Alepotrypa Cave

The Legend of Hades

A Field Museum curator is digging around a cave in Southern Greece that’s been compared to the mythical underworld, Hades.

That cave might help explain why people choose to migrate to big cities or high tail it to the suburbs. William Parkinson is the associate curator of Eurasian anthropology at the Field Museum. He is on a research team, called The Diros Project, made up of two Greek and two American archaeologists. They are excavating Alepotrypa Cave, which is nearly four football fields long. The researchers compare the most striking room in the cave to a Cathedral. “It’s a very awesome place, in the literal sense of the word,” Parkinson said. “I can only think that, several thousand years ago, when it was lit by torches, not by electric lamps like it is now, it would have been all that more striking.” They have unearthed tools and pottery that remain from a Neolithic (Stone Age) community between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago. Under the dripping stalactites, skeletons dating as far back as 8,000 years rest under layers of sediment. “It’s the closest thing we have to something like a Neolithic Pompeii in the Mediterranean,” Parkinson said.

Alepotrypa was not resettled by later civilizations, so the authenticity is extraordinary, Parkinson said. The settlers used the cave as a shelter, a cemetery and a sacred worship place. The population expanded outside of the cave and bloomed into an early urban center. The first archaeologist to dig inside Alepotrypa was 90-year-old Greek Archaeologist Giorgos Papathanassopoulos, in 1970. He’s spent 40 years studying the relics of the cave’s Neolithic people and describes feeling a sense of awe when he imagines what their lives might have been like. “To this day, the richness and variety of the findings never cease to amaze me,” Papathanassopoulos said. “There is abundant scientific work for at least three more generations.” His initial findings included kilos of painted funeral vases and the remnants of blazing funeral rituals, Papathanassopoulos said. During the ceremonies, people intentionally broke pottery and set the cave walls on fire.

 

These rituals “combined with the impressive, enormous hall,” lead Papathanassopolos to an intriguing theory. He posited that the Neolithic people believed the cave was Hades.

 

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