Guest post by CREWS Visiting Fellow Giorgos Bourogiannis
After three weeks in Cambridge, I am still feeling delighted to have been given the chance to work closely with the research team of the CREWS project. I am particularly thankful to the project’s director and principal investigator, Dr Pippa Steele for her hospitality and kindness. I am an archaeologist, rather than a linguist or epigraphist by training, but there is something I share with all members of the CREWS team: a very strong scholarly interest in ancient Cyprus.
This post has two main goals: The first one is to briefly view Cyprus through archaeological spectacles and to explain the island’s eminent position in the archaeology of the Mediterranean. The second goal is to present a summary of my own research project, CyCoMed (Cypriot Connectivity in the Mediterranean from the Late Bronze Age to the end of the Classical Period), which is what generated my visit to Cambridge and my collaboration with the researchers of the CREWS project.
We need to look no further than a map of the Mediterranean to understand the geographic importance of Cyprus. Few other places enjoy such a strategic position and few other areas in the Mediterranean have been so successful in building and retaining close cultural contacts with all neighbouring areas, also as a result of favourable geography. A large island by Mediterranean standards (third in terms of surface after Sicily and Sardinia) Cyprus dominates the centre of the eastern Mediterranean basin. With the landmass of Asia Minor to its north, the Syro-Palestinian littoral close to its east, affluent Egypt to its south and fragmented Aegean further to its west, the archaeology of Cyprus is an amalgamation of multiple mutual interactions with the whole eastern Mediterranean and beyond. Although past scholarship has often treated Cyprus as an area of successive foreign dominations and influences—an approach that clearly underrates the island’s cultural dynamism and vitality—we are currently fully aware that Cyprus was the setting and instigator of major political, cultural and economic accomplishments throughout antiquity.
The island is rich in natural resources. The Mesaoria and Morphou plains are suitable for cultivation, the dense woodland on the Troodos mountains provide timber for shipbuilding and, most importantly, the foothills of the Troodos are very rich in copper, the latter being a commodity that was highly valued and in great demand throughout the Mediterranean. No one has epitomized more eloquently the rich resources of ancient Cyprus than Strabo (14.6.5):
“In fertility Cyprus is not inferior to any one of the islands, for it produces both good wine and good oil, and also a sufficient supply of grain for its own use. And at Tamassos there are abundant mines of copper, in which is found chalcanthite and also the rust of copper, which latter is useful for its medicinal properties.”
Even though agricultural self-sufficiency was largely dependent on unpredictable annual rainfall, ancient Cyprus had all that was needed to thrive economically: a location at the crossroads of major intra-Mediterranean maritime routes, good arable land, plenty of timber for shipbuilding, a regular coastline to accommodate harbouring activities and a prestigious mineral commodity, copper. Noticeably, Cyprus was successful in preserving its economic status even at periods of major upheavals and economic recession, as in the case of the final 13th century BC that witnesses the collapse of socioeconomic structures at many parts of the eastern Mediterranean. As a result, unlike areas such as the Aegean, ancient Cyprus experienced no ‘Dark Age’. (The term ‘Dark Age has often been used to refer to the late second/early first millennium BC Aegean, a period of reduced archaeological evidence and discontinuous use of writing, although recent discoveries tend to reduce the gap in the existing record and therefore the term is far less popular today even for Greece. Cyprus, meanwhile, had continued writing traditions throughout this period!)
This brings me to the second part of my post, the CyCoMed research project. So why is there more scope in studying ancient Cyrpus?
The past decades have witnessed a remarkable progress in ancient Cypriot studies, creating a sound basis for further research on the island’s history and culture. Despite this progress, however, the dispersal of Cypriot goods and objects at sites outside of the island has not received the attention it deserves. A collective and interdisciplinary treatment is needed to achieve a more complete picture of Cyprus’ position in the cultural and socio-economic setting of the ancient Mediterranean. For my CyCoMed project I aim to assess archaeological data from carefully selected case studies in relation to epigraphic, literary and, when applicable, numismatic evidence, making use of modern digital approaches.
The need for a new scope becomes evident when trying to assess the position of Cyprus in a broader Mediterranean context, understand its engagement in cultural interaction and discuss the nature of Cypriot activity and perhaps presence overseas. Cyprus had close connections with a number of important areas situated along or close to the Mediterranean littoral, such as the Syro-Palestinian coast, Egypt, the Aegean and Italy – all places where remains of Cypriot material culture and even inscriptions in the distinctive Cypriot writing system have been found. Improving our knowledge on ancient Cyprus is fundamental for improving our knowledge of the Mediterranean as a whole.
The chronological span of CyCoMed is set between the end of the 12th century BC that marks the transition from the Late Bronze to the Early Iron Age, and the end of the classical period in the late 4th century BC. During this period Cyprus experienced not only high levels of contact with the rest of the Mediterranean, but also significant changes in its socio-economic structures and patterns of interaction with other areas, all of which had an impact on the material and written record of the island. Such a ‘macrohistoric’ approach (taking in 800 years of cultural contact) is important for studying long-term trends because it mitigates academically imposed sharp distinctions between different periods (for example between the final Late Bronze and the Early Iron Age), while it still allows us to focus, when necessary, on a limited portion of Cypriot history and thus deal with more manageable sets of data. An additional advantage of the time frame is the large amount of evidence and, in the case of written record, a deciphered script, the Cypriot Syllabary.
The aim of the CyCoMed project is to address some key questions to help us understand the role of Cyprus and Cypriots in wider Mediterranean culture, such as:
- How is Cypriot activity and, perhaps, presence in the ancient Mediterranean reflected by and on material and epigraphic evidence?
- How do different types of evidence relate to each other? Does evidence of writing mirror the distribution of other objects? What is their source and context?
- What similarities or differences can be found in Cypriot evidence from different parts of the Mediterranean? How did Cypriot connections with each area differ?
- What changes can be deduced from the study of Cypriot material and epigraphic evidence in the Mediterranean over a long period of time? How did patterns of interaction change and what was the Cypriot role in them?
- What was the possible role of material and epigraphic evidence discovered abroad as a statement of a Cypriot cultural and/or political identity?
CyCoMed runs for three years from October 2018 – October 2021, and collaboration with CREWS and with Pippa will be sustained throughout (which means I can look forward to some further visits to Cambridge). The project will also benefit from available resources at the National Hellenic Research Foundation through collaboration with the numismatist Dr Evangeline Markou, and her Kyprios Character project website and database.
~ Giorgos Bourogiannis (Visiting Fellow at the CREWS project)
CyCoMed is hosted by the National Hellenic Research Foundation, Institute of Historical Research. It has received funding from the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation (HFRI) and the General Secretariat for Research and Technology (GSRT) under grant agreement no. 481.
During my CREWS Visiting Fellowship I will work under the guidance of Dr P. Steele on writing systems of ancient Cyprus and the attestation of Cypriot inscriptions at extra-insular sites, and the possible role of material and epigraphic evidence discovered abroad as a possible statement of a Cypriot cultural identity.