While scholarly minds study in the libraries and lecture halls of some of the world’s great universities, little do they realize the morbid history that lies underneath them. In certain colleges, ancient chambers are situated below the surface, and to step into these hidden recesses is to step back in time to a place where the past seems to whisper its secrets.
College might be a great place to get one’s life off to a winning start, but you may have never considered that hidden beneath campuses around the world are crypts, tombs and graves. Yes, many of our most prestigious academic institutions are steeped in rich, if somewhat gloomy, history. Here are seven crypts that might be right beneath your feet as you make your way around campus.
7. Durham Castle Crypt, Durham, England
Imagine going to college in an 11th century castle. That’s just what life is like at Durham University, where over 100 students sleep, eat and drink in what was once a Norman fortress. And below the castle? There’s the crypt. Here, slowly crumbling walls and dusty flagstones speak of the subterranean chamber’s ancient purpose.
Now known as University College, the 1,000-year-old building is a truly ancient structure – and its medieval crypt is filled with age-old artifacts.
6. St Edmund Hall Crypt, Oxford, England
In Oxford, England, centuries old colleges go hand in hand with churches – so much so that sometimes they can cross over into one another. As ancient chapels are absorbed into the grand institutions of Oxford’s colleges, so tombs come with them.
Beneath St Edmund’s Hall lies just such a chamber. Here, rays of light filter in through an aperture into the outside world, the only natural source of illumination allowed into the sepulchral space.
The crypt lies beneath the library of St Edmund’s Hall, a former church that was only deconsecrated in the late 1960s. It is one of the two oldest structures in the city – dating back to 1140 – and contains six Norman pillars.
5. Dahlgren Crypt, Georgetown University, Washington DC
Sitting in the center of the Georgetown University campus is the Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart, built in 1893 and donated as a gift in memory of the son of John Dahlgren. Above is the forbidding prospect that the chapel’s crypt offers, glowing red in the evening light. Inviting? Not if you ended up trapped inside, entombed within the walls of cold stone before your time.
4. Duke Chapel Crypt, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Sitting at the center of Duke University, on the highest ridge of its West Campus, Duke Chapel towers over the prestigious academic institution. The famous Collegiate Gothic structure, modeled on Boston’s Gasson Hall, was completed in the early 1930s and was intended to act as the heart of campus life. However, beneath the 210 ft bell tower lies a more sinister prospect: its crypt.
The space was built to house the remains of the Duke family and prominent individuals attached to the institution, and today every single one of the five deceased presidents of the university is either buried or commemorated in the crypt. Those stairs might look sturdy but are steep, and a trip would send the foolhardy crumpling to the bottom to join the university’s officials.
3. Basilica of the Sacred Heart, University of Notre Dame, Indiana
This shadowy door leads to the crypt of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the church at the heart of the Catholic University of Notre Dame. The Basilica receives over 50,000 pilgrims and visitors every year and is the mother church of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Tucked away beneath the immense neo-Gothic structure of the Basilica lie the long shadows of its crypt – a place in which surely no one in their right mind would want to be left alone.
2. The Crypt of the Collège des Bernardins, Paris, France
Paris might be well-known for the skull-filled tunnels of its catacombs, criss-crossing beneath the surface of the so-called City of Light, but can you imagine creeping down these dark, subterranean corridors, half a millennia ago?
Completed in 1248, the Collège des Bernardins functioned as a Catholic college for over 400 years – and to this day features an impressive, vaulted stone crypt. The high ceilings are grandiose indeed, but this is not a place for people with a fear of confined spaces.
Established by the Cistercians, the college saw monks, teachers and students living and working together in the center of Paris, only a stone’s throw from Notre Dame Cathedral (which was not completed until nearly a century after the college). During the tumultuous years of the French Revolution, the college became a prison and then a salt cellar, before remaining a fire station for 150 years. Today it is a Catholic cultural and artistic center – appropriately enough for the ancient building.
1. John Paul Jones Crypt, US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland
Going to the US Naval Academy is a tough experience, but one responsibility that has been dropped is that, since 1972, it is no longer compulsory to attend services at the Academy chapel. Nevertheless, the Chapel remains an emblematic focal point for the Academy, at the center of its grounds. Beneath it lies the crypt of John Paul Jones, the triumphant maritime warrior of the American Revolutionary War. Since 1913, the captain has been entombed in a 19-ton sarcophagus, sculpted from Grand Pyrenees marble. It sure would be an interesting neighbor in your freshman year…
Bonus Entry: The Crypt of Civilization
The Crypt of Civilization isn’t a normal crypt; rather it’s a time capsule intended to be opened in the year 8113 – as far into the future as the beginnings of the ancient Egyptian civilization stretch into the past. Carefully treated to ensure its survival is an archive of material recording the culture and history of the world of 1940. The room is buried in the foundations of Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall at Oglethorpe University, and is firmly sealed shut, with a stainless steel door welded into place to ensure that it remains intact until the day it has been designated to be opened.