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The Prehistoric Caves of the Trieste Karst
(North-eastern Italy): Homes, Stables, Cemeteries …?
Emanuela Montagnari Kokelj

[Source: © Reports of Prehistoric Research Projects Vol. 5, 2001 (2002), pp. 13-17 -]

The area under examination

It is located at the centre of a region called Caput Adriae, which is situated on the northern shore of the Adriatic Sea and covers the easternmost region of northern Italy, the south-western part of Slovenia and the Croatian side of the Istria Peninsula.

Three main physiographical areas can be found here: the Adriatic Sea, the Friuli plain, and the low mountains of the Trieste Karst, of western Slovenia and of the Istria Peninsula.

The shore of the Adriatic Sea reached the present-day position at about 7000 BP when the Late Glacial sea-level rise ended. About fifty percent of the Adriatic area was a wide plain not submerged by the sea during the last Ice Age.

The low mountain areas range from 100-200 m to 800-900 m above sea level, with a few major peaks reaching the maximum height. The remaining areas are mostly low rounded hills and plateaux lying between 300 and 500 m above see level. The rock types that crop out in this area are mainly limestones, but two flysch belts, a dozen kilometres wide, cross the area. The first runs through central Istria in ESE-WNW direction and borders the Trieste Gulf as a thin rim. The second lies parallel to the first one, about ten kilometres to the north, and then bends northwards along the Italy-Slovenia border.

The limestone area is typically karstic, very poor of water, with common dolines randomly scattered in plateau areas, wide rock outcrops and heavy clayish soils (terra rossa).

History of investigation

The limestone belt of the Trieste Karst is particularly rich in caves, and this feature certainly conditioned the use of the territory during prehistory and protohistory, but also conditioned archaeological research since about the 1870’s onwards. In fact, both professionals and amateurs were attracted by caves, with two main consequences:

  1. practically no open-air sites are known until the Middle Bronze Age, when massive stone structures, called castellieri, were built on top of many hills in the Karst and in Istria;

  2. the quality of the data recovered is non-homogenous, as it reflects the non-homogenous preparation of the researchers.

This means that although probably c. two hundred caves contain pre-protohistoric materials, actually less than twenty caves give sufficiently good data for a detailed analysis. These elements accompanied local research throughout its history, from the last decades of the 19th century onwards.

The beginning, c. till the First World War, was dominated by two figures that influenced the state of the knowledge in different ways: Carlo Marchesetti and Karl Moser. The former was a professional botanist as well as a professional archaeologist of European fame; the latter was a school teacher and an amateur archaeologist. Moser concentrated his attention on caves, while Marchesetti worked mostly on castellieri and cemeteries, but excavated some caves too, and on this basis formulated the first reconstruction of the local Neolithic, still valid in many aspects.

New data and theories on the Neo-Eneolithic (a definition that combines Neolithic and Copper Age, largely used in Italy in the central decades of the 20th century) were produced in the 1920s by Battaglia, a renowned professional. But it was only between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1980s that a new phase of explorations led to a substantial increase in archaeological data. Not all prehistoric periods benefited from this renewed interest, as research was often aimed at studying a specific period; the Late Neolithic and the Copper Age, in particular, remained out of focus.

Since the 1980s, and mainly in the 1990s, a decrease in field activities has been accompanied by new lines of research, basically oriented towards interdisciplinary collaboration (especially geo-archaeological and petrographical studies) and global re-analysis of old materials aimed at creating a database of the Karst caves. It is in this period that new questions on the different uses of caves have been raised and, when looked for, possible answers have been found.

Cultural evolution

At present, a sketch of the main elements of the cultural evolution of the Trieste Karst from the Mesolithic (Boschian & Montagnari 1984; Montagnari Kokelj 1993; Brukner & Montagnari Kokelj 1999) to the transition Copper Age/Early Bronze Age (Montagnari Kokelj 1994; Montagnari Kokelj E. 2000; Barfield & Montagnari Kokelj E. 2000) can be as follows:

  • The discovery of the Mesolithic goes back to the 1960s, when Grotta Azzurra was excavated, and the deposit

revealed the existence of the two stages typical of western Europe: Sauveterrian and Castelnovian. Since then the Mesolithic has been identified in some fifteen other caves: few 14C dates indicate that it lasts approximately from the middle of the 10th to the first centuries of the 7th millennium BP.

In the Karst, the passage between Sauveterrian and Castelnovian is characterized by technological and economic changes that reflect local factors, such as the gradual increase in shellfish gathering linked to the rise of sea level during the Late Mesolithic. This stage is, in general, poorly documented, and the transition between Mesolithic and Neolithic is still a matter of discussion.

  • The presence in the Karst of the Impressed Ware culture (the oldest Neolithic culture of the eastern Adriatic

coast as far north as Istria and of southern Italy on the opposite coast) is disputable. A dozen fragments allegedly found in Grotta del Pettirosso (also known as Vlaška Jama, according to its Slovene name) and one single sherd from Grotta Azzurra seem to be the only evidence.

  • In most caves the Neolithic starts with the so-called Vlaška Group. It lasts at least some 1000 years – from

the first half of the 7th (Grotta dell’Edera, base of layer 2a: 6615 ± 390 BP) to the first half of the 6th millennium BP (Grotta del Mitreo, layer 8: 5770 ± 50 BP). As to economy, sheep and goat breeding testify to an already completed process of Neolithization, though there are no traces of agriculture, while hunting and shellfish gathering still continue. Pottery is documented by vases recurrently associated, though in strikingly different percentages. The most common are deep, closed-mouthed bowls, probably on foot, sometimes decorated with incised, usually geometric, patterns below the rim ("vasi a coppa"). Open, carinated troncoconical plates are far less numerous, along with deep vessels with four legs, often decorated, called rhyta, and troncoconical to hemispherical bowls. Large carinated bowls are also present, but might be later, due to the close resemblance with forms of the Late Neolithic Hvar culture of Dalmatia. A few other vases, usually represented by one single item, are occasionally associated, and some of them hint at geographically distant elements of comparison.

Lithic industry is not abundant but always different from the Mesolithic one in typology, dimensions, and raw material. Various scholars have advanced their interpretations of the Vlaška Group, usually underlining the connections with the Danilo culture of central Dalmatia.

  • The post-Vlaška cultural evolution of the Karst is still an incomplete mosaic, where western and eastern

elements of comparison are both present (Greif T., Montagnari Kokelj E. in press. Venezia Giulia (north-eastern Italy) and central and western Slovenia in the "Late Neolithic". In Il declino del mondo: ricerche in Italia centro-settentrionale fra aspetti peninsulari, occidentali e nord-alpini, Pordenone 5-7 aprile 2001.). A certain number of vessels typical of the Square Mouthed Pottery culture and a few Lagozza elements point to the Middle and Late Neolithic of northern Italy. Some pedestalled cups and decorated sherds indicate links with the Late Copper Age/Early Bronze Age Ljubljana culture in Slovenia, while a few others hint at the almost contemporaneous Cetina facies of Dalmatia. Generic comparisons seem possible also with the northern Italian Early Bronze Age Polada culture.

The 1990s re-examination of assemblages from old excavations have permitted to recognize the presence of other, non-decorated vessels mainly comparable with different Slovene aspects dated to from the Late Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age. Nevertheless, these re-examinations have underlined the difficulty of giving a sure attribution to a certain amount of atypical pottery, present in different layers, as well as of understanding the cultural and chronological relationships among different components. The lack of reliable 14C dates is a further conditioning factor in this situation.

Reconstruction of the cultural evolution

The difficulties of reconstructing a complete sequence of the cultural evolution of the Trieste Karst from the Mesolithic to the transition Copper Age/Early Bronze Age in "traditional" chrono-typological terms are due, at least in part, to the specific problems of local research outlined above (see above) and, together with them, bear upon any attempt of alternative, or complementary interpretation.

The analysis of inter-site and intra-site relationships is highly conditioned by the apparent lack of open-air sites and the limited extent of excavated areas inside the caves. This is usually small in comparison with the extent of space likely to have been used in the past, and consequently cannot be representative of all the activities performed in a given episode of frequentation

The perception of these problems must be accompanied by general considerations: theoretical and methodological tools different from the traditional ones must be adopted to study the changing dynamics of territorial use especially in moments of epochal change, such as, for instance, at the transition from non-productive to productive societies. Moreover, a change in perspective is also necessary when pre- Neolithization or post- Neolithization periods are considered.

As to Mesolithic, in the past I wrote that a shift from a strictly chrono-typological approach to a processual one would be indispensable. The composition of a lithic assemblage may indicate, in fact, changes in the chronology of a site but also in its use, which has to be evaluated both inside the site and outside it, over an area of potentially complementary places.

Binford’s theories, ethno-archaeological studies, and "site catchment analysis" would offer theoretical support for a re-examination of the Karst Mesolithic. In particular, it is important to remind that the stratigraphical sequence of a site does not necessarily correspond to a linear chronological sequence, as natural sedimentary processes and episodes of human use may not coincide. A site could be frequented for a more or less prolonged period and the use of either the whole area or its individual parts could change or be repeated during this time. Moreover, only in the medium to long term do these episodes leave archaeological evidence, which is conditioned by the formative processes of deposition.

Site use depends on the subsistence strategy adopted. On the grounds that many of the elements fundamental for human subsistence are likely to have co-existed in this limited area (although the Karst would have been only a component of a larger exploitation territory), it is equally possible that Mesolithic groups adopted either foraging or collecting strategies. As foragers they would have moved periodically to new lands, without accumulating resources for the periods of scarcity. As collectors they would have maintained their base camps near one of the main subsistence sources for relatively long periods, at the same time making expeditions for supplies of other resources to be stored over this period. Collectors might have preferred to camp near the coast in order to exploit a "stationary" resource, molluscs, to use either as additional nourishment to game or as their main food during periods of game scarcity. Foraging and collecting strategies might have been either mutually exclusive or alternative, representing adaptations to short-term changes in environment and/or fauna.

Ethnographic data would permit us to take both hypotheses into consideration, but, in the case of the Karst, at present we cannot choose between them because not only local data are still scanty, but also there has been no significative change in theoretical perspective so far.

Moreover, the geo-archaeological studies of the 1990s (Boschian & Montagnari Kokelj 2000; Boschian 2000) have not been conclusive as to Mesolithic. The abundant presence of ash and finely dispersed organic material in deposits of comparable characteristics indicates episodes of rather intensive frequentation of the caves, mainly during the Early Mesolithic. But intensity may mean either continuous use by a single big group of people, or closely spaced episodes of re-use by the same, or even different, smaller groups.

These data alone do not help to define intra-site and inter-site differences in use. A comparative analysis of these data and others, concerning ecofacts and artefacts along with site catchment characteristics, would be indispensable to test whether the high concentration of sites in the Karst is real or apparent: in other words, to investigate the nature of the exploitation strategies – as foragers or collectors – adopted by the Mesolithic communities of the Karst.

Apart from the models specific to the Mesolithic, the methodological issues raised so far are valid also for later periods. Many caves occupied during the Mesolithic continued to be used also later on and, again, the high number of sites should be viewed in the light of possible differential uses within exploitation strategies to be decoded.

For post- Mesolithic periods the recent geo-archaeological studies play a key-role, as in some specific cases they allow to advance impressive new interpretations on sites and land use. The occurrence of burned sheep or goat dung deposits in some Karst caves proves that these sites were visited by groups of shepherds with their flocks probably already in the Neolithic, while cattle herding might have started later.

The use of caves and shelters as stables has been well documented since the early 1970s in the French Midi region during the Early and Middle Neolithic, and more recently in Liguria (Western Italy) during the same cultural facies. Even if the fumier layers (i.e. burned stable layers) are widespread there throughout the Neolithic, they are better represented in the Chassey phases. Two land- and site-use models have been put forward:

  1. Stable-caves (grottes bergeries), i.e. specialized flock-parking sites located on plateaux and visited seasonally by shepherds coming from complementary agricultural open air settlements situated in lowlands or valleys;

  2. Stable-and-dwelling-caves (habitats-bergeries), that is less specialized upland sites, more or less complementary to agricultural and cattle-herding lowland open-air sites.

The composition of these burned dung deposits depends on cave use: high quantities of spherulites and phytoliths are detectable in grotte-bergerie deposits, while wood ash is dominant in deposits corresponding to periods when people really lived in the caves; mixed compositions are also frequent and may correspond to intermediate site use typologies.

The deposits of some Karst caves are strongly characterized by relevant amount of spherulites and phytoliths: therefore, the comparison with the French grotte-bergeries would suggest that groups of shepherds used these caves to stable their flocks. The scarcity of artefacts in the deposits may give further support to this hypothesis, as people are supposed to have lived outside, in camps or other open air sites. Such sites have not yet been found in the area: if they were ephemeral seasonal camps, the possibility of identification is low, as their traces should have been very faint and easy to cancel.

Conversely, the landscape characteristics were not suitable for larger permanent settlements with prevalent agricultural economy, which might have been situated in a very narrow area between the Karst and the Istria peninsula.

These features are likely to have played an important role already during the Neolithization process. It was probably stock rearing, and not agriculture, that was the key economical factor to trigger the process, if it ever took place locally.

Independently from the solution of the thorny problem of Neolithization, a basic vocation of the Karst to pastoralism raises other questions: what was the real nature of pastoralism - seasonal, tethered, nomadic … ? Were all the caves, only some of them, or even only specific parts inside the cavities used for stabling animals? What evidence of other activities do we have? Besides soil micromorphological data, data on palaeo-environmental conditions and ethnography, what are the strictly archaeological indicators to verify the different uses of sites ?

At present many of these questions have no answer, due to the problems of local research repeatedly mentioned, but also to more general problems of theoretical studies that are still missing.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, and in particular in the last few years, we have followed different research lines in order to test possible theoretical and practical tools (Montagnari Kokelj E. 2001; Montagnari Kokelj et al. 2001). The final aim is the creation of a database for all caves of archaeological interest, including information also on non-archaeological fields – geomorphology and sedimentology in primis – that should allow us to verify the likely existence of constant relationships between site characteristics and site use.

The important results of one of these research lines – geo-archaeology – have already been presented. Other important results come from the combined re-analysis of documents kept in local archives and of data and archaeological materials from old excavations.

As an example, a recent study aimed at checking previous information on human bones found in caves has established that human remains are present in 38 deposits. Unfortunately, we almost never have sufficient data on the original conditions of deposition, and consequently cannot identify either burial ritual or chronology with sufficient confidence. Nevertheless, at least in one case we are almost certain that the body of a single individual was laid down on the ground near the wall of a rock shelter (riparo Zaccaria), with a few objects, probably personal belongings, nearby. The deposition might tentatively be dated to the Neolithic/Copper Age. This evidence is of great importance, as it indicates that the Karst was not foreign to the burial tradition typical of northern Italian caves and rock shelters of pre-alpine and alpine areas, as well as of Liguria and Toscana farther west, in almost the same timespan. Although definitely more generic, some other ten cases, loosely datable to a period going from the Neolithic to the beginning of the Bronze Age, might offer further support to this evidence.

The systematic re-analysis of data and archaeological materials from old excavations, followed by their integral publication, has provided also qualitative and quantitative information preliminary to any comparative study of sites presumably in use in the same period. A test study of neolithic caves with Vlaška materials has confirmed the potentiality of this approach (Montagnari Kokelj E. in press). It has shown, in fact, a strong difference in numbers between the most typical pot – the deep, closed-mouthed bowl, probably on foot ("vaso a coppa") – often present with hundreds of sherds, and the other few forms recurrently associated, but always represented by single sherds. This marked difference had not been perceived in previous studies, and its possible inferences – in terms of local versus foreign production, common use versus non-common (prestige? ritual?) use – might change our view of the Neolithic Vlaška Group.

In conclusion, although the results obtained in recent studies still need further elaboration, they have stressed the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to a global increase in scientific knowledge.

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Created: Saturday, February 4, 2006; Updated: Friday, March 11, 2016
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