Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Greek Cave Puzzles Archaeologists

ATHENS -- 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 6th century, 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 Hatzilazarou said.

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 retained their dark secret until 2004. Finds from the excavation are currently on display at the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens.

Hatzilazarou 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.

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 -- probably entered the caves through a near-vertical, 14-meter shaft. "They seem to have had warning of an imminent danger, and fled to a hiding place they knew," Kormazopoulou 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."

The coins helped date the events to just after A.D. 575. A Byzantine chronicle mentions a Slav invasion of the Peloponnese in A.D. 587, but so far no archaeological evidence has been found to back that up.

Excavators believe the victims, who included teens and children, 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, I was haunted by what we had seen."