Cioclovina Cave (Roumanie) : Treasure, Skulls From Nymph Cult

Imported jewelry in tombs in the Romanian heartland reveals brisk trade with Scandinavia and Mesopotamia in antiquity, but why were these gems put inside caves in the first place?

Philippe Bohstrom

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Masses of jewelry and animal sacrifices discovered in the inaccessible black depths of a cave in Transylvania indicate that what the archaeologists found was a subterranean temple to nymphs dating to around 3,300 years ago, they suggest.

Back in the 1960s, archaeologists exploring Cioclovina Cave found thousands of beads made of glass, precious stones and amber in tombs inside the cavern. Now new analysis has shown the beads came from Scandinavia and Mesopotamia.

The study by researchers from Romania, Netherlands and Denmark reaffirms the existence of established trade routes stretching from the far north through Central Europe to Mesopotamia (Syria and Iraq) 3,300 years ago, predating the Silk Route by 1,100 years.

1983999893String of glass beads from the Cioclovina Cave hoard. Dr. Rotea and Jenatte Varberg

The distant origin and evident value of the jewels, and other items, makes all the more baffling why thousands of precious artifacts would be placed in a remote Transylvanian cave in the first place.

In the heartland of Dracula

Transylvania perches on a plateau surrounded by the great arc of the Carpathian Mountains in central Romania. Richly endowed with medieval castles, cities, and ruins, Transylvania is the home of the real Count Dracula, portrayed in fiction as a vampire. In the Bronze Age, however, the province was famous for entirely different reasons. The area is rich in metal, and became a focal point in trade between the major cities in the eastern Mediterranean and northern Europe.

Merchants and travelers alike followed the vast rivers – the Mures, the Danube and the Tisza - through flat floodplains and meadows nestled in the Carpathian Mountains.

Some of the smaller rivers were rich in gold, and in the mountains one could extract copper. Because of this the area became an important meeting point between peoples from North and South some 3,300 years ago.

Inside the Cioclovina Cave, at a spot remarkably difficult to access, archaeologists working decades ago found no fewer than 7,500 exotic offerings, consisting of women's bronze and glass jewelry, horse-riding gear as well as Nordic amber beads. The precious items were deposited in three spots, alongside pottery and meat offerings.

Analysis of the glass beads proved them to have been made of Mesopotamian and Egyptian glass. The beads had been made some time between 1400 B.C.E. to 1100 BCE.

Glass with similar characteristics has also been found in Scandinavian Bronze Age tombs and in the Neustrelitz Hoard in northeastern Germany, where a ceramic vessel containing 880 objects was unearthed, containing 179 glass beads and 20 amber beads.

Not only did Cioclovina Cave have beads and glass originating from Mesopotamia and Egypt: the archaeologists also found 1,770 amber beads that came from Scandinavia. Clearly, Transylvania had been part of a complex system of global trade around 3,400 years ago. Radiocarbon analysis carried out on animal bones found in the cave supports the timeline of between 1,428 to 1,263 B.C.E.

3379679732String of Nordic amber beads from the Cicoclovina Cave Hoard. Amber was associated with the sun god - in both ancient Levant and the Nordic areas, it seems. Dr. Rotea and Jenatte Varberg

Well and good, but why was such precious treasure deposited there in the first place? Was the treasure a sacrifice to appease the Transylvanian gods? Or simply a well-hidden trade depot?

Braving the icy waters

To start with, Cioclovina Cave huddles in the heart of a remote mountain area. The cave is also the origin of the Cioclovina River, which is no bigger than a small Swedish watercourse, but it is challenging in its sheer iciness.

Exploring the cave – and finding the river's source in its interior – requires  wading through the frigid water, and that's just the beginning, describes  Dr. Jeanette Varberg of the National Museum of Denmark, who is involved in the research. The bed of the river inside the cave consists of slippery loose stones, and the freezing water reaches mid-thigh.

Wading into the cave along the riverbed, the light quickly disappears, Varberg says. Then, around 300 meters along the river is a crack in the rock, through which a waterfall bursts.

If one braves the waterfall and bests the stream, one finds oneself in a huge cave, as large as a cathedral and, appropriately to a cave in Transylvania (or anywhere, really), home to an uncounted number of bats.

844974480The Cioclovina Rive originates in the cave. Dr. Rotea and Jenatte Varberg

The river originates deeper within, and most of the cave is dry – for most part of the year. But a big, dark hole high up in one corner indicates that when the spring melt arrives, the whole cave becomes a riot of rushing water. Scattered tree trunks and the remains of a goat bear witness to the violence of the water, explains Varberg.

And this is where the Bronze Age people chose to put their treasure. Not on the bottom of the cave, but on a ledge five meters above the cave floor.

To be specific, the archaeologists found 2,325 glass beads, 570 beads made of faience and 1,770 and amber.

4206741216A glass bead found inside the Cioclovina Cave. Diameter 1 cm. Dr. Rotea and Jenatte Varberg

And more: Inside the blackness, placed inside niches, the archaeologists found hundreds of skulls from rams, goats, deer and wild boars.  Given their specific placement, the archaeologists believe these niches were consecrated spaces.