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Early prehistory, about 9000–2500 BC

Current evidence suggests that the earliest humans in the region arrived in the tenth millennium BC. This is indicated by finds of stone tools, in association with now extinct animals such as pygmy hippopotami and elephants, found in a rock shelter on the southern shore of the Akrotiri peninsula known as Aetokremnos (‘Vulture Cliff’).

This phase of occupation was once believed to have been a short-lived episode by early hunter-gatherer groups from the mainland, followed by a long gap in human occupation before the establishment of the first farming communities on Cyprus during the Khirokitia culture of the seventh and sixth millennia BC. More recent discoveries, however, including several sites in the vicinity of the ancient acropolis of Amathus on the eastern edge of modern Limassol, have filled this chronological gap considerably, revealing that the island was probably occupied continuously at least from the ninth millennium BC. Early communities were small and widely dispersed, so not every region would have been as heavily exploited as later in prehistory.[8]

The site of Parekklisha-Shilllourokambos near Amathus provides evidence for one of the earliest phases of the Neolithic period, which witnessed a much more intensive and directed exploitation of natural resources than was practiced by hunter-forager groups. Communities were not entirely or predominantly sedentary, and the use of pottery had not yet been adopted, hence the term aceramic, which is commonly applied to the earlier part of the Neolithic period. Carbon-14 dates suggest that Shilllourokambos was used in the ninth or eighth millennia BC.

Obsidian used for making tools at Shillourokambos appears to have been imported from Anatolia, signalling ongoing connections with the mainland. Other possible remains of this period have also been tentatively identified in the eastern Limassol Bay area, though they have not been as intensively excavated. The material assemblage of these sites, and others such as those in the Kissonerga area, suggest strong cultural links with the so-called Pre-Pottery Neolithic B culture of the Levantine world, indicating that Cyprus was part of a broader world of regional contacts and movement of peoples and ideas at this time, rather than an isolated backwater, as was once believed.[9]

Several sites of the succeeding phase of the aceramic Neolithic period (seventh and sixth millennia BC) have been reported in the Kourion region, though little is known about them at present (see map).[10]  The period was originally known as the ‘Khirokitia culture’ after a site near the village of that name further to the east but the phase is now known to have been longer-lasting than the occupation at Khirokitia itself.

The first permanent settlement about which detailed information is known is the settlement of Sotira-Teppes, dating from the ceramic Neolithic period, c. 5500–4000 BC.[11]  During this phase pottery was adopted, along with other innovations in economic and social life. The large Combed Ware bowl from Sotira in the British Museum collection illustrated here is typical of the pottery of the southern part of the island in the later part of this long period.

The settlement of Teppes had four phases of occupation in the later fifth millennium BC. The best preserved consisted of a series of small, somewhat irregularly shaped houses made of stone and mud-brick, clustered together on the top of a hill close to vital agricultural and water supplies. Remains of what appear to be a defensive wall may indicate a need to defend or define the settlement. The dead were placed in shallow pits, with few or no grave goods, located in a burial plot away from the living area. This contrasts with the custom found in other sites of this period where the deceased were laid to rest within the habitation area. A contemporary settlement has more recently been excavated at the site of Kandou-Kouphovournos, closer to the Kouris river.[12]

The succeeding Chalcolithic period (around 4000–2500 BC) is so-called because copper tools – khalkos means ‘bronze’ in Greek – are used on Cyprus for the first time (though not in large quantities). It is represented by a larger number of sites distributed more widely across the landscape, from the Akrotiri peninsula to the smaller valley systems west of the Kouris river.[13]

One of the best known sites of this period is the settlement of Erimi-Pamboules, which was identified in the 1930s by Porphyrios Dikaios. Like the Neolithic site of Sotira, Erimi-Pamboules initially gave its name to the entire period and culture, even though the settlement was occupied for only part of the 1,500 years of the Chalcolithic horizon. Located on the east bank of the Kouris river near the modern village, the settlement comprised several phases of round-houses built first of timber frames and then of stone and mud-brick, which were occupied between around 3400 and 2800 BC.[14]  Evidence for artisanal activities, including spinning, was found on the floors of the houses. The distinctive pottery of this period, called Red-on-White ware, is characterised by a thick, carefully applied slip and geometric designs in vivid colours, such as this large spouted jar in the British Museum collection, which came from Dikaios’ excavations at Erimi.[15]  Several other sherds of this type said to be from Erimi are also preserved in the British Museum collection, though their exact findspot is uncertain (see below, Guide to Collection).

Burials were found both inside and outside the houses, though as in previous periods they were simple earth graves with relatively few offerings to the dead. (More complex forms of burial facility, including extra-mural cemeteries, are found in other parts of Cyprus, particularly in the Paphos district around Souskiou and Lemba.) However, small personal ornaments made of stone, particularly picrolite (a distinctive local rock found mainly in the Kouris valley), become more common in this period. Carved in the shape of human, mainly female, figures, which often emphasise the sexual organs, they may have served as amulets, fertility charms or even as images of a goddess.

No figurines from the Paphos or Kourion areas are represented in the British Museum collection, but examples found at Maroni and Klavdia are illustrated here. They also seem to signal the expression of greater individuality within society, possibly related to the emergence of a more stratified or unequal division of resources and power. Having already moved extensively within the island since the later Neolithic horizon, worked picrolite is widely distributed throughout the island in this period. This suggests that the Kouris valley was in contact with other parts of Cyprus, attracting traders – but also perhaps new settlers – to what would have been an attractive area for human occupation.[16]

 

  • ^ [8] - Simmons 1999; Simmons 2001 (both with previous references); Peltenburg et al. 2001; Steel 2004, 19–32.
  • ^ [9] - Guilaine and Briois 2001.
  • ^ [10] - Todd 2001; Le Brun 2001.
  • ^ [11] - Dikaios 1962; Swiny in Swiny 1982, 12–19.
  • ^ [12] - See also reports by E. Mantzourani in RDAC 1994, 1–38; 1996, 1–28; 2001, 1–14; also RDAC 2004, 1–17.
  • ^ [13] - Steel 2004, chapter 4; Peltenburg 1990.
  • ^ [14] - Dikaios 1933; 1936; Bolger 1988.
  • ^ [15] - Bolger 1991 (with references); Steel 2004, 93. An edition of the journal BASOR (nos 282/283, 1991) was dedicated to the Chalcolithic period.
  • ^ [16] - Peltenburg 1991; Xenophontos 1991.