Situated in north-western Bulgaria, and managed by the Belogradchik municipality, the Magura cave (Пещера МАГУРА) is, with the Porto Badisco cave (south Italy), the most important European post-Palaeolithic painted cave. Hundreds of dark brown figures are diffused along an astonishing underground Art Gallery: hunting, dancing and mating scenes, bi-triangular female silhouettes, axes, solar symbols… a prehistoric iconographic treasure which definitely deserves a special attention. [Text and photogallery]
by Andrea ARCÀ
Bulgarian rock art: the Magura Cave paintings
The Magura Cave (Пещера МАГУРА, Peštera Magura in Bulgarian) is a karst cave situated in the north-western corner of Bulgaria, Vidin district, near the village of Rabiša; it is also known as the Rabiša cave. It’s 25 km far from Belogradchik, less than half an hour by car. Белоградчик is a nice town, plenty of tourist attractions, well known for its scenic and impressive Roman-Turkish Kaleto fortress and for the breath-taking sandstone-conglomerate rock formations.
If interested, you may take a look to the related TRACCE photogallery: Magura cave photogallery.
(AA) = picture by Andrea ARCÀ
Peštera Magura is located few km east as the crow files of the Serbian border and 20 km west of the Danube, here marking the border with Romania. It is reported that the name “magura” derives from the Romanian language, meaning hill.
The cave is about 2500 m long and occupies an area of 28,600 square meters; equipped with electric lighting, it is open to tourists, with an underground path paved by steps. On 1960 it has been declared cultural monument and in 1993 a remarkable natural site; it is visited annually by tens of thousands of people. No difficulty is to be reported, except for slippery floor, flying bats and fresh temperature: so, no fear for the bats – eight kinds of them live inside the cave, more than 2000 individuals, they don’t bite… – use appropriate shoes and bring a sweater.
The cave is very wide – concerts are held inside for Christmas and Easter – and does not cause any feeling of claustrophobia nor, on the contrary, of vertigo. The main gallery, which formation started 15 Ma ago, is composed of six chambers, variously sized; the largest one, the so called Arc Hall, is 128 m long, 58 large and 21 m high; along the way, you can admire impressive vaults, stalactites and stalagmites, named as The Poplar, The Pipe Organ, The Oriental City and The Cactus. The cave was frequented by predatory mammals, like wolf, cave bear and cave hyena. Due to the human occupation, also deer, goat, pig and dog bones were found.
The Magura Cave southern entrance lies at an altitude of 371 m above sea level, while its northern one, in front of the Rabiša Lake, the largest inland lake in Bulgaria, enlarged by a dam in 1963, is few meters lower. Once reached the exit, you have to walk back on the road for 1,5 km to return to the starting point.
The inner temperature is constantly 11-12 °C. During 1974-75 summers the cave was utilised for speleotherapy and asthma treatment, with highly successful results, by doctor Vassil Dimitrov. Thirty patients slept in the cave for twelve consecutive nights, taking advantage of allergens absence, constant humidity and temperature. A part of the cave is now used for ageing sparkling and red wines, labelled Magura, thanks to conditions similar to those of the French Champagne cellars.
Guided visits are well conducted by the staff of Belogradchik municipality, to which the management of the cave was transferred in 2012 by the Bulgarian Council of Ministers; opening hours are every day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1.30 to 6 p.m. (summer); in winter early closing at 5 pm. The adult entrance fee is 5 Bulgarian Leva (2,5 € in 2014); photography is permitted inside the cave. For info, you may contact (unchecked) +359 9329 213 (Magura Cave) or +359 936 3469 (Belogradchik museum, firstname.lastname@example.org). At the entrance you may buy souvenirs, such as fridge magnets, painted pebbles or special coins. A useful Bulgarian-English booklet, with colour pictures, is also available.
You may also buy, again at the entrance but especially at the wine shop near the exit, some bottles of the excellent Magura wine, white or red (brut or dry sparkling wine, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Shiraz Cabernet…).
Magura Cave was inhabited, and various archaeological diggings testify this. Regarding Palaeolithic remains (from 100,000 to 40,000 BC), a panel inside the cave reports:
“stone tools of the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic have been recently excavated in the Magura Cave by a Bulgarian, American and German team. The fossilised bones of mammals are abundant in the cave. Some of these preserve cut marks, indicating that those animals were butchered by early humans. Fragmentary human bones have also been recovered: a part of the knee joint and a part of the forehead of the skull of an infant The new excavations at Magura Cave are part of the Balkan Valley Project: this area lies on one of the routes along which ancient humans dispersed into and out of Europe. The archaeology of Bulgaria is critical to our understanding of the evolutionary history of the earliest Europeans”.
With regard to the early Palaeolithic and to the initial hominid dispersal out of Africa, it must be outlined that in the near cave Kozarnika, 6 km from Belogradchik , an engraved bone was found, dating back 1,1 million years ago, with some parallel scratches, reported in the Sofia archaeological museum as “the earliest graphic expression on bone in Europe”.
Again in the Sofia museum, an engraved rock fragment is exposed, “the earliest graphic expression of the European Palaeolithic”, showing parallel scratches; it comes from the Temnata cave, 120 km south of Rabiša, dating back 50,000 BP (Middle/Upper Palaeolithic transition).
Last century diggings (1927 by V. Mihov, 1971-76 by Vidin Archaeological Museum) testify that the Rabiša cave was inhabited during the Bronze and the first Iron Age (3100-900 BC): pottery, stone axes, fireplaces, furnaces and remnants of dwellings made with wooden poles, clay and straw were found and excavated.
The rock paintings
Beyond all the already described attractions, Magura cave is best known for its impressive prehistoric paintings, scattered along an astonishing and dreamy 240 m long underground gallery, for which it’s really worth a visit.
Porto Badisco, a similar painted cave (Apulia – I)
Together with the Porto Badisco cave – Apulia, south Italy, on the western side of the Adriatic sea narrowest point, 80 km from the Balkan peninsula – and concerning post-palaeolithic rock paintings, the Magura cave it’s the most important and extended in Europe. More than 750 darkish figures have been counted, alone, side by side or arranged in scenes; they were made with bat guano, smeared or rubbed in multiple layers along the cave walls; ochre and graffiti were also used. Only along the first sector of the decorated gallery, acting as the unique entry, narrower and going downwards, we can find an intricate patchwork of schematic and anthropomorphic figures, superimposed one to the other. After this step figures are better disposed along the various panels, adapted to the natural sequence of “rooms” and walls.
Пещера МАГУРА, the Art Gallery
Signs are far from the settlement area: a special site was chosen for the “art”, distant 400-500 m from the entrance, with regularly curved shaped vaults and niches, white or yellowish “plastered” by the nature. The Art Gallery is the warmest (13 °C), the only one dry and with no trace of earthquake destruction (Kiril Kirilov, online): clearly the best suited walls to provide an optimal background and to facilitate the execution of the paintings.
In 2008, due to microclimate changing – heating by artificial lighting causing fungi and moss developing – and vandalism, this branch of the cave was closed to the wide public; to see it you should check for info and ask for a specific guided tour. A small fraction of the paintings was treated in 1983 by Aneta Slavova of the National Institute for Cultural Monuments with a special solution; since then no fungi developed on the treated surface. The Mayor of Belogradchik is planning to replace the hot lamps with cold LEDs. The bacterial community was recently studied, collecting and analysing with molecular methods twelve samples of the guano paintings. The presence of eight bacterial phyla and an unusually complicated structure of bacterial community were revealed (IVANOVA et al. 2013). A similar study shows that “psychrotolerant aerobic culturable bacteria isolated from karstic Magura Cave could serve as a source of industrially important enzymes and bioactive secondary metabolites” (TOMOVA et al. 2013).
What is depicted?
At a first glimpse, painted signs can be organised into four thematic groups: anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, geometric, and symbolic (astronomic?) figures. For the first group, we may cite bitriangular silhouettes with raised rounded arms (females with a sort of a waist bow, males with legs and sex like a trident) – sometimes stylised like a “bottle opener” –, archers, ithyfallic figures, copula, linear schematic anthropomorphic figures with raised arms – sometimes like dancing – and “fungiforms”.
Пещера МАГУРА, anthropomorphic and schematic figures
Regarding zoomorpic items, it is possible to list caprids, bovids, dogs, “ostrich-like” animals (big birds) and schematic linear quadrupeds. Geometric signs show T-shaped figures (likely axes), vertical parallel lines (counts?), horizontal zigzags, vertical parallel zigzags, branch-like or tree-like figures, chessboard patterns, rhombi, horizontal stair-like patterns, crossed networks, honeycomb networks and crossed circles. Few rayed circle figures, mainly the two unica of the so-called calendar scene, likely represent a sun depiction. Taking count of some associated figures, we can recognise dancing, hunting, and mating scenes. In the so called Cult Hall a large horizontal dance and hunting scene is depicted, arranged in two main rows: these are the best known and most reproduced Magura Cave images.
Пещера МАГУРА, the so called Cult Hall
Following archaeoastronomical interpretations (STOYTCHEV, GERASSIMOVA 1994), a solar calendar with 366 days and 5 holidays, dating back to the late Copper age (beginning of the IV mill. BC), is supposed to be depicted in one of the most impressing panels, inside the so called Sanctuary Hall.
Пещера МАГУРА, the so called Sanctuary Hall
Such an interpretation is supported also for the Bailovo cave paintings (STOEV et al. 1989; STOEV, MUGLOVA online), where many signs are quite identical to the Rabiša ones, like a rayed wheel, bitriangular silhouettes, chessboard patterns and parallel lines or zigzags. Despite the distance of 200 km – the site is 40 km east of Sofia – we are pushed to think that Bailovo figures were executed not only by the same culture, but also by the same hands. The interpretation as lunar symbols of some images carved on the Bailovo rocks has been criticised, suggesting instead they were the result of quarrying activities (MARK 1996).
Байлово Пещера – BG
Coming back to Magura, contemporary writings and graffiti are not missing, testifying a continued attendance of the cave; the defacing of the ancient signs outlines the complete loss of the original meaning of the “art”. Being executed with bat guano, some few inscriptions stand out: not only modern dates like 1854, 1903 and 1933, but also a Latin inscription, which should be read, with some incertitude, as “SCRIPSI FUCO SUPER ANTRO”; its translation may sound as “I smeared the cave” or, more litterally, “I wrote with the pigment over the cave wall”.
Пещера МАГУРА, Latin inscription
Due to the use of fossil guano, and to the remaking of many figures, a 14C AMS direct dating of the paintings seems not suitable, or at least not performed – surely not known by the present author – until now. Various prehistoric ages are proposed by different researchers, mainly referring to the Copper and to the Bronze Age (V-II mill. BC) – however also Palaeolithic and Iron age are cited – and to the Magura Cave archaeological findings, which anyway don’t seem to be directly related to the art. More than thirty years ago, Paolo Graziosi compared Magura figures to the ones of Porto Badisco – here also many signs are painted with bat guano – expressing the idea that the Rabiša cave items should pertain to a more recent prehistoric phase. Among many differences, he found anyway some contact points (GRAZIOSI 1980, pp. 102-105), citing schematic archers, branch-like figures, chessboard patterns and zigzagging lines.
Archer figures: Magura vs Porto Badisco
Branch-like figures: Magura vs Porto Badisco vs Ubaye
Chessbord patterns: Magura vs Porto Badisco
IMHO, the most typical and diffused figures, women-like silhouettes with raised arms, bitriangular body and a kind of belt or staple in correspondence of the waist, may be compared with Chalcolithic (V mill. BC) marble or bone figurines or amulets: such items (e.g. from Kubrat,Gabarevo, Dyadovo) are exposed at Sofia or Varna archaeological museums. Also some early Bronze Age stone and marble adornments, like the ones from Tell Ezero, are to be considered.
Bi-triangular silhouettes: Magura – Kubrat – Los Organos comparisons
Other items, namely branch-like figures, show strong points of contact with the so called schematic art of the Iberian peninsula painted shelters (Neolithic and Chalcolithic), which extends its influence till the south of France (Eissartènes) and the western Alps (Ubaye). As already supported in ANATI 1976, who suggests a comparison with the Hungarian Bodrogkeresztúr Chalcolithic culture, dated to the 1st half of the IV mill. BC, many T-shaped figures – if not interpreted as an extreme human body or face schematisation – probably recall shaft-hole axes, mainly copper ones, with are thin, elongated and typically slightly convex or downside curved. Shaped extremities may depict the expanded blade and the heel. We may also find more ancient comparisons, like with the Devnya shaft-hole axes, used as grave offerings, dating back to the late Copper age (2nd half of the V mill. BC), exposed at the Varna museum.
T-shaped (axes?) figures: Magura – Devnya comparisons
Looking carefully at the spots where figures are overlapped, it seems possible to glimpse some evidence of painting sequences: e.g., a branch-like figure is overlapped by a schematic “bottle-opener” anthropomorphic figure.
It is anyway to be considered that the paintings were likely made at various prehistoric stages: until the complete catalogue of figures and scenes won’t be recorded, the superimpositions sequence clarified, the relations with pottery iconography unveiled – and last but not least some archaeometric and quantitative data collected – it won’t be easy to articulate a well detailed timeline. However, the prehistoric painting phases, shouldn’t overstep a V-III mill. BC range.
In a few words, such Bulgarian and European treasure of prehistoric iconography, Пещера МАГУРА, surely deserves a special attention, like an in-depth and detailed study, possibly crowned by a desirable and rich monograph.
Pisa University – Dottorato in Scienze dell’Antichità e Archeologia;
IIPP – Italian Institute of Prehistory and Protohistory;
Footsteps of Man Archaeological Society
If interested, you may take a look to the related TRACCE photogallery:
Magura cave photogallery.
ANATI E. 1976, Magourata cave, Bulgaria, BCSP, VI, pp 83-107, online http://www.ccsp.it/web/INFOCCSP/bcsp/bcsp06.html, reading only
BELOGRADCHIK HISTORY MUSEUM [undated], Magura Cave [12 pages, Bulgarian and English].
GRAZIOSI P. 1980, Le pitture preistoriche della grotta di Porto Badisco, Firenze.
IVANOVA V., TOMOVA I., KAMBUROV A., TOMOVA A., VASILEVA-TONKOVA E., KAMBOUROVA M. 2013, High phylogenetic diversity of bacteria in the area of prehistoric paintings in Magura Cave, Bulgaria, Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, v. 75, no. 3, pp. 218–228. DOI: 10.4311/2012MB0279
MARK R.K., ROGERS B.W. 1996, Bulgarian Archaeoastronomy Site or Bulgarian Quarry Site?, Journal of Caves and Karst Studies, 58 (1), pp. 56-58.
STAVREVA V. 2012, Parasitic fungi are eating up the drawings in the Magura Cave, online http://severozapazenabg.com/en
STOEV A.D., MUGLOVA P.V. [undated], Archaeoastronomical Investigations of the Prehistoric Anthropogenic Influences on the Karst Near the Village of Bailovo, Sofia District, online http://rock-cut.thracians.org/en/s_m_bajlovo.php
TOMOVA I., LAZARKEVICH I., TOMOVA A., KAMBOUROVA M. AND VASILEVA-TONKOVA E. 2013, Diversity and biosynthetic potential of culturable aerobic heterotrophic bacteria isolated from Magura Cave, Bulgaria, International Journal of Speleology, 42 (1), pp. 65-76, Tampa, FL (USA) ISSN 0392-6672, online http://dx.doi.org/10.5038/1827-806X.42.1.8.
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Thanks for this interesting article. While checking some paintings from this cave i have found out that there is similiarity in some magura figures with Slovenian traditional mask called Kurent. How it look’s in more modern time you can see from these magical photos from Stojan Kerbler. http://www.stojankerbler.com/?page_id=60
Regarding the so called calendar from Bailovo: prof. H. Todorova, probably the most competent expert on Neolithic in Bulgaria, pronounced the paintings to be medieval (Xth c.) and calibrated carbon data confirmed her judgment. Her results were reported in 1987 but somehow self styled archaeoastronomers fail to mention her work. A quote from a Festschrift (‘In honorem H. Todorova’ available in Archive.org):
“Her excavations in the Bailovo cave, which is a second site with rock paintings almost identical to the ones from Magura, revealed them to be late medieval paintings made probably by the (heretics) bogomils. The fact was confirmed by Calibrated C14 data”.
Very interesting, many thanks! Have you a link to the paper? As for me, it remains undeniable that many subjects of the Magura cave present strict analogies with prehistoric well-dated objects (like Copper age axes and statuettes) and other cave paintings like the Porto Badisco ones, where a close context is present, archaeologically confirmed.
The paper is difficult to find, perhaps on could reach coauthor Ivan Vajsov/Вайсов/ (e.g. through Academia.edu). Some details:
https://archive.org/details/PraeInHonoremHenrietaTodorova is the Festschrift, the comment about Bailovo is on p. xix (in English), a ref. to the research (in Bulgarian) is on p. xxxiv (3rd item for the year 1988).
My comment was rather indirect: there is an undeniable similarity but Bailovo appears to be a rather dubious case. As far as I have seen, its ‘archaeoastronomical’ dating hinges on the reading of a simple cross ‘+’ as denoting the heliacal rising of a particular star. Checking what bright stars were seen to rise in mid February one gets both a name and an epoch (e.g. Betelgeuse in 3000 BC). So if the painting is a calendar and the sign ‘+’ is unambiguously read the dating is obtained.