The name Alepotrypa means ‘foxhole’; the legend behind the name tells of a young man in a village nearby hunting for foxes with his dog, when the dog went into a hole. The man went after the dog and discovered the cave.
When the cave was discovered in 1958, Greek officials at first saw it as a potential tourist attraction. Archaeologists soon realised it may have historical value and so led efforts to keep tourism from inadvertently harming the site. Excavations of the cave began in 1970 and have since unearthed tools, pottery and obsidian, as well as silver and copper artefacts dating back to the Neolithic, which began in Greece 9,000 years ago. This means Alepotrypa existed right before the Bronze Age in Mycenaean Greece.
There appears to have been a series of settlements and abandonments; the cave’s placement was perfect for sea trade from Africa and to the eastern Mediterranean. All settlement at the cave ended when its entrance collapsed about 5,000 years ago, burying the people alive inside. It is possible the collapse was due to an earthquake. The collapse entombed Alepotrypa, and everything inside got a pearly mineral coating; this gives archaeologists a snapshot of Neolithic life in Greece, in much the same way Pompeii gave insights into Roman life 2,000 years ago.
Surveys have been conducted around the cave, showing there was a settlement outside. Hundreds of people may have lived at the site at its height, which would make it one of the largest and most complex of the known Neolithic villages in Europe. At this stage, researchers do not know how deep the deposits in the cave go. The next bay over from Alepotrypa contains Neanderthal artefacts within the caves, so it is possible there may be even more ancient hominid materials deeper in this cave.
The Neolithic residents of the cave appear to have used it not just as a shelter, but also as a cemetery and place of ritual. The rituals associated with the burials seemed to involve burning huge amounts of dung and placing large amounts of coloured and finely painted pottery. The burial sites, as well as these rituals, give the cave an underworldy-feel, especially with a lake nearby to act as the river Styx.
Giorgos Papathanassopoulos, who has spear-headed the excavations at Alepotrypa for about 40 years, theorised that the pottery found in the cave was not local to the site, but was brought from elsewhere as part of a kind of pilgrimage. It was this suggestion, as well as his idea that important people were buried here, that lead to the theory that Alepotrypa was the original entrance to Hades. Chemical analysis of the pottery as well as of the bones within the cave will reveal whether these theories have any substance.
Regardless of whether or not Alepotrypa is shown to be a pilgrimage site for those burying important people, the site, along with others in Europe, might show that complex societies arose earlier than currently thought on the continent.
Image: Alepotrypa’s main chamber. Credit: Gianluca Cantoro, Foundation for Research and Technology, Hellas.