Alepotrypa Cave (Grèce): Ancient cave speaks of Hades myth

Ancient cave speaks of Hades myth

Dan Vergano

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Greece Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Ephory of Paleoanthropology and Speleology of Southern Greece  - The Alepotrypa Cave in Greece.

There, in a gloomy underworld, departed heroes such as Achilles gathered mostly to grouse about their boredom, and await the verdict of the judges of the dead.


Hades, Apulian krater C4th B.C., Antikensammlungen, Munich

"I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man's house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead," said Achilles, the greatest of Greek heroes, commenting on the scenery, according to the ancient poem, The Odyssey. (Tough break for Achilles, but perhaps he was later cheered to learn that Brad Pitt would play him in the 2004 filmTroy. )

But for archaeologists, a Greek cave that has sparked comparisons to Hades looks more like heaven. Overlooking a quiet Greek bay, Alepotrypa Cave contains the remains of a Stone Age village, burials, a lake and an amphitheater-sized final chamber that saw blazing rituals take place more than 5,000 years ago. All of it was sealed from the world until modern times, and scholars are only now reporting what lies within.

"What you see there almost cannot be described," says archaeologist Anastasia Papathanasiou of the Greek Ministry of Culture, a director of the Diros Project Team. "There is almost no Neolithic (Stone Age) site like it in Europe, certainly none with so many burials."

So far, her team has uncovered about 160 burials inside the cave, from a time 7,000 to 5,200 years ago (5000 to 3200 BC) when farming first spread to Europe. The lives those farmers led inside and outside the cave, across the remote Mani Peninsula of southern Greece, offer fresh insights into life at the dawn of civilization in Europe.

"They were living in a large village outside the cave," says Mike Galaty of Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., a co-director of the project's survey efforts with Willam Parkinson of Chicago's Field Museum. "And some were inside too, we think, when the entrance collapsed," Galaty says.

Inside, the cave is covered with a layer of greasy ash , left over from ritual fires that may have marked burials there (and reburials, as many of the skeletons are within ossuaries, stone boxes where remains were placed years after their first burial.) "It is quite dark inside, quite black," Papathanasiou says. "But the state of preservation is excellent."

From that preservation, they know the Stone Age farmers at the site ate a diet heavy in barley and wheat with little meat or fish. Although a full reconstruction of the region's prehistoric climate awaits, they know from plant remains that it was wetter and more forested in ancient times. And analyses of the burial skeletons show people who were not much different physically from those in the Mediterranean today, almost as tall as tall as Greeks today, although they were slightly anemic due to a lack of meat in their diet.

About 31% of the burial skulls display an inherited line where bone plates meet, above the forehead, showing they were related, Papathanasiou says. And the noggins show a lot of signs of healed bumps and cuts, she adds. "They fought a lot."

Who did they fight? "Each other, and other people around them," she says. In a nutshell, the cave contains a record of some of Europe's first property-owners, farmers for whom claims to tillable acres were doubtless life-and-death matters worth fighting over. That also made ownership, signified by elaborate burial rituals for family members, much more worth making a fuss over.

"We don't quite know what was going on with the ritual activities, but it seems they were burning sacrificed animals, smashing pots and other pottery, and building large fires inside the cave," Galaty says. "It could have been really nasty depending on what they were burning."

Fumes coming out of mystic caves figure in big ways in ancient Greek mythology, such as the classical Oracle of Delphi who foretold the future of kings and empires. Although that was thousands of years ago, around 1400 B.C., after the closure of Alepotrypa Cave, such a relationship was suggested by the Greek archaeologist George Papathanassopoulos, who led excavations at the site starting in the 1970's. He speculated that the ancient Greek notion of Hades, a gloomy and misty home for the dead, may have had its origins in the cave's rituals.

The other thing Papathanassopoulos did was save the cave from the fate of becoming a tourist trap. First re-discovered in 1958 by local people, Greek tourism officials saw it as a cave attraction, carving out walkways with bulldozers, installing trestles and even putting a pontoon boat in the interior lake to help with a light show. ("They had to saw the boat in half and then put it back together to get it through the chamber entrance," Galaty says. "It's still floating there.")

Not protecting the cave immediately, " was a huge lost opportunity, it had been sealed for thousands of years," Papathanasiou says now. However, when archaeologists realized what was at hand there, seeing basket after basket of Stone Age pottery emerging from the cave, they led efforts to keep tourists from trampling the site. "There are still very many intact places where very good science can take place," she adds.

A big push for the Diros project in coming years will be outside the cave, Galaty says, to map the extent of the Stone Age community living around the bay. The peninsula, far from Athens and the hotbeds of Greek archaeology, boasts an isolated history that saw an arms race of tower building ("They wanted to shoot cannons down on their neighbors," Papathanasiou says) in the Middle Ages, and perhaps served as a home for the middle-class subjects of Sparta, one of the famed cities of antiquity, best known today from the 2007 fantasy movie, 300.

On top of that, "some archaeologists predict there may be a palace from the Mycenaean era" in the area outside the cave, Galaty says, the legendary time when Achilles was still living (if there ever really was one, of course), riding around the besieged walls of Troy (which seems to have lost a war around 1200 B.C.), just before he ever descended to Hades.

"We are going to need a bigger new museum," Papathanasiou says. "We are just getting started bringing this site to the world."