The area around Larnaka Bay was home to numerous communities, which thrived during the later second millennium bc because of its strategic position facing the key economic and political centres of the eastern Mediterranean, from Egypt and the Levant to the Aegean world. In fact, the area was one of the most heavily populated areas of the island at this time and has been referred to as the ‘fertile crescent of Cyprus’, on account of its productive agricultural land and the density of its population.
Like the settlement of Klavdia-Tremithos, the town of Hala Sultan Tekke has produced strong evidence for commercial links with other regions of the eastern Mediterranean from an early phase of the Late Bronze Age (LBA), in the form of imported luxury goods and raw materials but also signs of cultural influences from its neighbours. A major reason for the town’s prosperity was its location. In the LBA, the present Salt Lake was a lagoon open to the sea, giving the adjacent settlement the benefit of the largest natural harbour in the eastern Mediterranean. Not only did this provide a safe anchorage for sea-going vessels, it also provided some degree of protection against casual raiding by rival communities, pirates and other hostile groups elsewhere in the region.
The site has produced only sporadic traces of Early and Middle Bronze Age occupation, a period which is better attested at sites such as nearby Arpera chiftlik (see below) and several others further to the east around Larnaka (including one which preceded the LBA town of Kition). The earliest signs of occupation at the town derives almost entirely from burials placed in chamber tombs beginning in the Middle Cypriot (MC) III period (1750–1650 bc) but the main phase of settlement belongs at the start of Late Cypriot (LC) I. The tombs are small artificial caves cut into the bedrock and entered via pits from the surface above. The remains of a great many such tombs have been recorded all over the area of the ancient site over the years. Unfortunately, many were looted before being excavated by archaeologists, at first for the valuable metal goods and other precious items they contained, and later to supply the growing 19th-century taste for antiquities.
As we will see, the first official diggers, those from the British Museum in 1897–8, did not have the skill or knowledge to excavate or record their discoveries according to modern standards. Nonetheless, a few intact tombs have been explored and published in detail in more recent times, allowing us to reconstruct the burial customs of the inhabitants of the site in some detail.
Two tombs explored by the Department of Antiquities in 1968 provide crucial evidence to illuminate the burial customs of the LBA town.Tomb 1 was a small rock-cut chamber, originally approached from an entrance pit (called a dromos by archaeologists), which could be sealed between each burial. It had been partially disturbed when excavated, but nonetheless produced over 120 grave offerings, including masses of imported Mycenaean and Minoan pottery, some of the Pictorial style with images of animals, humans and chariot-scenes. Luxury goods comprised faience vessels from Egypt and the Levant, gold and silver jewellery, ivory items and the remains of ostrich eggs (considered a very prestigious luxury at the time).
These objects were placed with a succession of burials dating to the 14th and 13th (or perhaps early 12th) centuries bc – LC IIC to early in LC IIIA –represented by at least a dozen skulls of adults and the jumbled remains of an indeterminate number of human skeletons. Most of the skulls showed signs of having been artificially reshaped using a cradling board. This practice is attested elsewhere on the island in this period, whether for cultural reasons (such as beautification) or for practical purposes, such as flattening the head for carrying heavy objects.
Tomb 2 was similar in form and also used repeatedly for many burials from the 15th down to the 13th century bc (LC IB/IIA–IIC). Over 250 items were recorded: masses of Aegean pottery and local ceramics, faiences, cylinder seals, gold and bronze jewellery and a bird-faced ‘Astarte’ figurine. A stone mortar placed with one of the interments may have served to indicate the deceased’s occupation or identity during life, or simply to provide a means of grinding cosmetics or medicines in the hereafter.
The remains of horses found in the burial chamber, possibly sacrificed after the funerary procession, are a sign of the wealth or status of the deceased. As with Tomb 1, many of the items have close parallels in the material excavated by the British Museum, with the exception of the plain ceramics, which are not found in the assemblages of the earlier excavations. The stone anchor found in the burial chamber, however, almost certainly came from a nearby structure, perhaps reused as building material or dedicated in a shrine. Nonetheless, it illustrates the maritime function of the settlement and the importance of the sea to the life of the community.
Other funerary evidence comes from three looted tombs explored by the Swedish excavators in another part of the site. The surviving burials revealed evidence for use extending through the LC II period, c. 1450–1200 BC.
Finally, two tombs were explored during rescue excavations conducted by the Department of Antiquities in 1977 at the site of Dromolaxia-Trypes 1km to the west of the main site. Although partially disturbed by construction work, both chamber tombs contained a rich sample of typical grave offerings of the MC III and LC periods. These included luxury goods such as seal stones, gold and silver jewellery, imported Tell el-Yahudiyeh and Mycenaean Pictorial Style pottery, as well as much local pottery.
Overall, evidence from tombs attests to the continuous use of the area for burial from the MC III period in the 18th and 17th centuries bc down to the earlier part of the 12th century BC.Traces of the settlement contemporary with these earlier tombs are very few, because later inhabitants destroyed the remains of older structures as the town grew and developed, especially during the 13th and earlier 12th centuries bc when the urban area was substantially rebuilt. Evidence from other LC settlements, such as Enkomi, suggests, however, that the contemporary buildings were located close to the tombs, though the original town may have consisted of dispersed clusters of buildings rather than the densely built up town of later times. Some remains of the earlier settlement have also been found sealed beneath later buildings, mostly in the form of deposits of sherds and other occupation material, with the occasional preserved floor level.Discarded and broken items from contemporary buildings or workshops were sometimes dumped in disused wells, which in themselves provide evidence of buildings in their immediate vicinity. Detritus from domestic buildings or workshops, such as tools or metal slag for instance, is sometimes found in tombs, providing additional hints of now vanished structures round the burial plots.
A combination of topographic study, geophysical prospection, and selective excavation suggests that the remains of the settlement extended over c. 27 hectares. It should be noted, however, that this is a composite figure representing some 500 years of occupation, during which time the town grew in extent but also changed in layout and density of occupation, so we should interpret this figure with due caution. The existence of another settlement and burial site at the locality known as Trypes approximately 1km to the west of Hala Sultan Tekke (close to the village of Dromolaxia) supports the impression that human activity on the western side of the Salt Lake was scattered over a wide area and not concentrated in a dense urban centre.