By the time his street collapsed into a ravine, William Lyttle had excavated over 100 cubic metres of earth from beneath his house in Hackney. His tunnels, some more than 20 metres long, had not only undermined the road, but were also causing his neighbours houses to subside. In 40 years Lyttle had dug a cavernous warren, equipped with nothing more than a pickaxe and a shovel. His efforts earned him the name of ‘Mole Man’ amongst his disgruntled neighbours. It was at their behest that he was evicted from his subterranean home in 2009 and moved into a top floor flat. The council hoped that stowing Lyttle away in a high rise would cure him of his compulsion. But they underestimated the man. An inspection of his flat revealed that soon after moving in he had knocked a hole through the wall from the kitchen into the living room. It seemed that Lyttle would stop at nothing to continue burrowing, even if it meant drilling his tower block full of human-sized holes.
Stories of the Mole Man found their way into the press and Lyttle attracted a cult following. Everyone asked the same thing, why did he dig? But both journalists and fans found that their questions were met with modesty and cryptic answers. Lyttle referred to his labyrinth as a mere wine cellar which he had subjected to a few ‘home improvements’. When pressed further on his motivations he said, “Inventing things that don’t work is a brilliant thing, you know. People ask what the big secret is. And you know what? There isn’t one.” William Lyttle passed away in 2010 leaving behind his burrow, a roofless house and a lot of people scratching their heads.
Fig. 1 The entrance to one of William Lyttle’s tunnels (left), William ‘Mole Man’ Lyttle (right)
It is not difficult to see why the Mole Man’s behaviour left people confused. Humans tend to make their homes in superficial structures. We are, after all, descended from tree dwelling apes. Underground living is left to rodents, moles, badgers and a few eccentric penguin species. Whilst they scurried about beneath the ground our ancestors climbed down from the forest canopy, waded and crawled about the savanna and did a bit of swimming now and again. Their behavioural progression explains why today we stand upright, why our bodies are bald and our heads hairy and why we have very sensitive hands. At no point did Homo sapiens develop the powerful forearms and tough claws needed for tunnelling.
Those who do buck the evolutionary trend and burrow into the soil become, like the Mole Man, objects of both suspicion and wonder. Underground dwellings are associated with secrets and skulduggery. The buildings down there are not houses; they are dungeons, bunkers and catacombs. These shady places attract cults, whether they be the bear-worshipping cave painters of Chauvet cave, or the roman followers of Mythras who carried out initiation ceremonies in ‘ordeal pits’ in their subterranean temples. They have also offered shelter to persecuted people throughout the ages. The Dead Sea Scrolls are thought to have been left in a network of caves by a clandestine Jewish sect who hid out there during the Jewish Rebellion some 2000 years ago. Today, it is estimated that there are over one thousand homeless people living in ramshackle shelters in the 300 miles of storm drains under New York, a community derogatively known as the ‘mole people’. All of these underground cultures have been the source of fascination, romanticism and misportrayal. We desperately want them to add some enchantment to our modern lives. By imagining there to be an alternative world below the surface we reassure ourselves that there is an escape from our overlit, over sanitised and rationalised cities waiting just around the corner. Manhole covers become portals into a mysterious underworld.
Fig. 2 A Mythraeum underneath the Baths of Caracalla
Like William Lyttle and the worshippers of Mythras I too am fixated on the underground. I first started digging holes at about nine years old, having been given a metal detector by my grandfather and soon found that the excitement of metal detecting came not from the possibility of unearthing buried treasure. The machine only ever directed me to water pipes. Instead I was captivated by the act of plumbing the depths of the earth’s crust with my shovel. Having peeled back the soft topsoil I would set to work hacking through the clay, chalk and flint which stood stubbornly between myself and the mantle. Digging, like caving or tunnel hacking (a term used to describe breaking into sewers and urban drainage systems), is a form of exploration. You can never be certain what your spade will sink into, you might slice through the top of a rotten chest of sestercii. Or even better, you might tumble into the labyrinth of a fellow burrower.
Once you have broken through into the world beneath the surface you enter a different timeframe. There are no seasons underground, no day and night and no weather. Early human visitors to caves are known to have followed an erratic schedule which shares little relation to linear time. The walls of Chauvet cave are covered in a seemingly consistent mural onto which the shapes of tarpan, aurochs and cave bears have been outlined. However the mural is not the product of a single group, or even a single generation of artists. Instead painters contributed to the great work in sporadically bursts of activity broken by silent intervals of thousands of years. It is not known what determined these great gaps of inactivity or why these people chose to paint only once or twice every few millennia. Similarly, the creatures which have evolved to live in caves, known as the troglobites, live according to odd cosmologies. Take the olm for instance: an eyeless, white salamander which can only be found in a few limestone caves in the Dinaric Alps. Here it has remained, unchanged, for millions of years. An olm lives for up to 100 years and can go without food for 10 years. Their eyes are shrunken and have been supplanted by an electrical receptor on their heads which causes them to align themselves with the earth’s magnetic fields. They are known in Croatian as the ‘human fish’ due to their bare white skin and tiny arms and legs. When taken up to the light, hot and fast moving surface, olms and other troglobites struggle to survive for more than an hour.
Fig. 3 The olm or ‘human fish’
We are divided from the underground not only by the ground but also by time and by our bodily adaptations. Despite these barriers, there have always been people who have found caves and tunnels more hospitable than the hot, light and busy world above. If more were to follow the example of William Lyttle, take up the spade and cast aside building regulations, could they strike out on a new evolutionary path? By swapping delicate fingers for badgers’ claws and eyes for a magnetic head perhaps we could come closer to living like the venerable olm, gliding through groundwater in a fossilised time dimension, safe from our irate neighbours above.