Greek caves reveal mystery and history

science | May 29, 2008 | By Heinrich Hall

At some point between AD575 and 600, at least 33 men, women and children entered a cave near modern Andritsa, southwest of Argolid, in the eastern Peloponnese. They carried a Christian cross, some money and food supplies, perhaps intending to hide from some temporary threat. They were never to see the light of day again. One by one, they died from starvation, unable or unwilling to escape the cave. Fourteen centuries later, Greek archaeologists discovered the remains of this early Byzantine community and its tragic and mysterious end.

Andritsa cave, excavated in 2004-05, is just one example of dozens of new archaeological discoveries made in Greek caves in recent years. Traditionally, the general public associates caves with damp and darkness, long-extinct animals and primitive humans. But in reality caves form a distinctive type of archaeological site as they have been used by humans for a variety of purposes throughout history and have played their own role in the development of human civilisation. The long history of human cave-use may be a global phenomenon, but it is well-represented here in Greece and has been the focus of much study lately.

Not surprisingly for a country largely composed of limestone, the mainland and islands of Greece abound in caves - nobody will ever count how many of these natural openings, passages, rooms and halls, usually formed by water action, exist but they must number in the tens of thousands. Some are small and shallow, others vast. Some have not been entered by humans until recently, perhaps just providing shelter for bats or wild goats; others have been the location of human activities for hundreds, thousands, tens or even hundreds of thousands of years.

Many caves were used for different reasons at different times. Since caves are usually immune to the effects of erosion and other forms of natural or manmade degradation, remains like bones, stone tools, pottery and metal objects are often found preserved inside them.

Humans have used caves for entirely practical reasons. Caves provide natural shelter, and they do not need to be constructed or maintained. For these reasons, they were often used as habitations, especially by individuals or societies that were mobile, nomadic or unable to invest in artificial shelters, be they tents, huts or houses.

The famous cave of Franchthi in the Argolid, inhabited from 20,000 to circa 3,500BC, is an example of one such cave. Caves have very stable climates, making them useful places for storing perishable food: Homer's Odyssey describes cheese being stored in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus. Other caves are hard to find or easy to defend, lending themselves to use as temporary places of refuge or defence, as appears to have been the case at Andritsa.

But people have also been attracted to caves for less rational reasons. Caves can be evocative and mysterious places, both frightening and beautiful. They have often been associated with divine, supernatural or spiritual powers. In the late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (3500 to 2500 BC), caves were sometimes used as burial places, such as the famous example at Diros, in the Mani peninsula. In Minoan Crete, ritual feasts and other forms of worship took place in caves, eg at Skoteino near Milatos. But also in classical Greece religious activities often focused on caves, some of them linked to major mythological events, like the Dyktaian and Idaean caves in Crete, both associated with the birth and upbringing of Zeus himself, or the Corycian Cave above Delphi. Others are more modest in scope, like the innumerable caves dedicated to Pan and the nymphs throughout ancient Greece. Even in Christian times, chapels were often built in or over caves.

At present, the care for, and study of, archaeological remains in the caves of Crete is entrusted to two branches of the Hellenic ministry of culture,


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