Deep under a quiet valley in southern Greece, archaeologists are struggling to unravel a 1,400-year-old tragedy that wiped out a rural Byzantine community.
Sometime in the late 6th century, a group of at least 33 young men, women, and children sought sanctuary from an unknown terror in a sprawling subterranean network of caves in the eastern Peloponnese.
Carrying supplies of food and water, oil-lamps, a large Christian cross and their small savings, the refugees apparently hunkered down to wait out the threat. But experts believe the sanctuary became a tomb once supplies ran out.
"In the end, they knew there was no hope of escape and just lay down to die in the pitch black," archaeologist Dimitris Hatzilazarou told The Associated Press.
At the time, Greece, which was part of the Byzantine Empire, was reeling under a wave of invasions by Slavs and Avars, a nomadic people of Eurasia, some of whom may have penetrated as far south as the Peloponnese.
The caves, near the modern village of Andritsa some 170 kilometers (105 miles) southwest of Athens, retained their dark secret until their discovery in 2004. Finds from the excavation are currently on display at the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens.
Hatzilazarou and fellow-excavator Lina Kormazopoulou are still searching for clues to explain the calamity. "We think something prevented these people from getting out. It may well have been human action such as an enemy attack, or even a natural event," Kormazopoulou said. "Future investigation should help answer the riddle, but we may never learn the full truth," reports the AP. I.L.