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The Prehistoric Cave of Theopetra

03.05.2021

Theopetra Cave is located on the north-east side of a limestone rock formation, dated 135-65 million years BP, just a few miles from Meteora. The site is extremely important since human presence is attributed at least 50.000 years ago. The excavation of the site was conducted between 1987 and 2009 and revealed archaeological deposits dating between 130.000 BP and 4000 BC.

Specifically, a visitor can observe within the cave the following sceneries; near the cave’s entrance, it is displayed the picture of a human burial, which was dated to the Mesolithic period (7.586 -7.384 BC) on the basis of its preserved bones. Very close to this find, a human lower jawbone was spotted, which derives from another burial from the same period. Two additional burials of the Mesolithic period were also found in close sites.

As the visitor moves on, a photographic view of the hearth is presented, which has been dated to 60.000 BP. Similar hearths have been revealed and remain visible in several areas of the cave’s surface. They represent a warm period that lasted from 75-60.000 years BP; an alternating sequence of cold and warm periods followed, which ended up at a cold maximum around 20.000 years BP. After this episode, the climate points gradual amelioration to reach its modern levels around 11.700 years BP. During the period of the creation of these hearths, the human population and its activities in the cave were increased. The hearths in the site which point this activity date between the subsequent Mesolithic and the Neolithic period. A characteristic of this dating is the chromatic variety of the ash, owed to the different species of burnt wood. Remains of fire of this period have also been unearthed indifferent parts of the cave’s periphery. Moreover, the visitor is able to observe the remains of fire. Parts of them belong to the Mesolithic period (9500-6700 BC), while in deeper levels they have been dated towards the end of the Paleolithic period (around 13.000 BC).

The visitor heads towards the southern part of the cave by stepping on a transparent glass surface, through which hearths of the Mesolithic period, as well as small cylindrical clay formations are visible. The latter, which are probably dried and not baked, represent early attempts of the prehistoric inhabitants of the cave to use this ductile material. In this straightway there are also two niches signed through discreet lighting. The larger among them contained finds of the Neolithic period as well as parts of human skeletons and a round hearth.

While heading towards the eastern part of the cave the visitor can see a series of hearths dating to approximately 60.000 years BP. During this period there was an interval of climate amelioration within a general glacier condition (from 75.000 to 60.000 years before, while thereinafter the climate was alternating). These hearths are close one to another and it seems that the human groups inhabiting the cave as well as their activities were increased during those times. Eastward, a board marks the location of a human burial in flexed position. Judging from the depth and the sediment type in which the burial was found, it is chronologically attributed towards the end of the Upper Paleolithic period. On the northward site another human burial was also unearthed, dated through its bones to 14.580 BC. It is estimated that the two burials are probably contemporaneous.

Underneath the transparent glass surface of the footbridge the visitor has direct view of a burnt surface of the Middle Paleolithic period, dated to 110-135.000 years BP, where human footprints are preserved. These finds are unique within the Greek territory and extremely rare on a global scale. They represent the second in terms of antiquity impressions of human footsteps in Europe and they probably belong to the Neanderthal human type, judging from the Mousterian stone tools which were found on the same stratigraphic layer. In this area the excavation has reached the natural bedrock in a depth of 3.5 m., where a number of bones belonging to cave bear, hyena, red deer, caprids, wolf and other smaller animals have been found in a very good state of preservation. It should be noted that the presence of bones in the trenches of this marginal east area of the cave is particularly important, since the bones are generally absent from the site of Theopetra due to diagenetic action, i.e. chemical procedures that took place and relate to the long-lasting presence of water in the cave’s interior. The water has entered through karstic channels from the eastern external area of the cave where their orifices are located. The combination of water and fire remains that dissolves the bone apatite has created the false impression that the bones are completely absent from the excavation. From this point there is also visual contact with the west side of the central trenches whose stratigraphy bears evidence of the climatic alterations during Pleistocene (from 130.000 to 10.000 years BP). Theopetra, lying on the direct vicinity of the Pindus mountain range, has encountered phenomena of extreme frost, which have been imprinted on the site’s deposits in the form of harder sediments containing small angular gravels or softer sediments.

Upon Board 12, on the west side of the corridor, is the space where the first Mesolithic burial was found in 1993. The dead lied in a flexed position and the bones were date to 7.015 BC. The head was turned towards the entrance of the cave.

At the edge of this corridor course and before the last turn towards the exit, another Mesolithic human burial in flexed position was found, to the occasion of the placement of the last bedding pole of the corridor.

Stepping towards the exit the visitor can see on the threshold of the cave’s entrance an assemblage of stones and rocks, a deliberate construction that has been preserved in situ. It probably constitutes a security wall which seems to have blocked the entrance to the cave during Paleolithic times. This stone mound has been dated through the method of Thermoluminesence to c. 23.000 years BP, an era during which the climate was particularly cold. Such a fence could thus help the cave’s inhabitants to protect themselves from weather phenomena that would have been particularly intense at the cave’s entrance and additionally from large animals’ intrusions seeking shelter in the cave’s interior.