New Directions in Cypriot Archaeology

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks hanging out with Catherine Kearns’s and Sturt Manning’s new edited volume, New Directions in Cypriot Archaeology (2019). It’s a pretty interesting read and was a good way to start thinking in a more sustained way about the archaeology of Cyprus in the run up to a summer study season at Polis. 

The volume derived from a conference in 2014 and, as a result, the papers are not on the bleeding edge of archaeological research. In some ways, this is a good thing. The editors assert that recent trends in Cypriot archaeology follow three registers: efforts to rework established chronologies, an interest in archaeometric techniques that range from the petrographic and chemical analysis of ceramics to remote sensing, and new ways to think about landscapes and space on the island. For better or for worse, there is relatively little discussion of our disciplines current interest in assemblages, agency, symmetry, and materiality. Most of the contributions to the book are unapologetically processual (with one or two exception). 

The book also focuses almost exclusively on the heart of Cypriot archaeology: the Bronze and Iron Age. When the authors talk about the diachronic, they mean the relationship between the Bronze and Iron Age. That being said, the most historically productive discussions of the archaeology of Cyprus have tended to focus on the earlier periods and most of the issues that the authors in this volume consider can be applied to later periods in various ways. In fact, I joked on Twitter that replacing the word “Cypriot” in the tripartite Bronze Age chronology of the island with the word “Roman” (e.g. the Middle Cypriot III-Late Cypriot I transition can be the Middle Roman III to Late Roman I transition) is an amusing and not entirely frivolous exercise. So many of the basic issues of continuity, change, and periodization exist across the entire history of the island. More than that, the long shadow of Evans’ and Blegen’s tripartite chronologies, shapes how we define essential elements of each period in Cypriot (and broader Mediterranean) archaeology. Plus, I can’t stop fantasizing about how an audience might react to a paper that calmly uses the unfamiliar, yet recognizable periodization scheme to discuss the transition from the Middle Roman IIIC to Late Roman I period at the site of Polis on Cyprus. It would be really fun to do.

Finally, the book nudged me to think more about what constitutes an archaeology of Cyprus for later periods. I’m scheduled to give a paper at Dumbarton Oaks in the fall at a conference on the “insular world of Byzantium” that will have to consider what makes Cyprus just like any other island in the Eastern Mediterranean and what makes it distinct. Like it’s neighbor Crete, the archaeology of Cyprus has its own history of practice, theoretical predilections, and priorities and these have – as any number of archaeologists have acknowledged – shaped the study of all periods. Moreover, scholars like Sturt Manning, Hector Catling, Michael Given, Maria Hadjicostii, and many others have shown a willingness to work across multiple periods on the island ensuring that ideas, questions, and frameworks from one period cross pollinate with others. A moderately ambitious scholars can keep up with scholarship from almost every period on Cyprus, even if some of the finer points of the discussion remain obscure or difficult to grasp. 

I admit to getting a bit lost in the details of the individual contributions to the book, but a few themes stood out as significant for how we think about any period in the archaeology of the island. I found the keynote paper by David Frankel and the two contributions from the editors the most useful for thinking diachronically about the archaeology of Cyprus. I took three things away from the book:

First, we need to continue to work to establish tighter and more nuanced chronologies for assemblages, if we want to understand the complexities of change and community identity on the island. In most cases, this means getting a better grasp on ceramic forms and fabrics and unpacking the relationship between these various forms within assemblages across the island. These ceramic assemblages need also to be correlated with architectural forms, settlement types, and other artifacts, which have their own distinct temporal and chronological characteristics. This is challenging work at the level of a single site, but renewed attention to the kinds of typologies and the character of assemblages offers significance at an island-wide scale.  

Second, understanding the ancient climate of Cyprus in a more nuanced way is essential to understanding the organization of space and change across the island. Sturt Manning’s contribution complicates the notion of Cyprus as a wealthy and “blessed island” which is often projected back from the Roman period into prehistory. Using contemporary and historic climate data he was able to show that rainfall across the island varied widely and the agricultural potential of the island in antiquity varied from year to year. Strategies to endure dry years and to maximize access to more consistent water sources shaped settlement and the organization communities.

Finally, Catherine Kearns contribution on the environment and ecology of Cyprus over time has pushed me to think about the variables that led to settlement at our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria as well as changes to the urban fabric at Polis. While Kearns does not explicitly discuss post-Iron Age Cyprus, her approach to understanding how access to resources, resilience, and climate intersect has widespread applicability on Cyprus particular when mapped atop landscapes shaped by monumental investment, historical memory, and extra-insular resources provided by trade routes, neighboring communities, or state functions. While these latter characteristics of the Mediterranean landscape have tended to take precedence in scholarship on historic periods (although not always), the data necessary to develop more dynamic models of settlement across the island and region have become increasingly available. 

As an archaeologists who tends to think of both Cyprus and landscapes in a fairly traditional way, New Directions in Cypriot Archaeology offers a useful primer for current trends in the field. There is no doubt that future research on the island, for all periods, will develop with a more expansive methods and more complex theoretical and scientific toolkit. These new directions will invariably produce a more nuanced and dynamic landscape and a more collaborative and specialized archaeological practice as well.

As a random aside, the book is published by Cornell University Press which is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. I love their commemorative logo which is on the back of this book. You can check it out here on the front cover of their Spring/Summer 2019 catalogue


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