CRL laboratory dated the oldest cave paintings in the territory of the Czech Republic

27. 06. 2019

The research on age determination of inscriptions and drawings found in the Katerinska Cave in the northern part of the Moravian Karst has been carried out since 2017 in cooperation with the Cave Administration of the Czech Republic, Palacký University in Olomouc and the CRL laboratory jointly operated by the Nuclear Physics Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Institute of Archeology of the CAS, Prague.

Hundreds of modern inscriptions, signatures, dates as well as abstract figures composed of lines and dots drawn with charcoal (so-called “epigraphs”) were found in the Katerinska cave, most of which are located in the part called Ice Corridor.

In 2017, the pilot sampling and subsequent radiocarbon analysis (“absolute dating”) executed by the CRL laboratory of the Nuclear Physics Institute AS CR revealed that one of the drawings dates back to the 13th century. However, analysis of samples taken earlier this year (2019) uncovered that some epigraphs come from a much earlier period, being dated to prehistoric times. Among them are the oldest three cave drawings heretofore found in the territory of the Czech Republic. The results of the analysis indicate that these drawings originated about 6200 years ago and therefore are of early Neolithic origin (Stone Age). Moreover, according to the radiocarbon dating performed thirteen years ago, they are approximately eight hundred years older than the pattern discovered in the nearby Bull Rock cave, previously considered the oldest.

The examined epigraphs from the Katerinska Cave were found at the point where the Ice Corridor ends and meets the Main Dome of the cave with occasional stalactites which is 90 by 44 meters in size and is the largest publicly accessible natural underground space in the Czech Republic. Considering its location deep underground, the epigraphs might have been linked to the cult of Mother Earth marking its ceremonial place. In addition, it should be noted that prehistoric people inhabiting Central Europe began to draw geometric shapes on the cave walls before they started to paint animals.

The samples were processed by the CRL (NPI) laboratory. Consequently, the AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) measurement was performed in Debrecen, Hungary. (It will be possible to carry out our own measurements in the Czech Republic without having to send processed samples to foreign facilities as part of the currently running project RAMSES after the completion of the construction and equipping of the AMS laboratory in Řež.)

The CRL laboratory developed a new sampling method, which allows to preserve the contours of the drawing the sample of which is being taken from and only brightens the drawing, unlike the usual mechanical sampling methods that irreversibly destroy the sampling area.

The new procedure will be published in scientific journal. The journey of our technicians to the cave and analyzes were partially covered by the project RAMSES mentioned above, while the first series of samples was financed by the Cave Administration of the Czech Republic.

The event received a wide media response: on 21st June, 2019, a brief report of Martin Golec from the Department of History of the Palacký University in Olomouc was published in regional daily newspaper “Prostějovský deník”. An interview with this archaeologist was broadcast by Czech nationwide television channel ČT24 on 24th June. The nationwide daily newspaper “Právo” published a longer article on 22nd June and the related website on 25th June. The other nationwide daily newspaper “Blesk” joined on 24th June and subsequently other Internet media joined. Radio Praha (Broadcasting on Czech Radio’s channel) brought information in English on 28th June.

(Cover photo: Natália Megisova from the CRL laboratory taking a sample from a drawing in the Katerinska Cave. Photo source: Petr Zajíček, Cave Administration of the Czech Republic, 2019)