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Sacred Darkness

Sacred Darkness: A Global Perspective on the Ritual Use of Caves

EDITED BY Holley Moyes
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 520
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  • Book Info
    Sacred Darkness
    Book Description:

    Caves have been used in various ways across human society, but despite the persistence within popular culture of the iconic caveman, deep caves were never used primarily as habitation sites for early humans. Rather, in both ancient and contemporary contexts, caves have served primarily as ritual spaces. In Sacred Darkness, contributors use archaeological evidence as well as ethnographic studies of modern ritual practices to envision the cave as place of spiritual and ideological power that emerges as a potent venue for ritual practice. Covering the ritual use of caves in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, Mesoamerica, and the US Southwest and Eastern woodlands, this book brings together case studies by prominent scholars whose research spans from the Paleolithic period to the present day. These contributions demonstrate that cave sites are as fruitful as surface contexts in promoting the understanding of both ancient and modern religious beliefs and practices. This state-of-the-art survey of ritual cave use will be one of the most valuable resources for understanding the role of caves in studies of religion, sacred landscape, or cosmology and a must-read for any archaeologist interested in caves.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-178-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Note on Radiocarbon Dating
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)
    Holley Moyes

    Caves are special places. They are mysterious. They captivate us. They draw us in. They can protect or entrap. Whether they fascinate or frighten, we recognize caves as otherworldly, transitional, or liminal. Archaeologists are interested in caves because many are data rich, containing keys to unlocking the human past. They are one of archaeology’s most important resources, often having excellent artifact preservation and deep stratigraphic deposits (see Colcutt 1979; Farrand 1985; Ford and Williams 1989, 317; Sherwood and Goldberg 2001, 145; Straus 1990, 256; 1997; Woodward and Goldberg 2001, 328). In addition to containing well-preserved material, in contexts of deep...

  8. Part I: Old World Ritual Cave Traditions

    • 1 Ritual Cave Use in European Paleolithic Caves
      (pp. 15-26)
      Jean Clottes

      This chapter examines evidence for ritual Paleolithic cave use in Europe. It begins with a case for limited ritual use of a deep cave by Neanderthals prior to the Upper Paleolithic and the arrival of modern humans in the area. Numerous examples of caves used for rock art by modern humans date from about 38,000 to 11,000 BP, and extend from the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula to the Urals in Russia. Burials are rare at that time in painted or engraved caves (Cussac in the Dordogne, Vilhonneur in the Charente). On the other hand, many activities took place...

    • 2 Constructed Caves: Transformations of the Underworld in Prehistoric Southeast Italy
      (pp. 27-44)
      Robin Skeates

      This chapter examines long-term transformations in the human use and perception of natural and artificial caves, particularly as sacred spaces, between the Upper Paleolithic and the Bronze Age in the Apulia region of Southeast Italy (ca. 34,000 BP-3000 BP/1300 BC) (figure 2.1, table 2.1). It focuses attention on the visual dimensions of the caves: not only their natural features (comprising, for example, durable stone structures in the landscape as well as complex underground formations) but also their cumulative, historically and culturally specific modifications (ranging from special deposits, to parietal art, dry-stone walling, and monumental entrances). In other words, it regards...

    • 3 Caves of the Living, Caves of the Dead: Experiences Above and Below Ground in Prehistoric Malta
      (pp. 45-58)
      Simon K.F. Stoddart and Caroline A.T. Malone

      In the early prehistory of the Maltese islands, the construction of the ritualized use of caves and cave-like spaces above and below ground was an important materialized multiple metaphor for the rituals of the living and the dead, reproducing in miniature form the island itself. A further instance is the historical genesis of the cave from subterranean origins, above ground and then back below ground. Another is inherent in the qualities of cave materials. A further linked metaphor is that of the construction process using those materials. Once constructed, the cave formed a metaphorical process of physical constraint followed by...

    • 4 Landscapes of Ritual, Identity, and Memory: Reconsidering Neolithic and Bronze Age Cave Use in Crete, Greece
      (pp. 59-80)
      Peter Tomkins

      The island of Crete, lying on the southern border of the Aegean Sea, is rich in caves and rockshelters. One estimate, probably conservative, places the total at around 2,000 (Davaras 1976, 42), of which approximately 10 percent have produced material dating to phases of the Neolithic (ca. 7000–3100/3000 BC; Tomkins 2007b) or Bronze Ages (hereafter, Minoan; ca. 3100/3000–1100 BC; Warren and Hankey 1989) (see table 4.1, figures 4.1, 4.2, 4.3). The majority of these, including all Neolithic examples, host types of material culture, such as coarseware and fineware ceramics, that are essentially the same as those found at...

    • 5 Caves and the Funerary Landscape of Prehistoric Britain
      (pp. 81-86)
      Andrew T. Chamberlain

      The extensive tradition of archaeological research in Britain has focused mainly on monuments, stratified occupation sites, and humanly modified landscapes, and only in the past two decades has an awareness of natural-place archaeology become salient in intellectual and curatorial approaches to the archaeological record (Bradley 2000; Tilley 1994). As is the case with other elements of the natural landscape, the aesthetic and natural-history values of caves are well established and appreciated, but the archaeological properties of caves are difficult to characterize and control within existing cultural resource management frameworks. The archaeological significance of a cave site is normally recognized only...

    • 6 The Subterranean Landscape of the Southern Levant during the Chalcolithic Period
      (pp. 87-108)
      Yorke M. Rowan and David Ilan

      Human beings find caves, and the subterranean dimension in general, alluring. But the subterranean is also viewed with trepidation, the locus of unknown dangers and mysteries. The idea of the cave as a place of divine immanence, a zone of contact with “otherworldliness,” is one that extends across millennia and continents, and one that is significant in many cultures, societies, and religions. The first divine messages received by Mohammed were received in a cave; the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, sacred as the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven and the location of the Jewish Temple, was established over...

    • 7 The Chamber of Secrets: Grottoes, Caves, and the Underworld in Ancient Egyptian Religion
      (pp. 109-124)
      Stuart Tyson Smith

      Ancient Egypt provides the curious case of a theology in which deep caverns play a central role, but without the presence of natural caves upon which theologians could draw for inspiration. Egyptian cosmology is filled with cave symbolism. For example, Egyptians believed that the life-giving annual flood, personified by the androgynous god Hapy, flowed forth from a cave located among the granite outcrops of the first cataract of the Nile (figure 7.1). Caves and grottoes play a central role in Egyptian solar cosmology and funerary theology, providing secretive, hidden realms where the divine was made manifest and the dead journeyed...

    • 8 Caves as Sacred Spaces on the Tibetan Plateau
      (pp. 125-134)
      Mark Aldenderfer

      Caves—both natural and created by excavation—are common on the Tibetan plateau. Although the beginnings of cave use on the plateau are currently unknown, caves became especially important with the advent of Buddhism in the seventh century AD. Today, caves continue to be used in both secular and sacred contexts. In this chapter, although my focus is primarily upon the use of caves within a religious or ritual context, it is necessary to identify and define the material indicators of caves used primarily as dwellings or habitations. Using historical, literary, and anthropological warrants, I then turn to a discussion...

    • 9 Differential Australian Cave and Rockshelter Use during the Pleistocene and Holocene
      (pp. 135-148)
      Paul S.C. Taçon, Wayne Brennan, Matthew Kelleher and Dave Pross

      Many researchers have noted local changes in cave and rockshelter use in different parts of Australia from the Late Pleistocene to the Middle and Late Holocene. In many parts of the country rockshelters in more-remote and/or less-accessible locations were adorned with rock art in the Pleistocene, while in the Holocene more-accessible shelters were frequently chosen for art making and for occupation. In southern Australia, deep caves such as those found on the Nullarbor were visited primarily in the Pleistocene. Many were abandoned in the Holocene, and in ethnographic times there were prohibitions against venturing deep inside. In many parts of...

  9. Part II: New World Ritual Cave Traditions

    • 10 Caves as Sacred Space in Mesoamerica
      (pp. 151-170)
      Holley Moyes and James E. Brady

      Mesoamerica is a term coined by Paul Kirchhoff (1943) to describe a geographical region that includes most of Mexico, all of Guatemala, Belize, and El Salvador, and parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica (figure 10.1, table 10.1). Using ethnohistoric and linguistic data gathered at the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1521, Kirchhoff argued that the region constituted a “culture area” based on its cultural unity and similar religious principles. The shared traits included similar farming techniques, crop types, food-preparation techniques, body decorations, uses of obsidian, stepped pyramids, ballcourts, hieroglyphic writing on screenfold books, calendrical systems, religious practices...

    • 11 Footsteps in the Dark Zone: Ritual Cave Use in Southwest Prehistory
      (pp. 171-184)
      Scott Nicolay

      Published studies describe numerous caves in the Southwest as shrines or ceremonial sites. Despite this recognition, there has been little attempt to explore what Walter Hough (1914, 91) described almost a century ago as a “cave cult” that “has survived to the present.” The purpose of the present study is to present an initial synthesis of the widely scattered information about ritual cave use in Southwest prehistory, to place both the archaeological record and its study in context, and to suggest avenues for future research.

      The dry caves and rockshelters of the Southwestern United States have long attracted the attention...

    • 12 Forty Years’ Pursuit of Human Prehistory in the World Underground
      (pp. 185-194)
      Patty Jo Watson

      In Eastern North America, systematic archaeology in big caves with miles of dark zone began during the 1960s. Research goals, research techniques, and interpretative frameworks have changed significantly over the past 50 years. The 50 years began in 1963 when Joe Caldwell—then Head Curator of Anthropology at the Illinois State Museum—refused to undertake an archaeological study of Salts Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. Instead he offered me $300 from the Museum Society and the help of his Assistant Curator, Bob Hall, if I would direct the work myself (Watson 1999, 288–89). So the Cave Research Foundation...

    • 13 A New Overview of Prehistoric Cave Art in the Southeast
      (pp. 195-210)
      Jan F. Simek, Alan Cressler and Joseph Douglas

      This chapter is designed to serve as an introduction to a prehistoric cave-art tradition that has only come to light over the past two decades in the Appalachian Plateau uplands of Southeastern North America. First identified by archaeologists in 1980, this cave art represents a widespread, complex, and long-standing aspect of indigenous prehistoric culture, one with local origins and development and one intrinsically linked to the evolution of prehistoric Southeastern religious iconography. There has been a small series of overviews of this cave art (Simek and Cressler 2001, 2005), but as our efforts to discover new caves continue, the number...

    • 14 Reevaluating Cave Records: The Case for Ritual Caves in the Eastern United States
      (pp. 211-224)
      Cheryl Claassen

      Caves and rockshelters in the minds of archaeologists have historically been cast in the role of temporary shelters and camps. In this chapter I suggest that caves and at least some rockshelters, including several archaeologically well-known locales, were regarded in the past as places where the ancestors as well as spirits responsible for water and game could be contacted, as Gatschet’s account indicates. They were places then, not for habitation but for conducting rituals and leaving offerings. Here I reconsider the archaeological records of the Mammoth/Salts Cave complex (in Kentucky), Newt Kash Hollow Shelter (also in Kentucky), several Woodland Period...

    • 15 Ceremonial Use of Caves and Rockshelters in Ohio
      (pp. 225-236)
      Olaf H. Prufer and Keith M. Prufer

      Caves and rockshelters represent highly specialized environments within broader cultural systems. Their occupation can be found in Asia during the Middle Pleistocene of China, and throughout Europe and North America. Though such locales can provide protection from the vicissitudes of the environment, many have more enigmatic functions as loci of ritual. It should be noted that dark zones of deep caves both in the Americas and in the Old World were not actually “occupied” in the mundane sense of the word; they are too dark and could only be lit by artificial means. To our knowledge prehistoric humans never used...

    • 16 The Ritual Use of Caves and Rockshelters in Ozark Prehistory
      (pp. 237-246)
      George Sabo III, Jerry E. Hilliard and Jami J. Lockhart

      Caves and rockshelters are common features of the Ozark uplands in the American mid-South (figure 16.1). The dry sediments of these sites contain abundant materials left by pre-Contact American Indians, including an extraordinary range of perishable items usually not found in other archaeological contexts. Scientific investigations began in the nineteenth century and continue to the present, but archaeologists have only recently considered the ritual use of these sites.

      In this chapter we demonstrate the utility of a landscape approach in studies of prehistoric ritual spaces. We begin by briefly reviewing the history of Ozark cave and rockshelter investigations. Next, we...

  10. Part III: Case Studies in Ritual Cave Use

    • 17 The Prehistoric Funerary Archaeology of the Niah Caves, Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo)
      (pp. 249-262)
      Graeme Barker and Lindsay Lloyd-Smith

      The prehistory of cave use in Island Southeast Asia is commonly summarized as a first phase of domestic use by Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene foragers followed by a second phase of funerary use by Neolithic and Metal Age farmers (Anderson 1997). The sequence was exemplified by the major program of excavations conducted in the 1950s and 1960s by Tom and Barbara Harrisson in the Niah Caves in Sarawak in northern Borneo (figure 17.1). Their remarkable discoveries in the West Mouth of Niah Great Cave included, in a deep sounding cut at the front of the cave termed the Hell...

    • 18 Recognizing Ritual in the Dark: Nakovana Cave and the End of the Adriatic Iron Age
      (pp. 263-274)
      Timothy Kaiser and Stašo Forenbaher

      Nakovana Cave overlooks the Adriatic Sea from just below the crest of a 400-meter-high ridge near the tip of the strategically important Pelješac peninsula, 100 kilometers north of Dubrovnik on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast (figure 18.1). In the distance, the sea stretches out to the neighboring islands of Mljet, Korèula, Hvar, and Vis. These were some of the most important Adriatic sea-lanes in antiquity.

      The entrance to the cave is obscured by a screen of trees growing on a terrace immediately in front of it, and cannot be seen from the plateau below. From the terrace, though, the cave looks like...

    • 19 Sacred Spaces, Sacred Species: Zooarchaeological Perspectives on Ritual Uses of Caves
      (pp. 275-284)
      Joanna E.P. Appleby and Preston T. Miracle

      During recent years, the role of animals in structuring and mediating social relations has been increasingly recognized within the discipline of zooarchaeology. In addition, animals and food are being recognized as rich in symbolism and as often-critical components of ritual and religious behavior (O’Day, van Neer, and Ervynck 2003). However, such approaches have been slow to filter through to the analysis of faunal remains from cave sites. Rather, caves continue to be seen predominantly as sites for habitation, where animal bones represent food refuse or raw materials for toolmaking activity, and where zooarchaeological research agendas are still predominantly driven by...

    • 20 Ritual Cave Use in the Bahamas
      (pp. 285-294)
      Robert S. Carr, William C. Schaffer, Jeff B. Ransom and Michael P. Pateman

      The caves of the Bahamas represent an important part of the archipelago’s archaeological record. Cultural materials associated with Bahamian caves include human remains, pictographs, petroglyphs, faunal bone, botanical remains, and a variety of cultural material. Archaeological and ethnographic evidence indicates the importance of caves in Taíno mythology and cosmology throughout the West Indies. Recent excavations at Preacher’s Cave on the island of Eleuthera have provided the best-documented Lucayan burials yet found in the Bahamas. Results of these investigations provide information on ritual mortuary practices that were used during cave use in the northern Bahamas and that ranged from as early...

  11. Part IV: Ethnographic and Ethnohistoric Studies

    • 21 Caves in Ireland: Archaeology, Myth, and Folklore
      (pp. 297-308)
      Patrick McCafferty

      The underworld is prominent in Irish myths and folktales. It seems that, for millennia, people lived their lives on the surface of the land, aware that beneath their feet a separate world existed, a world that was both fascinating and fearful. Ancient tales recounted how the Tuatha De Danann, mythical gods of a bygone era, were defeated by the invading Sons of Míl, and were then given control of the world beneath the ground while the victors became rulers above ground (Curran 2000, 153). The megalithic tombs, dolmens, passage tombs, burial mounds, ringforts, and other archaeological ruins in the Irish...

    • 22 Caves in Black and White: The Case of Zimbabwe
      (pp. 309-316)
      Terence Ranger

      Zimbabwe’s granite plateau is a country of rockshelters, shallow caves, and overhangs. Most of them are millions of years old and existed long before there were any people, but many of these sites have a social history. Stone Age peoples lived, danced, and painted in them. Iron Age farmers buried their chiefs in them, took refuge in them in time of war, and venerated some of them as oracular rain shrines. Rhodesian whites were fascinated by them, feared them as sites of superstition and resistance, and disciplined them both by dynamite and science. In the late 1960s and 1970s, black...

    • 23 Where the Wild Things Are: An Exploration of Sacrality, Danger, and Violence in Confined Spaces
      (pp. 317-330)
      Sandra Pannell and Sue O’Connor

      In the war-torn and transformed landscape of Timor-Leste, culture is arguably one of the victims and survivors of the quarter-century of Indonesian occupation. In the post-Independence period, with the government and international aid agencies focused upon reinstating such fundamental amenities as health, housing, water, and sanitation, and on redeveloping local economies throughout the countryside, issues of heritage and identity appear to be overlooked or relegated to nonessential status. Yet, throughout Timor-Leste the issue of cultural sovereignty is emerging as one of the new domains of struggle and resistance. Out of the ashes of recent history, and liberated from their common...

    • 24 Ritual Uses of Caves in West Malaysia
      (pp. 331-342)
      Joseph J. Hobbs

      Many readers of this volume are accustomed to considering caves as sacred spaces exclusively in historical and archaeological terms. Others, archaeologists of the Maya in particular, are fortunate enough to brush shoulders regularly with people who still believe in the sanctity of caves. The beliefs and activities of the cave-reverent people of today are important in their own right, and there is an urgent need to document them before they, too, pass into history and archaeology. They are also important for their ethno-archaeological value. By understanding what constitutes sacred space around the world in modern times, it may be possible...

    • 25 A Quantitative Literature Survey Regarding the Uses and Perceptions of Caves among Nine Indigenous Andean Societies
      (pp. 343-352)
      Nathan Craig

      This chapter reports on a regional study of cave use among nine indigenous cultures of western South America that are located along the Andean mountain chain. In many respects, the Andean region is superlative. Broadly defined either in terms of the mountain range or human perceptions of settlement on and around these mountains, the Andes are renowned for precocious cultural developments and exceptional archaeological preservation. Spanning over 7,000 kilometers from north to south, the Andean Cordillera is the largest exposed mountain range in the world. Some of the earliest inhabitants of the New World are found at Monte Verde in...

    • 26 Caves and Related Sites in the Great Plains of North America
      (pp. 353-362)
      Donald J. Blakeslee

      The Great Plains are not known for spectacular caves, but caves and especially rockshelters are present. Many have been excavated, usually without regard to the possibility of ritual. In this chapter, I discuss ethnographic evidence for the cosmological significance of caves and equivalent sites. I also emphasize the larger context of caves, suggesting that many caves were parts of larger ritual precincts. Finally, I will discuss the implication of the cosmological themes identified ethnographically for the interpretation of archaeological remains in and near caves.

      The first cave in this region to be mentioned in the historic literature is Carver’s Cave...

  12. Part V: New Approaches

    • 27 Civilizing the Cave Man: Diachronic and Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Cave Ritual
      (pp. 365-370)
      Andrea Stone

      Getting a handle on cave ritual in all of its multifaceted dimensions—origins, evolution, motivation, formal variation, social significance—is an overwhelming task in light of its extraordinary time depth and global distribution. If, for instance, cave burial can be considered a form of ritual, then evidence for it extends back to the Neanderthal world of 180,000 years ago (Clottes, this volume; Drew 2004). The birth of cave ritual, among the earliest expressions of ideologically motivated conventional human behavior, is an event so remote as to escape precise understanding beyond general recognition of its profound antiquity. At the same time,...

    • 28 Caves and Spatial Constraint: The Prehistoric Implications
      (pp. 371-384)
      Ezra B.W. Zubrow

      The purposes of this chapter are to introduce “spatial constraint theory” to archaeology and to suggest that it is relevant to understanding prehistoric adaptations to caves and rockshelters. In the 1960s when I was first introduced to archaeology and anthropology, I read works of the Kulturkreislehre School (Kluckhohn 1936) as historical documents. Being of a mathematical bent, I was fascinated also by some of the work of Graebner (1911) and its archaeological counterparts. I sat in on a seminars by visiting professors Robert MacArthur (1984; MacArthur and Connell 1966; MacArthur and Wilson 1967) and George Gaylord Simpson (1965, 1967) at...

    • 29 Why Dark Zones Are Sacred: Turning to Behavioral and Cognitive Science for Answers
      (pp. 385-396)
      Daniel R. Montello and Holley Moyes

      According to legend, the monstrous Minotaur—half-man, half-bull—made his home in the Labyrinth at Knossos on the Mediterranean island of Crete. The cave-like Labyrinth—large, dark, complex in layout, but homogeneous in appearance—was built by Daedulus for King Minos. To repay the Athenians for the slaying of his son, Minos exacted tribute of fourteen Athenian youths every nine years. This lasted until the Athenian hero, Theseus, decided to assume the role of one of the sacrificial youths, travel deep into the Labyrinth, and slay the Minotaur. But how was Theseus to find his way out of the confusing...

  13. List of Contributors
    (pp. 397-398)
  14. Index
    (pp. 399-410)