We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Sacred Darkness

A Global Perspective on the Ritual Use of Caves

Edited by Holley Moyes

Publication Year: 2012

Caves have been used in various ways across human society but despite the persistence within popular culture of the iconic caveman, deep caves were never used primarily as habitation sites for early humans. Rather, in both ancient and contemporary contexts, caves have served primarily as ritual spaces. In Sacred Darkness, contributors use archaeological evidence as well as ethnographic studies of modern ritual practices to envision the cave as place of spiritual and ideological power and a potent venue for ritual practice. Covering the ritual use of caves in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, Mesoamerica, and the US Southwest and Eastern woodlands, this book brings together case studies by prominent scholars whose research spans from the Paleolithic period to the present day. These contributions demonstrate that cave sites are as fruitful as surface contexts in promoting the understanding of both ancient and modern religious beliefs and practices. This state-of-the-art survey of ritual cave use will be one of the most valuable resources for understanding the role of caves in studies of religion, sacred landscape, or cosmology and a must-read for any archaeologist interested in caves.

Published by: University Press of Colorado


pdf iconDownload PDF (91.0 KB)
p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

pdf iconDownload PDF (126.8 KB)
pp. 2-7


pdf iconDownload PDF (103.8 KB)
pp. vii-viii


pdf iconDownload PDF (120.5 KB)
pp. ix-xii


pdf iconDownload PDF (85.1 KB)
pp. xiii-xiv

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (105.9 KB)
pp. xv-xvi

This volume was conceived as part of a line of research that began while I was a graduate student at the University at Buffalo, where I became interested in how space is conceptualized by animals and humans. I had always been fascinated by caves, and my work in Mesoamerican cave...

Note on Radiocarbon Dating

pdf iconDownload PDF (84.2 KB)
pp. xvii-xx

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (185.7 KB)
pp. 1-12

Caves are special places. They are mysterious. They captivate us. They draw us in. They can protect or entrap. Whether they fascinate or frighten, we recognize caves as otherworldly, transitional, or liminal. Archaeologists are interested in caves because many are data rich, containing...

Part I: Old World Ritual Cave Traditions

read more

1. Ritual Cave Use in European Paleolithic Caves

pdf iconDownload PDF (309.1 KB)
pp. 15-26

This chapter examines evidence for ritual Paleolithic cave use in Europe. It begins with a case for limited ritual use of a deep cave by Neanderthals prior to the Upper Paleolithic and the arrival of modern humans in the area. Numerous examples of caves used for rock art by modern humans...

read more

2. Constructed Caves: Transformations of the Underworld in Prehistoric Southeast Italy

pdf iconDownload PDF (318.2 KB)
pp. 27-44

This chapter examines long-term transformations in the human use and perception of natural and artificial caves, particularly as sacred spaces, between the Upper Paleolithic and the Bronze Age in the Apulia region of Southeast Italy (ca. 34,000 BP−3000 BP/1300 BC) (figure 2.1, table 2.1)....

read more

3. Caves of the Living, Caves of the Dead: Experiences Above and Below Ground in Prehistoric Malta

pdf iconDownload PDF (423.2 KB)
pp. 45-58

In the early prehistory of the Maltese islands, the construction of the ritualized use of caves and cave-like spaces above and below ground was an important materialized multiple metaphor for the rituals of the living and the dead, reproducing in miniature form the island itself. A further...

read more

4. Landscapes of Ritual, Identity, and Memory: Reconsidering Neolithic and Bronze Age Cave Use in Crete, Greece

pdf iconDownload PDF (312.7 KB)
pp. 59-80

The island of Crete, lying on the southern border of the Aegean Sea, is rich in caves and rockshelters. One estimate, probably conservative, places the total at around 2,000 (Davaras 1976, 42), of which approximately 10 percent have produced material dating to phases of the Neolithic...

read more

5. Caves and the Funerary Landscape of Prehistoric Britain

pdf iconDownload PDF (183.4 KB)
pp. 81-86

The extensive tradition of archaeological research in Britain has focused mainly on monuments, stratified occupation sites, and humanly modified landscapes, and only in the past two decades has an awareness of natural-place archaeology become salient in intellectual and curatorial...

read more

6. The Subterranean Landscape of the Southern Levant during the Chalcolithic Period

pdf iconDownload PDF (368.0 KB)
pp. 87-108

Human beings find caves, and the subterranean dimension in general, alluring. But the subterranean is also viewed with trepidation, the locus of unknown dangers and mysteries. The idea of the cave as a place of divine immanence, a zone of contact with “otherworldliness,” is one that extends...

read more

7. The Chamber of Secrets: Grottoes, Caves, and the Underworld in Ancient Egyptian Religion

pdf iconDownload PDF (383.6 KB)
pp. 109-124

Ancient Egypt provides the curious case of a theology in which deep caverns play a central role, but without the presence of natural caves upon which theologians could draw for inspiration. Egyptian cosmology is filled with cave symbolism. For example, Egyptians believed that the...

read more

8. Caves as Sacred Spaces on the Tibetan Plateau

pdf iconDownload PDF (252.0 KB)
pp. 125-134

Caves—both natural and created by excavation—are common on the Tibetan plateau. Although the beginnings of cave use on the plateau are currently unknown, caves became especially important with the advent of Buddhism in the seventh century AD. Today, caves continue to be used in...

read more

9. Differential Australian Cave and Rockshelter Use during the Pleistocene and Holocene

pdf iconDownload PDF (399.5 KB)
pp. 135-148

Many researchers have noted local changes in cave and rockshelter use in different parts of Australia from the Late Pleistocene to the Middle and Late Holocene. In many parts of the country rockshelters in more-remote and/or less-accessible locations were adorned with rock art in the...

Part II: New World Ritual Cave Traditions

read more

10. Caves as Sacred Space in Mesoamerica

pdf iconDownload PDF (354.4 KB)
pp. 151-170

Mesoamerica is a term coined by Paul Kirchhoff (1943) to describe a geographical region that includes most of Mexico, all of Guatemala, Belize, and El Salvador, and parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica (figure 10.1, table 10.1). Using ethnohistoric and linguistic data gathered...

read more

11. Footsteps in the Dark Zone: Ritual Cave Use in Southwest Prehistory

pdf iconDownload PDF (297.4 KB)
pp. 171-184

Published studies describe numerous caves in the Southwest as shrines or ceremonial sites. Despite this recognition, there has been little attempt to explore what Walter Hough (1914, 91) described almost a century ago as a “cave cult” that “has survived to the present.” The purpose of the present...

read more

12. Forty Years’ Pursuit of Human Prehistory in the World Underground

pdf iconDownload PDF (246.9 KB)
pp. 185-194

In Eastern North America, systematic archaeology in big caves with miles of dark zone began during the 1960s. Research goals, research techniques, and interpretative frameworks have changed significantly over the past 50 years. The 50 years began in 1963 when Joe Caldwell— then...

read more

13. A New Overview of Prehistoric Cave Art in the Southeast

pdf iconDownload PDF (322.2 KB)
pp. 195-210

This chapter is designed to serve as an introduction to a prehistoric cave-art tradition that has only come to light over the past two decades in the Appalachian Plateau uplands of Southeastern North America. First identified by archaeologists in 1980, this cave art represents a widespread, complex, and...

read more

14. Reevaluating Cave Records: The Case for Ritual Caves in the Eastern United States

pdf iconDownload PDF (279.0 KB)
pp. 211-224

Caves and rockshelters in the minds of archaeologists have historically been cast in the role of temporary shelters and camps. In this chapter I suggest that caves and at least some rockshelters, including several archaeologically well-known locales, were regarded in the past as places...

read more

15. Ceremonial Use of Caves and Rockshelters in Ohio

pdf iconDownload PDF (317.1 KB)
pp. 225-236

Caves and rockshelters represent highly specialized environments within broader cultural systems. Their occupation can be found in Asia during the Middle Pleistocene of China, and throughout Europe and North America. Though such locales can provide protection from the...

read more

16. The Ritual Use of Caves and Rockshelters in Ozark Prehistory

pdf iconDownload PDF (197.6 KB)
pp. 237-246

Caves and rockshelters are common features of the Ozark uplands in the American mid-South (figure 16.1). The dry sediments of these sites contain abundant materials left by pre-Contact American Indians, including an extraordinary range of perishable items usually not found in other...

Part III: Case Studies in Ritual Cave Use

read more

17. The Prehistoric Funerary Archaeology of the Niah Caves, Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo)

pdf iconDownload PDF (389.3 KB)
pp. 249-262

The prehistory of cave use in Island Southeast Asia is commonly summarized as a first phase of domestic use by Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene foragers followed by a second phase of funerary use by Neolithic and Metal Age farmers (Anderson 1997). The sequence was exemplified...

read more

18. Recognizing Ritual in the Dark: Nakovana Cave and the End of the Adriatic Iron Age

pdf iconDownload PDF (302.2 KB)
pp. 263-274

Nakovana Cave overlooks the Adriatic Sea from just below the crest of a 400-meter-high ridge near the tip of the strategically important Pelješac peninsula, 100 kilometers north of Dubrovnik on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast (figure 18.1). In the distance, the sea stretches out to the...

read more

19. Sacred Spaces, Sacred Species: Zooarchaeological Perspectives on Ritual Uses of Caves

pdf iconDownload PDF (205.5 KB)
pp. 275-284

During recent years, the role of animals in structuring and mediating social relations has been increasingly recognized within the discipline of zooarchaeology. In addition, animals and food are being recognized as rich in symbolism and as often-critical components of ritual and religious...

read more

20. Ritual Cave Use in the Bahamas

pdf iconDownload PDF (202.7 KB)
pp. 285-294

The caves of the Bahamas represent an important part of the archipelago’s archaeological record. Cultural materials associated with Bahamian caves include human remains, pictographs, petroglyphs, faunal bone, botanical remains, and a variety of cultural material. Archaeological and ethnographic...

Part IV: Ethnographic and Ethnohistoric Studies

read more

21. Caves in Ireland: Archaeology, Myth, and Folklore

pdf iconDownload PDF (204.5 KB)
pp. 297-308

The underworld is prominent in Irish myths and folktales. It seems that, for millennia, people lived their lives on the surface of the land, aware that beneath their feet a separate world existed, a world that was both fascinating and fearful. Ancient tales recounted how the Tuatha De...

read more

22. Caves in Black and White: The Case of Zimbabwe

pdf iconDownload PDF (168.4 KB)
pp. 309-316

Zimbabwe’s granite plateau is a country of rockshelters, shallow caves, and overhangs. Most of them are millions of years old and existed long before there were any people, but many of these sites have a social history. Stone Age peoples lived, danced, and painted in them. Iron Age farmers...

read more

23. Where the Wild Things Are: An Exploration of Sacrality, Danger, and Violence in Confined Spaces

pdf iconDownload PDF (351.8 KB)
pp. 317-330

In the war-torn and transformed landscape of Timor-Leste, culture is arguably one of the victims and survivors of the quarter-century of Indonesian occupation. In the post-Independence period, with the government and international aid agencies focused upon reinstating such...

read more

24. Ritual Uses of Caves in West Malaysia

pdf iconDownload PDF (300.0 KB)
pp. 331-342

Many readers of this volume are accustomed to considering caves as sacred spaces exclusively in historical and archaeological terms. Others, archaeologists of the Maya in particular, are fortunate enough to brush shoulders regularly with people who still believe in the sanctity of caves. The...

read more

25. A Quantitative Literature Survey Regarding the Uses and Perceptions of Caves among Nine Indigenous Andean Societies

pdf iconDownload PDF (196.3 KB)
pp. 343-352

This chapter reports on a regional study of cave use among nine indigenous cultures of western South America that are located along the Andean mountain chain. In many respects, the Andean region is superlative. Broadly defined either in terms of the mountain range or human perceptions...

read more

26. Caves and Related Sites in the Great Plains of North America

pdf iconDownload PDF (240.9 KB)
pp. 353-362

The Great Plains are not known for spectacular caves, but caves and especially rockshelters are present. Many have been excavated, usually without regard to the possibility of ritual. In this chapter, I discuss ethnographic evidence for the cosmological significance of caves and equivalent...

Part V: New Approaches

read more

27. Civilizing the Cave Man: Diachronic and Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Cave Ritual

pdf iconDownload PDF (154.9 KB)
pp. 365-370

Getting a handle on cave ritual in all of its multifaceted dimensions—origins, evolution, motivation, formal variation, social significance—is an overwhelming task in light of its extraordinary time depth and global distribution. If, for instance, cave burial can be considered a form of ritual, then...

read more

28. Caves and Spatial Constraint: The Prehistoric Implications

pdf iconDownload PDF (343.7 KB)
pp. 371-384

The purposes of this chapter are to introduce “spatial constraint theory” to archaeology and to suggest that it is relevant to understanding prehistoric adaptations to caves and rockshelters. In the 1960s when I was first introduced to archaeology and anthropology, I read works of the...

read more

29. Why Dark Zones Are Sacred: Turning to Behavioral and Cognitive Science for Answers

pdf iconDownload PDF (191.0 KB)
pp. 385-396

According to legend, the monstrous Minotaur—half-man, half-bull—made his home in the Labyrinth at Knossos on the Mediterranean island of Crete. The cave-like Labyrinth—large, dark, complex in layout, but homogeneous in appearance—was built by Daedulus for King...


pdf iconDownload PDF (114.4 KB)
pp. 397-398


pdf iconDownload PDF (167.2 KB)
pp. 399-410

E-ISBN-13: 9781607321781
E-ISBN-10: 1607321785
Print-ISBN-13: 9781607321774
Print-ISBN-10: 1607321777

Page Count: 520
Illustrations: 90 b&w photos, 61 line drawings, 31 maps, 26 tables
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Sacred space.
  • Caves -- Religious aspects.
  • Caves -- Cross-cultural studies.
  • Ritual.
  • Anthropology of religion.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access