Pod Hradem cave

Dr. Ladislav Nejman (University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia) and Dr. Duncan Wright (Australian National University, Canberra, Australia)

The Setting: Pod Hradem cave is situated in the Moravian Karst region of south-eastern Czech Republic. This region, 20km north of Brno, is home to spectacular scenery including deep canyons, towering cliffs, vast underground cave and river systems and dark forests. The Macocha Abyss (at 138 metres, one of the deepest in Central Europe) is located several hundred metres from Pod Hradem. Pod Hradem cave is situated off the tourist trail, 60 metres up a steep slope above the valley floor and directly underneath the overgrown ruins of a Medieval castle. Pieces of pottery scattered across the hillside date to between the 13th and 15th centuries, testament to bustling activities at Blansek castle during this period.

Pod Hradem cave experienced limited excavations in 1890, 1896, 1897 and 1898 (Trampler 1898; Knies 1901) followed by a major excavation in 1956-1958 (Valoch 1965). New dates were obtained by Neruda and Nerudová (2013) from samples from the 1950s excavations. Pod Hradem provided insights into cave bear and limited human activity during Middle and Upper Palaeolithic periods.

The project: The presence of human activity during the M-UP Transition (50-40,000 years ago) made Pod Hradem a very important site in Central Europe. In Africa and Europe many believe this period witnessed the extinction of Neanderthals and the arrival of Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH). It was also marked by a “symbolic revolution” (e.g. Klein and Edgar 2002; Bar-Yosef 1998), including painted and portable art and “non-functional” tools. This was around the time of the famous Chauvet rock art, in France. For this reason we wanted to find out whether or not we could better understand how this transition affected communities in present day Czech Republic.

The 2011 field season

On 24 May 2011 our team began archaeological excavations at Pod Hradem cave.

The cave is difficult to access and this presented us with a number of logistical difficulties! Here is the only path up to the cave from a road in a valley below. All equipment had to be carried to the site along this trail and bags of excavated materials transported down by cable car, a wonderful construction by David Sojka. We were helped in excavation and sieving of deposits by many students from Masaryk University and many other volunteers from Australia (see list below).

List of archaeologists who have worked on this site: Niall Kenny, Zachary Jones, Šárka Holmanová, David Sojka, Vlasta Dadejová, Anthony Nejman, Petr Škrdla, Tereza Rychtaříková, Libor Tesař, Anežka Fajkusová, Michaela Turková, Alexandra Punová, Simona Kubisová, Adam Forst, Martin Vojtas, Tereza Boušková, Michal Šťastný, Eva Skalická, Dagmar Smiešná, Jana Kučerová, Marek Novák, Robert Gargett, Alethea Kinsale, Lenka Jurkovičová, Sureyya Kose, Petr Matějec, Miroslav Šenkýř, Sandra Gregorová, Ondřej Sitek, Martina Petrášová, Sheahan Bestel, Ondřej Mlejnek, Jana Němcová, Kateřina Paseková, Pavlína Hlavatá, Lucie Sýkorová, Tereza Šťastná, Lydia MacKenzie, Martina Pacher, Peter Ross, John Hayward.

Excavation took place over two months. During this period, huge quantities of bone (much of which belonged to locally extinct animals such as cave bear, reindeer, wolf, auroch, horse and badger) was recovered. In addition a number of significant human imported artefacts were recorded. These include stone tools (many of which came from over 100 km from the site), an extremely rare personal ornament and the remains of a hearth at the very bottom of the trench. After excavation many expert scientists from all over the world helped to analyse materials. This includes collaborators in Australia, United Kingdom, France, Austria and Czech Republic.

The art object measures less than 1cm long and 0.2cm wide and has three sets of incisions. Detailed analysis by collaborator Professor Francesco d’Errico show us that this artefact was made using at least two different stone artefacts. The skill required to make this, i.e. the regularity of decoration and ability of the artist not to pierce the cavity at the centre of this tiny bone, is remarkable. Detailed analyses of this object are scheduled for publication in the journal “Antiquity” in March 2014 (see reference below).

The hearth feature In this photo you can see a dark patch in the stratigraphic profile. This dark matter reflects a high concentration of charcoal intermixed with sediment. Between 48 and 46 thousand years ago, somebody visited this cave, built a fire from larch and Swiss pine wood brought into the cave from not far away and feasted on some meat and pine nuts. These people (could have been either Neanderthals or one of the earliest modern humans that penetrated into this area) stayed for perhaps several days or a week and then moved on. Given that this area is in high latitudes, it was severely affected by the rapid climate changes well documented in ice and marine sediment cores. Radiocarbon dates that we obtained several months after the excavation suggest that this visit took place during one of the warm spikes termed Greenland Interstadial 12.

The 2012 field season

Excavation was continued by Ladislav Nejman and Duncan Wright in 2012 at which point we dug into older, un-tested layers. We also extended the pit into a 3 x 1 m trench (A, B and C in map above).

In addition to the artefacts found in 2011, we recovered thousands of pieces of animal bone, a flaked tooth and further stone tools. We also obtained further evidence of human activity, with more charcoal and a number of large pieces of stone that had been brought into the cave by humans.

Countless hours were spent completing post-excavation tasks. For example, all of the sediment was sieved through a 0.25 mm mesh for maximum recovery of preserved plant material. It was then sieved using 2 mm mesh and all remaining material were bagged for further processing in the laboratory. Archaeological materials were then sorted and analysed.

Lithics: All excavated artefacts (with the exception of the two earliest flakes) came from widely different sources, which are often located more than 100 kilometres from the cave. This indicates to us that the people who visited this cave were highly mobile, often travelling for a hundred kilometres or more, possibly on hunting expeditions.

This stone artefact is made of porcelanite, a stone used for making stone tools and it only occurs near a town called Kunětická Hora in eastern Bohemia, approximately 120 kilometres north-west of Pod Hradem cave.

Manuports are rocks that were brought to the site by people. There are a few dozen of these rocks in the 2011-2012 excavation. We know that they were brought to the site because the material is different from the geology of the cave, but we don’t know their function. Perhaps they were used for sharpening tools or grinding pine nut seeds for eating.

Importantly, we now were in a position to get more radiocarbon dates for the excavation. These showed us that the cave dated back at least 50,000 years (with cultural materials and cave bear bones continuing below the base of excavation) and continued to be used up until around 27,000 years ago. The layer that had contained the bone, art object (now also a tooth flake and an exotic stone artefact) was dated to between 36,000 and 42,000 years ago. The hearth feature was older still (approximately 46,000 – 48,000 years ago). Further information can be found in the Project Gallery section of Antiquity http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/nejman337/. It was now clear, that we were dealing with a site that had been visited during the Middle and Early Upper Palaeolithic periods. The question was what species were visiting?

Neanderthals or Modern Humans?

Archaeology in Europe suggests that Neanderthals were the indigenous people for hundreds of thousands of years. As mentioned above, anatomically modern humans started to settle in Central Europe around 48,000 years ago. Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans may have met and interacted in Moravia, but we have no definitive proof of this as yet. Pod Hradem dates to this critical period. The hearth, manuports and stone tools in layer 10 were deposited 46-48 thousand years ago so intriguingly, in this sort of a time range, it could have been either the first Anatomically Modern Humans to enter this area, or one of the last Neanderthals, that deposited these remains. We won’t know for sure until we find actual bones of the people themselves. This could happen in the next excavation! However, there are some inconclusive indicators that it was Neanderthals. The type of manuports brought into the cave and the raw material of the heavily worked stone tool are very similar to the material found 4 kilometres away at a large Neanderthal cave Kůlna. The way the stone tool was shaped also hints at Neanderthals.

Climate/ Environment change in the vicinity of Pod Hradem?

As well as collecting cultural materials we were also interested to see whether pollen and sediments could provide us with insight into climatic shifts in the vicinity of Pod Hradem. We are still completing analysis, however there is evidence that the environment has changed significantly. Today this area is covered by dense forests, however during the past the landscape was covered in glacial vegetation (for example, the Swiss pine, a species extinct in this area today, which can tolerate temperatures up to -50 degrees. It still grows today in high mountain ranges a few hundred kilometres from Pod Hradem and in Siberia, where pine nuts are still being harvested from this tree). Animal bones from Pod Hradem also suggest species typical for a glacial landscape, such as cave bear, horse, auroch or bison and reindeer.

So having found so much out about humans/ environment in Moravia – where to now? It’s simple. We haven’t reached the bottom of the excavation. This means that we have no idea how long ago people first arrived at Pod Hradem! We have tantalising clues that suggest the first arrivals may have been Neanderthals, however the critical phase (pre-50,000 years ago) remains poorly understood. We hope to continue excavating this site once we secure more funding.


This project was funded from the SoMoPro program. Research leading to these results has received a financial contribution from the European Community within the Seventh Framework Program (FP/2007-2013) under Grant Agreement No. 229603. The research was also co-financed by the South Moravian Region and the Department of Anthropology, Masaryk University.