The cave dwellings in the Bükk were built on easily workable rocks, such as volcanic rhyolite tuff, calc-tuff and sandstone. The exact age of cave dwellings is not known, but experts estimate that they are not older than 250 years, although land registers mention inhabited cellars in the area as early as the 1570s. This type of dwelling was common in the villages of Andornak, Bogács, Cserépfalu, Cserépváralja, Kács, Kistálya, Noszvaj, Ostoros, Sály, Szomolya, Tibolddaróc. Being wine-growing areas, the wine cellars are part of the image of the villages, but the locals also built their own dwellings adapted to the conditions, usually on the sides of hills, often alternating with wine cellars. Less frequently, they may have included a porch, a patio, a small courtyard or a nearby hollowed sty or pen. The cellars were mainly privately owned, but they were sometimes used as servants' quarters or rented out as accommodation for farm workers.
Ottó Herman was the first to study these dwellings from the perspective of ethnography and carried out fieldwork on two occasions, in the winter of 1900 and the summer of 1901. Ottó Herman recorded his experiences in his diary and made several drawings of cave dwellings during his travels. A few lines about the expedition were published in the 1901 issue of the Natural Scientific Gazette. "Ottó Herman (...) discovered a whole system of cave dwellings in the Borsod region, as he had done in the Heves part of the Bükk previously. The cave dwellings are inhabited by good Hungarian people."
The cave rooms were mostly shaped by stonecutters: the rock for the façade was cut smoothly, and then, after the doorway was made, the cave was deepened. This meant two months of work for an average-sized dwelling, and daily maintenance of the pickaxes by the blacksmith. It is recorded that a craftsman from Sirok completed twenty-one cave dwellings, the last in the 1950s.
The cellar houses were generally one-roomed in the interior, with a kitchen and pantry, the latter also serving as a sleeping area for children. The rooms may have been separated by walls and doors, opening from each other or, less frequently, separated by a wall and accessed separately from the courtyard. These were arranged along the street, but were somewhat different from the third type, the cellar-type cave dwelling, whose rooms were carved out towards the crest of the hill or mountain, so that their interior rooms were not in direct contact with the outside world and the sun. In some cases, the latter was extended into L-shape with an extra room at the street front. The fourth type was the one-storey cellar house, which was a rarity, only two survived in Sirok and Szomolya, and the builders went beyond the one-storey village buildings of the time with their higher technical solutions, such as the construction of a staircase for example.
The solution to the problem of fireplaces and smoke ventilation was a cardinal issue for the dwellings. There were instances where, in a particularly archaic way, the open fire burned in the centre of the room and, in the absence of a vent, the smoke was exhausted through the door and window. More typical were the internal combustion furnace and the smoke ventilation through a vent and a chimney. The advantage of the externally heated furnace was that there was no need to provide for smoke ventilation, as the ignition was outside the dwelling, in the porch, where the mouth of the furnace opened. As a remarkable practice, the smoke was channelled into the attic carved above the dwelling to preserve the pork.
The cellar-houses were also furnished in a puritan manner, with only a few pieces of furniture; a bed - often a stone cot or stone bench - a table, sometimes a chest, a bench, a cradle. There was also a record of a dwelling with a bathtub.
A 1957 report from a collecting trip to Szomolya describes the dwellings:
"Two thirds of the population used to live in caves carved into the hillside, now very few people live in them; they are used as cellars or outbuildings. The building could be a half-covered or a full cellar. The first had a kitchen at the front, a room attached to it, a pigsty or henhouse in the courtyard or also carved into the stone, and not rarely an attic above the house as well. Some had an open chimney; the smoke went up to the attic and from there through a chimney to the open air. From there, you could go up from the kitchen to the attic on a stone staircase. The courtyard is about 4 x 4 m. There are places where the bed was also carved in stone and covered with a rag blanket. The room is about 2 m high, 3x4 m large, furnished with a bed, a bench, a table, a few bowls on nails hammered in the wall, a lamp. The whole dwelling is whitewashed."
For a long time, cave dwellings were not considered inferior in comfort to the emergency dwellings built for the poorer social classes. However, by the 20th century, to live in one meant to live in poverty. It was common for elderly, lonely people to be 'stuck' within the cave walls, attached to their homes for the rest of their lives. In many cases, the dwellings were inhabited by hired labourers whose poverty made this accommodation bearable; their minimal heating bills and taxes did not impose an unbearable burden on them.
The damp, mouldy environment was the cause of many problems, with leaking groundwater having to be drained out of the house through tunnels in the floor, and consequently respiratory diseases. In addition, these dwellings were not completely safe, the façades of the flats often collapsed and the ceilings sometimes fell down – due to the leakage for one reason.
Zoltán Szabó wrote about the unsustainable conditions in his 1938 sociography, Cifra nyomorúság (Fancy Misery):
"60% of Tibolddaróc's inhabitants live in cave dwellings, 37.2% of Szomolya's. (...) Tibolddaróc has 32 caves, Szomolya has 10 caves that are life threatening. The average number of inhabitants per cave in Tibolddaroc is seven, but if we add the animals that are brought into the cave, there are many more creatures in winter in the narrow cavities of each den. (...) The windows are narrow, the walls are damp, water seeps in on the roof when it rains, the air is musty, and the food go mouldy. Sometimes people and animals are in the same room. The sun barely shines in. Cleaning the house is difficult because of the darkness, and in the dark, damp air, disease-causing fungi and bacteria multiply freely. Because of this, infant mortality and tuberculosis mortality are three times higher than elsewhere."
Throughout the century, and especially in the second half of the century, the state sought to eliminate this 'social disgrace'. At times, relocation efforts gained momentum, as exemplified by Mikszáthfalva in Tibolddaróc, a new housing estate built with donations from politicians and companies, which was handed over to people coming from cave dwellings in 1936. In practice, however, it was not seamless, because it did not attempt to tackle the problem at its root. The relocated people were levied almost three times as much extra tax and the heating of the houses was considerably more expensive.
Social measures helped to make the cellar houses in the Bükk uninhabited by the end of the century. In Cserépváralja, a cave house illustrates the interiors, furnishings and atmosphere of the former cellars. Since the 1990s, the Farkaskő Art Colony has been operating in the abandoned cave dwellings of Noszvaj, highlighting the importance of preserving the memory of underground architecture.
Translated by Zita Aknai