Hidden among gentle swells of western Ukraine’s grain country, Verteba (“crib” in Ukrainian) is a cave with a unique history. As part of a group of caves called The Gypsum Giants Verteba shares the cluster’s characteristic maze of confusing interconnected passages, crawlways and rooms.
Verteba distinguishes itself with a unique history of extended human use that stretches back thousands of years. Archaeological work at the cave began in 1876 and since then excavations revealed startling artifacts including hundreds of colorfully painted clay vessels, human remains, a bone plate, ceramic sculptures, and 120 anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines. Some of the items document trading that occurred with other European cultures.
Researchers hypothesize that the cave was used principally as a burial or ritual site and not for habitation. The oldest radiocarbon date is from nearly 5,000 BC and peak activity at the cave occurred around 3500 BC. Because of its rich archaeology Verteba offers insight into ritual practices of Neolithic man.
More recently the cave was used during WWII by Jews hiding from Nazis, but from Day 1 the Jews found the location poorly suited to habitation. The cave is poorly vented and their breathing was hindered when smoke from cook fires build up, and the cave contains no water supply. One of the group’s teens dug a back entrance, which was used when the Gestapo raided the cave one night.
Today the cave is securely gated and serves as an educational tool for students and educators on topics such as geology, archeology and history.
Priest’s Grotto: Rarest among caves
Among the hundreds of thousands of caves around the world, Priest’s Grotto is unique — one of only a handful called the ‘Gypsum Giants’ owing to their unique bedrock and extreme length. The gypsum, a soft mineral, forms dramatic displays of crystals.
As the 2nd longest gypsum cave anywhere, and 11th longest cave in the world, Priest’s Grotto is a labyrinth of large rooms, curving passages, and claustrophobic spaces at least 80 miles long. Unknown passages are still being found today by cavers based out of camps set up deep within its maze. Getting fatally lost remains a constant concern during any exploration.
The cave complex is named for the fields of the local parish priest it sat under decades ago, but later it also became known as Ozernya or Blue Lakes Cave, when cavers first started exploring it in the 1960s and found five fresh lakes within, an essential reason the survivors were able to thrive so long underground.
The Survivors became world-class cavers
Modern cave explorers would not consider going underground without reliable light sources, technical and safety gear, navigation experience, clothing to stave off hypothermia, and of course an adequate supply of food and fresh water. The survivors had none of these. When they frantically entered Verteba Cave first, and then Priest’s Grotto, living underground posed an entirely new set of challenges and ways to be killed.
- Getting lost: With few candles and little lamp oil, they had to move through the cave in the pitch black. Instinctively, their hands and feet learned to recognize the cracks, rocks and turns in the passages to successfully aid navigation, a remarkable feat.
- Hypothermia: In the constant 50F temperature and 90% humidity, their threadbare clothing did little to insulate. To conserve heat, they cleverly created ‘rooms’ by walling up chambers with rock and mud to stop drafts. They slept in groups up to 18 – 20 hours at a time, and stayed active while awake with chores that helped generate heat.
- Smoke inhalation: In Verteba, their “kitchen” wasn’t vented which almost resulted in the death of one of the children. When they moved to Priest’s Grotto they knew better and set up their kitchen in an area where they found natural venting.
- Water: Humans can survive for weeks without food, but after only three days without water severe dehydration leads to death. Verteba lacked a water source so they carefully collected water drippings from the walls in small jars, but water was an ever-present crisis and thirst a constant. In Priest’s Grotto, the discovery of an underground freshwater lake was singularly the most welcome sign that here, yes, they could survive. They went out of their way to keep their water source clean.
- Malnutrition: After water, food was of course a constant concern. Their supply was extremely limited and consisted principally of root vegetables and grain. Modern cavers carry high-energy foods, but on meager rations the survivors suffered from malnutrition and scurvy and lost about a third of their body weight.