By Alexia Evripidou
Nicosia’s 14 year archaeological excavation on Ayios Georgios Hill ended last month after providing evidence of a history of Nicosia dating back to the Chalcolithic period, or third millennium BC. The discoveries strongly back the widely held belief that Nicosia is indeed the site of Cyprus’ missing city-kingdom of Ledroi (Ledra).
The dig which took place revealed a settlement of 11,482 sq.m and were discovered when the site was originally selected for the construction of a new parliament building in the early 1990s. The department of antiquities commenced excavations under the direction Dr Despo Pilides (now the curator of antiquities) and revealed a settlement, dating back to the sixth century BC.
In addition to the architectural remains: ceramics; terracotta and limestone, figurines, coins, tools, seeds and many other objects that tell the story of the settlement, the excavation unearthed further treasures, assisting archaeologists to ultimately fill gaps in the island’s overall history; taking them one step further in identifying this settlement with the city-kingdom of Ledroi.
Pilides spent over two decades committed to this project, excavating until 2010, then finding the funds to create a site museum and landscape the area.
“It becomes part of you, an extension of yourself. It’s a very strong tie; understanding the past and making all these objects speak to you,” says Pilides.
The Agios Georgios Hill site, near the PASYDY building, is unique for several reasons.
“Firstly, the city of Nicosia is already a built environment and there are few opportunities to excavate on a scale that would enable us to assess the character of the remains and their importance,” says Pilides.
Secondly, it’s the only archaeological site in Nicosia that extends so far back in chronological terms and has been continuously inhabited for such a long period of time.
Another reason making this site special is the preservation of the Hellenistic settlement.
“Not many Hellenistic settlements have been excavated to such a large extent, so this is important. We know that the cities have Hellenistic layers below the Roman ones and this is a difficulty. Roman houses were built on top of the Hellenistic ones, obscuring the evidence for the Hellenistic period.”
It was critical for those involved to find a way to preserve and promote the site. So in 2009, a proposal for funding the project titled ‘Am Ergon’ to the Cross-Border Co-operation Programme Greece-Cyprus 2007-2013 was approved and the project started in September 2012 aimed at creating a museum and landscaping the site to make it accessible to the public.
With over 200 artifacts on show, the museum will open its doors on the site in early spring, exhibiting architectural and archaeological artefacts found on site. It’ll be divided into themes such as daily life, the ruling authorities, trade and contacts and death and burials throughout the different periods.
There will be audio guides, explanation panels, walks around the site, photos of the excavation, an interactive learning system and ongoing lectures.
“Through the excavations we find not only the chronological layers of the life of the settlement but also the daily life of people through the material that we find,” says Pilides.
These findings are important because they are part of Nicosia’s identity.
“If you are an inhabitant of Nicosia, you are the extension of what was happening in the past. It’s part of our identity today. Knowing about your past can create a substratum that is important for the continuation of life and civilisation itself” says Pilides.
Whilst digging on the site they found objects from as early as the Neolithic period such as obsidian, tools and stone grinders that are earlier than the Chalcolithic era, but no remains of this period have been preserved due to the continued habitation on top. The earliest architectural remains – a circular building on the east bank of the river Pedieos – date from 2800-2500BC or from the Chalcolithic Period.
Pilides explains how the settlement evolved through the ages.
“On top of this Chalcolithic foundation, we found a building from 6th century BC and on top of this, there was a building whose walls were made by reusing material from the previous period. This occurred both in the 4th and 3rd century BC when the settlement was rebuilt. Through this we can see the different historical events that changed the political scene, such as the dissolution of the city-kingdoms and the involvement of Cyprus in the wars between the descendants of Alexander the Great, the annexation of Cyprus by the Ptolemies etc. In spite of these events, the settlement still continued.”
From 600 BC to the first century BC, there’s evidence of continued habitation dating from the Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic periods and the beginning of the Roman period.
“Then again there is a gap and then the settlement is inhabited in the fourth century AD, from the Late Roman or Early Christian period running up to 1567 when we have the abandonment of the churches and the city is rebuilt within the new Venetian walls. Then again, we have another phase under the British rule with the building of the first Anglican church on top of the hill and the stone built houses of the same period.”
The hill of Ayios Georgios was an excellent location for the early settlers. One reason they stayed so long, was the hill top location and the nearby river; an essential water source. They also benefited from a very central position on the island, strategically situated in between the two very important harbour towns of Salamis and Soloi (near Morphou). People crossing between the two harbours stopped off to trade and worship at one of the many sanctuaries here.
“Their economic development went hand in hand with religion and trade and explains therefore why the position was a key factor to the settlement’s longevity and why it was never abandoned. Each ruler thought the area was important enough to rebuild and maintain,” says Pilides.
From the sixth century BC, there is strong evidence that this was an important centre of worship with many communal and domestic shrines. There is evidence that the people from this area worshiped Aphrodite, Arsinoe and then Agios Georgios as well as other deities of the time. Several figurines portraying a seated Ram God have been discovered; a man with a human head and horns sitting on a throne decorated with heads of rams.
“He is the god protector of animals and a local Cypriot deity identified with Zeus Ammon. The ram seems to have been an important find, possibly symbolising fertility. Nicosia was in a very fertile plain and agriculture and rearing animals was an important economic activity, as was metal smiths and textile production.”
Two very important historical finds from the site will be part of the exhibition, a hoard of 36 silver coins with the names of kings and the name of an unknown mint. This find has assisted in the identification of other coins found years earlier that had never been identified.
Pilides explains that there is a possibility that these coins may have actually been minted in this area. They were royal issues, meaning issues minted by a king. This in turn gives a further indication that Nicosia may be identified with the city kingdom of Ledroi. Traditionally, it was believed that Nicosia was the site of the missing kingdom, but no excavations had proved that a settlement existed at that time. “Now we have the settlement and we may be able to link it with the kingdom of Ledroi,” says Pilides.
Another crucial find to back this theory is a cup imported from Greece with an inscription from the fourth century.
“It says ‘I belong to the Prince Timas.’ Due to findings, we believe that this prince lived in the house where we found the cup. This is another indication that there may have been a connection with a royal family, bringing archaeologists one step closer towards the identification of the settlement with Ledroi,” says Pilides.
With its rich history dating back to 10,000 BC, Cyprus seems to be forever stumbling across important archaeological findings, arguably making the island one giant archaeological site. But why are these findings still important?
“This is because Cyprus was so heavily inhabited throughout antiquity. However, this doesn’t mean that because there’s a lot, it’s all of the same nature and thus of no value; everything is of value,” says Pilides. “We still have many gaps in our knowledge and everything we find relates to something else and helps complete the puzzle. Every archaeological finding is important because it adds to our knowledge of the past.”