11 December 2005

Andritsa Cave, Fateful Refuge

So, we went to the "Andritsa Cave, Fateful Refuge" exhibition at the Byzantine and Christian Museum of Athens at the weekend.

There's been a lot of angst in the caving community over this and especially about the ethics of exploration and a whole bunch of other stuff. Friendships have been strained and there has been renewed discussion amongst ourselves about the legal framework within which everything is operating. Not having any personal stake in any of this and not being able to see how it could impact my own future activity, I will not go into details of how the cave was found, explored and presented for exhibition.

The cave itself seems to be a single largish chamber on many levels accessible through a vertical drop of some meters wide enough for one person to climb in and out at a time.

At some point soon after 575 or 576 AD, at least 33 individuals, mainly women and children, entered the cave carrying their everyday personal belongings (coins, small knives); many jugs for liquids but no utensils for the preparation of food; and a processional bronze cross with the Lord's Prayer inscribed on both sides.

The lack of provision for the preparation of food indicates that either they expected that they would be out again soon, or that they knew they were going into the cave to die. For some reason they never made it out and each one died where they were found some 1,400 years later by cavers exploring in that part of Greece.

What happened we shall probably never know. It was a bad time for the Roman Empire. The West had been overrun by the Goths about a hundred years before, very much with the collusion of the Roman Senatorial families who disliked being governed from Constantinople. Barbarian raids had been commonplace in the Greek mainland for years with Slavs and other pagan races entering and raiding the peninsula from the north. The holy land and parts of the east had been overrun by the Persians and wars had raged there for many years. To add to this upheaval, there had been a series of sometimes bloody religious disagreements over the nature of Christ (and the singularity or duality of his nature) which had upset the empire and which had coincided with a whole bunch of plagues as well.

Our 33 individuals could have been hiding from anything in these times, with their processional cross. None of the corpses was plundered - each was found with their money in the light soil around the bones. If anyone had expected to make it back out to the surface, presumably they would have emptied the pockets of the dead. If anyone had made it out, the same applies. Given that the bronze artifacts were left behind, it does not seem likely that anyone came out. Either they became trapped and could not exit when someone took their ladder, or they had no intention of coming out once they had entered.

One curious thing is the absence of graffitos or dipintos on the walls of the cave or on the ceramic jugs that they had with them. No one made an effort to record anything in writing, not even a final prayer before dying. Such a thing would help solve the mystery of who and why. Of course, it could be that all those in the cave were illiterate - something not inconceivable (most were probably female - the location is far from urban centres). I do not have information about literacy at this time. Whatever the case, letting the imagination go and sitting in with them is interesting.

The first few have died and we can see the others moving to other parts of the cave, away from the first dead, to find a place where they too can die. Did they have oil left in their lamps or were they in the semi darkness? Why were some of the water jars broken? Clumsiness in use in the darkness? Purposeful breaking of the now empty jars (ritual killing)? Or perhaps the act of a desperate person who through breaking the now empty water jars can give some externalization to their grief, brought on by realization that death is nearby?

For the archaeologist, the cave gives what we call a sealed assemblage - we know that everything in the cave was deposited at the same time - this is great because we have coins and other artifacts the use of which can all be assigned to the same period. Some interesting things which come out of the finds are that the lamps used are imitations of the so-called North African type. The cross is of the Latin type with arms flaring out into disc shaped finials (which you can't really see in the photo). There were coins spanning a period of about 80 years found on the bodies - but unfortunately there is no information yet about which mints pressed the coins. A 20 nummi coin is shown in the photo - the "K" face visible. One gift from the cave which cannot today be overlooked is the information which can be gathered from the bones themselves - stick them in a mass spectrometer and find out what these guys were eating - just like they have done with skeletons from the Bronze Age. Something about nitrogen isotope ratios in bone showing differences according to diet.

The exhibition was nicely laid out and shows the amazing progress made by the museum in this field: good lighting, good explanations, nicely translated texts. I hope there are follow-ups done on the materials excavated and that these will be announced in due course.

No comments: