Ancient Cyprus in the British Museum

Edited by Thomas Kiely

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Burial practices on Late Bronze Age Cyprus

The typical Bronze Age Cypriot tomb type is the chamber tomb cut into the soft limestone bedrock. Chamber tombs began in the Early Cypriot period (around 2400/2300 BC) and remained the most common form of tomb until around the end of Late Cypriot IIC (around 1200 BC), when new types of tomb were introduced. These were mostly simple shaft or pit graves, although a few new chamber tombs were also constructed, while some older ones remained in use (see Keswani 2004 for a comprehensive survey).

A cross-section of a chamber tomb at Enkomi

A cross-section of a burial chamber with a chimney-shaped dromos or entrance, from the French excavations at Enkomi (Tomb 1949/11) (after C. Schaeffer, Enkomi-Alasia. Nouvelles Missions en Chypre 1946-1950 (Paris, 1952), pl. XXVII.)

 

The beginning of the Iron Age, around the eleventh century BC, saw the appearance of a new type of tomb, the chamber tomb with a long dromos. This is sometimes thought to have been modelled on Greek types, though none of these are represented at Enkomi which was abandoned before this time.

Chamber tombs varied in their construction. The majority have a dromos (a chimney-shaped shaft or long sloping entranceway) with one or more rounded or irregularly-shaped chambers leading off the sides. Some were equipped with low benches for laying out the dead or with small niches cut into the walls of the chamber or dromos, seemingly used for the deposition of infants or children (such as those marked 'A' and 'B' on the accompanying drawing of the tomb section). The chambers were usually sealed with large, flat slabs of stone.

Apart from chamber tombs and shaft or pit graves, other types of tombs also occur at Enkomi. These are rare and only around 10 are known from all excavations at the site. The first of these are tholos tombs. They were of a much smaller scale than Mycenaean tholos tombs but constructed with a round floor plan and a corbelled roof of mudbrick or stone.

The second type are built tombs, constructed from carefully cut blocks of stone (ashlar) with a rectangular floor plan and a slightly corbelled roof. The majority of tombs from the British Museum’s excavations are chamber tombs but there is one tholos tomb, Tomb 71 (Tomb 48 is a chamber tomb), and four built tombs (Tombs 1, 11, 12 and 66). Tomb 66 is the only tomb of either tholos or built type ever found intact, and remains one of the wealthiest known from the site. However, the wealthiest tomb known from Enkomi is a chamber tomb, Tomb 93, so tomb type cannot be simply correlated with status.

The tombs were typically used for multiple burials, sometimes for periods of up to 500 years. Number of inhumations, length of use and numbers of grave goods are highly variable. A tomb may house anywhere from one to 62 burials and contain a variety of grave goods. Pottery is the most common type of grave good, with some tombs containing over 500 vessels. Other goods deposited include metal or stone tools and vessels, gold, silver or stone jewellery, faience, glass, ivory and other exotic materials. Priscilla Keswani has shown that there is a high likelihood that complex programmes of mortuary ritual were being carried out and that bodies and grave goods were being moved between tombs (Keswani 2004). The wealthiest tombs have been shown to be those in use for longest, and particularly those in use during Late Cypriot IIC, the period of the greatest prosperity of the town. It is also possible that all the tombs found within the settlement represent those of ‘elites’ and low status individuals were buried elsewhere, probably in the extramural rural cemeteries. Even with fine-scale excavation techniques it is often difficult to attribute groups of grave goods to an individual burial or to divide the tomb into different phases. Partially because of the nature of the bedrock, flooding, the fact that many tombs were looted, and the potential that Bronze Age Cypriots themselves were moving the material around.