The group of figurines described here is said to have been found in a cave at a locality near the village of Lapithos known as Embros Temenon. They appear to have been excavated or collected around 1897 by Major Tankerville Chamberlayne, a British colonial official and renowned expert on mediaeval Cyprus resident in nearby Kyrenia, where he was the District Commissioner. He gave the 20 figurines now in London to the British High Commissioner Haynes Smith, who then presented them to the British Museum in 1900. A larger group of around 50 figurines from the same findspot was given to the Louvre in Paris around the same time. Others are preserved in the Cyprus Museum, though some of these may have come from other sanctuaries in the Lapithos area as well.
Nothing was recorded at the time of the discovery about the original findspot of the figurines, not even its location in relation to the modern village. The name of the location of the cave itself suggests a holy place of some type, from the Greek word for a sacred enclosure (or temenos). It is also unclear if the locality name refers to a modern shrine or chapel from which the cave took its name – the word temenos is used both for a church and a mosque in Cypriot Greek – or simply reflects local knowledge of an ancient cult-place based on the casual discovery of ancient idols. Although this is somewhat speculative, it is possible that both are correct and that an ancient cult site continued to be used for religious purposes in more recent times. Caves and other subterranean places have strong supernatural associations in many cultures, including among Christians who often reused old tombs and vaults for religious purposes. This practice is commonly found on Cyprus.
In the 1950s the Cyprus Survey identified a site around half a kilometre east of the southern edge of Lapithos village, which appears to be the same as the sanctuary found in 1897. Few details are published, but extensive surface remains of votive figurines were found around a cave located in a rocky outcrop at the foot of a low hill. The hill was enclosed within the bend of the river Kamara. This, together with the presence of a small spring below the cave, may have influenced the location of the original sanctuary. A small settlement of similar date was also recorded in the vicinity, whose inhabitants no doubt worshipped at this spot along with others from the surrounding area, including another sanctuary recorded by the Cyprus Survey in 1959. Terracotta and stone figurines dating from the Cypro-Archaic to the Hellenistic period, some more than one-third life-size, were found scattered over an area of approximately 90 x 90m, suggesting some sort of temenos or sacred space.
Although little is known about the layout or use of the cave sanctuary, the form of the offerings provides a snapshot of the religious and social concerns of the local population in the middle of the first millennium BC. The majority of the objects in the British Museum collection, in addition to the examples now preserved in the Louvre and the Cyprus Museum, are female. They depict worshippers or priestesses in a variety of ritual activities.
Some emphasise sex, fertility and motherhood, such as the image of a woman with a young child at her breast or another showing what appears to be a woman given birth with the assistance of supernatural beings. A number of them carry birds or small animals intended for sacrifice or for a feast associated with the religious ritual. Several of the women hold musical instruments, and they are likely to be priestesses or worshippers honouring or invoking the deity through music and song. Others still have their arms raised in typical gestures of adoration and prayer.
While the lack of information about the original context makes it difficult to determine the exact nature of the cult or even the name of the divinity, there are some clues from the fact that the objects were found in a cave. In Classical Greek religion, caves were believed to provide a physical link to the underworld, but were also connected with Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth. Similar beliefs may have existed on Cyprus, but we do not know the name of the divinity worshipped here, though she may have been a manifestation of the Great Goddess honoured throughout the island under the name of Paphia, Golgia or simply Thea (‘Goddess’) who was later assimilated with Astarte and Aphrodite. As already mentioned, several important female divinities are mentioned in the inscriptions from Larnaka-tis-Lapithiou, including Athena, Anat and Astarte, all of whom may well have been the object of worship in the cave sanctuary. It is likely that female worshippers in particular would have come here at anxious and often dangerous times of their lives to ensure a good marriage, a successful pregnancy or the safe delivery of a child. Representations of childbirth are quite common in ancient Cyprus, including in the period to which these figurines belong.
However, the elaborate dress and jewellery depicted on the figures also indicates the wealth and possibly high status of some of the individuals involved, hinting at the wider social and economic role played by women within the local community. The cave sanctuary would no doubt have been an important place within the life of the kingdom, or at least the local community, whose settlement remains elusive. The function of cult places is also apparent from the inscriptions found at the sanctuary at Larnaka-tis-Lapithou mentioned earlier, where leading officials of the kingdom honoured their forebears but also displayed the power and wealth of the ruling class.
Caubet and Yon’s study of the Lapithos sanctuary material in the Louvre identified at least five major workshops based on the technique of manufacture and iconography. Examples of all five types are represented in the British Museum group, though each group include variations on the specific type.
First there is the series of handmade figurines (in the so-called snowman technique) representing votaries with hands raised in gestures of prayer and/or holding offerings (Workshop 1). Although crudely made, they depict in some detail the elaborate dress, headgear and jewellery typical of female figures of this date, including several mould-made examples from the same find-spot (Cat. nos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
Second is a series of hollow, mould-made pieces depicting a female holding or suckling a child, related to the Dea Gravida (literally heavy goddess, that is to say, pregnant) types well known in Kition and other Phoenician-influenced sites (Workshop 2). The moulds used to make these types were finely detailed and show the elaborate garments worn by the women (Cat. no. 8).
A third series consists of so-called Astarte plaques: flat figures of a naked female, probably a goddess, made in a one-piece mould (Workshop 3). The original derives from the Phoenician world of the 8th and 7th centuries BC, but many locally made versions have been adapted by Cypriot artisans to local taste, especially by the addition of jewellery of the kind found on clothed figurines (Cat. no. 9).
Then we have another Phoenician-influenced type in the form of the pillar-figurines (Workshop 4): wheel-made bodies with mould-formed heads and applied arms. These often depict musicians, such as tambourine players, or votaries making ritual gestures. (Cat. nos 10, 11, 12, 13, 14
Finally, there is another type of mixed technique, with flat, narrow plank-like bodies, to which have been added mould-made heads and applied arms and other details (Workshop 5). These also depict votaries. One charming example from the British Museum series shows a person holding a large amphora in their outstretched arms, possibly an offering of wine being carried to a festival, while another shows a woman, whose head is enveloped in a cloak, carrying a child in one arm (Cat. nos 15, 16, 17)
Several types are not represented in the Louvre collection, and therefore not included in Caubet and Yon’s classification outlined above. One is an Egyptianising figurine of a naked goddess with her hands held by her sides (illustrated here) (Cat. no.18). This type, represented by numerous examples attributed to the Lapithos area, which are possibly made in the same mould, may have been influenced by Phoenician prototypes from the Larnaka area or indeed directly through contact with Levantine traders and visitors. This type influenced the form of those made by Workshop 3 and other naked goddess types found around Cyprus at this time, including in the sanctuaries around Arsos where another large group of local versions of this imported prototype can be identified.
The Egyptianising votive musician with a splaying, wheel-made body also owes much to the terracotta production of Kition and its surrounding area, and may be an import to Lapithos or else a reflection of the Phoenician connections of the area (19). Finally, the fragmentary figurine of a naked woman with her arm under her breasts, but wearing a cap or fillet, may also have originated elsewhere on the island, though the technique is very simple and widely attested on the island during the Cypro-Archaic (CA) period (Cat. no. 20).