Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.20

Giorgos Georgiou, Jennifer M. Webb, David Frankel, Psematismenos-Trelloukkas: an Early Bronze Age Cemetery in Cyprus.   Nicosia:  Department of Antiquities, 2011.  Pp. xxiv, 372.  ISBN 9789963364534.  


Reviewed by Thomas Kiely, British Museum (tkiely@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk)

For much of the 20th century our knowledge of the Early and Middle Bronze Age (E/MBA) communities of Cyprus (around 2500 to 1650 BC), was dominated by cemeteries, most excavated in the north of the island by members of the Swedish Cyprus Expedition (SCE) and their associates, between the late 1920s and the early 1960s. The resulting classificatory and cultural frameworks, though based on meticulously recorded and analysed assemblages, increasingly came under scrutiny and criticism in the light of new discoveries. The recognition of significant ceramic regionalism, albeit within a broader island-wide tradition, together with an awareness of the distortions caused by the lack of corresponding settlement deposits, made it clear that the older canonical framework could not adequately represent the entire island during this period. When it was realised that Red Polished wares, the classic ceramic hallmark of the EBA, were used in the south of the island down to the end of the MBA – but largely without the presence of the latter’s distinctive White Painted pottery – it was first assumed that the region was unpopulated or, at least, represented a Late Chalcolithic backwater unaffected by the innovations of the Bronze Age (including the influence of the Philia culture that preceded the SCE’s canonical Early Cypriot sequence). Even after new discoveries began to correct these impressions and partially fill gaps in the ceramic sequence, the south and west continued to be regarded as much less complex than the core areas of the northern Cypriot EBA.

A major increase in archaeological activity in the southern part of Cyprus over the past 40 years, including rescue excavations spurred by economic development, has significantly altered this picture. Planned fieldwork however tended to focus on survey rather than excavation and several key projects of both types were not fully published, though new evidence also came from cemetery sites revealed by rescue excavations or looting. The latter two activities ironically tended to produce the sort of large-scale exposure of ancient remains rarely achieved by the slow-moving beast of research-led fieldwork, though the methodological limitations of such data are well known. Here too the publication record has been slow and patchy, given the overstretched resources of public archaeological bodies.

This detailed and meticulously produced volume, the report of a rescue excavation conducted in 2008 at a cemetery near Psematismenos (locality Trelloukkas) near the southern coast of Cyprus, is a rare exception. The excavation itself, and the admirable speed with which it was published, are the result of a collaboration between the local archaeological authorities represented by one of the main authors (Georgiou), and a team from the University of Melbourne led by the other two (Webb, Frankel). Smaller sections of the reports were completed by well-known experts in their field (K. Lorentz and P. Croft on human and animal remains respectively). The acknowledgements (p. xxiii) represent a cross-section of local and international scholars and specialists.

While the authors acknowledge throughout the need for further research – whether in the field, the library or the laboratory – their broader account (chapter 9, especially section 9.9, pp 358–62) represents a highly convincing critical survey of the key scholarly issues affecting this period of Cypriot prehistory. These issues range from technical refinements to existing classificatory and chronological schemes to much broader questions of social, economic and industrial developments. While Philia material was not found at Trelloukkas, the results establish a sharply-defined chronological and cultural benchmark for local developments and relationships in southern Cyprus with which broader inter-island dynamics can be mapped and compared during this crucial horizon in Cypriot prehistory. This is due to the fact that all but one of the tombs from this largely undisturbed burial ground date to a relatively narrow period – Early Cypriot I and II, around 2300–2200 BC according to the authors (though surprisingly no chronological chart is provided) – providing an unusually tightly-controlled archaeological picture.

Chapter 1 begins by outlining the extent of Early Bronze Age sites along the southern part of Cyprus from Kalopsida in the east to Anogyra and Avdimou to the west of the Kouris valley. The authors emphasise the limited amounts of quality data – from surveys rather than excavation, and tombs rather than settlements – that constituted our knowledge of the area until quite recently. A useful survey of previous work in the area around the villages of Psematismenos and Maroni is followed by an overview of the site itself and its exploration. This includes both geological considerations and, perhaps importantly for understanding the realities of modern excavation, a brief account of the planning issues surrounding the decision to undertake a rescue dig here. Such practical issues remain under-discussed in primary archaeological literature but readers surely benefit from a heightened awareness of the socio-economics and legal determinants of modern archaeological practice.

Chapter 2 is by far the longest section, devoted to a detailed description of the 47 tombs discovered in 2008. For most of the tombs, clear line drawings of the tomb architecture and location of the finds are complemented by colour photographs of in situ deposits. Grave goods are illustrated with both crisp line drawings and colour images, essential for a more accurate and subtle description of the range of fabrics and surface treatments. (This contrasts with the grainy b/w images of many older publications that are often useless for a proper understanding of ceramic variability, especially for students and researchers with limited access to, or experience of, the real thing).

This account forms an essential basis to the following Chapter 3 in which the ceramic typology of the finds is discussed in detail in relation to the established SCE framework, demonstrating that the latter is capable of expansion to accommodate new material. Here, but also in Chapter 5 where the ceramic material is placed into its broader social and chronological context, the importance of the pottery assemblage is immediately made clear: the ceramic finds from Trelloukkas represent the second largest corpus of material of this date after the defining type site of the Early Cypriot period, Bellapais-Vounous Site A near the central north coast. The unusually tight chronology of the tombs mentioned above provides an unparalleled opportunity to survey all the main ceramic types found in this part of the island, from the predominant Red Polished Mottled I–II wares (over 86% of the total from the site), to generic Red Polished I–II wares, Red Polished South Coast wares (perhaps originating further west beyond the Kouris valley), Red Polished incised wares, and Brown Polished fabrics. Each fabric has a story to tell within the social history of Cypriot Early Bronze Age pottery. The concluding section of Chapter 5 (5.2, pp 293–9), providing a concise yet invaluable summary of ceramic traditions across the south and central regions of Cyprus and their chronological implications, will have lasting value for general scholars (especially non-ceramic specialists).

The XRF analysis of the ceramics presented in Chapter 4 (Eccleston, Frankel, Webb) is an extremely valuable extension of the previous section, allowing the conclusions drawn from morphological and fabric analysis about the origin and distribution of the various wares to be tested against scientific data. The size of the sample – almost one- third of the pots found were analysed – as well as the broader research question, provides valuable evidence for discussing inter-regional and indeed inter-island contacts, notwithstanding the authors’ emphasis on the need for further and wider analysis.

Chapter 6 describes other finds such as the handful of spindle whorls (a scarcity matched at contemporary Vounous) in contrast to their greater popularity during the succeeding EC III and later periods as witnessed at sites such as Marki). Metal items are also few, though the authors make good use of the opportunity to address the vexed issue of ore sources (probably the Limassol Forest) and origins and use of arsenical bronze across Cyprus.

Lorentz’s Chapter 7 on the osteological remains of at least 52 individuals stresses the value of sampling an intact burial ground where only natural processes of decay prevent the archaeologist from acquiring high quality data acquired with modern techniques, still all too rare on Cyprus. Analysis of the burial customs suggests that even by EC I–II there was some degree of variation in tomb occupancy. While single inhuman burials were most common, but 31 of the total sample were placed in just eight tombs, hinting at the greater use of multiple burials later in the Bronze Age.

Chapter 9, ‘A south coast cemetery: explanation and implications’, convincingly sets all this within a southern Cypriot Early Bronze Age context. Many of the sub-sections neatly summarise evidence for subjects such as tomb architecture (but also the problems of identifying or quantifying tombs recorded in less than ideal conditions), burial assemblages, the treatment and spatial arrangement of bodies and grave goods, mortuary rituals, and broader considerations social, economic and political structures.

These threads are skilfully woven together in the final sub-section (pp. 358–62, ‘Psematismenos in context’) where the authors attempt an island-wide synthesis that nonetheless focuses attention on regional patterns and dynamics. The authors’ attention to the importance of mining and metallurgy, where the undoubted importance of the Limassol Forest copper sources is correctly stressed, perhaps comes at the expense of other sources and triggers of wealth accumulation or social differentiation, the evidence for which is surely difficult to separate from mortuary deposition practices and constrained by the limited number of known settlement contexts. A more dynamic and perhaps micro- regionalised economy is in fact suggested by their mention of maritime products such as salt, fertile land, textiles but also more general inter-regional trade (albeit probably small-scale). In this context, the proliferation of small oil flasks/bottles, well represented at Vounous and the Karmi sites (but in local fabrics) and probably containing oils or unguents of some kind, hint at other products of distinction that served both for personal adornment but also in the elaboration of funerary rituals. The individual decoration of the vessels, and the likely value of their contents, suggest that the proliferation of containers with similar function in the later MC and LC periods was already an island-wide phenomenon by the later third millennium BC.

In sum, two key messages emerge from this volume. Collaborative fieldwork and publication are not just highly desirable means of breaking down barriers between fieldwork devised in the research library and that carried out as a result of planning-led (‘rescue’) archaeology. It also points the way towards clearing the back-log of unpublished finds from past excavations, accumulated through necessity by rescue digs and, with rather less cause, by research projects. The results from Trelloukas are undeniably ground-breaking in their own right due to the quantity of the finds, general integrity of the archaeological contexts, and high quality of the publication. Yet the considerable amount of unpublished or partially published material that the authors were able to draw upon indicates how confusion about the earlier Bronze Age in this part of Cyprus has been caused not just by the absence of data but also the inadequate documentation of known bodies of material.

Second, and more positively, this site report contributes greatly to our substantive knowledge of southern Cyprus in this period and provides a framework for future fieldwork and research in this area. The authors generally accept older notions of a relatively sharp divide between the north coast areas (now inaccessible to officially sanctioned fieldwork) and the remainder of the island in terms of social complexity and its material correlates, especially mortuary practices. But they have also provided a far more detailed, nuanced and complex understanding of this region that also questions simple dichotomies and generalisations. Future excavations, especially of settlement sites, many no doubt occasioned by rescue excavations, will hopefully add to the complexity of this picture. For the time being, this small site (and relatively small volume) raises big issues and promises more.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Home
Read Latest
Archives
BMCR Blog
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Commentaries
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010