In 1966 Hector Catling published Cyprus in the Neolithic and Bronze Age Periods, as fascicle 43 of the revised edition of volumes I and II of the Cambridge Ancient History. This fascicle put together what would eventually be published in hardcover format (with major editorial revisions) as parts of four chapters (Vol. I, chapters IX and XXVI; Vol. II, chapters IV and XXII). The reason for all this was that an earlier attempt at a revised edition, to be edited by Sidney Smith, came to naught as too many contributors failed to submit their manuscripts on time. The new editors therefore decided that, instead of waiting for everybody to come aboard, they would publish individual contributions, as they were submitted, in the form of separate fascicles (with red, paper covers).
As a graduate student at Yale, in the early 1960’s, I remember the great excitement that greeted the appearance of each one of these fascicles. As I recall they appeared at intervals about one month apart. After the appearance of Vol. II the editors vowed that never again would the press attempt such an editorial nightmare. In his fascicle of 78 pages (including ten pages of bibliography) Catling provided a remarkable survey of Cypriot prehistory, from Neolithic beginnings to the end of the Bronze Age. For almost all scholars, save those few who were totally immersed in the minutia of Cypriot archaeology, it was a great shock to discover how much things had changed since the publication of Vol. I of Sir George Hill’s A History of Cyprus (Cambridge, 1940).
Now, forty years later, we have the book under review, Louise Steel’s Cyprus Before History, which, in 279 pages (including 57 pages of notes and bibliography), covers the same period as Catling’s fascicle. Steel tells her readers, at the outset, what she intends to do: “This book is concerned with the prehistoric foundations of Cypriot culture, from the earliest evidence for human activity on the island to the end of the Bronze Age. It aims to critically review the major issues and debates that currently are being played out in the archaeological literature” (p. 1). Steel does exactly what she says and has produced the best summary of Cypriot prehistory to date. She presents an insightful, well organized and well written account of what has gone on in Cypriot archaeology in recent decades. I enjoyed reading the book, found it be most informative and strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about what we know of Cyprus before the arrival of the Greeks.
Steel’s account, like that of her predecessor, is very much a product of the intellectual climate of its day. She says, evaluating the nature of even recent work in Cypriot archaeology, that “[t]he application of theoretical perspectives in Cypriot archaeology remains haphazard, and for the most part the material has been evaluated according to a cultural-historical framework” (p. 215, n. 2). All quite true, but what scholars of Steel’s generation do not appreciate is why this is true. Not because of the perversity of past generations of Cypriot archaeologists but because those scholars had to come to grips with the reality of their own day. What are you going to do when most of your material comes from the antiquities market, from the plundering of tombs all over Cyprus so that whatever was saved was only those objects that would attract the interest of collectors and museums? What is an archaeologist to do under such circumstances when, as Steel herself recognizes, even the 1896 excavations at Enkomi, sponsored by the British Museum, were “remarkable for their apparent disregard for new excavation techniques” (p. 8)? Without context one has to fall back on typology, and typology has ruled in the study of Cypriot archaeology ever since the publication, by J. L. Myres, Handbook of the Cesnola Collections of Antiquities from Cyprus, in 1914.
The modern interest in the theoretical interpretation of Cypriot archaeology has been made possible by two factors: 1) The devoted interest in typological classification, especially of pottery and bronzes, by several generations of Cypriot archaeologists, especially those from Sweden and Australia; 2) The introduction of techniques of controlled, stratified excavation, especially in the work of Porphyrios Dikaios. Once a stratified record of material culture could be compared with the typological sequences worked out by previous generations of scholars, it finally became possible to discuss Cypriot archaeology in meaningful terms.
As already indicated, the foremost transitional figure in the historical development of Cypriot archaeology is Porphyrios Dikaios. When Catling produced his synthesis in 1966, he had in hand a series of detailed excavation reports by Dikaios on Erimi (1936), Vounous Bellapais (1940), Khirokitia (1953) and Sotira (1961). The great, multi-volumed report on his excavations at Enkomi (1948-1958) appeared during the years 1969-1971, just after the publication of Catling’s fascicle. Khirokitia, Sotira and Erimi, to put the sites in chronological order, provided the framework for our understanding of Cyprus in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods and formed the basis for everything that Catling had to say about this period in 1966. In a very real sense it can be said that Dikaios was responsible for the recovery of the pre-Bronze Age history of Cyprus.
But, as Catling makes clear, he and Dikaios saw all of this beginning in the early 6th millennium BC. The big question, as Catling realized, was the relationship between developments in Cyprus and what was in the process of being discovered in southeastern Anatolia and the Levant. This section of Steel’s account (pp. 19-118) probably differs most dramatically from what was known to Catling in 1966. The recent excavation of a series of sites from the Aceramic and Ceramic Neolithic periods has totally transformed our understanding of Neolithic Cyprus, extending our knowledge of the human occupation of the island by over four thousand years. This is such a fast-breaking field that Steel’s account, remarkably up-to-date for a publication in 2004, is already in need of revision. This should not be seen as a criticism of Steel’s work but rather as a tribute to the wonderful vitality of recent archaeological work at Neolithic sites on Cyprus. It is strange, however, that Steel continues to emphasize the isolation of Cyprus in this period (p. 45) when all the recent evidence points in the opposite direction. Peltenburg, in his 2003 excavation report (p. 95, Table II.5), even gives a table of 20 parallels between Cypro-PPNB (pre-pottery Neolithic B) and contemporary Syro-Palestinian contexts.
Work on the Aceramic Neolithic of Cyprus, documenting an archaeological record that goes back to the late 11th millennium BC, is so recent that there are already several major publications that were not available to Steel when she was writing her text. A review of three of these volumes, by Paula Louise Jones, has just been published in the recent number of Antiquity (79 (2005) 450-454). All these volumes, including the book under review, share an unfortunate feature: an inappropriate use of the term ‘colonization’. Chapter 2 of Steel’s monograph, dealing with the initial human occupation of the island, is entitled “The Colonization of Cyprus”. Edgar Peltenburg, the excavator of a number of very important early Neolithic sites in the Lemba area of southwestern Cyprus, titles his recent excavation report The Colonisation and Settlement of Cyprus (2003). But initial occupation cannot be called colonization. One cannot colonize an uninhabited land. It can be occupied, but not colonized.
It is probably not fair to criticize Steel for making a mistake that is being made by every scholar who writes about this early period of Cypriot prehistory, but mistake it is. And it is an important one, for it obscures the real nature of what is under discussion: it is not the colonization but the initial settlement of the island of Cyprus that is at issue here. The recent collection of essays on The Archaeology of Colonialism (eds. C. L. Lyons and J. K. Papadopoulos, 2002) deals with genuine examples of colonization. Cyprus is different, and the failure to appreciate this difference has caused considerable confusion in the recent archaeological literature.
The exact nature of the initial human settlement of Cyprus is still a murky subject. The period in question is that represented by the Pleistocene-Holocene interface and involves the major question of Pleistocene mass extinctions. The earliest site excavated to date in Cyprus is that of Akrotiri Aetokremnos. This is a most remarkable site, a small rock shelter with traces of human occupation and thousands of dwarf (or pygmy) hippo bones (and also some bones of the dwarf elephant). Unlike the Holocene fauna of the island, which included such animals as cattle, sheep and deer, the hippo, as part of the Pleistocene fauna of the island, seems to have made its own way to Cyprus, swimming the 76 miles (Catling p. 4) or 64 miles (Steel p. 181) between the northeastern-most part of Cyprus and the North Syrian coast. The hippopotamus is an excellent swimmer, but the hippos who made the voyage must have been full-sized animals who, over the course of millennia in an isolated environment, were reduced to dwarf size. Steel (pp. 22-23) seems to believe that they arrived in a dwarf state, but this is impossible. Similar dwarf or pygmy hippos are known from Crete and Malta. It is now being claimed that something similar happened to the earliest hominids on the Indonesian island of Flores (see articles in Scientific American 292:2 (2005) 56-65, and The National Geographic 207:4 (2005) 4-27).
In other words the dwarf hippos were well established on the island, forming part of the Pleistocene fauna of Cyprus, long before the arrival of the first humans. While believing that there is clear evidence for an overlay of humans and endemic Pleistocene fauna on other Mediterranean islands (p. 24), Steel is not sure about Cyprus. Perhaps the hippo was extinct before the arrival of the first humans (pp. 22-23), but then how to account for all the bones in the rock shelter? Perhaps they became extinct after the departure of the humans whose presence seems to be documented only at the Akrotiri rock shelter (p. 41), but if there were still hippos to be butchered then why did these early humans depart the island? The evidence from Crete, with no bones of any Pleistocene fauna present in the earliest levels from Early Neolithic Knossos, seems to indicate that the Pleistocene fauna had vanished long before the first human occupation of the island. Cyprus seems to have been very different.
Steel has real problems in dealing with the beginnings of Cypriot prehistory, a story that must be seen as but one episode in the great saga of Pleistocene Extinctions and of the role that early human hunter-gatherers played in the extermination of the Pleistocene fauna of the world, including the mammoth, the sabre-toothed tiger and the bison (and, for a radically new interpretation of the evidence from North America, see the article by Jennifer Kahn (Discover Magazine 25:3 (2004) 52-59). Steel does not seem to know what to make of the evidence from Akrotiri Aetokremnos, concluding that the site was “either an abortive colonisation attempt or possibly represents an initial exploration phase and sporadic use of the island’s resources” (p. 43).
In other words, these Akrotiri proto-‘colonists’ represent an initial but abortive attempt at island settlement with the extinction of the pygmy hippos taking place either before or after their failed attempt and prompt departure, after which there is a gap of over one thousand years prior to the arrival of the first farmers, ca. 8400 BC (p. 43). There are serious problems with this reconstruction. The tiny rock shelter at Akrotiri contained an estimated 300,000 animal bones, a number hard to explain within the context of an ephemeral, unsuccessful occupation of the island. It is hard to believe that such activity was carried out by a small band of explorers who seem to have slaughtered vast numbers of hippos (and elephants), butchered their carcasses and smoked the meat, and then departed, leaving the island uninhabited for over a thousand years. The answer seems, to me, to be obvious: we must await the future discovery of many more sites contemporary with Akrotiri Aetokremnos. These sites will resolve the Pleistocene extinction problem, though they might very well still leave uncertain the relationship between these so-called Epi-Palaeolithic sites and the first agriculturists of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB).
The archaeological work of recent decades has, in very incontrovertible ways, brought Cyprus within the orbit of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B of southeastern Anatolia and the Levant. Up to ca. 1990 Early Neolithic Cyprus was an anomaly. There was one spectacular site, that of Khirokitia, dated to the 6th millennium BC, which seemed to exist in something of a cultural vacuum. It seemed impossible to provide Khirokitia with any sort of wider cultural context. Now all this has changed, thanks, in particular, to recent French excavations at the site of Parekklisha Shillourokambos and British excavations at the site of Kissonerga Mylouthkia. This is not the place for serious discussion of these remarkable new discoveries. The interested reader will find a full discussion of all these issues in Le Néolithique de Chypre, eds J. Guilaine and A. Le Brun (Paris 2003), the publication of the papers given at an international conference held in Cyprus in 2001.
It must be emphasized here that during the mid 9th millennium BC, in what is now being called the Cypro-Early PPNB, there was a full-scale settlement of the island by a farming community almost certainly coming from southeastern Anatolia. They made the decision to settle the island of Cyprus and brought with them their animals, including cattle, sheep, goats, deer and even (accidentally no doubt) mice, along with sufficient grain and other foodstuffs in order to survive, as well as seed to plant for future crops.
The exact details cannot be discussed here. What is important is that all of this implies a remarkable degree of maritime activity in the mid 9th millennium BC. Transporting large cattle in an open boat cannot have been an easy thing to do. This is what is being discussed in the current literature. We have, of course, known for some time that long voyages across the open seas were undertaken from remarkably early times. Obsidian from the Cycladic island of Melos was found in Mesolithic levels at the Franchthi Cave, in the southern Argolid, but transporting obsidian is something quite different from transporting cattle, sheep and goats. And, in the case of Cyprus, survival demanded repeated voyages across open seas over a distance of 70 to 100 kms. The initial settlement of Cyprus by a PPNB farming community in the mid 9th millennium BC opens up a wholly new chapter in the early maritime history of the eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus now becomes notable for offering the first definite evidence for a targeted migration by farming communities, but it has to be admitted that not all scholars are happy with this reconstruction. It implies that, once again, we have the invasion of Cyprus by some intrusive group of people, exactly the sort of historical reconstruction now regarded as anathema by many Cypriot archaeologists. Such invasions were present in Catling’s fascicle (Catling 1966, p. 1) and, it has to be admitted, are still very much a part of current theory in Cypriot archaeology, but the resistance to such ideas grows stronger every year.
What follows, on the basis of present evidence, is a curious pattern of settlement and cultural discontinuity. As Steel sets out the archaeological record, there is a gap of over a thousand years between the Akrotiri rock shelter and the arrival of the PPNB farmers who establish the Aceramic Neolithic of Cyprus, ca. 8400 BC. Then, at the end of the Aceramic Neolithic, there is another break of about a thousand years, ca. 6000-5000 BC (p. 63). The Ceramic Neolithic, known especially from the site of Sotira, is then followed by another break in the archaeological record, lasting for some 500 years (ca. 4000-3500 BC prior to the establishment of the Middle Chalcolithic period, ca. 3500-2500 BC (p. 86). The missing Early Chalcolithic period, known chiefly from the ephemeral site of Kalavasos Ayious (p. 83), has to be fitted in sometime in the first half of the 4th millennium BC.
Then, at the end of Middle Chalcolithic, ca. 2500 BC, there seems to be another gap in the archaeological record, with the most important Middle Chalcolithic sites abandoned and left unoccupied for several hundred years (p. 106). What follows is the remarkably enigmatic Philia Culture, somehow bridging the transition between the Middle Chalcolithic and the Early Bronze Age and, on the basis of calibrated radiocarbon dating, to be assigned to ca. 2500-2350 BC (p. 121). Within this reconstruction of the chronological sequence, whatever happened to Late Chalcolithic? It was, according to Steel (p. 108), a transitional period, but it seems to have been left out of the existing chronological framework which, as should be obvious, has more than the credible number of transitions and gaps.
I call attention to these bizarre gaps in the archaeological record in order to emphasize the serious problems that still exist in our interpretation of Cypriot prehistory. The periods in question witnessed major developments in the material culture of prehistoric Cyprus. Middle Chalcolithic saw not only the introduction of copper metallurgy but, according to Steel, the continuous recycling of copper (p. 95), as well as the use of picrolite, with its emphasis upon a new, blue/green color (p. 94). How do we explain these developments when Middle Chalcolithic is seen as a period of splendid isolation? With Late Chalcolithic the enigma intensifies. The remarkable Pithos House (Building B3 from Period 4a at Kissonerga Mosphilia) produced fascinating evidence for shrines and cult practices as well as for the large-scale storage of foodstuffs (pp. 110-113), something not thought to have developed in Cyprus before the Late Bronze Age. But where did all this come from if, in fact, we can make no direct connection between Middle and Late Chalcolithic?
The only logical solution is to accept the fact that our present knowledge is very much an artifact of the existing archaeological record. All these gaps in the occupational history of the island surely have no basis in reality. When the appropriate sites are found and excavated, these gaps will probably vanish. We have to be patient. We have learned a great deal in recent decades, and many surprises still await us. Steel has, in fact, already provided the necessary words of caution. She warns her readers: “… the recent developments in the earliest prehistory of Cyprus signal that we should be very cautious of forming hypotheses based upon apparent gaps in the archaeological record” (p. 64).
Steel takes rather a reductive position on the early use of copper in prehistoric Cyprus. Although she is willing to admit that the mold-made artifacts of the Philia Culture “are a clear indication of the introduction of copper-working technology to the island” (p. 125), she still believes that metal was not in common use on Cyprus before the Late Bronze Age (p. 138). I could not disagree more. The remarkable assemblage of substantial copper-alloy objects from Philia Culture and Early Cypriot burials, as well as those from the Middle Cypriot cemetery at Lapithos, render Steel’s position untenable. She should consult the study by J. W. Balthazar, Copper and Bronze Working in Early through Middle Bronze Cyprus (Jonsered 1990), a reference missing from her bibliography.
Steel also believes that the Early and Middle Cypriot copper artifacts were not very practical because they were made of arsenical copper and, she claims, the addition of arsenic to copper made the metal brittle (p. 138). I hope that this idea is not perpetuated in future literature, for it is dead wrong. Steel is following a statement published by Paul Craddock in 1986 who, in turn, seems to have misunderstood the arguments made by James Charles in 1967. The addition of arsenic actually makes the copper more malleable, thus increasing the workability of the metal. Arsenic also deoxidizes the copper, which is why arsenical copper was so much easier to cast than unalloyed copper.
Some of the earliest use of bronze (the alloy of copper and tin) on Cyprus comes in the form of a very distinctive narrow-bladed shaft-hole axe. This axe appears as part of the equipment associated with a series of Levantine-inspired warrior burials dating to the MC III – LC IA transitional period (ca. 1650-1550 BC). The axe goes together with a metal belt and a socketed spearhead, all associated with an abrupt and violent transition in Cypriot society, a development which marks the shift from Middle Cypriot to Late Cypriot and seems to be associated with the emergence of an elite class of warriors (pp. 152-156, 182-183). This shift must also be associated with the sudden appearance of horse burials on Cyprus, a type of burial not previously known from the island. Steel does not really grasp the international character of this period, for she has not consulted any of the works of H.-G. Buchholz, a very prominent scholar whose works are not cited in her bibliography. Nor has she made use of the publications of Graham Philip, who has dealt with this material in several important articles in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology (volume 4 for 1991) and in the volume on The Archaeology of Death in the Ancient Near East, eds. S. Campbell and A. Green (Oxbow 1995). This material has also been discussed in a recent article by Priscilla Keswani (American Journal of Archaeology 109 (2005) 341-401).
The MC III – LCIA transition also marks a major expansion in the international trade of the island, with large quantities of Cypriot pottery now being exported to the Levant, and Levantine imports going to Cyprus. All the elements that appear on Cyprus — the socketed bronze axes, the metal belts and the equid burials — are also to be found at the site of Tell el-Dab’a in the Egyptian Delta, a site with very strong Levantine elements and a great deal of Cypriot pottery. This is certainly one of the most interesting and one of the most complex periods in all of Cypriot prehistory. The wealth of imported materials found at contemporary sites in Cyprus, Egypt and the Levant holds out the promise of precise dating for archaeological contexts in Cyprus. The site of Tell el-Dab’a seemed to hold all the answers as this Cypro-Levantine material appeared there in level D 3, a context associated with the final phase of Hyksos rule in Egypt and the establishment of the Egyptian XVIIIth Dynasty.
This promise has yet to be fulfilled because establishing the absolute chronology for the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean during the years ca. 1700-1500 BC has become something of a cause célèbre, centered round the precise date for the volcanic eruption of the island of Thera/Santorini. The problems have become so complex and so technical, involving evidence from calibrated radiocarbon dates, dendrochronology, ice cores from Greenland and the stratigraphic evidence from a large number of excavations, both old and new, that no solution seems likely in the near future. The extent of disagreement that exists at present is all too obvious in a recent discussion of the problem by Manfred Bietak, the excavator of Tell el-Dab’a (in Bibliotheca Orientalis 61 (2004) 199-222). The very technical nature of all the arguments involved in the debate has been summarized in a brilliant paper by Malcolm Wiener, published in the Proceedings of the Metron conference held in New Haven in April, 2002 (Liège 2003, 363-399).
The society of Late Bronze Age Cyprus seems to have been quite different from that known in the Aegean and the Near East. Cyprus never developed the palace-oriented society that dominated the economic and political life of its neighbors. Palatial administration, with its great emphasis upon seals and sealings, never developed on Cyprus. A single clay sealing from Enkomi seems to be the only example known from the island. Yet, as Steel points out (p. 182), hundreds of cylinder seals and stamp seals are known, both from excavated sites and from the art market; glyptic art seems to have been an important part of the artistic culture of Late Bronze Age Cyprus. Why are there so many seals from this period on Cyprus? And, in particular, why so many cylinder seals? Cylinder seals are exotic items in the culture of Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece, because, in the Near East, cylinder seals were used to seal the envelopes of clay tablets. What could they possibly have been used for in Bronze Age Cyprus?
Steel suggests that, on Cyprus, seals served as jewelry or even as symbols of office (p. 182). That seems unlikely, but the recent collection of papers on Script and Seal Use on Cyprus in the Bronze and Iron Ages, edited by J. S. Smith (Boston 2002), makes it clear that there is no easy solution to this problem. The situation now becomes even more complicated. Does the lack of palaces and palatial administration also imply the lack of political unity, the absence of a unified kingdom of Cyprus? As Steel realizes (pp. 181-186), this question is central to any proposed answer to “the Alashiya Question.” Near Eastern texts speak of the king and the queen of Alashiya and of the kingdom of Alashiya. If these references are to be equated with Cyprus, as almost all scholars now believe to be the case, then where is the palace and the kingdom of the king of Alashiya? Catling, in his 1966 survey of this problem (pp. 58-62), concluded that only future research was going to be able to solve this problem. Alas, as Steel makes clear (p. 184), any solution is still in the future, even after some forty years of research.
With the creation of Enkomi at the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, a site that remains our best candidate for the capital of a kingdom of Alashiya, the copper industry of Cyprus underwent a rapid expansion and took on a degree of centralized control (p. 186). The defining icon for the copper industry of LBA Cyprus, as well as for the metals trade of the entire Mediterranean during the same period, was a large copper ingot in a shape that early scholars took as an attempt to represent the tanned hide of an ox. Oxhide ingots they came to be, and oxhide ingots they remain, although today almost no scholar, save for Steel (p. 167), believes in the association between ox and ingot. Oxhide ingots are now known throughout the ancient world, from southern France to southern Mesopotamia; recent analytical work has determined that almost all of these ingots were made of Cypriot copper. But that same analytical work has also determined that very few of the contemporary artifacts were made of Cypriot copper. So, what happened to all the copper from the ingots; what was that copper used for, if not to make artifacts?
Like all her contemporaries Steel has to face this conundrum. She accepts the ‘gift exchange hypothesis’, arguing that “the ingots were simply intended for elite exchange and were not a convertible raw material” (p. 167). Gift exchange is certainly a popular topic these days, but it is not going to do anything for us in this context. The Uluburun shipwreck (and, contrary to what Steel seems to believe, p. 169, Kas and Uluburun are two names for the same shipwreck) carried a cargo that included 354 copper oxhide ingots. These were all destined for ceremonial gift exchange? I find that very hard to believe. And why would contemporary metalworkers have broken up these ingots into the hundreds of small fragments that still exist, if the ingot itself was a ceremonial, prestige item? Steel herself seems to have her doubts, for later on in her text (p. 180) she refers to these ingots as “the basic unit of exchange for copper throughout the Mediterranean in the LBA”. A basic unit of exchange cannot also be an object used for ceremonial gift exchange between elites. I wish that I had a solution to this problem, but I know that gift exchange is not the solution.
Like all lands in the eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus went through difficult times at the end of the 13th century BC (in Cypriot terms the transition from LC IIC to LC IIIA). Sites were destroyed, often never to be reoccupied, whole areas were depopulated and there seems to have been a drastic reduction in the standard of living across the island. Steel (p. 187) gives a wonderful quote from Catling describing how Cyprus, in the period ca. 1200-1050 BC, “passed through strange and terrible years …” Yet those years also produced some of the richest tombs ever excavated on Cyprus. Although Steel seems to agree with Catling regarding depopulation, she also describes this period (LC IIIA) as one that “might equally be viewed as the culmination of urbanism on Cyprus and a period of great economic and cultural prosperity” (p. 208). This question, whether LC IIIA Cyprus was a regressive or innovative period, has now been discussed in a new article by the Israeli archaeologist Ora Negbi (BASOR 337 (2005) 1-45).
The very fact that such a problem exists is an excellent example of the terribly complex and controversial world of Cypriot archaeology. Louise Steel has done a superb job of finding her way through the labyrinth, bringing her efforts to a successful conclusion. My guess is that her book will establish itself as the basic text on the archaeology of Cyprus to the end of the Bronze Age. Every reader is going to have his/her disagreements with some of Steel’s interpretations and conclusions, but that represents the very essence of Cypriot archaeology.