The Verteba Cave: A Subterranean Sanctuary of the Cucuteni-Trypillia Culture in Western Ukraine

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Sławomir Kadrow Dalia A. Pokutta

Abstract

In Eneolithic Europe, the complexity of mortuary differentiation increased with the complexity of the society at large. Human remains from the Verteba Cave provide a unique opportunity to study the lives, deaths and cultural practices of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture in Western Ukraine. The subterranean sanctuary of Verteba was without a doubt a rallying point of both religious and social significance. Therefore, this investigation focuses on the role and character of ritual activities, the diversity and variety of religious orientations in the Eneolithic period and the question of how and for what reason this particular cave was modified from a natural space to a sacred place. We also seek to clarify the research potential of the site in relation to highly developed and relatively wide-spread religion with direct implications for the Cucuteni-Trypillia social structure.

Site location

Situated atop a loess plateau, Verteba Cave is located approximately two kilometers southeast of the site of Ogród near Bilcze Złote village, Borshchiv district, Ternopil province, Ukraine (Fig. 1; Kadrow 2013b, 23 fig. 2). Set within Precambrian granites and gneisses, beneath Mesozoic and Cenozoic deposits, Verteba Cave is situated in the Volhynian-Podolian Upland (Kondracki 1978, 243 fig. 92). The Podolian Upland is comprised of rich and thick loess topsoil. In the surrounding landscape, tributaries of the Dniester, flowing from north to south, reveal a sequence of geological deposits discernible in the deep ravines. One such tributary is the Seret River, with Bilcze Złote located on its eastern bank. The village is located on grey leached loess soils. The climate is warm and temperate, but with greater temperature ranges between winter and summer than usual for Eastern Europe (Kadrow 2013b, 23–25 fig. 3). Verteba Cave (Fig. 2) is found within a larger complex of gypsum caves in the karst region, incorporating various karst formations such as caves, sinkholes and pits (Sokhatskiy 2001b, 115–118). This region stretches along the northern bank of the Dniester, over an area of ca. 8,000 km 2 . In congruence with many other gypsum caves near the Dniester, Verteba Cave was formed in the Neogene. During the Miocene, the whole area was under a shallow sea and therefore gypsums, up to 35 m thick, precipitated in the same epoch.

The cave itself has a floor area of 23,000 m 2 and a capacity of 47,000 m3, with the combined length of all the passageways inside the cave totaling 8 km (Sokhatskiy 2001a, 209 fig. 1; 2001b, 117–120 table 1).

Fig.1. The location of the Verteba Cave in Bilcze Złote in Ukraine (red circle).

Fig.1. The location of the Verteba Cave in Bilcze Złote in Ukraine (red circle).

Fig. 2. Ukrainian and Polish archaeologists at the entrance of the Verteba Cave in Bilcze Złote (photo: E. Trela-Kieferling).

Fig. 2. Ukrainian and Polish archaeologists at the entrance of the Verteba Cave in Bilcze Złote (photo: E. Trela-Kieferling).

History of research

The Verteba Cave was discovered by chance within the confines of Prince Adam Sapieha’s estate in 1820 (Rook/Trela 2001, 183). His son, Leon Sapieha, a member of the Anthropological Committee of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Kraków, influenced the later exploration of the site (Kadrow/Trela-Kieferling 2013, 9). In 1876 and 1878, Adam Honory Kirkor (1879) carried out the first scientific research in Verteba. Two well-preserved human skeletons and the remnants of several more were identified. In the 1890’s, the site was explored by Gotfryd Ossowski (1891; 1892; 1895), and in following years by Włodzimierz Demetrykiewicz (1900; 1906; 1908; cf. Rook/Trela 2001, 183–193; Woźny 2010, 179).

After Demetrykiewicz’s excavations in Verteba, further examination was undertaken between 1914–1928 and after World War II, however records from these investigations are limited and of poor scientific quality (Sokhatskiy 2001, 208). Scientific research was resumed with the 1996/1997 exploration at Verteba by a team led by Myhailo Sokhatskiy of the Regional Museum in Borschiv, Ukraine (Sokhatskiy 2001). The most recent excavations began in 2008 (Karsten et al. 2015, 121–122).

Re-evaluation of the stratigraphic sequence within the cave has contributed greatly to a reconstruction of the chronology of the site during the Eneolithic period (Kadrow et al. 2003, 119–128). In recent years, new materials have been collected and rigorously analysed, including DNA screening of human bones in addition to environmental and bioarchaeological testing (Nikitin et al. 2010; Karsten et al. 2015). A comprehensive chronological and taxonomic overview of the ceramic materials from Verteba Cave has been proposed by Taras Tkachuk (cf. Kadrow et al. 2003, 53–74 fig. 7–24; Tkachuk 2013, 32–44 pl. 4–98, 114–35), who has analysed the entire available assemblage.

Traces of settlement in Verteba Cave are represented by a specific chronological sequence: a) BZ WI, the oldest horizon, related to the Shipentsy group and dated to the late CI phase; b) BZ WII, related to the Koshilivtsy group and dated to the early CII phase; and c) BZ WIII, associated with the Kasperivtsy group and dated to the younger phase of the CII period (cf. Kadrow et al., fig. 55; Tkachuk 2013, 32–44; Kadrow 2013, 14–16 fig. 3). This was confirmed by the stratigraphic relationships (cf. Sokhatskiy 2001), and in congruence with radiocarbon dating (3700–2700 BC) of selected materials (Kadrow et al. 2003, 119–123 fig. 53, 54; Kadrow 2013, 13–16 fig. 3; Nikitin et al. 2010, 12–16 table 1, fig. 6). Recent data and research (cf., for example, Nikitin et al. 2010; Nikitin 2011) reinforce the debate that the local populations maintained regular and frequent contacts with surrounding groups of the Trypillia culture as well as more remotely located Eneolithic cultures from Central Europe (Kadrow et al. 2003, 67–69, 71–73, 123–128). Moreover, a modern understanding of the Verteba phenomenon includes the discussion regarding its cultic function (Kadrow et al. 2003, 128; Kadrow 2013a, 18–19).

Verteba Cave has long been interpreted as a refuge settlement. However, it has also been suggested that the cave may have had an undetermined cultic function (Kadrow et al. 2003, 128; Kadrow 2013a, 18–19) – a theory that currently seems to be gaining popularity (cf., for example, Nikitin et al. 2010, 17; Nikitin 2011, 9).

The cultural background and Trypillian pottery from Verteba cave

The sites in Bilcze Złote lie in a settlement area, which was densely populated by groups of the Triypillia culture, primarily settling on the Strypa, Seret and Zbruch Rivers, left-bank tributaries of the Dniester River (cf. Chernysh 1982, map 5 and 6; Kadrow 2013b, fig. 4). The oldest traces of human activity in the Verteba Cave come from the late CI phase and are associated with the Shipentsy group, living near the Badrazhy group on the Central Dniester Plateau (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. The location of the Verteba Cave in Bilcze Złote (black star) on the background of some local groups of Trypillia culture at the end of phase CI; 1 – maximal range of Trypillia culture; 2 – Shipentsy group; 3 – Badrazhy group; 4 – Petreni goup.

Fig. 3. The location of the Verteba Cave in Bilcze Złote (black star) on the background of some local groups of Trypillia culture at the end of phase CI; 1 – maximal range of Trypillia culture; 2 – Shipentsy group; 3 – Badrazhy group; 4 – Petreni goup.

Fig. 4. The location of the Verteba Cave in Bilcze Złote (black star) on the background of some local groups of Trypillia culture at the beginnings of phase CII; 1 – maximal range of Trypillia culture; 2 – Koshilivtsy group; 3 – Branzeni group; 4 – Vykhvatinsty group.

Fig. 4. The location of the Verteba Cave in Bilcze Złote (black star) on the background of some local groups of Trypillia culture at the beginnings of phase CII; 1 – maximal range of Trypillia culture; 2 – Koshilivtsy group; 3 – Branzeni group; 4 – Vykhvatinsty group.

Fig. 5. The location of the Verteba Cave in Bilcze Złote (black star) on the background of some local groups of Trypillia culture at the end of phase CII; 1 – maximal range of Trypillia culture; 2 – Kasperovtsy group; 3 – Gordinești group; 4 – Gorodsk-Troyaniv group.

Fig. 5. The location of the Verteba Cave in Bilcze Złote (black star) on the background of some local groups of Trypillia culture at the end of phase CII; 1 – maximal range of Trypillia culture; 2 – Kasperovtsy group; 3 – Gordinești group; 4 – Gorodsk-Troyaniv group.

In the following period, the beginning of phase CII, the cave was visited by members of the Koshilivtsy group, which developed simultaneously with the Branzeni group (Fig. 4). In the final stage, dated to the late CII phase, the area was populated by the Kasperivtsy group, which coincided chronologically with the Gordineşti group (Fig. 5; cf. Tkachuk 2013; Kadrow 2013, fig. 3).

Fig. 6. The pottery of Shipentsy (1, 5–9) and Badrazhy (2–4) groups of Tripillia culture from the Verteba I assemblage in Bilcze Złote (after Tkachuk 2013).

Fig. 6. The pottery of Shipentsy (1, 5–9) and Badrazhy (2–4) groups of Tripillia culture from the Verteba I assemblage in Bilcze Złote (after Tkachuk 2013).

The largest portion of the ceramic material recovered from Bilcze Złote is related to the Verteba I assemblage (BZ WI). Stylistic and typological analysis of the assemblage has shown that the material is affiliated with the late phase of the Shipentsy group (Fig. 6: 1, 5–9) and dated to the close of the CI phase of the Trypillia culture (Fig. 3). The assemblage consists of almost 2500 painted ceramics and over 200 ceramic cooking vessels (Tkachuk 2013, 32). In total, the Verteba I ceramic assemblage is comprised of twenty-seven vessels imported from the Badrazhy group of the Tripillian culture (ca. 1 % of the total volume of painted ceramics from the sites).

Imported goods consist mainly of bowls of various shapes, including, e.g., S-shaped bowls (Fig. 6: 2), semispherical bowls (Fig. 6: 4) and conical bowls (Fig. 6: 3). Foreign items are also represented by nine fragments of large amphora-like vessels with round bodies, two vessels with high conical necks and one crater (Tkachuk 2013, 37). The Verteba I ceramic assemblage includes items clearly associated with Badrazhy pottery making traditions, for example, a vessel with an image of a cow placed between elements of the Tangentenkreisband pattern pottery of the Shipentsy group of the Trypillia culture at Verteba Cave in Bilcze Złote from phase WI (after Tkachuk 2013).

Moreover, on one large amphora-like vessel, these decorative elements are separated by S-shaped lines. Wavy stripes within the Tangentenkreisband pattern have often been recorded for Badrazhy ceramics, while they are entirely unfamiliar in the Shipentsy group (Tkachuk 2013, 38).

The Shipentsy ceramics from the late chronological phase are also decorated with other ornamental motifs, which are atypical for that group, and reassemble patterns used by the Badrazhy group. Among them we encounter: 1) vertical and oblique lines crossed by perpendicular strokes (on pyriform vessels or semispherical-conical vessels); 2) empty or filled in black circles with short lines; and 3) filled in red circles (Tkachuk 2013, 38). Among beakers belonging to the Verteba I assemblage, one fragment is particularly noteworthy. It is decorated with a metopic motif of horizontal half ovals combined with a stripe of red vertical lines. The stripe, having double oblique strokes at the base, is flanked by elongated vertical half ovals. Such decorations have parallels in Petreny mugs found in Varvarovka III (cf. Markevich 1981, 26 pl. 25: 1; Tkachuk 2013, 38).

Amongst the serving vessels in the Verteba I ceramic assemblage, one may distinguish a group of thin-walled vessels made of adobe clay, often tempered with crushed pottery (nearly a hundred items – comprising almost 4 % of the whole assemblage). The vessels are usually undecorated, occasionally with small handles pierced horizontally. Most fragments of large and medium vessels have the proportions of half-barrel-shaped vessels or vases; there are also a few handles preserved in this class. Semi-spherical bowls form the second largest group, whereas fragments of vessels with high, smooth cylindrical necks are even less frequent. These vessels may be viewed as imports, or alternatively as local adaptations produced in the late phase of the Lublin-Volhynia culture (numerous half-barrel-shaped vessels) and the Bodrogkeresztúr culture (handled vessels) (Tkachuk 2013, 38–39 pl. 113).

The Verteba II ceramic assemblage from Bilcze Złote is comprised of nearly 800 painted vessels in various stages of preservation. They were all demonstrably related to the Koshilivtsy group (Fig. 4, 7: 1–4) from the early CII phase of the Trypillia culture (Tkachuk 2013, 39).