History & Culture

History of exploration

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.

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.

Fun fact: 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.

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.

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.

Source: The Skocjan Caves Park Public Service Agency

Tehnical heritage

Awareness of the significance of natural phenomena as an essential part of one's heritage can be gained through appropriate education and the well-planned presentation of key significant sites. The Škocjan Caves Park carries great responsibility in this respect. In its presentation, we rely on historical facts, the rich local culture and the unique nature of the Karst. Century-old paths running throughout the Škocjan Caves system represent part of our technical heritage that is well worth preserving and presenting to visitors.

Numerous local inhabitants from nearby villages, especially Škocjan and Matavun, participated in the construction of trails, exploration and study of caves. They were guides, escorts and workers. Among those deserving special mention are: Jurij Cerkevnik - G’mboč with his sons Toni and Jože, as well as the famous Jožef Cerkvenik – V’ncek and Miklov France Cerkvenik, who was the leader of workers and cave guides after the First World War and after whom the renovated bridge across the Hanke's Channel is named (the tourist trail crosses the underground Reka River across the bridge).

Fun fact: With their relentless work, through which they supported their large families, the local people chiselled nearly 12,000 metres of trails in the caves; this is twice the length of the Škocjan Caves system. The work was manual, difficult and dangerous.

Nowadays, very few visitors walk along the steep trails, which fill them with great awe. It was these brave men who chiselled all these climbing, and later tourist, trails with their own hands, fitted them with wedges and protective wire or fences and built wooden galleries and bridges, thus putting their lives and health at stake. Their work remains a monument to their skills and dedication.

Source: The Skocjan Caves Park Public Service Agency


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