Copper Age Cyprus

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The sequence of small-scale settlements that characterized society on Cyprus, the third-largest Mediterranean island, from the fifth to the third millennium b.c. is divided into Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods.


Following a lengthy period with virtually no evidence for settlement, Cyprus was inhabited by small, neatly organized villages comprising subrectilinear houses crowded inside surrounding enclosure walls and ditches. They are the Late Neolithic communities that emerged c. 4500 b.c. and went on to form Copper Age society from about 3800 to 2400 b.c. These Late Neolithic people may have originated among indigenous survivors of Aceramic Neolithic groups, or they may have come from the adjacent mainland, or a combination of both. Their hoe-based agricultural society often is referred to as the Sotira culture, named after a hilltop village in the southern foothills that provides evidence for an important series of habitations and simple pit burials in an extramural graveyard.

In contrast to the exposed position of Sotira, other settlements, such as Ayios Epiktitos Vrysi on the north coast or Philia-Drakos A in the center of the island, had significant underground components. Subterranean houses at Vrysi nestled in deep hollows, and a web of tunnels underpinned the settlement at Philia. The island was sparsely populated in the Late Neolithic, and the absence of weaponry or threatening animals implies the existence of other reasons for recurrent defenses and subterranean features.Houses eventually were built beyond the village enclosure walls at several settlements, and thus the population grew noticeably.

The Neolithic islanders remained unaffected by contacts with the outside world, but the widespread occurrence of beads and pendants of picrolite, a soft blue-green stone primarily from a single riverine source near Sotira, is evidence of exchanges among the islanders. Their most remarkable product, however, was pottery executed in a vivacious painted style in the north and a monochrome version in the south. While the red paint of the monochrome pottery was still wet, potters combed away the paint in multiple sinuous bands to reveal the white slip beneath. These two major styles of c. 4500 b.c. represent some of the earliest pottery from an island that was to become renowned for its inventive ceramic traditions.


The Late Neolithic villages were not rebuilt after c. 4000 b.c., and when stone houses reappear some five hundred years later, they are uniformly circular in plan and are established at new locations. According to the excavator Porphyrios Dikaios, Sotira was abandoned because of an earthquake, and scholars have used this alleged devastation to account for population dislocations throughout the island. Earthquakes, however, tend to have localized effects, and another possibility for the transformation concerns demography. Late Neolithic villages, as already mentioned, tended to increase in size. Rather than developing into an urban society, expanding populations gradually established new small settlements, especially in the west of the island. Woodland clearance for these foundations led to a tradition of building in timber and daub, with structures occasionally sheltering at the top of curvilinear pits. Unlike earlier and later stone counterparts, these timber-frame structures have not survived well, so the Early Chalcolithic is poorly known.

Another reason sometimes adduced for the changes after 4000 b.c. is environmental deterioration. There is little unequivocal evidence for this decline, and traces of localized erosion may be due to human interference. Woodland clearance by new settlers would have led rapidly to erosion. Another possibility is that people increasingly adopted hunting and became more mobile. The faunal remains from one site indicate that some 75 percent of the meat intake came from fallow deer. At Kissonerga-Mosphilia, however, flimsy timber shelters surrounded large bottle-shaped storage pits, which, in all probability, were communal grain silos. Sites yield a wide spectrum of domesticated crops, so occupants had not become exclusively mobile hunters who avoided a sedentary existence. Our impoverished information of this phase stems from the fact that more fragile aboveground timber structures largely have been swept away by pervasive Mediterranean erosion.

Two sites, Kissonerga-Mylouthkia in the west and the Kalavasos complex along the eastern lip of the Vasilikos Valley, have produced traces of circular timber structures and anthropomorphic figurines in stone and clay. These innovations become absolutely typical of the Copper Age and so, despite the general poverty of information, the Early Chalcolithic was a formative juncture. Radiocarbon dates place these developments between 3900 and 3600 b.c.

Some circular buildings at Mylouthkia were erected inside spacious pits, in two instances with associated human remains. They lack the conventional hearths and flat floors of later aboveground buildings, so it is unlikely that they were pit houses. Pits clearly were used for varied activities, and they were not all simply the receptacles for rubbish from site maintenance. The dead also were inserted into the fills of a ditch, which surrounded at least part of this site. In one case, a headless adult lay upon a stone dish encrusted with red ochre, which in turn was placed over a large saddle quern with its stone rubber. In sum, there are enough hints from this period to suggest that it was significant in the development of the island's prehistory.

Mylouthkia shows that the Late Neolithic tradition of enclosing sites continued into the Copper Age. Figurative art also demonstrates continuity. Before c. 4000 b.c., occasional depictions are extremely simple, flattened cylinders with grooves suggesting a phallus. In the early centuries of the fourth millennium b.c., these cylinders become more rounded, with opposing, short, armlike projections and breasts. Ceramic examples often are painted all over with linear designs. Stone carvers at this time also employed blue-green picrolite to execute the first of a genre that, in its more fully developed form, became one of the most famous expressions of Cypriot prehistoric art, the cruciform figurine.

middle chalcolithic cyprus

The classic site of the Cypriot Copper Age is Erimi, located beside the Kouris River on the southern coast. During the 1930s, its 5.5-meter-deep stratigraphy disclosed a gradual change from timber to stone buildings. Broadly speaking, this trend is still valid for the Early to Middle Chalcolithic period, from c. 3900 to 2800 b.c. Notable in its later phases are circular stone-based structures, cruciform figurines, and some metalwork. Thus, this period as a whole sometimes is referred to as the time of the Erimi culture. Excavations at Erimi consisted only of a small sounding. More informative insight on major developments within village polities was gained from Kissonerga-Mosphilia periods 2–3B. This western site is much larger than other settlements, although it does not seem to have been a center for redistribution.

The Development of Independent Households. Earlier timber shelters, with grain silos and external food preparation installations at Kissonerga, were replaced by stone buildings in such a way that areas previously used for communal storage were appropriated into the building space. Public facilities were enclosed and made private. Instead of pits, which would be awkward inside a house, large storage pots were introduced to store foodstuffs. Social changes thus had an impact on technology. Sequential construction of freestanding circular buildings in the same location also points to the development of property rights and inheritance. From these changes it may be inferred that the sharing ethos of earlier times was giving way to more autonomy within society.

These novel buildings, dating to c. 3300 b.c., epitomized the standard house design of the Copper Age, one found in all lowland regions of the island. With an average diameter of some 7 meters, the single-room structures were separated in terms of function into four segments. Houses often were abandoned, with their contents left intact, so it is possible to reconstruct what happened in these segments. Access was under a porch and through the south-facing entrance, where one entered the relative darkness of the room. Two brighter areas would have attracted the eyes first. In the central area was a raised, white-plastered, circular hearth that contained a small fire. On the right there was a gleaming, white-paved segment bordered by two low ridges that radiated from the central hearth. Some wall benches are preserved here. This may have been a reception or sleeping room. Burials, presumably of household members, were found just outside the building, beside this elaborate segment. Only adult females and children seem to have been buried beside the houses in this period.

The remaining segments were for storage and work. On the left as one entered were stocks of tools, such as stone axes, hammerstones, and grinders. At the back were storage pots and cooking facilities. Although internal space was not partitioned, the recurrent patterning means that people enacted their daily lives in a similar manner in all the island villages. Where houses were destroyed suddenly, it is clear from concentrations of equipment in the middle of the floor that much work was carried out around the central hearth, a natural focus of all these buildings. Destruction by fire may have been deliberate; at Mylouthkia, for example, the body of a juvenile was found inside a burned structure, and there had been no attempt either to remove him for burial or to retrieve the hundreds of serviceable items that lay in the debris.

Expressions of Social Divisions. Copper Age Cyprus flourished around 3000 b.c., the last period before external contacts modified the island-bound identity of society. During this era, buildings became elaborate; metalwork, ornately painted pottery, the most exquisite figurines, small statuary, and zoomorphs in the shape of centaurs appear; and possible foreign imports were introduced into a cemetery at Souskiou, a southwestern complex. The occurrence of richly endowed cemeteries is exceptional because burial was conventionally within settlements. Society was becoming more heterogeneous.

It is only at Kissonerga-Mosphilia Period 3B that archaeologists gain some idea of village organization. Its inhabitants moved into an open area of the site, where they fashioned a newly imagined community, spatially unrestricted by preexisting buildings. They created two sectors. In one, the high sector, they erected a group of imposing structures demarcated from the rest of the settlement by a stone-paved track and a perimeter wall with a shallow ditch. Apart from their exceptional size and careful construction, buildings here were distinguished by the use of calcarenite stones, which were transported some distance to the site by humans, for there were no pack animals on the island. Human haulage on this scale and repavings of a public track suggest that an authority existed to mobilize labor for the benefit of the group that lived in the high sector. The floor plaster of the eastern segments of the buildings was very hard and thickly laid on aggregate or gravel foundation. For the first time, walls partitioned internal space into rooms. As a consequence of this elaboration, interpersonal relations changed, with more formal segregation of activities: reception and sleeping areas were divorced from work and storage zones.

The structures of this high sector formed a circle about 25 meters in diameter around an open space that contained the remains of numerous earth ovens. Sealed food was cooked for a day or so on top of heated stones at the base of these oven pits. On the western side of the sector stood the "Red Building," so called for one of its red painted floors and the red inlays embedded in its white-plastered walls. Although part of the structure is missing, its standard plan indicates that its interior was about 130 square meters, the largest known prehistoric building in Cyprus. In the reception and sleeping segment were some thirty-three pots, including capacious serving bowls, their interiors painted with swirling and other designs. These luxury presentation vessels no doubt impressed guests and others at feasts, suggested by the proliferation of adjacent earth ovens. Comparable containers in houses outside the high sector are smaller and far less ostentatious.

Among the earth ovens were pits with deliberately deposited special objects. One of these contained a remarkable assemblage of about fifty pieces associated with a ceramic building model covered by two large bowls, each carefully split in half. Some nonfunerary ritual was enacted in a public arena here, as evidenced by the intentional arrangement of the objects, several of which were mutilated. Moreover, the decorative symbolism on the walls of the building model was concealed by application of a post-firing opaque coating.

The building model is a unique expression of Cypriot art c. 3000 b.c. On its circular floor is a raised central hearth with two ridges radiating to the wall, exactly as in excavated houses. The door pivots in a socket and loop. Above the red-framed entrance are two rows of deliberately broken projections. The external walls are painted with stepped bands and rectangles placed obliquely, with internal checkerboard panels, a polelike motif fringed with festoons, and ascending sets of rectilinear elements.

Packed in and around the model were numerous objects, many purposely broken. They include eight pottery figurines, ten stone figurines, one anthropomorphic vessel, a model four-legged stool, nineteen white stone objects (mostly pestles), a pristine triton shell, and a bone needle. Almost all figurines depict females, and most were seated on stools. In one case, the painted head and arms of a baby emerge between the legs of a standard, but ornate figure. Given the similar posture of most female representations of the period, they probably are birth figures rather than goddesses or generalized fertility idols. The whole assemblage may have served didactic roles, used at initiation and other life-cycle rites. Its association with a building model symbolizes the strong connection between the life histories of houses and females in Chalcolithic society.

In terms of the spatial organization of Kissonerga 3B, cooking, feasts, and ceremonies related to the formal "killing" of objects that carried strong ideological messages distinguished the high sector. The central open space was suitable for a communal gathering, and so it was an arena for the communication of symbolic distinctions between different parts of the local population. In terms of chronology, the destruction and burial of all these objects happened a little before a major transition in Copper Age Cyprus.

late chalcolithic cyprus

The centuries between c. 2800 and 2400 b.c. are crucial for assessments of the nature of indigenous society before and during some of the most profound found changes in the prehistory of Cyprus, ones that ushered in the Early Bronze Age. So dramatic are these transformations that it is difficult to isolate more than a few vestiges of Copper Age cultures in succeeding periods. Opinion is divided as to whether the process was induced by migrants, by aspiring local leaders, or by a combination of the two.

Developments on the island in the early to middle third millennium b.c. were poorly understood until, once again, Kissonerga-Mosphilia provided varied and detailed information. Settlements of Kissonerga Period 4 were built on top of the abandoned Middle Chalcolithic high and low sectors. There were two phases, an earlier one of dispersed structures, including the unusually well equipped Pithos House, named after the thirty storage vessels found inside, and a successor with three clusters of houses (fig. 1). Although all the houses conformed to the circular types of the Copper Age, there are sharp differences with the preceding age.

From the outset, the new community rejected the cruciform birth figurine that was such a key feature of society before 3000 b.c. The removal of these important symbols implies a radical transformation of sociopolitical organization. Power became identified more directly with control of subsistence and other resources. This is seen most clearly in the concentration of storage and commodities in the Pithos House. Copper slag and metal products were found here, together with a rudimentary oil press. The residents, therefore, had privileged access to metal and olive oil. Later, these were the twin pillars of Cypriot Bronze Age political and economic power. The multiple sources of authority in one residence point to an early instance of overt economic management of people, labor, and surpluses rather than the benign coordination and redistribution of resources.

There are signs that changes took place together with islanders' increasing involvement with the outside world, contemporary with Old Kingdom Egypt (2686–2181 b.c.). This contact phase is typified by the deployment of new fashions and knowledge to sharpen power differentials and not by the importation of significant quantities of long-distance exchange items. They include the appearance of stamp seals and pottery traditions, perhaps betraying specific drinking customs, from Anatolia. The new spurred annular pendant of shell is of a type known in northern Syria. From the mainland of the Levant or Egypt came exotic faience beads.

Cyprus by then was engaged with long-distance trade routes between the Near East and the Aegean. This was mainly an eastern initiative that conveyed items by maritime routes along southern Anatolia. Coastal islanders had access to esoteric knowledge and were exposed to more complex polities. Often, where contact occurs between groups of different sociopolitical and economic complexity, it brings about significant transformations in less "developed" societies. This change may have occurred on the island. For example, males increasingly appeared in the burial record, chambers for multiple burials were introduced, children were demoted to impoverished and poorly defined pits and scoops, and a discrete mortuary enclosure inside Kissonerga was used to provide an internal focus for maintaining social differences by reference to the dead.

There were undoubtedly other circumstances that fuelled instability in Cyprus in the mid-third millennium b.c. Population growth and environmental degradation, for example, led to resource stress. One result was intensification of production, a feature documented by the diversification and specialization of crop-processing equipment as well as the use of larger tools. Disequilibrium may account for the destruction and abandonment of the small compound-like village of Lemba, also in the west. Pressures on resources contributed to eventual system collapse.

It was at this juncture, c. 2500 b.c., the more explicitly Anatolian features appeared on the island. They constitute a phenomenon known as the Philia, named after a cemetery in the central region. It is possible that people with radically new traditions, such as farming with ox-drawn plows, coexisted with more conventional Copper Age groups in what is, after all, a regionally divided island. Only at Kissonerga is there a sequence of occupation in which the Philia follows the Chalcolithic; the Philia stage, however, was poorly preserved, and the site soon was abandoned. Very few Philia settlements replace the many recorded Late Chalcolithic sites, and so debate continues about the exact interaction between the two groups and what became of the people of Copper Age Cyprus.

See alsoBronze Age Cyprus (vol. 2, part 5).


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Edgar Peltenburg