Treasure, Skulls in 3,300-year-old Transylvania Tomb Were From Nymph Cult, Archaeologists Suggest

Imported jewelry in tombs in the Romanian heartland reveals brisk trade with Scandinavia and Mesopotamia in antiquity, but why were these gems put inside caves in the first place?

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The entrance to Cioclovina Cave, Transylvania
The entrance to Cioclovina Cave, Transylvania.Credit: Dr. Rotea and Jenatte Varberg
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

Masses of jewelry and animal sacrifices discovered in the inaccessible black depths of a cave in Transylvania indicate that what the archaeologists found was a subterranean temple to nymphs dating to around 3,300 years ago, they suggest.

String of glass beads from the Cioclovina Cave hoard. Credit: Dr. Rotea and Jenatte Varberg

Back in the 1960s, archaeologists exploring Cioclovina Cave found thousands of beads made of glass, precious stones and amber in tombs inside the cavern. Now new analysis has shown the beads came from Scandinavia and Mesopotamia.

The study by researchers from Romania, Netherlands and Denmark reaffirms the existence of established trade routes stretching from the far north through Central Europe to Mesopotamia (Syria and Iraq) 3,300 years ago, predating the Silk Route by 1,100 years.

The distant origin and evident value of the jewels, and other items, makes all the more baffling why thousands of precious artifacts would be placed in a remote Transylvanian cave in the first place.

In the heartland of Dracula

Transylvania perches on a plateau surrounded by the great arc of the Carpathian Mountains in central Romania. Richly endowed with medieval castles, cities, and ruins, Transylvania is the home of the real Count Dracula, portrayed in fiction as a vampire. In the Bronze Age, however, the province was famous for entirely different reasons. The area is rich in metal, and became a focal point in trade between the major cities in the eastern Mediterranean and northern Europe.

Merchants and travelers alike followed the vast rivers – the Mures, the Danube and the Tisza - through flat floodplains and meadows nestled in the Carpathian Mountains.

Some of the smaller rivers were rich in gold, and in the mountains one could extract copper. Because of this the area became an important meeting point between peoples from North and South some 3,300 years ago.

String of Nordic amber beads from the Cicoclovina Cave Hoard. Amber was associated with the sun god - in both ancient Levant and the Nordic areas, it seems.Credit: Dr. Rotea and Jenatte Varberg

Inside the Cioclovina Cave, at a spot remarkably difficult to access, archaeologists working decades ago found no fewer than 7,500 exotic offerings, consisting of women's bronze and glass jewelry, horse-riding gear as well as Nordic amber beads. The precious items were deposited in three spots, alongside pottery and meat offerings.

Analysis of the glass beads proved them to have been made of Mesopotamian and Egyptian glass. The beads had been made some time between 1400 B.C.E. to 1100 BCE.

Glass with similar characteristics has also been found in Scandinavian Bronze Age tombs and in the Neustrelitz Hoard in northeastern Germany, where a ceramic vessel containing 880 objects was unearthed, containing 179 glass beads and 20 amber beads.

Not only did Cioclovina Cave have beads and glass originating from Mesopotamia and Egypt: the archaeologists also found 1,770 amber beads that came from Scandinavia. Clearly, Transylvania had been part of a complex system of global trade around 3,400 years ago. Radiocarbon analysis carried out on animal bones found in the cave supports the timeline of between 1,428 to 1,263 B.C.E.

Well and good, but why was such precious treasure deposited there in the first place? Was the treasure a sacrifice to appease the Transylvanian gods? Or simply a well-hidden trade depot?

Transylvanian castle famous for its connections to the 15th century medieval ruler who inspired "Dracula"Credit: Eugeniu Salabasev / AP

Braving the icy waters

To start with, Cioclovina Cave huddles in the heart of a remote mountain area. The cave is also the origin of the Cioclovina River, which is no bigger than a small Swedish watercourse, but it is challenging in its sheer iciness.

Exploring the cave – and finding the river's source in its interior – requires wading through the frigid water, and that's just the beginning, describes Dr. Jeanette Varberg of the National Museum of Denmark, who is involved in the research. The bed of the river inside the cave consists of slippery loose stones, and the freezing water reaches mid-thigh.

Wading into the cave along the riverbed, the light quickly disappears, Varberg says. Then, around 300 meters along the river is a crack in the rock, through which a waterfall bursts.

If one braves the waterfall and bests the stream, one finds oneself in a huge cave, as large as a cathedral and, appropriately to a cave in Transylvania (or anywhere, really), home to an uncounted number of bats.

The Cioclovina Rive originates in the cave.Credit: Dr. Rotea and Jenatte Varberg

The river originates deeper within, and most of the cave is dry – for most part of the year. But a big, dark hole high up in one corner indicates that when the spring melt arrives, the whole cave becomes a riot of rushing water. Scattered tree trunks and the remains of a goat bear witness to the violence of the water, explains Varberg.

And this is where the Bronze Age people chose to put their treasure. Not on the bottom of the cave, but on a ledge five meters above the cave floor.

To be specific, the archaeologists found 2,325 glass beads, 570 beads made of faience and 1,770 and amber.

A glass bead found inside the Cioclovina Cave. Diameter 1 cm.Credit: Dr. Rotea and Jenatte Varberg

And more: Inside the blackness, placed inside niches, the archaeologists found hundreds of skulls from rams, goats, deer and wild boars. Given their specific placement, the archaeologists believe these niches were consecrated spaces.

Sacred horses and Hygeia

Factoring in all their discoveries so far, the researchers believe that the bronze artifacts and exotic beads deposited inside this naturally-made Great Hall were of religious significance.

Dr. Mihai Rotea, a researcher from the National Museum of Transylvanian History, makes the case that this remote, inaccessible cave had been a cultic or sanctuary place, perhaps for nymph worship.

The entrance to Cioclovina Cave, Transylvania.Credit: Dr. Rotea and Jenatte Varberg

Homeric texts strongly connect nymph adulation with caves, springs and nature:

At the head of the harbor is a long-leafed olive tree, and near it is a pleasant, shadowy cave sacred to the nymphs called naiads” (Homer, Odyssey, XIII, 103–105);

He also writes,

"Cold water flowed down from the rock above, and on the top was built an altar of the nymphs where all passers-by made offerings", (Homer, Odyssey, XVII, 209–211).

“Caves, springs, rich vegetation, even gardens are elements of nature connected with nymphs, about which not only Homer speaks, but other historical sources too,” Rotea says.

For instance, an ancient bilingual inscription in Greek and Latin discovered in the Romanian spa area of Geoagiu (in Hunedoara County, the ancient Germisara), interpreted by I. Piso, falls into the same thematic sphere: cave‐water‐nymphs. The inscription speaks of the thermal springs in Germisara: “Sunt Getici fontes divina nympha creati” (The springs of the Getae were created by the divine nymph). The springs were supposed to be under the protection of one or several nymphs associated with Aesculapius, Hygeia, and Artemis/Diana.

Other elements supporting the theory that Cioclovina Cave was a site of nymph worship are signs – when taken collectively, if not individually - of feminine divinity., These include blue glass beads and amber beads with the jewelry of numerous types, made of bronze.

Possibly, since it seems that rich jewelry had been offered there to a female deity, the worshipers plying the cave had been female too. Yet another indication that the cave had been a place for worship, possibly over generations, is that the many pearls discovered inside were apparently not placed there once, but many times.

Inside Cioclovina Cave.Credit: Dr. Rotea and Jenatte Varberg

"The cave is difficult to access except in summer and autumn because of the amount of water. It has been a difficult journey through the river with only torches as the source of light source," Varberg tells Haaretz. She feels that the vagaries of the trek plus the surrounding of awe-inspiring natural greatness of the cave itself also support the hypothesis thatthe treasure was for the gods.

"The journey through the underground river is like a journey into the interior of the earth. That feeling has undoubtedly also affected the people of the past," she says evocatively. If indeed the cave was sacred, the trek into it was likely considered a journey into another world, where man crossed an important border.

"Bones of horses and ceramics have been found in small niches in the rock wall. One can imagine the sacrifices inside the cave in the light of the dancing fire and to an exuberant sound of the river's noise thrown against the raw rock walls,” she says.

There is no indication at this point whether travelers were involved in the rituals in the cave or whether it was only their merchandise that was sacrificed.

But it is striking that the tradition of sacrificing women's jewelry and equipment together also occurs in Scandinavia. Not in caves, this is true, but in swamps and by watercourses. Very likely, not only luxury goods were changing hands along the ancient trading routes of Eurasia, but rituals and beliefs too.



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