet high? The location used to be the shore of a former lake, that attracted large numbers of dinosaurs.
The creatures’ feet sank into the shoreline in damp weather, leaving marks that were solidified by later periods of drought. Wet weather then returned, sealing the prints below mud and sediment. The wet-dry pattern was repeated several times, preserving multiple layers of prints. Tectonic upheaval then pushed the flat ground up to the brilliant viewing angle that it is today.
World’s Largest Stone Buddha
An ominous colored statue, this gigantic Buddha is the largest in the world. Called the Leshan Giant Buddha, the construction of this enormous carved deity began during the Tang Dynasty between 618AD and 907AD. What’s truly fascinating about this statue, aside from its size, is that it was sculpted directly out of the face of a cliff.
At the deity’s feet is the confluence of three rivers, the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi, located in the southern part of the Sichuan province near the city of Leshan in China. This incredible Buddha is also the tallest pre-modern statue in the world. The statue’s home is the Mount Emei Scenic Area which has been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996.
There are two ways to get a close-up view of this impressive sight. One is to take the perilous path down the cliff face, walk in front of the Buddha and climb up the other side, as the people in the picture are doing. A more relaxing method is to take a tour boat and sail down the river. He’ll be waiting for you.
Amazing Ancient Ruins of the Pueblo People
Ancient Pueblo people were an ancient Native American culture centered on the present-day Four Corners area of the United States, comprising southern Utah, northeastern Arizona, northern New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado. Archaeologists still debate when this distinct culture emerged but the current consensus is around 12th century BC.
They lived in a range of structures, including pit houses, pueblos, and cliff dwellings designed so that they could lift entry ladders during enemy attacks, which provided security. The pictures above feature some of the amazing pueblos and cliff dwellings of these people. The most photographed ruin is the “House on Fire” (picture 1). This ruin, when captured at certain times of the day, resembles a dwelling on fire and is a favorite among photographers.
- "House on Fire" ruin in Mule Canyon, South Fork, Utah
- Petroglyph with the prehistoric symbol, flute player Kokopelli
- Multistory dwellings at Bandelier. Rock wall foundations and beam holes and “cavates” carved into volcanic tuff remain from upper floors
- Laguna Pueblo dwellers posing for a picture
- Doorways, Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
- Casa Rinconada, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
- Ancestral Pueblo ruins in Dark Canyon Wilderness, Utah
- Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park
Angkor Wat - The Largest Religious Monument in the World
Angkor Wat is an ancient Hindu, then subsequently Buddhist, temple complex built in the early 12th century by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in Yasodharapura (present-day Angkor) in Siem Reap Province of Cambodia. It is the largest religious monument in the world. It was the capital of the Khmer Empire and the king’s eventual mausoleum. Breaking from the Shaivism tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious center since its foundation – first Hindu, then Buddhist. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.
The Archaeological Survey of India carried out restoration work on the temple between 1986 and 1992. Since the 1990s, Angkor Wat has seen continued conservation efforts and a massive increase in tourism. The temple is part of the Angkor World Heritage Site, established in 1992, which has provided some funding and has encouraged the Cambodian government to protect the site. The German Apsara Conservation Project (GACP) is working to protect the devatas and other bas-reliefs (examples: pictures 4 & 5) which decorate the temple from damage.
The Gallery of Bas-reliefs, surrounding the first level of Angkor Wat, contains 1,200 square meters (12,917 square feet) of sandstone carvings. The relief covers most of the inner wall of all four sides of the gallery and extend for two meters (seven feet) from top to bottom.