Cypriot Landscapes

I finally grabbed a few minutes to read Giorgios Papantoniou’s that Thanasis Vionis’s recent article in Land, “Landscape Archaeology and Sacred Space in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Glimpse from Cyprus.” It is a among the first articles to emerge from their “Settled and Sacred Landscapes of Cyprus” project which has focused on the area to the west of Larnaka. This article focuses for the most part on the sites around Kofinou in the Xeros River valley in Larnaka District.

This space is interesting to me because it is situated in a very similar location to our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria. Kofinou is approximately 20 km to the west of Larnaka and slightly more inland where as Koutsopetria is 10 km to the east of the Larnaka and a coastal site. They both, however, stand near what many scholars have thought to be the boundaries of the ancient city of Kition and situated along major land routes through the ancient (and modern) countryside (so even if we conceive of ancient borders between states as less lines on the map and more markers along routes of contact, we can understand both Kofinou and Koutsopetria as marking likely edges to the political authority of Kition into the countryside).

The article got me thinking about three major things (and I’m sure a reading of the article by someone less easily distracted by their own archaeological commitments on the island!):

1. Landscapes. The first four pages of the article unpacks the wide range of theoretical perspectives that hang precariously on the concept of landscape in Mediterranean archaeology. For anyone interested in Mediterranean landscapes, this is an almost ideal primer and it broadly frames the work of the Settled and Sacred Landscapes of Cyprus project. The complexity of landscapes as spaces defined by economic, political, social, and religious activities recognizable through archaeological methods informs the following analysis of the Kofinou region. The awareness that landscapes are diachronic and diverse incorporating different spaces and places at various times and both informing and being the product of myriad experiences. I only wish that the authors made more apparent how the complexities of recent archaeological approaches to landscape inform their reading of the sacred spaces of Kofinou.

2. Site Size and Population. Among the more intriguing aspects of this project is the authors’ willingness to draw upon methods grounded in processual archaeology. In other words, despite the complexities of recent theoretical reflections on landscape and their dependence of post-processual understanding of lives and experiences spaces and places, Vionis and Papantoniou look toward intensive pedestrian survey to understand the extent of settlement at a site. Their site of Kofinou is approximately 13 ha and could support a population of 250-300 families on the basis of available arable land in the vicinity. This was compared to our estimate of 40 ha at Pyla-Koutsopetria from which they estimated a population of perhaps as many as 1000 families. 

Whatever one thinks of their estimates population and site size, I’m not entirely convinced that the same formula could be scaled to Koutsopetria. Without getting pedantic, I wish they authors had been more explicit in how they arrived at site size estimates (and this probably applies to our estimated site size as well) and how these can be compared across the island. More than that, though, it would be interesting to consider the functional differences between a site like Kofinou and our site at Koutsopetria. If, as the authors suggest, the Kofinou site is a settlement, then the estimates based on arable land and artifact scatters may well speak to population. In contrast, we’ve argued that Koutsopetria is a small emporion and perhaps a transshipment site for agricultural produce (particularly olive oil and perhaps wine) from the region. In other words, much of the build up space of the site would not have been settlement at all, but warehouses, production facilities, and, of course, the ecclesiastical compound associated with the excavated basilica. This isn’t to suggest that people didn’t live at Koutsopetria, but it’s functional purpose would serve to define its extent. The absence of massive quantities of cooking pots at Koutsopetria, for example, tends to suggest that much of the space was not concerned with habitation or settlement, but storage and processing of good for export.

3. Diachronic Landscapes. I was particularly intrigued by their effort to think about the diachronic landscapes of Cyprus and to balance the various aspects of places from geology and topography, to history, memory, and long-term structural organization of Cypriot sacred and settled space.

Border zones like Kofinou and Koutsopetria have seen both historical investment starting as early as the Iron Age with sanctuaries which inscribed the landscapes with persistent places even after the political and economic contingencies of border zones abate. The appearance of a Early Christian basilica at Koutsopetria, for example, might have less to do with successive Iron Age and Hellenistic sanctuaries and more to do with diachronic landscape of the place and accretion of successive rounds of material investment that built upon both the practical realities of a natural embayment, proximity to inland passages, and the presence of easily defensible coastal heights, and the social and cultural realities of marking the landscape with fortifications, sanctuaries, and settlements.

The relationships that form these diachronic landscapes are likewise variable and depend upon the place of the site and island within larger networks. Indeed, their very visibility and definition often relies on the presence of recognizable artifacts imported to the site or monument types familiar based on their presence elsewhere on the island or in the region. In other words, the diachronicity of landscapes is something that includes the archaeologist in the longterm history of sites as well as its location in Cypriot landscape and its place within the relational structures of disciplinary knowledge.

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