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Skocjan Caves Park, Slovenia
 

 

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.

Valvasor’s depiction of Škocjan, copper engraving
Valvasor’s depiction of Škocjan, copper engraving
 
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.

 
In their exploration of the cave, the first explorers helped themselves with torches that, of course, could not entirely illuminate the enormous cave spaces of the Škocjan Caves. In this photograph, a scene by the rimstone pools in the Müller Hall.
In their exploration of the cave, the first explorers helped themselves with torches that, of course, could not entirely illuminate the enormous cave spaces of the Škocjan Caves. In this photograph, a scene by the rimstone pools in the Müller Hall.
 
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.

At the end of over 140-metre high Martel’s Chamber the cave ceiling drops almost to the level of the Reka River.
At the end of over 140-metre high Martel’s Chamber the cave ceiling drops almost to the level of the Reka River.
 
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.

In 1991, nearly one hundred years after the discovery of the then dead end of Dead Lake, the divers managed to swim through the siphon Ledeni dihnik and discovered new parts of the cave.
In 1991, nearly one hundred years after the discovery of the then "dead end" of Dead Lake, the divers managed to swim through the siphon Ledeni dihnik and discovered new parts of the cave. (Photograph by Arne Hodalič)
A chronology of explorations
A chronology of explorations of the underground Reka River canyon in the last 200 years.
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 Tominčeva Cave, Ozka špilja

Human settlement (archaeological finds)

4th century B.C.

Written sources

Pseudo Skilax

135 – 50 B.C.

Written sources

Poseidonius

1599

First tracing experiment

Imperato

1815

The Mahorčič Cave

Eggenhofer

1839

The Rudolf Hall

Ivan Svetina, Ivan Rudolf

1851

The Müller Hall

Adolf Schmidl

1888

First map of the cave

Anton Hanke

1890

Dead Lake (siphon)

A. Hanke, F. Müller, J. Marinič, P. Antončič, the Cerkvenik brothers

1904

The Silent Cave

Anton, Franc in Jože Cerkvenik, Jože Nedoh

1991 Discovery of new parts of the cave behind Dead Lake Janko Brajnik, Samo Morel
 
Prepared by: Samo Šturm, Tomaž Zorman, Borut Peric
 
 
Source:
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.
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Park's Management: Skocjan 2, 6215 Divaca, Telephone: +386 (0)5 70 82 100, Fax: +386 (0)5 70 82 105, psj@psj.gov.si
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