Architecture and Social Analysis at Vouni, Cyprus

The past few years have seen an impressive gaggles of books and articles re-evaluating Iron Age Cyprus. To this number we should add Catherine Kearns’ recent contribution to the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology: “Building Social Boundaries at the Hybridizing First-Millenium B.C. Complex of Vouni (Cyprus)” JMA 24 (2011), 147-170.

This article hit upon a few key issues for how the intersection of architecture and archaeology contributes to our understanding of ancient (and particularly Cypriot) society:

1. Monumentality. The Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Romans periods on Cyprus saw a tremendous interest in monumental architecture. The massive and short-lived Cypro-Classical “palace” at Vouni occupies a fortified hill some 10 km west of the city of Soli. The sprawling structure features two major phases and extends for well over 2500 sq m. The size of this building alone marks it out as a significant monument in the Cypriot landscape and echoes the size of Late Bronze age compounds on the island as well as Roman period “villas” at sites like Paphos and Kourion. Its location, set apart from known urban centers on the island and without clear earlier precedents on the site, have often led scholars to associated the structure with the growing influence of the Persian Empire under whose rule the island fell during most of the Cypro-Classical Age. The presence of so much monumental architecture provides a particularly useful backdrop for the kind of social analysis of architecture that Kearns proposed in her study of Vouni. The highly stratified character of the space within these structures makes them suitable for access analysis.

2. Access. Access analysis considers the social function of space by categorizing and mapping rooms based on their connection to other rooms and their accessibility from the exterior of the building.  When I was working on my dissertation, this kind of analysis had just fallen from it 1980s vogue as scholars increasingly questioned the cultural and structural assumptions upon which these kinds of studies were based. Kearns’ careful use of access analysis (and, indeed, many of the better examples of this kind of study) avoids this by attending carefully to the archaeological changes to the building and proposing that shifts in the patterns of access between the two phases were relative rather than absolute. Thus, changes in access represent different functions of the spaces and, perhaps, different ideas about the social organization among the groups with access to the building’s various rooms and spaces.

3. Hybridity. This careful use of access analysis opens the door to a larger discussion of hybridity in the Cypriot landscape. This terms, derived from the colonial encounter and enriched (and co-opted) by post-colonial theorists, has particular resonance among archaeologists working on Cyprus, which is, in so many ways, a post-colonial state. Kearns suggested that the monumental size and architectural form of the “palace” at Vouni represented a combination of local architectural and building traditions with those from elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean (namely the peristyle courtyard). Rather than this form representing an outpost of Persian influence on the island or an indication of Achaemenid authority, Kearns suggested that site marked a space where those responsible for the site used architecture to mediate between various forms of sovereignty and authority. In fact, the instability of the site and its resistance to interpretation may reflect an intentional strategy designed to protect those responsible for the site and allow them to move with equal efficiency in both local and larger trans-Mediterranean conversations.

The growing sophistication with which scholars have come to treat the architecture and archaeology of Late Bronze Age and Iron Age Cyprus is remarkable, and should offer a valuable challenge to those of us who have focused on later periods in Cypriot history. The numerous Early Christian basilicas, for example, have so far escaped from much sophisticated and theoretically-informed study despite their fine levels of preservation and the presence of several well-documented excavated examples (much better documented, it should be said, than the palace at Vouni).

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