The role of the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology-Speleology in their protection and study

of Andreas Darla, Archaeologist and Head of the Palaeoanthropology and Speleology Ephorate

and Stella Katsarou, Archaeologist

The Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology-Speleology is the responsible state body for the research, protection and management of the caves of the country. Its competence is based on the legal protection of caves as ancient monuments, which are subject to the protective provisions of the archaeological law. Due to the special research and management requirements of its subject, it is a special regional service, one is nationwide, and it belongs to the General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage of the Ministry of Culture and Sports.

With its action so far and thanks to its staffing, the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology and Speleology has highlighted the theme of "cave" in a specialized scientific field of archaeological research, as well as in a special field for the protection and promotion of the cultural heritage. This result confirms the importance of its service autonomy. Within its sphere of competence, the identification and exploration of all kinds of caves is only the first operational step, but not its final objective: the aim of the Ephorate is to protect cave monuments, study their use over time by the cave man and their role in his culture, as well as the application of best management practices for the emergence of caves in a cultural resource.

Therefore, the Palaeoanthropology and Speleology Ephorate is the body responsible for the research, protection and management of the caves of Aitoloakarnania, as well as the antiquities and all kinds of findings from them. At the local level, where necessary, it is in direct co-operation with the other bodies of the Ministry of Culture and Sports responsible for the region, mainly the local Ephorate of Antiquities, based in Messolonghi.

Within this service and management framework, the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology-Speleology is now coming to the prefecture to carry out its archaeological work in the caves, as an almost virgin field of action. This is because until recently he had carried out only one excavation study, in the cult "Courata" in Paliambela Vonitsa, and short visits to various caves of the prefecture. In addition, research carried out previously in caverns and other bodies, such as e.g. in the cave of Agios Nikolaos in Astakos from a mission of the British School of Athens in the 30 or Agios Nikolaos in Varasova from the University of Ioannina two decades ago.

From these data it is evident that in Aitoloakarnania there are known caves, but they constitute individual dots of places on the map, since their historical and archaeological significance, especially for classical antiquity and prehistoric times, has not been put into a synthetic treatment, and the caves have not been investigated through targeted field field action that perceives their use in each season as a combined picture. The result is that we know them as natural landscapes but we have gaps in their importance to the region's people over the centuries and the changes in their significance so that we can fully describe the aspects of their use in a long-term perspective.

Recognizing this gap, the Palaeoanthropology and Speleology Ephorate recently redefined the importance of Aitoloakarnania in its operational and research priorities in order to begin to unfold the secrets of this land incognita as to the relationship between man and the cave during antiquity. At the beginning of this redefinition there is a series of general findings about the particular advantages the area has in relation to the archaeological importance of the caves, which create the best possible expectations for the positive result of this project.

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Late Archaic (beginning of 5 century BC) cluster depicting circular dance. From the excavation of the Ephorate of Paleoanthropology-Speleology in the cave of Palamella Vonitsa

Caves and landscapes

The main advantage of Aitoloakarnania is, in principle, the abundance of caves of all kinds. More specifically, until now the Palaeoanthropology and Speleology Ephorate has been recorded in the archives of approximately 180 sites, which include all kinds of caves, such as small and large horizontal caves, lakes, caves, rock-clad and underground rivers, many of which have an extraordinary natural decoration. We believe that the systematic exploration of the county can not only increase, but also multiply the number of sites identified. Given the emphasis of the Ephorate, not so much on the physical characteristics of caves, such as size, difficulty of exploration and stalagmites, but to the archaeological significance of each cave and its protection, we evaluate each one's visibility of ancient use based on a specialized research methodology. And vice versa, we are also working on the absence of archaeological evidence to check whether it is primary or due to geological changes or other secondary causes.

The next advantage that Aitoloakarnania offers is the variety of landscapes that include the caves. This variety includes coastal landscapes, lakes, lagoons, narrow canyons, riparian terraces, small plains, semi-mountainous areas, mountain plateaus, wooded and mountainous landscapes. Their different features in terms of form and ecosystem set out at the beginning of the work of the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology-Speleology multiple parameters which can not only feed research and other actions into individual caves but mainly can provide a picture of the cave archeology in a larger geographic context through the comparative and synthetic examination of their dispersion and their use by man in prehistoric and historical times.

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Entrance to the Mastro Mesolongi Cave

Research axes

The above two advantages are connected with the third finding: that the archaeological and historical data that we have so far in the caves of Aitoloakarnania can guide the research and the relevant operational actions of the Ephorate on certain basic axes. These are general directions of the research, which in principle lead to synthetic conclusions, on which the management strategies of the monuments are then formed.

In the case of the caves of Aitoloakarnania, two indicative axes that can directly produce a work concern the sacred use of caves during classical antiquity and, on the other hand, their monastic and ecclesiastical use during the Byzantine and post-Byzantine periods. In any case, a third pillar concerning the use of the caves of Aitoloakarnania during the prehistory would be of great interest and remains to be dealt with.

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Clay figurines and ceramics. From the excavation of the Ephorate of Paleoanthropology-Speleology in the Cave of Masstrous Mesologgi

Ancient caves

However, first of all, in the field of the worship of caves in classical antiquity, the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology and Speleology has already formed a framework with its investigations in the Ionian, Boeotian and Corinthian islands, but also with its one research in the prefecture, in the Paliambela Cave of Vonitsa in the 90. The knowledge that has emerged from these surveys shows the multidimensional image of this use: varied elements of art and technique of figurines and ceramic vases devoted by the faithful, local variations in worship practices and religious ideologies, historical and state dimensions from the the powerful influence of ancient Corinth and Athens through the colonies and the control exercised by the metropolises in the colonies of western Greece, the economic dimensions of the development of overseas commercial Fuck the area with both the eastern Mediterranean and in Italy.

Based on this research background, the context in which it is to be sought and the new historical and archaeological knowledge that we expect from the rest of the caves of Aitoloakarnania in the future is very broad. The few months ago, the excavation of the Ephorate in a new location, the sanctuary of classical antiquity in the cave of Lake Mesolongi, not only confirms the knowledge so far, but will now be exploited as a piece of information that adds information to the overall conclusions on archeology, religion , art and the state relations of Aitoloakarnania by 7ο century BC until the Roman times. The rationale behind this axis of research and action and the other caves of the prefecture are now evaluated by the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology-Speleology not as natural sites or as random finds, not just as individual archaeological sites but mainly in the context of a synthetic understanding of the prehistoric prefecture , which draws its conclusions in view of the multidimensional features behind the devotional objects and the practices of their dedication to the caves.

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View from the monastery cave of Agios Nikolaos Varassovas

Cave monasteries and orchards

The caves that hosted temples, orchards or monastic complexes during the Byzantine and post-Byzantine period (by 9ο century and up to 19ο) are another unit and are probably those that have been studied more systematically and synthetically in the past, thanks to the University of Ioannina's research decades ago. They are also under the responsibility of the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology-Speleology, who understands the extent of responsibility for their management and protection, in collaboration with the local Ephorate of Antiquities. The peculiarity of some of these monuments lies in the fact that they continue to function today as pilgrimages for the Christians (St. Nicholas Kremastos, St. Nicholas Varassovas, Saint Elias Kleisouras etc.) or are incorporated in the Holy Monasteries. The Ephorate is in no way opposed to this use. However, its primary concern is to secure the necessary conditions to secure this pilgrim's pilgrimage. At the same time the Ephorate is interested in taking the necessary measures to protect the works that have been done inside them (frescoes, cells, cisterns, etc.) in order to save the historical testimonies for the organization of the cave monastic and ascetic life that flourished in the area for so many centuries. But it is also necessary to protect the antiquities of earlier periods that survive under the monastery ruins in some of these caves. For all the above, the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology and Speleology considers it necessary to be informed about the pilgrims' initiatives in the monuments and the intentions of the local bodies in order to ensure the good of both the visitors and the monuments themselves.

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A series of rocks in the western front of Mount Aragon

Documentation and protection

To make better use of the research and management frameworks described above, we have made a strategic step in the Palaeoanthropology and Speleology Ephorate: designing an informational background for the caves of Aitoloakarnania, linked to a digital map that allows the combined processing of historical, archaeological and topographical data their. This enriched map we believe will enable us to gain control over the dispersal of the use of the caves of Aitoloakarnania in antiquity as well as the changes in this use during the periods we have described but also in other archaeological periods of use caves, which we expect to be investigated in the future.

This strategy is based on the fact that the caves of Aitoloakarnania are not only monuments of natural beauty or destinations for exploratory or tourist enjoyment. It is mainly monuments of human history, which is not usually visible to the non-special visitor. But even if it is visible, it needs a specialized research methodology to reveal its secrets. In order to protect this valuable information, but also for the safety of every researcher, pilgrim or other visitor, it is necessary to exclude the visit of the caves without permission. The role of the Ephorate is to guarantee by the implementation of its operational actions the rescue of this information and the promotion of the knowledge it can offer to the prefecture. This knowledge is at the heart of any strategy that seeks to make the caves a cultural heritage and a social resource.

In order to achieve this goal, we consider cooperation with the Local Government, the Region, the Church, the other local bodies and, above all, the local community to be the responsibility of the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology and Speleology. We aim to present our actions to inform and raise awareness of cave-monuments and the increased demands of the management of this particular category of archaeological sites. We call on everyone to cooperate in the law in order to protect this part of the cultural heritage, the caves of Aitoloakarnania from ignorance, indifference and violations, because that is the only way we can ensure that these special monuments will make them public good.


To άρθρο με το ερευνητικό έργο της Εφορείας Σπηλαιολογίας του Υπουργείου Πολιτισμού και Αθλητισμού παραχωρήθηκε για δημοσίευση στην ιστοσελίδα iAeololoakarnania.gr

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