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The Castelcivita Cave
—of Dakhmas, Duffs & Dolomite
I have never even seen so much as a picture of a Zoroastrian Dakhma, a so-called "Tower of Silence," the raised platform where the dead are further sentenced to slow disintegration by the elements and scavenging birds. And I have certainly never seen an alien except for that creature in the "Alien" films—half dinosaur and half killer queen bee. It thus stands to reason that I should have no idea what an alien Dakhma might look like if draped with the shredded skeletal fragments of one of those creatures. But I do. It looks like the picture on the right! I snapped that grisly critter in the Castelcivita cave in the guts of the Alburni Mountains. I snapped it at the exact instant that a drop of calcium carbonate decided to precipitate—or percolate (geologists call it "fall")—from the ceiling and land on my head. This precipitated, in itself, a moment of panic on my part for I knew that I had but precious few eons to move out of the way before I would be inexorably turned into that most hideous of all chimeras—Stalagmite Man! (My panic was tinged with triumph, however, as I thought how this would confound my old man's prediction that, at the rate I was going, if I didn't get off my "duff"—whatever that was—I was "going to throw down roots in front of the damned tv set, turn into a tree and never move again.")
The 280 sq. km Alburni massif in the Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park in the province of Salerno is spectacular above ground. The tableland rises abruptly from almost sea-level. The entrance to the Castelcivita cave is at 94 meters a.s.l. just below and to the south (the left in this photo) of the town of Castelcivita, itself (the buildings just right of and below center in the photo). The sea, itself, is only 10 miles away to the south. The "table" of the plateau above the various towns that ring the massif is at about 1000 meters, sloping upwards to the southwest—a wondrously aerodynamic piece of the Earth just lifting off for its morning flight over the gulfs of Salerno and Naples. The western rim of the plateau is lined with a dozen or so white peaks of Dolomite marble ranging up to almost 2000 meters. In the midst of all that is a rich variety of plant life including a species of primrose called the Primula Palinuri (the symbol of the park), red juniper, crab apple, myrtle, wild pear, pine, hawthorn, beech, white fir, orchids and the sylibum marianum (alias Marian Thistle or Blessed Milk Thistle). And don't forget the olive groves as you start up. Animal life includes the eagle, tortoise, fox, hawk and even the wolf. The Alburni massif is a splendid and little-known nature preserve.
Underground, however, it is just as spectacular but much darker. It's spectacular in its own way; that is, no chlorophyl, sunlight or things that are soothing, green and peaceful. It's a world inhabited only by mineral formations—speleothems (such as in the top photo)—spiking up around you, oozing and growing out of the dark, wet surfaces of the cave since long before there were even creatures like us to be happy that these things can't engulf you any faster than one cubic cm every 50-70 years. I can easily believe that these underworld visions have been sent to us by another successful exploit in remote astronomy. It simply has to be somewhere else in the universe, not here.
But it is. The Alburni massif is the most important karst* (note below) area in Southern Italy, hosting several hundred caves, including the Pertosa caves (see that separate link) and this, the Castelcivita cave, on the SW foothill of the massif—it is the longest karst cave in southern Italy, measuring 5,400 meters in length. Like the Pertosa caves, the Castelcivita cave is a "show cave" meaning that it is open to tourism and has constructed trails and guided tours. About half of the Castelcivita cave is open to the casual lollygagging touchscreen-tapping tourist. For the rest of the route, you have to know what you're doing. I went with the Casual Lollies for this, my first-ever excursion into the Land of Speleothems and enjoyed it immensely.
Given that growth rate of one cubic cm every 50-70 years, it is calculated that the Castelcivita cave was formed in the Upper Cretaceous, that is, between 100 and 65 million years ago. There are also manifestations of human presence (stone tools) from the Upper Paleolithic (about 40,000 years ago), but the cave was hidden for most of modern human history and discovered in February of 1889—discovered in the sense that we can document the day on which two young local lads finally undertook to find out just what was hidden behind the vegetation and beyond that opening in the rock face, that hole that belched flame and smoke every so often (from the spontaneous combustion of collected gasses), earning it the popular name of the "Devil's Grotto." That documentation comes from the fact that both boys got lost and were rescued after six days by searchers. They both suffered the ill effects of having breathed heavy doses of carbon dioxide gas for that period; one of the boys died shortly after the rescue, and the other one lived to write about the adventure.
Real work started in 1920, and in 1925 the Italian Touring Club started a systematic exploration. The Italian Institute of Speleology and various chapters of the Italian Alpine Club joined the effort in 1930. In the 1950s, Cold War considerations led to detailed mapping of the long central axis of the cave and numerous lateral branches; after all, you never can tell when you might need a bomb shelter or command bunker or Officers' Club. An underground lake (Lake Sifone) was discovered, leading to speculation that the Castelcivita cave was, in fact, connected at a lower liquid level to other caves in the area. That was borne out in 1957 by the insertion of colored dye at the Castelcivita site and seeing it pop up at other sites. This led to searches by scuba divers for additional caves and connecting passageways; that, tragically, led to the deaths of three divers in 1973. (I admit I copied that very human fact a bit too automatically from published literature on the cave. Then, quite by chance, the next day in the nearby town of Controne, I came across something that made it sink in the way it should have done the first time. I was glancing at plaques scattered around the town square and was moved when I saw one in memory of "Giandavide Follaca, Giulio de Julio Garbrecht, and Sergio Peruzy, three young Neapolitan divers, in the flower of youth, who died for the love of science that leads to God—May 20, 1973, from the townspeople of Controne."
*Karst: A landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks including limestone, dolomite and gypsum. The word, itself, is the German name of Kras, an area in Italy and Slovenia, where it is called Carso and where the phenomenon was first studied. Karst areas are characterized by sinkholes, caves, underground drainage systems and collapse triggered by the development of underlying caves (Palmer, 1991). In the popular perception, the best known feature of karst areas are stalactites and stalagmites. Reference: Palmer, A.N., (1991), "Origin and morphology of limestone caves" in the Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 103, p 1-21.
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