Contested Caves: The Politics of Underground Places

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 82nd Annual Meeting, Vancouver, BC (2017)

Moving beyond established archaeological narratives of the human uses of caves, we will explore some of the diverse political tensions surrounding social engagements with these spaces, particularly from an historical perspective, drawing on case-studies from around the world and from a variety of disciplines. Examples of issues we seek to discuss include: Power relations inherent in religious rituals/secular activities performed in and around caves; Cave deities/forces sometimes regarded as threatening the order of the outside world, and therefore often actively appeased, controlled, destroyed or evicted; Different religious/political groups fighting over control of sacred caves; Tensions over the maintenance of secrecy about the locations of special caves; Conflicts between local people and outsiders over the occupation and use of important natural and cultural heritage caves; Competition between cave owners or environmental groups over their commercial exploitation; Tensions between the development of tourist show caves and the protection of caves and karst areas from environmental pollution and other damage; Tensions between looters and archaeologists over archaeological deposits in caves; Tensions over legislation enacted to protect caves; Tensions over whether or not certain caves should be designated as national monuments; Tensions between different artistic and scientific conventions in representing caves.

Resources Inside This Collection (Viewing 1-9 of 9)

  • Documents (9)

  • The ambivalence of caves and rockshelters in medieval Norway (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Knut Andreas Bergsvik.

    Caves and rockshelters occur frequently in Norway and they were extensively used as dwelling-sites for humans in most periods of the prehistory. During the transition to the medieval period (AD 550 – 1500), however, archaeological excavations show that their use changed significantly. From then on, they mainly served as offering sites, burial sites and as workshops for metal smiths and stone masons. This change may have been related to a change in the perceptions of caves and rockshelters. One...

  • The Archaeologists Role in Looting: Commodity Fetishism and the Tragedy of the Commons (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Erin Ray. Holley Moyes.

    In Marxist philosophy, commodity fetishism imbues an object with a value not inherent to the object itself. This paper explores the ways in which archaeologists have contributed to the fetishizing of archaeological material which in turn promotes the looting of archaeological sites. By nature of our profession, old objects hold more value than modern ones or even replicas. Contextual information about these objects is arguably just as, if not more, important than the object itself. In many...

  • Filling the Gap: Caves, Radiocarbon Sequences, and the Meso-Neolithic Transition in SE Europe (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Clive Bonsall. Adina Boroneant.

    Radiocarbon sequences from some cave sites in the Balkan and Italian peninsulas show a temporal gap between Mesolithic and Neolithic occupations. Some authors have seen this as a regional phenomenon and have sought to explain it in terms of a general population decline in the late Mesolithic, which facilitated the replacement of indigenous foragers by immigrant farmers. In this paper, we re-examine the evidence and consider alternative explanations for the Meso-Neolithic ‘gap’, focusing on...

  • Marking the (Under) Ground: Civil War Soldier Graffiti in the Mammoth Cave Region of Kentucky (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Joseph Douglas.

    During the American Civil War, numerous Union and Confederate soldiers visited dozens of caves in the major karst areas of the border and Confederate states, often marking the subterranean walls with graffiti. In the most important karst area of all, the Mammoth Cave region of Kentucky, caves were significant (and famous) features of the landscape, possession of which was bitterly contested, especially in the military campaigns of 1862. A preliminary study of extant historic graffiti at several...

  • Over, Under, Sideways, Down: Cave Shrines and Settlement in Southwest Prehistory (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Scott Nicolay.

    Although evidence for the use of caves and earth openings as shrines in the North American Southwest begins in the Pleistocene, this practice intensified greatly after the development of agriculture. Many of the region’s major shrines appear divisible into three categories: controlled shrines, to which access was restricted by surface architecture; contested shrines, which were located equidistant between two or more surface sites; and remote sites, which may have marked cultural boundaries....

  • The Politics in Places: An Ethnographic Picture of Highland Maya use of Caves and other Landscape Voids in Guatemala (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Ann Scott. Judith Maxwell.

    Caves and other sacred landscape features such as clefts in rocks and mountain voids embody special powers controlled by earthen, spiritual entities. To the Highland Maya that power personified by the earth owner needs to be maintained, appeased, and managed, even on a daily basis. This maintenance comes in the form of elaborate ceremonies utilizing a number of special items deemed suitable for pleasing the ancient entities. Mayan ritual specialists or daykeepers, who perform the ceremonies, are...

  • The Secrets in Caves: Use of Caves by Secret Societies (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Brian Hayden.

    Caves have been recognized as important prehistoric ritual sites for well over a century. Yet, archaeological discussion of the rituals conducted in caves has rarely gone beyond the platitudes that they were locations for contacting the spirits, invoking powers of fertility, or burying the dead. This paper attempts to place the ritual uses of many caves in a more specific ritual context by documenting the ethnographic ritual use of caves by secret society members and relating this to some...

  • Violence, Politics and Power: Iron Age and Pictish Reinventions of a Prehistoric Mortuary Landscape at the Sculptor’s Cave, NE Scotland (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Lindsey Büster. Ian Armit.

    The Sculptor’s Cave in NE Scotland saw a long history of use, from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Medieval (Pictish) period. Late Bronze Age activity is characterised, as in other caves along this stretch of coast, by complex communal funerary practices involving the exposure and processing of human bodies. Veneration continued for many centuries, yet by the Roman Iron Age (c. 3rd century AD) perceptions of the cave had markedly changed. During this period, several adults were decapitated...

  • White bones in black caves: cave burials and social memory (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Agni Prijatelj.

    White bones in black caves: cave burials and social memory Caves have always been part of contemporary, living landscapes: as such, they have acted not only as natural, cultural, social, economic and ritual places, but also as political locales. One of the most recent, and contested, examples of this phenomenon in Slovenia is the use of karstic shafts as sites of post-war executions between May 1945 and January 1946, in the aftermath of the Second World War. Such sites of mass executions are...