At the turn of the 20th century, the practical examination of caves went through a radical change. Governmental organizations and private clubs were founded in an attempt to establish speleology as an independent academic subject. In contrast to earlier cave visitors, travelers began entering underground areas and attributing the names of “explorers” or “researchers” to themselves. Fieldwork—especially cave surveying and cartography—became common practice in speleology and such work provided important clues on speleogenesis, which was a controversial issue in the first half of the 20th century. Due to the fact that speleologists began separating themselves from ordinary cave visitors and tourists, tools and instruments for cave exploration and mapping, such as carbide lamps, ropes, compasses, clinometers, and drawing boards, became the emblems of speleology.

Through historical discourse analysis, this paper examines whether this change in the status and practice of underground fieldwork had an effect on the self-perception of speleology and led to new forms of social cooperation and control between speleologists. Further questions address the manner in which the usage of new surveying instruments and the relevance of cave mapping modified the scientific research parameters and the cultural perceptions of the subterranean world. As a contribution to speleo-history, this approach opens a new perspective on the social and cultural dimensions of speleological fieldwork as well as the historical, scientific, and political dynamics in which they were involved. Sources for this research comprised historical scientific papers on cave mapping, textbooks, and archive materials from the Austrian National Library, the Natural History Museum in Vienna, and the Austrian Speleological Association.