Dye-Tracing Archaeology

Toxic chemicals leaking from an old wastewater treatment plant in Alabama have unexpectedly led to the discovery of a 1,700-year old “pre-historic village” buried in the ground nearby. Chemicals “have seeped into the ground surrounding the old plant,” according to a local news station, so “the soil needs to be removed and taken to a toxic waste facility.”

However, a survey of the contaminated site soon revealed that the ground also contained extremely well-preserved artifacts “from a village that once thrived” there. “Lo and behold,” the head excavator remarked to the news show: “we found a massive late-middle Woodland period village.”

It’s not hard to imagine someone another 1,700 years from now accidentally discovering the forgotten city of, say, New York—or Chicago, or Bangkok, swallowed by mud—after a chemical leak at a nearby factory: radioactive liquids drain down through the topsoil, flowing around buried walls and ruins, forming iridescent pools on floors in basements—slow and toxic streams tracing the shapes of old stairways, lighting a path for future excavation and descent. Like giving the earth a radiopharmaceutical, you fire up a ground-scanning machine, trace the pollution underground, and, lo and behold, the dark outlines of buried cities start to glow.

[Images: Dye-tracing cave systems; note that the chemical used is supposedly non-toxic].

In fact, I’m reminded of dye-tracing techniques used for mapping otherwise impenetrable or overly complex cave systems. In James Tabor’s wildly uneven 2010 book Blind Descent, for instance, we read about legendary caver Alexander Klimchouk, who set about dye-tracing caves on the Arabika Massif, including Krubera Cave, currently the deepest known cave in the world.

“In 1984 and 1985,” Tabor explains, “[Klimchouk] poured fluorescein dye into several caves, including Krubera, high on the Arabika. Traces of that dye later flowed out of springs on the shore of the Black Sea far below. More traces tinged the water 400 feet beneath the surface of the Black Sea, miles offshore,” indicating genuinely—in fact, record-breakingly—huge dimensions for the overall system of caves.

[Images: Dye-tracing caves].

But even the most remote, fictional possibility that future spelunking archaeologists might someday map lost cities—London, Moscow, Beijing, Rome—by using dye-tracing packs to illuminate that underground world of collapsed halls and buried rooms is extraordinary. Cartographers in mountaineering gear and helmet-mounted floodlights descend into the New York subway system in 5,161 A.D., following luminescent trails of fluorescein dye, crawling, walking, rappelling into the underworld on the trail of shining rivers as subterranean ruins begin to shine.

(Alabama story found via @ArchaeologyTime).


[Image: The Georgian cave monastery of Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

Vardzia is a ruined honeycomb of arched passageways and artificially enlarged caves on a steep mountainside in Georgia. It is on a “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage status.

[Image: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

Quoting from Wikipedia:

The monastery was constructed as protection from the Mongols, and consisted of over six thousand apartments in a thirteen-story complex. The city included a church, a throne room, and a complex irrigation system watering terraced farmlands. The only access to the complex was through some well hidden tunnels near the Mtkvari river.

Nearby are the ruins of another cave monastery, called Vanis Kvabebi.

[Images: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

In the formal application sent to UNESCO for consideration of the site, we read that the architecture of this region can be seen as spatially punctuating the landscape, supplying moments of almost grammatical emphasis:

Fortresses and churches erected on high mountains and hills are perceived as distinguished vertical accents in such a horizontally developed setting. They terminate and emphasise natural verticals, being in perfect harmony with the latter. They introduce great emotional impulse imparting specific grandeur to the whole environment. The same artistic affect is created by rock-cut monasteries and villages arranged in several tiers on high rocky mountain slopes.

Originally constructed in the 12th century—in a region inhabited by humans since at least neolithic times—and very much resembling one of the cave-cities of Cappadocia, Vardzia is a spatially fantastic site (and, I’d assume, a videogame level waiting to happen).

[Images: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

It is also located in one of the most geologically interesting places on earth—at least from a subterranean standpoint—as the nation of Georgia also contains the world’s deepest known cave.

As National Geographic explained in an article several years ago, Krubera Cave—also known as Voronya—is still incompletely explored, despite its record-breaking, abyssal depths; expeditions have spent more than three weeks underground there, mapping windows and chambers, sleeping in tents, and using colored dyes to trace rivers and streams locked in the rock walls around them.

Check out this sequence of images, for instance, documenting an organized descent into the planet—or this article about caving in Abkhazia, or even this summary of the “Call of the Abyss” exploration project that sought to find the true depths of Voronya Cave.

[Images: Vardzia, as seen in some stunning photos by cosh_to_jest].

In any case, there’s absolutely no geological connection between Vardzia and Krubera Cave—there is no secret tunnel system linking the two across the vast Georgian landscape (after all, they are extremely far apart)—but how exciting would it be to discover that Vardzia had, in fact, been constructed as a kind of architectural filter above the stovepipe-like opening of a titanic cave system, and that, 800 years ago, monks alone in the mountains reading books about the end of the world might have sat there, surrounded by fading frescoes of saints and dragons, looking into the mouth of the abyss, perhaps even in their own local twist on millennial Christianity standing guard over something they believed to be hiding far below.

[Images: Vardzia, via Wikipedia].

In fact, I don’t mean to belabor the point here, but I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the CIA has satellite photos that have been used as scouting documents for the rumored location of Noah’s Ark—it is “satellite archaeology,” one researcher claims. That is, there being quite a few religious members of the U.S. government, things like Noah’s Ark are considered more objective and archaeological than they are superstitious or theological.

But how absolutely mind-boggling would it be to find out someday that there is, operating within the U.S. intelligence services, a small group of especially religious analysts who have been scouring the Caucausus region, funded by tax dollars, and armed with geoscanning equipment and several miles of rope, looking for the entrance to Hell?

You can see further images of Vardzia here.