The Cracow’s Academy of Learning’s Research on Caves

– Marzena Woźny

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The research on caves undertaken by first Polish national academic institutions forms a fascinating reflection on the core of archaeology. As part of the search for traces of the Palaeolithic man, cave research formed the ground of prehistory. Accordingly, the evidence for human existence during the Pleistocene meant a definitive break with the biblical vision of history.

In the second half of the 19th century, archaeology slowly emerged as a full-fledged academic discipline. In this period, even its scientific affiliation was an issue: it was still discussed whether archaeology was a branch of natural sciences or of the humanities. Thus, while the research on ancient times relied on historical and philological research, the emergence and development of prehistoric archaeology was related to the progress of natural sciences. In 1865 John Lubbock (1834–1913), an English ethnologist and archaeologist, in his famous work Pre-historic Times: As Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages (1865), in which he divided the Stone Age into Palaeolithic and Neolithic, noted that: ‘archaeology forms, in fact, the link between geology and history.’

The fundamental discussion on the place of archaeology in academic research is reflected in the activity of the first Polish academic society.

When the Academy of Learning (AL) was established in 1872, two among its commissions were concerned with archaeological research:

  • The Archaeological Commission – a part of the Faculty of History and Philosophy dealt with archaeology understood in the traditional, romantic way (as knowledge of antiquities) and its activity crisscrossed with historical and art historical research.
  • The Anthropological Commission – a part of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences – focused on prehistoric archaeology with a natural-evolutionary approach.

Importantly, it was assumed that the projects undertaken by both commissions would not overlap. The Anthropological Commission was supposed to focus on cave sites from the Stone Age, while the Archaeological Commission would work on the remaining sites. However, such division was not as clear in practice – the Anthropological Commission put an emphasis on researching caves, yet it also carried out excavations on settlements and cemeteries from later periods.

The research on cave sediments has a 150-year tradition in the Polish lands. The archaeological studies thereof were one of the key tasks in the scientific program of the AL Archaeological and Anthropological Commissions.

In the first period of its activity, they were carried out mainly by Godfryd Ossowski (1835–1897), a geologist, and a citizen of the Russian Empire. In the framework of the activity of the Archaeological Commission he conducted excavations in Podolia and Pokutia, studying, among others, the Grand Barrow of Rizhanivka and the sites of Tripoli culture in Vasyl’kivtsi and Bilche Zolote. On behalf of the Anthropological Commission, Ossowski conducted extensive research on caves in the Tatra Mountains and near Cracow, in Ojców, where he interpreted the cave stratifications and sought to find references to the Western European stratigraphic patterns.

Another researcher, who was involved in cave excavations on behalf of the AL, was Adam Honory Kirkor (1818–1886), who had previously worked in Vilnius. Unlike Ossowski’s, his studies of caves were rather amateur, both in conception and execution. However, it should be emphasized that Kirkor was the first researcher to make studies of the Werteba Cave in Bilche Zolote (where he conducted small surveys in the years 1876–1878). He also tried to solve the issue of the authenticity of rock caves in Eastern Galicia, which intrigued archaeologists at that time.

The AL research in the caves was continued at the turn of the 20th century by Włodzimierz Demetrykiewicz (1859–1937), later professor of archaeology at the Jagiellonian University. His work in this field was of a threefold nature. Firstly, he was delegated by the AL to carry out excavation work. Secondly, he initiated the academic processing of the material excavated on cave sites and stored in the AL Archaeological Museum (mainly Paleolithic and Neolithic). He also acquired such monuments for the Museum’s collection. Thirdly, just before the outbreak of World War I, Demetrykiewicz participated in the AL quest for the caves protection and interdisciplinary research thereof.

At the turn of the 20th century the AL intensified the research on caves in Tatra region. In 1908, the AL and the Tatra Mountains Museum in Zakopane planned to start joint excavations in the cave under the Mount Kopa Magury. The Board of the Tatra Mountains Museum came up with the idea and proposed Mariusz Zaruski (1867–1941) for its implementation. Zaruski was an amateur researcher, painter, mountaineer, and member of the Tatra Society. He had worked on the cave before, but the AL did not want to finance the research of a non-archaeologist. Instead, the research was carried out by Demetrykiewicz in the summer of 1909. While no traces of prehistoric man were discovered, Demetrykiewicz recognized that the cave dating back to the ‘Ice Age’ should be of great interest for both geologists and palaeontologists. At the meeting of the AL Anthropological Commission, he called for interdisciplinary approach and suggested that the members of the Physiographic Commission should join Archaeological and Anthropological Commissions in their research on caves.

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Primary sources & literature

  • Archive of Science, Polish Academy of Sciences (PAS) and Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences (PAAS) in Krakow
  • Archive of the Archaeological Museum in Krakow
  • Lech and J. Partyka (eds), Jura Ojcowska w pradziejach i w początkach państwa polskiego Ojców 2006
  • Lech and J. Partyka (eds), Z archeologii Ukrainy i Jury Ojcowskiej, Ojców 2001
  • Zawisza, ‘Poszukiwania archeologiczne Jana Zawiszy’, Biblioteka Warszawska 1871/4, 40–58
  • Woźny, Włodzimierz Demetrykiewicz (1859–1937). Prehistoryk z przełomu epok, Kraków 2018
  • Zbiór Wiadomości do Antropologii Krajowej