Caves play an important role in the story of humanity. In addition to providing shelter for our earliest ancestors, caves were also often considered to be mystical and magical realms.
For some cultures, caves are the gateways to the underworld, while others believed that supernatural beings dwelled in these subterranean areas.
Here we look at ten incredible caves or cave systems of the ancient world, from 70,000-year-old shelters for prehistoric humans to 18th century meeting places for black magic and sordid rituals.
Devetashka – the Bulgarian Cave with 70,000 Years of Human Habitation
Devetashka cave is an enormous cave in Bulgaria, which has provided shelter for groups of humans since the late Paleolithic era, and continuously for tens of thousands of years since then. Now abandoned by humans, it remains a site of national and international significance and is home to some 30,000 bats.
Devetashka cave, which is known as Devetàshka peshterà in Bulgaria, is located roughly 18 kilometres north of Lovech, near the village of Devetaki.
Beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, rivulets, majestic natural domes and arches can be found within the enormous cave and one can see why various human populations would have chosen Devetashka as their home.
The earliest traces of human presence date back to the middle of the Early Stone Age around 70,000 years ago. The Devetashka cave also contained one of the richest sources of cultural artifacts from the Neolithic (6th millennium – 4th millennium BC).
The Dark Reputation of the Dunmore Cave of Ireland
Dunmore (meaning ‘great fort’ in Irish) Cave is a limestone cave located about 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) to the north of Kilkenny City, near Castlecomer. Within the cave, there is around 300 meters (99 feet) of known passages and caverns.
Dunmore Cave was at one point of time within the territory of the ancient Irish kingdom of Ossory, which was situated between the Viking strongholds of Dublin, Waterford and Limerick. The rivalry of the different Viking clans in Ireland provided one of the most chilling episodes in the history of Dunmore Cave.
According to the Annals of the Four Masters, around A.D. 928, the Vikings of Dublin were marching to attack their rivals in Waterford. On their way to their enemy’s place, it is said they raided and pillaged the surrounding countryside.
When they arrived at Dunmore Cave, they found a large number of women and children hiding in it. Allegedly hoping to capture them alive so that they could then be sold as slaves, the Vikings devised a plan to drive them out of the cave.
They lit large fires at the mouth of the cave in order to force them out of their hiding. The fires grew too large and consumed the oxygen in the cave, resulting in the suffocation of the refugees. It is recorded that a thousand people died in this manner.
In 1973, the bones of 44 people, mainly belonging to women, children and the elderly, were found in Dunmore Cave, thus giving some credence to the annals. Yet, whether there were as many as a thousand victims, or perhaps less, is another question.
The Historic Grottoes of Folx-les-Caves: Ancient Hideout and Traveler Waypoint
The mysterious man-made caves in Belgium burrow thousands of feet into the soft rock south of Brussels. The grottoes of Folx-les-Caves are located in the municipality of Orp-Jauche in the province of Walloon Brabant. In the distant past, the grottoes were used as mines.
One of the rocks found there was tuff, a type of soft volcanic rock which is rich in calcium carbonate. It is unclear when humans first mined the grottoes. Some have speculated that they were in use since Neolithic times, i.e. around 2600 B.C., and that aurochs horns were used as mining tools.
The mines are a labyrinth of about 60,000 square meters (approximately 650,000 square feet) as a result of centuries of mining. This made it a perfect hiding place for refugees seeking to escape those who occupied Belgium over the centuries.
It has been suggested that the mines have been used by refugees as early as the Roman period all the way to the Second World War.
The most famous tale relating to the grottoes of Folx-les-Caves is that of Pierre Colon, who lived some time during the 18th century. Colon was a thief dubbed the ‘Belgian Robin Hood’, as he, like his English counterpart, stole from the rich and gave to the poor.
Colon was said to rob rich merchants passing through a forest nearby, and his hideout was the grottoes of Folx-les-Caves. Eventually, the law caught up with the benevolent thief, and he was hanged to death on the spot where he committed his crimes.
The Magnificent Ellora Caves of India
The Ellora Caves are a unique sanctuary that blend the art and culture of three different religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism – and illustrate the spirit of tolerance, characteristic of ancient India, which permitted these three religions to establish their sanctuaries and communities in a single place.
Ellora is situated not far from Aurangabad, in the Indian state of Maharashtra. This site is home to 34 monasteries and temples, extending over a distance of more than 2km. These structures were dug into the wall of a high basalt cliff.
It is unclear when these caves were built, and estimates range from between 200 B.C. and 600 A.D. to between 600 A.D. and 1000 A.D. The oldest caves can be found on the southern side of the cliff and are of Buddhist origin. They are comprised of monasteries and a single large temple (Cave 10).
A lot of effort was put into these structures. For instance in Cave 12, the three-storied building is believed to have been built entirely by human hands and hard labour. The rock-hard floors and ceiling of this cave were made level and smooth, reflecting the immense skill and craftsmanship of the builders.
Moving north from the Buddhist group, one reaches the Hindu Caves. These 17 caves belong mainly to the Saivite sect, and date to the Rashtrakuta period in the middle of the 8th century A.D. For instance, Cave 16 is said to have been built by the Rashtrakuta king, Krishna I, and dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva.
The last four caves belong to the Jain group. These were said to be built between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1000 by the Digambara sect. These caves are massive, well-proportioned and decorated.
For example, there are delicate carvings of lotus flowers and other elaborate ornaments in Cave 32. In addition, the builders of these caves are said to have drawn their artistic inspiration from the pre-existing structures at Ellora.
The Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe
The Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe are a network of man-made chalk and flint caverns in Buckinghamshire, England, made famous by their sordid past.
They are named after the infamous Hellfire Club, made up of high-ranking members of society, noblemen, and politicians, who are believed to have engaged in rituals, orgies, and black magic deep within the subterranean chambers beneath West Wycombe.
Nevertheless, the caves are a place where myth and reality are so entangled that it is difficult to separate one from the other.
According to accepted accounts, English politician Sir Francis Dashwood commissioned an ambitious project in 1748 to supply chalk for a 5 kilometer road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe and so the caves were said to be dug out for mining purposes.
It was here that Dashwood created a meeting center for the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, a private members club which later became known as the Hellfire Club.
The club motto was Fais ce que tu voudras (Do what thou wilt), a philosophy of life later used by Aleister Crowley. Legend has it that members engaged in numerous illicit activities including sex parties, drinking, wenching, and mock rituals.
The Wondrous Ajanta Caves
The Ajanta Caves are a series of more than thirty caves that were constructed around 200 BC and were used as retreats for Buddhist monks during the monsoon season. The caves were abandoned after the 7th century AD when Buddhism declined in India, but are still considered sacred today by the locals.
During their use, the caves were expanded and decorated. They are full of beautiful paintings and create a serene atmosphere for the visitor. Many of the paintings and sculptures depict the life of Buddha, as well as his previous incarnations, known as Jatakas.
However, an interesting feature is that the number of female depictions is as abundant as the males. To the common viewer, images of semi-naked women in caves used as monk retreats are unusual. Paintings with half men, half animal depictions are also present, bearing resemblance to the mythology of many other ancient cultures.
The Ancient Caves of Uplistsikhe, Fortress of the Lord
Uplistsikhe, whose name translates to ‘Fortress of the Lord’, is an ancient rock-hewn town which played a significant role in Georgian history over a period of approximately 3,000 years. Archaeological excavations have revealed extraordinary artifacts dating from the late Bronze Age all the way up to the late Middle Ages.
Beginning its history in the 2nd millennium BC, Uplistsike has been identified as one of the oldest urban settlements in Georgia.
Back then, the complex was a very important cultural center for pagan worship in the Kartli (Iberia) region. Archaeologists have unearthed numerous temples and findings relating to a sun goddess, worshipped prior to the arrival of Christianity.
The ancient cave city was built on a rocky bank of the Mtkvari River, approximately 15 kilometers east of the town of Gori.
The rock-cut structures include dwellings, a large hall, called Tamaris Darbazi, pagan places of sacrifice, and functional buildings, such as a bakery, a prison, cellars, and even an amphitheater, all connected by footways and tunnels.
Between the 6th century BC and 11th century AD, Uplistsikhe was one of the most important political, religious, and cultural centers of pre-Christian Kartli, one of the predecessors of the Georgian state, and flourished until it was ravaged by the Mongols in the 13th century.
Beit Guvrin, The Land of 1,000 Caves
The Beit Guvrin-Maresha caves in Israel have been used for thousands of years as quarries, burial sites, storerooms, stables, hideouts, dovecotes, cisterns, baths, and places of worship.
They are comprised of chambers and networks with various functions, and are situated below Maresha, one of the important towns during the time of the First Temple, and Beit Guvrin, a significant town in the Roman era, when it was known as Eleutheropolis.
The great “bell caves” of Beit Guvrin, of which there are around 800, date from the Late Roman, Byzantine, and even Early Arab periods (2nd–7th century AD), when the locals created a quarry to mine stone for mortar and plaster, and to extract lime for cement. The quarry was opened from a one-meter hole in the hard Nari surface above.
When the ancient diggers reached the soft chalk below, they began reaming out their quarry in the structurally secure bell shape, each bell eventually cutting into the one adjacent to it. Although not built to be inhabited, the caves may have been used as refuges by Early Christians.
In the North Cave, a cross high on the wall, at the same level as an Arabic inscription, suggests a degree of coexistence even after the Arab conquest of the area in AD 636. Many of the caves are linked via an underground network of passageways that connect groups of 40–50 caves together.
One of the large caves in Beit Guvrin contains nearly 2,000 small niches carved into the rock. The most commonly accepted theory is that the cave was a columbarium – a place to raise doves. These were valued in the ancient world, both for the excellent fertilizer they produce and as a good source of protein.
Enigmatic symbols and carvings in Royston cave in England confound experts
The Royston Cave is an artificial cave in Hertfordshire, England. It is not known who created the cave or what it was used for, but there has been much speculation. The cave was discovered in August 1742 in Royston. A worker was digging holes to build footing for a new bench at a market.
He discovered a millstone while he was digging, and when he dug around to remove it, he found the shaft leading to the cave. When the cave was discovered, it was half-filled with dirt and rock. Once the earth was removed, workers discovered numerous sculptures and carvings, dating back as early as 1200 AD.
The images are mostly religious, depicting St. Catherine, the Holy Family, the Crucifixion, St. Lawrence holding the gridiron on which he was martyred, and a figure holding a sword who could either be St. George, or St. Michael.
Some believe that Royston cave was used by the Knights Templar. Others believe it may have been an Augustinian store mine. Another theory is that it was a Neolithic flint mine. None of these theories have been substantiated, and the origin of the Royston Cave remains a mystery.
The Enduring Mysteries of the Longyou caves
Located near the village of Shiyan Beicun in Zhejiang province, China, lies the Longyou caves – an extensive, magnificent and rare ancient underground world considered in China as ‘the ninth wonder of the ancient world’.
The Longyou grottoes, which are thought to date back at least 2,000 years, represent one of the largest underground excavations of ancient times and are an enduring mystery that have perplexed experts from every discipline that has examined them.
First discovered in 1992 by a local villager, 36 grottoes have now been discovered covering a massive 30,000 square meters. Carved into solid siltstone, each grotto descends around 30 meters underground and contains stone rooms, bridges, gutters and pools.
There are pillars evenly distributed throughout the caves which are supporting the ceiling, and the walls, ceiling and stone columns are uniformly decorated with chisel marks in a series of parallel lines. Only one of the caves has been opened for tourism, chosen because of the stone carvings found inside which depict a horse, fish and bird.
Scientists from around the world in the fields of archaeology, architecture, engineering, and geology have absolutely no idea how they were built, by whom, and why.
By April Holloway, Ancient Origins
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