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Translated Jeff Matthews

[trans. note: 'mine' refers here to an underground tunnel, not to an explosive charge.]

This is the mine or tunnel prepared by the defenders of a fortification for the purpose of impeding or interrupting a similar structure employed by an attacking enemy. It is a simple tunnel or gallery dug in the direction of the enemy mine in order to intercept it, occupy it and hence destroy it, generally by burning wooden supports or by using an explosive charge.

Vitruvius writes that during the siege of Apollonia, architect Typhon of Alexandria had various tunnels dug from within the walls of the city, extending beneath them and outwards beyond them for about the length of an arrow-shot. They intercepted the tunnels that the besiegers were going to use to overcome the defences of the city to conquer it: “Once the direction was determined, Typhon had them place above the heads of the enemy cauldrons of boiling water, pitch, excrement and hot sand” (Vitruvius Pollio M., De Architectura, X, XVI, 10).

The siege of the fortress of Famagosta (Cyprus), concluding with the surrender (1571) of the Venetian presidio to the Turks, was characterized by an intense use of mine and countermines. After that episode it became clear to all European military powers that they needed to start equipping their fortifications with countermine capabilities to avoid having to do so later in the event of a siege.

Most countermine systems were based on a tunnel about 1.8 meters high by about 1 meter wide, called the master tunnel or counterscarp tunnel. It wound around the fortress, tracing a path beneath the master wall around the internal square [called the inner ward or inner bailey], or immediately beyond the counterscarp wall of the main trench (usually the preferred method). Hence from the level of the trench you could gain entrance to this underground system and then follow on to other 'capital' galleries, structures perpendicular to the perimeter of the fortifications and developing beyond it. Sometimes from the inner bailey there were tunnels that passed beneath the trench, itself, to connect to these external underground emplacements. Smaller mine tunnels branched off from the 'capital' galleries and were on the average 1.2 – 1.7 meters high by 0.7 – 1 m. long; they had some 90° turns along the length to minimize shock waves from explosive charges. Such structures had small chambers at the ends for the storage of explosive charges. The disposition of these structures was meant, as much as possible, to anticipate enemy approaches to the external defences of the inner bailey.

The dimensions of these capital and master galleries and of undermining tunnels are similar in all of Europe; the structures have developed also on a smaller scale such as at the Verrua Savoia fortress in Piedmont.

Dutch branch: a smaller variation of a countermine (or mine) that meets the requirements for speedy deployment and less building material, dictated by the Boule well-shaft (Bevilacqua P., Zannoni F., Mastri da muro e piccapietre al servizio del Duca. Cronaca della costruzione delle gallerie che salvarono Torino, Giancarlo Zedde, Torino 2006, p. 41).


Padovan Gianluca (ed. ), Archaeology of the Subsoil. Lectures and studies of artificial cavities. British Archaeological Reports, International Series 1416, Oxford 2005.

Basilico Roberto et alii, Italian Cadastre of Artificial Cavities. Part 1. (Including introductory comments and a classification), B.A.R. International Series 1599, Oxford 2007.

Gianluca Padovan (Associazione S.C.A.M. – Federazione Nazionale Cavità Artificiali)

Click on images to enlarge

Countermine in Verrua Savoia (photo, G. Padovan)

Countermine in a fortification with bastion (photo, G. Padovan)

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