Due to the rich faunal remains of the cave bear, the cave can be interpreted as a probable den of the cave bear. The remains of a rare species of the cave bear, Ursus Ladinicus, were discovered in the cave, which can be dated in the period between 51.000 and 43.000 BC. There are also modest remains, which suggest that humans visited the cave at least twice in this oldest stage, the Palaeolithic period (70.000 to 20.000 BC). This is indicated by scattered fragments of charcoal and five pieces of stone tools, found together with the already mentioned abundance of faunal remains.
Only in the period of the late Neolithic and Copper Age the cave Ajdovska jama can be seen as a place of worship. It is in this period, that for the first time intentional activities in the cave, carried out by humans, become clearly evident. A tendency to close off the cave can be observed in the construction of the dry-stone wall at the entrance to the right corridor of the cave and in the barrier of boulders located along the right cave wall at the start of the left corridor. The excavations demonstrated that both the left corridor together with its two side tunnels as well as the central hall of the cave were used as burial grounds. On the contrary, the right corridor of the cave did not yield any comparable remains that would point to a similar function. It is presumed that burial rituals were performed in this area and that here the corpses of deceased had been exposed to decompose, while afterwards they were re-buried or finally buried in the central hall or in the left corridor of the cave.
In the later periods, that is, towards the end of the Copper Age, in the Roman period and in the High Middle Ages, the cave was occasionally used as a natural refuge, in which the locals sought shelter in times of danger.
HISTORY OF RESEARCH
The cave Ajdovska jama was known as an archaeological site as early as the 19th century. In 1884, the archaeologist Jernej Pečnik first carried out diggings in the cave (his signature is still preserved in the cave). In 1938, Srečko Brodar uncovered exceptionally rich Holocene layers through the excavation of trial pits, but was unable to prove the presence of Pleistocene humans. The systematic archaeological research in 1967 signifies a critical point in the exploration of the cave. It was conducted by P. Korošec, who for the first time succeeded in determining the use of the cave areas and defined the cave as an underground burial ground or necropolis and as a place where the memory of the dead and afterlife were worshiped. Because of the considerable importance of the findings a new interdisciplinary research began in 1982 on the initiative of the Chair for the Archaeology of Pre-Metal Periods at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana (lead by Milena Horvat) and took place until 1993. The most recent research was conducted in 2002 under the leadership of V. Pohar and G. Rabeder as a collaboration between the Department of Geology at the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Engineering, University of Ljubljana and the Institute of Palaeontology at the University of Vienna and comprised the sampling of Pleistocene sediments and studying of the fossil remains, particularly those of the cave bear.
Indubitably, caves represent a very specific type of burial ground in prehistory, the choice of which must be linked to the beliefs and cults of the people buried there. In the case of the cave Ajdovska jama, there are no separate graves or individual burials, but rather collective graves containing remains of several deceased can be observed. Six of such communal burial groups have been discovered in the cave – four in the left corridor and two in the central hall. Research has shown as well that hearths were placed along these communal grave groups and obviously formed an integral part of the cult of the dead.
Thanks to the diligent work by previous researchers, today we are able to broadly sketch the course of events that once took place in the cave. Mourners would lay the dead in the right corridor, where funeral rituals were performed. Here, the corpses of deceased were exposed to the natural elements in order to decompose. The entrance to the right corridor was closed off with dry-stone wall to prevent animals from carrying away the human remains. In the case of another death in the family or community this wall could be variably opened and closed again. After a certain period of time, they prepared everything for the proper burial either in the central hall or in the left corridor of the cave. However, they did not dig out a pit for the grave, but only placed the bones of the deceased onto a partially levelled surface. As the bone remains of several individuals have been discovered together without any apparent order, it is not possible to determine either the original position (retracted or extended) or the orientation of skeletons. Individual groups of burials were separated from the surrounding area of the cave with stones or were positioned in the side tunnels.
The burial procedures indicate the presence of a cult of the afterlife – a ritual which points to the fact that the relatives (as well as the deceased) believed in the afterlife. Prior to the actual burial, the bones of deceased had been cleaned and specific parts, such as cranial and tibia bones, had been selected for further ritual treatment, whereas some of the bones had been strewn with ochre (the use of ochre – the colour of blood – in burial rituals was common in Europe as early as the Mesolithic period). Several personal belongings had been placed along the deceased during the burial. Jewellery, such as bracelets, pendants and necklaces, has been found near the female individuals, while weapons and tools, such as stone axes and arrows, were present close to the male individuals. Pots, filled with food were also placed nearby and can be understood as a part of the provisions for the afterlife. The burial ritual is indicated also by the pots, filled with grain, by the animal bones and hearths, which have been discovered near the skeletal remains.
CAVE AS A PLACE OF WORSHIP
The aforementioned finds led several researches to infer, that rituals were not connected only to burials, but were conducted also as a part of diverse veneration practices and that consequently, the cave was used as a kind of shrine – a place of worship. The shape of Ajdovska Cave appears simple, composed of a corridor – a semi-circular, arched, elongated space – and a hall – a circular, central space complete with a central dome. Without doubt, the original appearance of the cave in the discussed period should be recognized as a cleverly chosen, naturally formed space, which together with its remains of material culture bears witness to its purpose. At the same time, the cave is the attestation of how the people in the Neolithic and Copper Age periods imagined the otherworld or at least the entrance area to a world after death. Thus, we have reason to believe that the concept of the afterlife in those times was connected with subterranean space. The act of final burial was used by the community to mark the end of grieving period, the re-acceptance of the relatives back into the community of the living and the inclusion of the spirit of the deceased into the community of the dead.