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Ancient cave in the Moravian karst still stumps archaeologists

Was it a funeral sacrifice of mammoth proportions, the vicious slaughter of a merchant caravan or a massive explosion of flour dust during a harvest ceremony? More than a century after it was first excavated, archaeologists are still wondering what happened in Bull Rock (Byci skala) cave in the Blansko area of south Moravia 2,600 years ago. 

Bones and jewelry dating back 2,600 years, discovered in the cave in 1872, have mystified scientists ever since [Credit: Prague Post]
In 1872, Czech archaeologist Jindrich Wankel unearthed 40 dismembered skeletons in the anteroom of the cave. On a stone altar was a pair of women's arms hacked off at the elbow, and a skull cleaved neatly down the middle. Deeper in the cave was a magnificent chariot with the charred remains of a man still inside. Strewn among the bodies were hundreds of bronze and amber ornaments of exotic design and, deeper in the cave, stood an Iron Age forge. 

Wankel assumed he'd found the relics of the funeral of a chieftain from the Hallstatt (Early Iron Age) era, complete with virgin sacrifices. For more than 100 years, archaeologists took his conclusions at face value. Then, in the 1970s, they took another look at the artifacts and received quite a shock. 

Wankel's "funeral chariot" was actually different parts of three completely unrelated vehicles. The skeletons were not from young females - virgin or otherwise - but from men and women ranging in age from 30 to 45. Moreover, there was no proof the victims had died violently. 

So what really happened in the Bull Rock Cave 26 centuries ago? 

One theory is that a merchant caravan traveling along the Amber Route, laden down with valuable objects for trade, was trapped and slaughtered in the cave by bandits. But if this is true, why would the attackers leave so many valuable objects behind? 

Another theory, espoused by archaeologist and Hallstatt-era specialist Martin Golec, speaks of a sect of blacksmith-priests who had their workshop in the cave and turned to human sacrifice to ensure the successful outcome of their creations. 

"Ironworking was viewed as a magical process," Golec tells The Prague Post. 

According to Golec, the artifacts in the cave date to a period between 700 and 650 BC, when the iron-rich Brno basin was undergoing an explosive transformation from bronze to iron technology. 

"It was a boom equivalent to the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly bronze, which had to be imported from far away, was replaced by a material lying around on the ground. The economic and political power centers shifted overnight," he says. 

According to another theory, the cave was the abode of an agricultural community whose constant grinding of grain filled the air with flour dust until it reached a flash point. The ensuing explosion would have torn the cave's inhabitants limb from limb. 

"A daring theory, considering that the humidity inside [the cave] is close to 100 percent," says Ales Pekarek of the Bull Rock Cave Speleological Group. 

Interpreting the relics 

To complicate the matter further, archaeologists don't know the identities of the people in the cave, since the relics come from all over Europe: amber from the Baltic, bronze belts typical of northern Italy and iron weapons from the Caucasus. 

Finger-ring [Credit: Prague Post]
Two prevailing theories explain how and why so many valuable objects found their way into the cave. 

One is that Bull Rock was an ancient sacrificial cave: People from all over the region would come to offer material, animal and human gifts to the gods, casting them down a long chute ending high above the floor of the cave. 

"They've found artifacts dating back to the Paleolithic," Golec says. "This cave was the regional equivalent of the Parthenon." 

Still, this does not explain the simultaneous death of 40 people. 

Another theory looks at the regional context. 

In the 6th century BC, two major trade routes crossed in the Brno area. One ran from the Caucasus through the Balkans to France and the other from southern Italy to the Baltic. Trade brought sophistication - and wealth. Artisans learned to copy the items coming along the trade routes, and specialized workshops evolved - the forge in the cave might have been one such example. The area prospered, and a noble class evolved to protect the growing tribal treasures. 

But around 650 BC, it all came to an end. 

Fierce mounted warriors from the East, known as Scythians, swooped down on the peaceful agricultural society. The nobles decamped to the west, and commoners hid their treasures - and themselves - in the caves of the Moravian karst. 

"My very tentative theory is that a group hid in the cave, built wooden shelters inside and these caught fire, which quickly exhausted the oxygen, and they all suffocated," says Petr Kos, an archaeologist at the Institute of Archaeological Monument Preservation. 

Another theory, developed by Golec, elegantly incorporates all the evidence. 

"Scythians could have attacked a village when the men were away hunting. When they returned and found their families dead, they brought the bodies to a holy place - the cave," he says. 

Still, all of these theories remain speculative until new evidence is found. 

The biggest problem is that modern archaeologists have no clue how the victims died because they lack forensic evidence. 

"Wankel only preserved the skulls and buried the rest of the skeletons in an unknown place. For all we know, they could be in the cave," says Bull Rock Speleological Group Chairman Jiri Svozil, who adds that much of the archaeological records was lost during the excavation, which took a mere two months. 

"Today, a site like that would employ archaeologists for decades," he says. 

Unfortunately, the site was irrevocably destroyed when the Nazis turned the antechamber into a munitions factory in 1945. Still, there are those who say the cave hasn't given up all its secrets. So far, only the amphitheater and a first passage have been excavated. Who knows what surprises await within the remaining 13 kilometers of passageways and still-undiscovered chambers in the heart of the Moravian karst? 

Author: Eva Munk | Source: The Prague Post [October 26, 2011]

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