A mysterious Bronze Age sanctuary: the Cave of Flies

There Cave of the Flies (in Slovenian Musja Jama) is a karst well approximately deep 50 meters in the district of caves of San Škocjanin Slovenia a few kilometers from the Italian border. In the Cave of the Flies there is one of the most mysterious and fascinating archaeological sites dating back to late Bronze Agein which hundreds of metal products, many of which were intentionally destroyed. The discovery is important because it allows us to have information on ancient populations to know because of lack of written sources in central and western Europe. But how did these objects end up down there?

What is the Cave of Flies

The cavity is located in the karst area of ​​the San Škocjan caves, recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Site from the 1986. From a geological and speleological point of view, the San Škocjan caves are among the best examples of the karst phenomenon, thanks to the presence of a canyon dug by the Timavo river (in Slovenian Reka) and the wealth of cavities, underground waterways, sinkholes and waterfalls.

The Cave of the Flies in particular is a sinkholethat is, an almost vertical well about 50 meters deep, which ends in a vast underground room. The name was given to this cavity by one of the Austrian archaeologists who studied it, because during one of the preliminary inspections of the area a fly came out of the opening of the well.


The discovery of the artifacts

At the bottom of this large room, at the beginning of the twentieth century, together with other debris that had fallen from above, archaeologists found an enormous quantity of artefacts, especially in bronze but also in iron, quantifiable in the order of hundreds. Since the bottom of the cave could not be reached except by descending vertically through the karst shaft, the metal objects must have been deliberately thrown from the small opening above.

Once collected, the finds were transferred to Viennacapital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to which the territory of San Škocjan belonged at the time, to be studied, but the outbreak of the First World War and the end of the Habsburg monarchy caused an arbitrary division of the materials: half would have remained in Vienna, while the other half would be sent to Trieste, which had just been annexed to Italy.


What are the objects found at the bottom of the cave

The objects found at the bottom of the Grotta delle Mosche were studied throughout the twentieth century by Italian, Slovenian and Austrian archaeologists. The materials collected during the excavation campaign are more than 800, and their dating ranges fromRecent Bronze Age (1350-1200 BC) to the first phase ofiron age (1000-700 BC).

Bronze and iron artefacts are above all weaponsboth defensive (helmets and armor elements) and offensive (spears, axes and swords), but also situla (a particular type of ancient vase made of metal), cups, utensils and various tools.


On the basis of what is known about the European material culture of the Bronze Age, but also thanks to a series of chemical analyzes to establish the origin of the metal, it was realized with great amazement that the artefacts came from a very vast area including Central Europe, the Italian peninsula, the Balkan peninsula, Sicily and Greece.

One of the most particular characteristics of the site is that most of the materials appear to have been intentionally fragmented, bent or burned before being thrown into the cave.


The interpretation of the artefacts

This practice, known as ritual defunctionalization of objects, was quite common in the Bronze Age and Iron Age, and probably symbolized a disposal of the artefactwhich had as its final function that of being offered to the gods and no longer usable by humans.

This detail is quite relevant in trying to explain the presence of all these weapons at the bottom of the Cave of Flies, presumably thrown into the cavity as offerings to the deities of the populations that inhabited the karst area between the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age.


Why did the Cave of Flies become a sanctuary?

The area of ​​the San Canzi caves, due to its natural peculiarities, must have been a place of great religious and spiritual attraction for the people who inhabited the area at the end of the Bronze Age. The sanctuary of the Cave of the Flies probably therefore had a double sacred valueuniting the chthonic cults (linked to the deities of the underground) with those of water, which, as in the case of the Timavo river, suddenly disappeared underground.

Given the great variety of origins of the materials, the sanctuary must have had a very wide-ranging intertribal appeal throughout Central Europe. The time during which the objects were offered in the Cave of Flies appears to coincide with a period of major social changes in the karst area, with the formation of communities in which the leaders of the tribes recognized each other in common ritual ways. In this context, the area in front of the opening of the cavity was probably a place where pacts or alliances were sanctioned in front of the deities. This particular sanctuary must have had a religious connotation linked to the military sphere: more than 80% of the objects found are in fact military or linked to the elite.

The area was also a crossroads for the trade routes that connected the western Balkan and Danubian areas and the Italian one, and also those that connected the transalpine area (now Germany and France) to the Po Valley.