History of exploration

The first written sources on the Škocjan Caves date back as early as the 2nd century B.C. In 1689, the Slovenian scholar J. V. Valvasor described the sink of the Reka River and its underground flow. The systematic exploration of the Škocjan Caves began in the 19th century, with explorers reaching the banks of Mrtvo jezero (Dead Lake) in 1890.
The last major achievement was the discovery of Tiha jama (Silent Cave) in 1904, when some local men climbed the sixty-metre wall of Müllerjeva dvorana (Müller Hall). The next important event took place in 1990, nearly 100 years after the discovery of Dead Lake. Slovenian divers managed to swim through the siphon Ledeni dihnik and discovered over 200 metres of new cave passages.

People began to live in caves (currently considered to be 3,000 – 1,700 B.C.). The Tominčeva Cave, in which at least 10 skeletons of young people were discovered along with funerary goods (animal bones, ceramics etc.) and buried in a logical order, is probably the oldest discovered burial place in Karst.

From the Antiquity to Valvasor

The first written sources on the Škocjan Caves originate in the era of Antiquity. Poseidonius of Apamea (135 B.C. – 50 B.C.) wrote: "The Timava River flows from the mountains, falls into an abyss (i.e. the Škocjan Caves) and then, after flowing about 130 stadia underground, springs beside the sea." The Škocjan Caves are marked on the oldest published maps of this part of the world; for example the Lazius-Ortelius map from 1561 and Mercator's Novus Atlas from 1637. Valvasor was also impressed with such an important phenomenon. He illustrated the basin of the Reka River and described its underground flow in detail in his work entitled "The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola" (1689). The fact that the French painter Louis-François Cassas (1782) was commissioned to paint some landscape pieces also proves that in the 18th century the caves were considered one of the most important natural features in the Trieste hinterland. His paintings testify that at that time people visited the bottom of Velika dolina.

skocjan caves foto jame zgodovina 1

The beginning of cave tourism

It is, however, difficult to establish when tourism, as such, in the Škocjan Caves truly commenced. According to some sources, in 1819 the county's councillor Matej Tominc (the Tominčeva Cave is named after him) ordered that the steps to the bottom of Velika dolina be made (according to other sources they were only renovated). On this occasion, more precisely on 1 January 1819, a visitors' book was introduced. This date can unequivocally be considered the beginning of modern tourism in the Škocjan Caves.

skocjan caves foto zgodovina 3

Cave exploration after 1800

The Škocjan Caves were explored throughout the 19th century. In order to supply Trieste with drinking water, an attempt was made to follow the underground course of the Reka River. The deep shafts in the Karst were explored as well as the Škocjan Caves, with explorers trying to follow the course of Reka River. In 1839, Ivan Svetina, an expert on wells from Trieste, undertook the latter activity and reached the third waterfall, about 150 metres from the sink in Velika dolina, in 1840. The next explorations, taking place between 1851 and 1852, were led by Adolf Schmidl, with a group of Idrija miners headed by Ivan Rudolf. They penetrated up to half a kilometre farther, to the fourth, maybe even the sixth waterfall. A sudden rise of the Reka River swept away their equipment and three boats, so they were forced to end their work early.

The beginning of systematic explorations

The turning point in the exploration of the Škocjan Caves was the foundation in 1884 of a speleology division by the Primorska Section of the German and Austrian Mountaineering Society of Trieste, which also acquired the lease to the Škocjan Caves in the same year. Under the leadership of the "cave triumvirate" (Anton Hanke, Jožef Marinitsch and Friedrich Müller) and with the help of local people (Jože Antončič, Jurij Cerkvenik - Gomboč, Franc Žnideršič, Pavel Antončič, Jože Cerkvenik, Janez Delez), the systematic penetration along the river and exploration of the caves began. In the first year, they conquered the sixth waterfall, "the key problem of explorations", in 1887 the fourteenth waterfall in the Hanke's Channel, in 1890 they discovered Martel's Chamber and on 5 October that year reached the banks of Dead Lake, almost 1,700 metres further from the last sink.

The last major achievement was the discovery of Tiha jama (Silent Cave) in 1904, when four local men climbed the sixty-metre wall of Müllerjeva dvorana (Müller Hall). This concluded the explorations of the Škocjan underworld, at least for the time being.

skocjan caves foto jame 3

Recent discoveries

There were no important speleological explorations or discoveries for nearly one hundred years, until 15 September 1991 when Slovenian speleologists and divers Janko Brajnik and Samo Morel managed to swim through the siphon in Marchesettijevo jezero (Marchesetti Lake) just before Dead Lake. Below the siphon, they discovered new large passages with an underground river and lakes. This has opened a new chapter: to penetrate down the underground Reka River and reach the passages of Kačna jama (Snake Cave), a kilometre away.

skocjan caves foto jame 2

A chronology of explorations

jame zemljevid kronolosko

A chronology of exploration of the Škocjan Caves underground and the springs of the Timava River:
3,000 – 1,700 B.C. 
Settlement of the Tomičeva Cave, Ozka špiljaHuman settlement (archaeological finds)
4th century B.C.
Written sources
Pseudo Skilax
135 – 50 B.C.Written sources
1599First tracing experiment
1815The Mahorčič Cave
1839The Rudolf Hall
Ivan Svetina, Ivan Rudolf
1851The Müller Hall
Adolf Schmidl
1888First map of the cave
Anton Hanke
1890Dead Lake (siphon)
A. Hanke, F. Müller, J. Marinič, P. Antončič, the Cerkvenik brothers
1904The Silent Cave
Anton, Franc in Jože Cerkvenik, Jože Nedoh
1991Discovery of new parts of the cave behind Dead Lake
Janko Brajnik, Samo Morel

Prepared by: Samo Šturm, Tomaž Zorman, Borut Peric

Kranjc, Andrej (2002): Zgodovinski pregled in opis jam (A Historical Overview and Description of the Caves), in the monograph Park Škocjanske jame (The Škocjan Caves Park), published by the Škocjan Caves Park.
Kranjc, Andrej: Zgodovina odkrivanja jam (A History of Cave Exploration), brochure of the museum collection in the Jurjev barn in the village of Škocjan, published by the Škocjan Caves Park.