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The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Cave-Dwellers

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CAVE-DWELLERS. This topic is naturally divisible into two parts — first, the prehistoric aspect, and, second, the modern human occupation. The prehistoric use of shelters and subterranean chambers by the primitive savages, often called “cave-men,” was incidental to human existence before civilization, and is fully treated in the article Stone-Age. The present article therefore avoids that phase of cave history, and is confined to the use of underground chambers, natural or artificial, by civilized mankind for dwellings, refuges, worshipping places or sepulture.

Caverns naturally occur in limestone regions, or where soft layers of sandstone or volcanic debris alternate with harder layers (see Cave), and are usually dry, well-ventilated, of a fairly even temperature throughout the year, and often contain streams of running water. They are, therefore, suitable enough for human habitation, and often are really attractive. It is not surprising, then, that from the earliest times caves have been adopted as human residences and storehouses, and that they continue to be so utilized in various parts of the Old World. In the Western hemisphere this practice has never been followed, the occasional exceptions here and there being negligible. The reason is that the civilization of both North and South America is an important one. The early immigrants were men and women used to building houses, and finding in the New World plenty of room and materials for house building had no need of, and felt no call to, cave-life; nor have they been driven to it by fear.

The people of the Old World, from the Mediterranean to the China Sea, on the other hand, inherited the practice from remote antiquity, and maintained it under the pressure of semi-barbarous and crowded social conditions, poverty, danger from incessant wars and robber raids, until now in many places residence in artificial or modified caves is a matter of economy, or choice, or both. This is particularly true of southwestern Europe, and especially of France, where great areas of limestone, sandstone, and volcanic breccia underlie the soil. Through these the rivers, especially in the valleys of the Loire, Dordogne and Garonne, have cut deep channels with precipitous sides. Here scores of natural caves have been human habitations from prehistoric until recent times — some even yet furnishing human homes. Baring-Gould pictures a well-known example that has been explored by antiquaries:

“At the bottom of all the deposits [constituting its floor-layers] were discovered the remains of the very earliest inhabitants, with their hearths about which they sat in nudity and split bones to extract the marrow, trimmed flinty worked horn, necklaces of pierced wolf and bear teeth; then potsherds, formed by hand long after the invention of the wheel; higher up were the arms and utensils of the Bronze Age, and the weights of nets. Above these came the remains of the Iron Age, and wheel-turned crocks. A still higher stratum surrendered a weight of a scale stamped with an effigy of the crusading King, Saint Louis (1226-70), and finally francs bearing the profile of. . . Leopold [of Belgium].”

Such a record of almost continuous occupation might be multiplied by hundreds; and in many cases such ancient resorts have been enlarged and improved. The same is true of northern Africa and northern Asia.

We have to do more especially with artificial caves dug out by men for occupation in one or another way. Thousands of habitations, stables and workshops were cut in the hillsides of Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire, in England, and many were occupied until, within a few years, the local health authorities cleared them out. Holy Austin's rock in Shropshire, a mass of red sandstone, is honeycombed with habitations, whose neatly framed windows and doors are cut through the rock wall left for a front, and which even now are greatly liked by their tenants.

The vast expanse of chalk that underlies southern England, Flanders and northern France is easily worked, yet firm enough not to fall in, or crack away, when ordinary precautions are taken by the miner, and one might almost say that wherever it is exposed in river cuttings living rooms have been dug into the cliffs. Often these are so numerous and deep, that an underground village exists. Thus near Montaire, in the department of Loir et Cher, about 150 miles south of Paris, is the little city of Trôo, at the base of a cliff of chalk. “The whole height,” a recent visitor writes, “is like a sponge, perforated with passages giving access to halls, some of which are circular, and into stone chambers; and most of the homes are wholly or in part underground. The caves that are inhabited are staged one above another, some reached by stairs that are little better than ladders, and the subterranean passages running from them form a labyrinth within the bowels of the hill, and run in superposed storeys . . . The town . . . is partly built at the foot of the bluff, but very few houses are without excavated chambers, store places or stables. The café looks ordinary enough, but enter, and you find yourself in a dungeon.”

The valley of the Loir, a northern tributary of the Loire at Angers, abounds in such rock villages, and they occur in many other places in France, Spain and northern Italy. In the department of Maine et Loire, whole villages are underground. A man may utilize valuable hillside ground for a vineyard, by building walls to retain level terraces. He quarries the necessary stones from the hill and fences his property. Then for his own dwelling he cuts out chambers in the sides of his quarry, leaving a thin front wall with windows and doorways, and bores a chimney up to the surface. Near Loudon the dry moat of a mediæval castle, cut into the rock, is alive with people inhabiting tenements dug into its sides. It is true that in most cases the families living in such quarters are poor and mean — sometimes degraded; but a great many are the homes of families of honest, working folks; are decently furnished, and ornamented outwardly by ledge gardens, hanging vines and neatly curtained windows; or regular house fronts may be erected before the caves, as is well known to tourists of the “chateau country” about Tours.

Caves, natural and artificial, have been and are still valued elsewhere in the Eastern world. Villages like those described above exist in some parts of Italy, in Sicily, in Egypt and especially in Syria. Southeast of Damascus, and not far from Palmyra, is Edrei, the capital of the Amoritish King Og, ruler of Bashan, which was captured by the Israelites in the course of their conquest of Canaan. It was an underground city cut out of solid rock, which was explored some years ago by Wetzstein, who was astonished at its extent. After threading a long, downward entrance-passage he found himself in a broad street, with dwellings on each side of comfortable height and width. “The temperature was mild, the air free from unpleasant odors, and I felt not the smallest difficulty in breathing. Further along there were several cross streets, and my guide called my attention to a hole in the ceiling for air, like three others which I afterward saw, now closed from above. Soon after we came to a market place, where for a long distance on both sides of the pretty broad street, were numerous shops in the walls, exactly in the style of the shops seen in Syrian cities. After a while we turned into a side street where a great hall, whose roof was supported by four pillars, attracted my attention. The roof, a ceiling, was formed of a single slab of jasper, perfectly smooth and of immense size.”

In this region, too, lies Petra, hidden in a gorge of savage grandeur, and often visited by tourists. It also is an excavated city, where temples with their colonnades and façades are let into the red cliff, superimposed one above another. “From the earliest recorded times the inhabitants of the district were ‘Horim,’ that is to say Troglodytes, whose first rude grottoes, shapeless caverns hollowed out of the hillside, have been transformed to architectural galleries decorated with statues and bas-reliefs.”

Many other most curious examples of the present occupation of cave-dwellings in the East and in northern China might be cited especially where banks and steep hillsides of the stiff earth called loess have been tunneled into, and are occupied by hundreds of dwelling places in which families now live in health and contentment.

Vast numbers of caverns, with evidences of former domestic occupation, are to be seen also in the mountains about the headwaters of the Yangtse Kiang (Blue River) in southwestern China. They are now left empty, or used occasionally only as “refugees”; but in Kan-Su and Shen-Si precisely similar caverns are excavated in the hillside, and even to-day they are favorite dwellings of the people. Africa is not in general a cavernous region, because of its geology; but in south central Africa, the Bushmen were found dwelling to a considerable extent under ground. Doman (Trans. S. African Philos. Soc. 1909) writing of such inhabited caves in Basutoland says they were the rallying points of the various clans; and Stow reports that those inhabited by the head chiefs were adorned by paintings of totemic animals and the like.

Caves as Refuges.— Caverns and underground retreats, natural and artificial, ancient and modern, have always been resorted to as hiding places, not only by individuals fleeing from persecution, or avoiding legal punishment, or for criminal concealment (as by smugglers and robbers), but by great companies of people with their goods, in times of war or other social disasters. The early history of the Jews as given in the Bible has frequent references to this resort, as when Ahab persecuted the prophets and Obadiah hid them by fifties in a cave; and as when Joshua defeated the Amorites and their five kings hid themselves in the cave at Makkedah. The same sort of thing has occurred wherever men fought in a cavernous region from the beginning of humanity to the battles in northern France in 1917, where whole regiments were concealed in subterranean chambers north of the Aisne. Nowhere was the value of such means of safety to a harassed population better illustrated than in the civil wars that have raged in southwestern China and in the tribal conflicts and blood-feuds of Afghanistan.

The Roman armies were constantly baffled by this method of escape in conquering the Armenians and Arabs in Asia Minor, or Gauls of France and the Teutonic tribes of South Germany. When the Saracens invaded France from Spain in the 8th century, they found that the inhabitants, profiting by experience, had constructed underground retreats inaccessible to them, and by this means, almost alone, was the country saved from utter depopulation. Scarcely a century passed for several hundred years that this dreadful experience was not repeated at the hands of the Northmen (9th century); at the hands of English conquerors (12th century); at the hands of the Pope of Rome in the persecution of the Albigenses (14th century) and at the hands of local robber barons all the time.

It did not take long for the defenseless peasantry and townsmen to learn that their natural caves were not capacious enough to house the people, and they began to construct great subterranean halls, usually beneath their farms and villages, but often high in the faces of cliffs and ways so difficult of access that one man could defend the ladder or narrow stairs by which they were reached. Hundreds of such underground, labrinthine, caves of refuge, are known in southern and central France, and have been surveyed and described by French antiquaries, each large enough to contain the people of the neighborhood, with much property and provisions for a siege. Lacoste, in his ‘History of Quercy,’ remarks that in Lower Quercy the inhabitants dug souterrains with a labor that only love of life could prompt. “Three of vast extent have been discovered at Fontanes, Mondoumerc, and Olmie . . . The vastest and most remarkable for its extent and the labor devoted to it is at Olmie. The chambers are scooped out of a very hard sandstone. In some of them are little wells or reservoirs that were filled with water as a precaution against thirst.” The entrance to such a hiding place was carefully concealed in a cellar, or under a movable stone in a church floor, or in a thicket; and all the excavated material was widely scattered so as not to betray the place.

It was the duty of every feudal seigneur to protect his vassals in return for their fealty and service; and every old castle in southern Europe built in feudal times, almost always in some high and preferably isolated situation, stands on rock drilled through and through with galleries and chambers. “On the alarm being given,” in the words of Baring-Gould, “of the approach of an army marching through the land . . . or the hovering of a band of brigands over the spot, within a few hours all this underground world was filled with plows, looms, bedding, garments, household stuff of every description, and rang with the bleating of sheep, the lowing of oxen, the neighing of horses, and the whimpering of women and children.” This writer gives a list of 49 places in the department of Vienne alone, where such grottoes have been discovered, mostly under churches and castles, and we believe his statement that they number thousands in France alone. Where the entrance was not within the walls of a castle, defenses were arranged against assault. The entrance was very narrow, steeply inclined, provided with concealed pitfalls, and defended by interior doors and by side-galleries from which entering assailants might be speared or otherwise attacked. Nevertheless horrible tales remain in history of large numbers of persons being burnt out, or suffocated by smoke in these caves, or walled up by their enemies and left to starve.

Such souterrains abound in the northwest of France, also, where the most dreadful wars and oppression have swept the land again and again. Not only under villages, but beneath the scattered woodlands, the chalk was (and is) riddled with chambers and passages like an ant's nest. Victor Hugo has given, in his ‘Quatre-vingt Treize,’ a vivid picture of this state of things in Brittany at the time of the dreadful peasant uprising called La Vendée (1793-96). “The gloomy Breton forests,” he tells us, were servants and accomplices in the rebellion.” The subsoil of every forest was a sort of sponge pierced and traversed in all directions by a secret highway of mines, cells and galleries. The underground belligerents lurking in these hovels under trap-doors were kept perfectly informed of what was going on, and would spring up under the feet, or just behind the heels of their ambushed foes. Hugo asserts that in Isle-et-Villaine, in the forest of Pertre, not a human trace was to be found, yet there were collected 6,000 men under Focard. "In the forest of Meullac, in Morhiban, not a soul was to be seen, yet it held 8,000 men." No wonder Napoleon's recruiting-sergeants could find few young men to impress, in the latter years of his campaigns — they had all run to their holes like scared rabbits.

The same arrangements for safety from massacre and robbery were made farther north; and we are assured by a recent historian that “it may safely be said that there is scarcely a village between Arras and Amiens and between Roye and the sea, betwixt the courses of the Somme and Authie, that was not provided with these underground refuges.” One wonders how large a part they have played in the great war that began there in 1914. It is evident that the “dugouts” and other subterranean defenses that held so large a place in the campaigns that followed were not as novel devices as the surprised Western world considered them.

Caves as Places of Religious Worship.— Whether or not the prehistoric peoples, the cave-men, decorated their cabins with religious intent, or whether anything in the way of worship was connected with them, is a matter on which archæologists are undecided. Primitive man was a worshipper of nature, in the sense that he feared and tried to conciliate the powerful unseen agencies that he believed filled the universe. Supreme among the natural manifestations was the sun, and, as opposed to its brightness, the powers of evil worked in and were represented by darkness. Hence caves, unlighted, deep and mysterious, were logically regarded as abodes of malignant spirits, and perhaps as opening to the dark and horrid underworld. “The Zulus,” says Tylor, “can show the holes where one can descend by a cavern into the underworld of the dead, an idea well-known in the classic lake Avernus, and which has lasted on to our own day in Saint Patrick's Purgatory in Lough Dearg [Ireland.]” Such holes might call for propitiatory offerings, but would not become temples of uplifting worship. In various parts of the world, however, grottoes were used for the disposal of the dead, and in Egypt this became a cult of tremendous influence on the people, who, as they advanced, constructed elaborate, rock-cut tombs. Their growing belief in the immortality of the soul — nowhere more thoroughly realized — led to ceremonials of remembrance and ancestor-worship that developed into a philosophy that led to the erection of temples, and some of these temples were carved out of solid rock, with an ornate, architectural entrance (see Egypt). The same sequence of religious philosophy seems to have occurred in the valley of the Euphrates as in that of the Nile. The form of their ancient temples verifies the tradition of the Chaldees that they were evolved from tombs.

The wonderful cave temples of India, especially those of Elephanta Island, near Bombay, are well known, or may be studied in the elaborate book ‘Cave-temples of India,’ by Ferguson and Burgess. Those of Elephanta are Hindu (Sivaistic), but more than 500 excavations made in ancient times by Buddhists for the purposes of worship are known in northwest India. Buddhist temples in caves, many of them still visited on holy days by priests and devotees, abound in southwestern China — a fact little known even to the Chinese themselves; most of them are natural grottoes, more or less modified for their purpose, and not all can be regarded as Buddhistic The latest explorer of them is Vicomte D'Ollone, who speaks as follows of them, as seen in the mountains near the head of the Blue River (Yang-tze) in his book ‘In Forbidden China:’ “Sometimes a population of statues slumbers and dreams in the mystery of these caverns, and the visitor experiences a feeling of religious awe as the torchlight shows their forms emerging from the shadow, like the very spirits of the earth.”

A new and different impulse toward the utilizing of natural caves, and the construction of underground places of worship was given by the advent of Christianity and the consequent persecution of its early followers by the Romans, who regarded the sect not only as heretical but as politically dangerous. The faithful victims of this persecution were therefore compelled to seek everywhere secret places for their meetings. Their doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which was new in Rome, required that attention be paid to its proper bestowal after death, and this led, as long before it had done in Egypt, to elaborate tombs. Hence those sacred rock-cut tombs still revered in Palestine; and hence also the vast catacombs (q.v.) in the suburbs of Rome and of many other Italian cities. Within these catacombs were not only funereal chapels but regular churches. The system of hermitage, which became so prevalent in the early centuries of our era throughout North Africa and Asia Minor, sanctified many caves and semi-grottoes once inhabited by anchorites, and led to regular worship in them. Says Dean Stanley ‘Sinai and Palestine’ (London 1856): “The moment that the religion of Palestine fell into the hands of Europeans it is hardly too much to say that as far as sacred traditions are concerned it became a religion of caves.

Wherever a sacred association had to be fixed, a cave was immediately selected or found as its home.”

In Europe the veneration of the martyrs became in the Middle Ages the leading principle of Christian worship; and in many places the earth or rock about their tombs was removed until the sarcophagus was exposed, and then a chapel, wholly or partially subterranean, was built about it. The crypts of ancient churches owe their origin to this custom, and many old cathedrals and churches in Europe rest on such sites.

All these influences resulted in the hewing of early and mediæval churches out of the massif of cliffs and hillsides. Egypt has several rock-hewn temples of this kind; and they occur in Palestine, Crete, Spain, France, England and elsewhere. How elaborate many of them are may be illustrated by a single example, that of Saint Emilion, in the vauley of the Dordogne River, France, where, in the middle of the 8th century, a hermit named Emilian lived in a small cave, still to be seen. He became celebrated as a teacher, and finally a monastery and gradually a town grew up in the valley below. Beside the town rises an abrupt mass of rock, hollowed out into a stately church. Its ground-plan measures 120 by 60 feet. The front contains a vestibule, 21 feet high, with doors and windows pierced in the face of the rock. The three lower windows are of the flamboyant order, the upper three (clearstory) are round; the principal doorway through the rock-wall is richly sculptured. The body of the church stands parallel with the face of the cliff, and is 95 feet long and 60 feet high. It consists of a nave and side-aisles, all excavated out of the living rock, the pillars left square, the ceiling accurately vaulted, and the whole dimly lighted by the vestibule windows. The pillars are plain, and without capitals, but quaint large figures are carved on the walls and at the rear of the choir.

Coincident with these mediæval churches several famous monasteries began as cave-hermitages, and were enlarged into series of halls and cells cut out of solid rock. These were in some cases occupied for hundreds of years, supplemented by, or giving place to, buildings erected near them. Examples of such cave-monasteries of old times are to be found even in England

Bibliography.— The most complete summary of information relating to modern cave-dwellers is to be found in Baring-Gould's ‘Cliff-Castles and Cave-Dwellings of Europe’ (Philadelphia 1911); for local particulars elsewhere, consult geographical treatises, such as the ‘Universal Geography’ of Reclus; books by explorers and travelers; the publications of archæological institutes; scientific periodicals, and local histories — mostly in foreign languages.

Ernest Ingersoll.