Ancient Cyprus in the British Museum

Edited by Thomas Kiely

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The excavation at the Tomb of St Catherine in the Plain of Salamis near Enkomi

T. Kiely

The ninth and eighth centuries BC on Cyprus was a period of rapid social and economic change, when the kingdom of Salamis emerged as one of the richest and most powerful states on the island. This is particularly evidence in the so-called Royal Cemetery located on the plateau to the east of the Late Bronze Age site, between the village of Enkomi and the site of Salamis, some of which were covered by huge earth and rubble mounds or tumuli. Scientific excavations in this area between the 1950s and 1970s by P. Dikaios and V. Karageorghis on behalf of the Cypriot Department of Antiquities revealed a spectacular series of rich burials belonging to the richest groups of Salaminian society, perhaps the ruling family itself (see Karageorghis 1969 and 1999 for a useful summary).

The British Museum team attempted to excavate one of these burials, a prominent tumulus known locally as the Tumulus (Toumba) of St Catherine after a nearby chapel dedicated to the famous martyr (Murray et. al. 1900: 1-3 and fig. 1). They cut a horizontal shaft over 150 feet in length through the mound, revealing a burial chamber with a pitched roof, built of massive but finely-cut stone blocks. The chamber was empty, presumably looted long before, but the long entrance passage of the tomb produced an important inscription painted on a large sherd (the so-called Grand Ostracon) in the local Cypriot writing system, dating perhaps to the sixth or fifth centuries BC (Masson 1983: 316-318, no. 318). Its exact meaning and function remains enigmatic: it may record a magical or religious text or simply a set of prosaic accounts for a religious festival. The nearby chapel of St Catherine was constructed in the chamber of another of these monumental burial vaults, this time with a barrel-vaulted roof, while a third tumulus further to the north (named after St Barnabas) also has a stone-built burial chamber. All of these tombs probably date to the Cypro-Archaic period, around 750 BC-500 BC. It was the existence of these later monuments which attracted the attention of early excavators of the area, including the Turner Bequest team, to the Late Bronze Age site of Enkomi further to the west.