Cave hides mass grave

Deep under a quiet valley in southern Greece, archaeologists are struggling to unravel a 1,400-year-old tragedy that wiped out a rural Byzantine community. Sometime in the late sixth century AD, a group of at least 33 young men, women, and children sought sanctuary from an unknown terror in a sprawling subterranean network of caves in the eastern Peloponnese. Carrying supplies of food and water, oil lamps, a large Christian cross and their small savings, the refugees apparently hunkered down to wait out the threat. But experts believe the sanctuary became a tomb once supplies ran out. «In the end, they knew there was no hope of escape and just lay down to die in the pitch black,» archaeologist Dimitris Hadzilazarou told The Associated Press. At the time, Greece, which was part of the Byzantine Empire, was reeling under a wave of invasions by Slavs and Avars – a nomadic people of Eurasia – some of whom may have penetrated as far south as the Peloponnese. The caves, near the modern village of Andritsa, some 170 kilometers (105 miles) southwest of Athens, retained their dark secret until their discovery in 2004. Finds from the excavation are currently on display at the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. Hadzilazarou and fellow excavator Lina Kormazopoulou are still searching for clues to explain the calamity. «We think something prevented these people from getting out. It may well have been human action such as an enemy attack, or even a natural event,» Kormazopoulou said. «Future investigation should help answer the riddle, but we may never learn the full truth.» Digs in late 2004 and early 2005 revealed human remains – many huddled in what look like small family clusters – 113 fired clay pots, a large bronze processional cross inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer in Greek, cheap jewelry and over 200 coins, mainly low-denomination copper pieces. Some of the pots had been wedged among the cave’s impressive stalagmites, an indication the refugees tried to gather water dripping from the roof. The refugees – Greek-speaking Christians believed to have come from a nearby village – probably entered the caves through a near-vertical, 14-meter (46-foot) shaft, down which they lowered several large water jars and other pottery items before descending by rope or ladder. «They seem to have had warning of an imminent danger, and fled to a hiding place they knew,» Kormazopoulou said. The group, which included many teenagers and children, was only armed with a few small knives and a lance-head found near the bottom of the entrance shaft. «It looks as if somebody was guarding the way in,» Hadzilazarou said. «We found a man, woman and child lying together, a little girl with what may have been a pet animal in her arms, an 18-year-old woman with a lamp by her head,» Hadzilazarou said. «Nearly every group had a large water jar next to them, as well as smaller jugs and pots.» As the end loomed inevitable, the last survivors crept to the back of the cave. «Perhaps they wanted to escape the sight and the smell of the dead. But they went there to die,» he said. The coins helped date the events to just after AD 575, some 40 years after Emperor Justinian built the crowning achievement of Byzantine architecture, the church of Hagia Sophia, in the imperial capital of Constantinople – modern Istanbul. A Byzantine chronicle mentions a Slav invasion of the Peloponnese in AD 587, but so far no archaeological evidence has been found to back that up. Excavators believe the victims succumbed to thirst, hunger and hypothermia. «When we first entered, it was a big shock,» Kormazopoulou said. «I couldn’t get the pictures out of my head for a long time.» The Athens exhibition ends November 15.