Hanging with the Troglodytes

I confess, I’m fascinated with the way humans adapt to changing circumstances. As much as anything, that was what inspired me to set my Mordecai Crow stories in a post-climate change future. Continuing with a theme, I thought I would blog about the troglodytes of southern Italy, and how their habitations inspired a group of cave dwellers encountered in my second Mordecai Crow book, Quid Pro Crow (due out this May). 

A few years ago we travelled to Puglia in the south of Italy, a part of that history-rich country that has remained a bit of a backwater, although it is gaining more attention in recent years for all of the unique things it has to offer. Among those is a long history of troglodytes, or cave dwellers, that have carved out their homes and churches from the soft porous limestone that exists in the ravines that intersect the landscape.

Most famous of these is Matera, just over the border in the region of Basilicata. You have to see this city to believe it, tumbling down through ancient stepped streets to the bottom of the ravine on which it is located. The area has been inhabited since time immemorial, and is unique in that it was originally a city of caves. Most of the cave dwellings were actually inhabited up until the 1950’s when they were deemed an embarrassment, were abandoned and the residents moved to modern housing in the newer parts of the city. However some of the caves are still inhabited today, both as homes and workplaces, many of them re-inhabited in more recent years and some converted to a boutique hotel!

The rupestrian church of Santa Maria de Idris in Matera, carved out of the rock.

Looking along the ravine, with a view of some of the abandoned cave dwellings on the lower edge of the city. Many of these were still occupied into the 1950's.

But Matera isn’t the only site of cave habitation. Near the town of Mottola, Puglia we tracked down an abandoned cave community that digs have confirmed has been inhabited since the bronze age! Records of inhabitation are dated back to 1227 when a vibrant medieval community lived, worked and worshiped in the cave dwellings in the ravine. More recently, during the Second World War Polish troops were stationed there and left behind the remnants of a church that they had begun to build. 

Access to the ravine is only by six rough hewn stairways carved into the rock walls. The entrance is tricky to find and involves a fair bit of scrambling, but you are rewarded with finding home after home, carved at different levels into the soft rock. Within the caves sleeping areas and cupboards have been carved out and also wells for storage and catching water run off.

A view of one wall of the ancient troglodyte settlement of Gravina di Petruscio.

A close up of some of the home entrances, stacked one on top of the other.

Of the many myths and stories that revolve around Gravina di Petruscio, the one that stuck with me was that in early medieval times, when the invading Saracens had taken control of Mottola and the surrounding area, the local inhabitants had fled to the caves and lived there, undetected, within a few kilometres of their enemy. This gave me the idea for the community of Thunberg in Quid Pro Crow, where Gnostic refugees live unnoticed by the Luddite overlords who have conquered the area.

Besides being hidden, there are a lot of good reasons to live in a cave, especially in a world ravaged by climate change. If doorways are positioned correctly, as they are at Gravina di Petuscio, they can catch the warmth of the sun during the day and remain cool at night. If you go far enough into rock the ambient temperature stays a consistent 13°C winter and summer. It is for these reasons that people and other critters have been living in caves since the beginning of time. I have visited caves where they have determined that bears, humans and other creatures had lived in the same space at different times over millenia, even managing to pinpoint within very short time spans the occupancy of each based on what they had left behind. And probably the most powerful experience I have ever had when travelling was seeing for the first time, deep in the caves of Niaux in the French Pyrennes, prehistoric cave paintings. I have seen many since but that first experience blew my mind, coming face to face with drawings left behind by cave dwellers inspired by what inspires me - putting down a line on a surface to tell a story.

So bringing this full circle, here is a sneak preview of a page from Quid Pro Crow, where Crow and Podd get the tour from one of Thunberg’s inhabitants, Maia.

Secrets of Jarrow chosen as one of the Five best graphic novels for 2023!

I was absolutely thrilled to find out that Secrets of Jarrow was chosen by the Toronto Star as one of the five best graphic novels of the year. Here is the link to the article - check out the other books chosen, as well. I’m feeling like I am in good company.

Upcoming talk at Millbrook Cavan Historical Society Feb. 22, 7 p.m., Millbrook Legion Hall

This is a hometown event, but I am really looking forward to it. I have been asked to come and talk about my work and plan to cover some of the ground I have been talking about recently - how my travels have influenced the landscape of Mordecai Crow. If you live close by, I hope you can make it! 

Here is a link for more information.