Insights Into Cyprus History Revealed by Renowned Archaeologist

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Cyprus History Reflects Its Location as Cultural Crossroads

Cyprus history spans 11,000 years. In this interview, renowned archaeologist Sophocles Hadjisavvas distills the essence of Cypriot culture, and shares his own personal story. Sophocles is the former director of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities and a past member of the World Heritage Committee. In visiting Cyprus, I spent days exploring sites where Sophocles had unearthed pieces of the country’s dramatic past as a stepping stone to three continents.

Sophocles was the curator of the exhibit 2011 “Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations” which opened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The exhibition was presented on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Cyprus from Great Britain. More than 200 artifacts were featured in the exhibit — covering nearly 11,000 years of Cyprus history — which range from items from the earliest villages to masterpieces of medieval religious art.

I hope you enjoy this conversation with Sophocles as he recounts his own history along with that of Cyprus history. Like the ancients he has studied, and most of us, his path has involved unexpected twists and turns that led to new discoveries and rewards.

Sophocles Living His Childhood Dream

Meg: You have been involved in the field of archaeology for more than 40 years. Can you tell me what first drew you to the profession, and whether the fact that you were born and raised in Cyprus was a factor in your career choice?

Cyprus history
Cyprus Paphos Tombs of the Kings

Sophocles: Born and raised in a country rich in cultural heritage is indeed a factor to formulate one’s future. I was always fascinated with the past and the standing monuments. As a pupil in secondary school I was impressed by the Tombs of the Kings at Paphos, never expecting that one day I was going to excavate them.

Meg: Your career has included field work, excavations and museum experience. Can you explain what each of these aspects of archaeology involves?

Cyprus history
Image Credit: Cyprus Archaeology on Facebook

Sophocles: Field work means archaeological survey—the surface investigation for the location of archaeological sites. Excavation is the systematic work to uncover the secrets of past times. Museum work is the final destination of the discovered antiquities, presented in a way to understand them.

Discovering an Unknown Culture in Cyprus History

Meg: Can you offer a few memorable experiences of your work in each area?

Sophocles: The 1974 Turkish invasion put a violent end to the archaeological survey of Famagusta District initiated under my direction in 1973. We were in the middle of an important project: the establishment of a Protective Inventory in order to safeguard archaeological sites endangered from the tourist development of the district. We had to leave and resume our work in the Paphos District.

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Humanitarian assistance to refugees – 21 November 1974 – Nicosia, Cyprus. Image credit; UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata.

The consequences of the invasion for my personal life were the occupation of my house and the displacement of my family, neighbors and the whole village along with the remaining one third of our population. Above all is the occupation of a large part of my country and the changes that occurred in the demographic character of the island, which affects each one of the inhabitants, including the Turkish Cypriots.

Cyprus Archaeology
Image Credit: Cyprus Archaeology on Facebook

My small team moved to Paphos to continue our work, aiming at the complete survey of the island. A few months of intensive work resulted in the discovery and mapping of a cluster of Chalcolithic settlements, and the presence of a culture otherwise unknown on the west coast of the island. The preliminary publication of the results of our work in 1977 led to the subsequent excavation of a number of sites by the University of Edinburgh and the investigation of one of the most important cultures developed on the island. A whole section of the Smithsonian Cyprus exhibition deals with these striking discoveries.

The Importance of Olive Oil to Cyprus History

With regard to excavation work, a particularly rewarding experience was the investigation of the technology involved in the production of olive oil in antiquity. This opened up new horizons in understanding aspects of ancient technology and the important role played by olive oil in the ancient economy.

Cyprus history
Perforated Monolith.

In 1990 I was excluded from some promotions in the hierarchy of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities due to my efforts against illegal smuggling of antiquities. The paradox in the case is that a member of the committee to decide on our promotion was directly involved in purchasing of antiquities from illegal sources, a matter which I brought to light, and for which I had to be punished, instead of being rewarded.

Unlocking the Mystery of the Monoliths

Following these unjust developments in the Department of Antiquities, I decided to dedicate myself to solving the mystery around a number of large perforated monoliths that existed in various locations around Cyprus, and had been the subject of speculation since the last quarter of the 19th century. In fact, in 1874 Luigi Palma di Cesnola, who later became the first director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, excavated a couple of these monoliths and considered them as part of a temple dedicated to Aphrodite. For more than a century of Cyprus history, other scholars considered these stones as sacred, a notion accepted by some scholars of the end of the 20th century.

My suggestion that these perforated monoliths were simply parts of olive press installations was yet to be proven by excavation. My original plan was to excavate the couple of monoliths investigated earlier and then to excavate a few more, to provide enough statistic value of my interpretation.

Cyprus history
The twin olive press at Styllarka

The impressive finds at the site of Styllarka, with the recovery of five reservoirs in relation to the pair of monoliths and a number of weight stones, proved beyond doubt the presence of an olive press and solved a century-old problem in Cypriot archaeology. The reservoirs were used as receptacles for the product of pressing, while others for storing the oil; the depression in the center is characteristic for olive oil storage, to collect the impurities. This discovery was verified with the excavation of two more sites with preserved perforated monoliths and with a survey of about 30 more cases. All this work was undertaken in 1990 and was the outcome–or the revenge, if you like–against an unfair decision.

Sophocles’ Most Memorable Projects

In another interesting excavation experience, in 1980 at the site Tombs of the Kings in Paphos, an intact grave was found in the southwest corner of the atrium of Tomb no 8. The tomb is unique in its architectural form, resembling an Egyptian mastaba {Ed: a flat-roofed rectangular structure with sloping sides, made of mud- bricks or stones}. The pit grave had been used to bury an infant. Interment had taken place in a clay pipe, and the sole offering was one unguentarium (perfume bottle) wrapped in linen. Shortly after the publication in the press about the results of the excavations, all tourist guides taking visitors to the site were announcing the first “pipe child” ever found, making comparisons to the recent news of the conception of the first “test tube baby.”

Cyprus history

I would consider a particularly rewarding museum project to be the organization of the first-ever permanent exhibition of ancient metallurgy in Cyprus, the island of copper, and my contribution to the establishment of the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil in Sparta, Greece. Another highlight would be the curatorship of two large exhibitions in New York (From Ishtar to Aphrodite, at the Onassis Center 2003). Another worth noting is one of the very first projects of experimental archaeology, the reconstruction of a Neolithic village under my direction, in relation to the inscription of Khirokitia on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Importance of Underwater Archaeology to Cyprus History

Alonnisos Excavation
Alonnisos Excavation | Image Credit: Elpida Hadjidaki, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Meg: You were the managing director of THETIS, the Foundation for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. Can you explain what your work with THETIS involved?

Sophocles: Underwater cultural heritage includes shipwrecks, ancient harbors and anything defined by law as cultural heritage. My work at THETIS was primarily the establishment of the Foundation and the definition of its role in the protection of underwater heritage. My highest contribution was my role in the establishment of a new chair in underwater archaeology by the University of Cyprus, now a reality thanks to the generosity of the President of the THETIS Foundation, Adonis Papadopoulos.

The challenges of underwater archaeology are great. It’s a new field on an island rich in underwater heritage as shown by recent and old discoveries.

A new 4th century BC wreck laden with hundreds of wine amphorae is currently under excavation by the University of Cyprus, collaborating with the Department of Antiquities and thanks to the generosity of THETIS. This undertaking was unthinkable a few years ago, without the involvement of foreign experts.

The importance of underwater archaeology, wrecks in particular, is that the finds encapsulate a very specific moment in Cyprus history. Wrecking is an action that takes a very limited time period. Due to my age I was not able to dive personally, though I know from my colleague divers that they deal with a silent world of the deep.

Attempting to Learn the Secrets of Metallurgy

Meg: You have referred to Cyprus as the “El Dorado of Antiquity.” Can you explain why?

Sophocles: It is indeed the El Dorado of Antiquity if we only replace gold with copper. Metallic copper was something similar to petrol in present day economy. It is not without reason that the powerful Pharaoh of Egypt addressed the king of Alasia (Cyprus) as “his brother.” Various shipwrecks, especially that of Uluburun in southern Turkey, perfectly illustrate the nickname of El Dorado for Cyprus. The ship was laden with 10 tons of Cypriot copper.

Underwater Archaeology
Image Credit: Markus Studer Flickr

Towards the end of 1987, the then-director of Antiquities asked me to organize a permanent exhibition on ancient metallurgy in the Cyprus Museum. A few months later I went to Cambridge to spend the Lent term after a fellowship with the British School at Athens. I had planned to complete my Ph.D. on olive oil production. Instead I spent most of my time trying to introduce myself to the secrets of metallurgy. The bibliography on the subject was, for a newcomer in the field, quite impressive, going as far back as the 16th century, when Georgius Agricola described in full detail medieval mining activities. Alas, for Cyprus, the only information was a report by a mining engineer working at the Skouriotissa mines.

Cyprus History Characterized by Ancient Mining Techniques

Theoretically prepared, I returned to Cyprus and faced the real challenge of organizing the first permanent exhibition on ancient metallurgy on an island synonymous with copper. Soon after I realized that only very few objects in the possession of the Cyprus Museum were related to metallurgy. An educational exhibition, however, needed much more. Help was asked from the Cyprus Geological Survey Department, from mining companies, and from individuals. A number of artifacts, mainly tools collected from ancient mines, were presented to the Museum.

The identification and preparation of proper documentation understandable to visitors was the second goal. For this purpose the only solution was to identify myself with the ancient miners. I was lucky enough to know people who worked in the mines long ago, and they knew some shafts that were still accessible. Equipped with a candle giving the same light as an ancient oil lamp, I descended some of these shafts and tried to excavate the hard surface of the ore body. It was only then that I had a first-hand experience of the work of the ancient miners. At that time that I fully appreciated the description of ancient mining on the island left to us by Galen the Roman physician, who visited Cyprus mines in order to collect metal oxides used in medicine of the time.

After this experience my work on reconstructing ancient mining activities in a museum environment was quite easy by comparison.

Crossroads of Sea-Born Trade and Cultures

Meg: You were the curator for the Smithsonian exhibition “Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilization.” Can you provide an overview of what the exhibit encompassed?

Sophocles: The exhibition was an overview of 11,000 years of Cypriot culture, including an introduction on the geology of the island. The show was built on several pillars such as agriculture, metallurgy, navigation and religion. The presentation of religion was represented by the human form in an evolution starting with a stone Neolithic idol and ending with the crucifixion of Christ. What we highlighted in the exhibition was the role played by Cyprus in the trade networks of antiquity and its importance in disseminating cultural influences around the Mediterranean basin, being itself a melting pot of cultures.

Meg: Cyprus has long been a place where influences from East and West meet. Can you describe the island’s significance based on its location?

Sophocles: The culture of Cyprus is unique in many aspects; starting with the language. Is it not a paradox that we speak Greek though surrounded by the Semitic world, mostly Arabs?

Cyprus history

In antiquity many different people migrated to Cyprus due to its wealth in metals, but also because of its wine and olive oil, praised by ancient authors such as Pliny the Elder and Strabo. The position of the island on the crossroads of sea-born trade and cultures was instrumental in the development of a unique culture mentioned by philosophers as “Cypriot Character.” This is expressed in art by the amalgam of Greek and Oriental productions in sculpture in ancient times and the so-called Italo-Byzantine style in icon painting in the medieval period.

Cypriot Connection to the West

The archaeological evidence suggests that the period in Cyprus’s history from around 1400 to the end of the Late Bronze Age is characterized by intensive interconnections in the whole of the Mediterranean—involving the Levant, Cyprus, Anatolia, Egypt, the Aegean, as well as Sicily and Sardinia. Cypriot pottery dating to the 14th and 13th centuries B.C. have been found near Agrigento in Sicily. The oxide ingots found in Sardinia are similar to the Cypriot ingots and the signs impressed on them show clearly their Cypriot connection. The Cypriot connection to the west is further manifested in Marsa Matruh, between Egypt and Libya, where Cypriot pottery was found, along with Mycenaean and Minoan.

Cyprus history
The intense Cypriot presence in the East is manifested by the dramatic increase of Cypriot pottery in both coastal and inland settlements, especially the ones on the routes of the caravans leading to Mesopotamia.

A series of conferences organized in Vienna on the synchronization of civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean in the second millennium B.C. add considerable new information from the region and provide a basis for the reconstruction of its history during that period. The conferences revealed beyond doubt the important role played by the island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean during the later part of the Bronze Age. This role has been projected in many ways—mainly due to the presentation of archaeological sites from outside Cyprus, namely from Anatolia, the Syro-Palestinian coast and Egypt. The abundance of Cypriot material found in all these sites is suggestive of the active involvement of the island in the sea-borne trade during this period of Cyprus history.

Exploring Cyprus’ Maritime Role During the Late Bronze Age

Underwater exploration and the discovery of three Late Bronze Age shipwrecks in the Eastern Mediterranean perfectly illustrate the maritime role played by Cyprus during the later part of the Late Bronze Age.

All three shipwrecks contained Cypriot objects. The 13th century B.C. boat near Cape Gelidonia was carrying 34 oxide ingots and bronze tools of Cypriot type. The Uluburun shipwreck was loaded with 354 oxide ingots (a cargo of ten tons of copper), organic materials, stone anchors of Cypriot type, luxury goods and fine pottery. Lead isotope analysis favors a Cypriot origin for the copper ingots. The stone anchors are of a Cypriot type while at least three typically Cypriot pithoi were used as containers for fine Cypriot pottery and perhaps perishable agricultural products.

Underwater Archaeology
Image Credit: Archaeology Magazine

The Cape Iria wreck, dated sometime before or after 1200 B.C., contained a number of large Cypriot pithoi. Cypriot, Mycenaean and Creto-Mycenaean pottery in the cargo point to different provenances. Though the few utility wares suggest a Mycenaean or Cypriot origin of the ship and crew, nothing is certain.

From this short survey of the archaeological evidence both on land and sea we may observe an active Cypriot participation in the maritime affairs of the eastern Mediterranean around 1300 B.C. The island being a melting pot of cultures was in turn dissimilating the outcome of this culture all over the Mediterranean basin along with their cargo of copper and their own ideas and beliefs.

Perhaps the most evident manifestation of this interaction today is the tolerance of Cypriots towards foreign cultures and religions, their hospitality, their diverse cuisine and even in their Greek language enriched by Frankish, Venetian, Turkish and English. It is also shown in dancing and other performing arts.

Deciding How to Represent Centuries of Culture

Meg: The Smithsonian exhibit encompassed the Neolithic period through the Medieval Period—that is a lot of Cyprus history! It must have been challenging to decide what to include and what not to include—how did you go about making that determination?

Sophocles: In order to be in accord with the concept of the exhibition, objects had to be selected not only on their artistic value but also on their significance in the economy and overall development of the island. I could only include a few objects from each period and in my effort to present the development in various fields I chose to show only limited categories of finds.

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Image credit Creative Commons

For example, to show the development in agriculture through Cyprus history, I presented the bull as the force behind its development. The same is applicable for navigation, shown in the form of clay models of boats. Religion is represented in the human form.

Bulls Used as a Revolution in Agricultural Practices Throughout Cyprus History

The introduction of the bull on the island during the Early Bronze Age marks a revolution in agricultural practices. As an animal of burden, the bull played a significant role in the economy and for this reason was highly respected if not venerated. It appears in clay models of sanctuaries, on ceramic vessels, in plowing scenes, on seals of huge jars. In all periods of Cyprus history the bull occupies a central place in the iconography on every possible media of expression.

When I was asked to undertake the organization of this exhibit there was already a large catalogue of proposed objects, but there was not a concept or a structure of the show. As soon as my proposed concept and structure were approved by the committee established for the purpose, I had to make another choice of objects to fit with it. The particular objects were selected in order to match the four pillars on which the exhibition is built: agriculture, metallurgy, navigation and trade, and religion (mostly presented through human form). In many cases I had to discuss my selection with the curators of the lending museums as they had the final word on exporting their objects. However for some objects considered absolutely necessary for the exhibit I had to insist on my judgment.

Tracing the History and Importance of Olive Oil to Ancient Cyprus

Meg: One of your published studies is on “The Production and Diffusion of Olive Oil in the Mediterranean, ca. 1600 – 600 B.C.” Can you explain the importance of olive oil as a commodity in that time period?

Sophocles: Olive oil was one of the most important commodities in the ancient world, as it could satisfy a number of everyday needs, from lighting to cosmetics and as a basic staple for the Mediterranean diet. Judging from the immense storage facilities of the Late Bronze Age administrative buildings at Kalavasos and Alassa, we may understand the important role of olive oil in the economy of Cyprus. A number of Cypriot Basket Handle Amphorae found at Tel Kabri in Israel speak for olive oil export to Palestine in the Archaic period (7-6th centuries B.C.) The Amarna letters and other Near Eastern documents from Ugarit refer to exports of olive oil as early as the 14 century B. C.

Cyprus history
We can trace the importance of olive oil at least from the Late Bronze Age c. 1400 BCE. In this period we meet for the first time large installations for its production and immense storage facilities in the buildings owned by the elite of the society. We are not certain about the character of the economy but there is little doubt that the quantities of the oil to fill the storage capacity of the administrative buildings was not produced only by the owners but also by taxing all producers. In later periods, especially in the Roman, the wealth of a family or individual was counted by his dolia of olive oil in his possession. In present day things are different, though in certain areas in Greece, olive oil is the primary asset in the economy (Crete, Lesvos, and parts of the Peloponnesus). In Cyprus up to the middle of the 20th century olive oil production was central in the economy of agrarian societies but now its role is a humble one.

Need for Fast Development of New Methods and Tools

Meg: Ancient technology is an area of special interest to you. Can you define that?

Large Millstone Olives Pressing Pomos Cyprus
A large millstone used for pressing olives to make olive oil at Pomos, Cyprus

Sophocles: Ancient technology has not been paid enough attention, as archaeologists of the past generations were interested mostly in works of art. My experience shows that there is an amazing continuity and almost no new development in agricultural technology due to the conservative character of agrarian communities and the capital investment needed for new technologies. In other fields, however— for example metallurgy—things are different and we observe a fast development in the adoption of new methods and tools.

The Issue Between World Heritage Sites and Tourism

Meg: Another paper you authored is titled “Developing a World Heritage Site: the Case of Paphos, Cyprus.” Can you summarize what this involved?

Sophocles: The paper is about the development of the World Heritage Site of Paphos, in order to preserve the archaeological remains and at the same time to facilitate the thousands of visitors and give them the best experience they could get by visiting the site.

The paper presents an insight into the problems related to the development and enhancement of a large archaeological site for tourist purposes, while at the same time aiming at its preservation. It deals with the reaction of local people to limitations on the circulation of vehicles in the site and to other restrictions related to their established habits towards a previously barren area.

drain system
Sophocles demonstrates the function of the drain system to Malcolm Wiener and Paul Aström in October 1998

The main lesson we learned after the implementation of the plan is that while at the beginning the local people saw the site through the eyes of the visitors, now they feel proud of being the owners of the site and the heirs of the legacy behind the site. While in the early days of our work, they considered the site as a liability, primarily economic, now they consider the site as an asset.

We Are Recycled Into the Universe

Meg: As a student of history, is there a characteristic you feel is universal in the human condition, a trait that existed in antiquity as well as today?

Sophocles: I was privileged to participate in the sessions of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and traveled around the world for this and other reasons, mostly to lecture or take part in conferences. I have been in almost all European countries, as well as in Australia, Mexico, Japan, Russia, Thailand, the USA and North Africa. What I can describe as universal in the human condition is the ability to survive and adapt in any environment.

Also, there is something in common in each nation and each religion; good and bad are everywhere. What is obvious from the life of ordinary people is continuity over time in almost every aspect of life. I personally don’t see any difference in the new religions to those from Greek and Oriental mythologies, which sometimes seem to have been translated into new languages and adapted to new tastes.

Cyprus history

Meg: Have you had an experience where a finding in the realm of your work had had particular significance for you personally?

Sophocles: For many years I have been digging ancient cemeteries, excavating the skeletal remains of Greeks, Phoenicians and Prehistoric humans without any known ethnicity. What remains with me is a feeling of emptiness, a feeling that when we depart we become once again part of the earth, in a way we are recycled into the universe.

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