Former director of the antiquities department Vassos Karageorghis looks back at the remarkable achievements in archaeological research over the last fifty years
CYPRUS’ independence in 1960 marked the beginning of a new era in archaeological research on the island.
The antiquities law of 1935, which created the department of antiquities and made the Cyprus Museum a government institution, ensured there was considerable progress in protecting monuments and safeguarding moveable antiquities, but the archaeology of Cyprus still remained a rather local affair.
The lively interest and promotion of Cypriot cultural heritage generated with the discoveries and publications of the Swedish Cyprus Expedition, which excavated in many parts of the island from 1927 to 1931, had helped provide a firm scholarly basis to Cypriot archaeology, but did not succeed in developing it into an internationally acknowledged discipline.
The colonial government failed to build on the achievements of the Swedish Cyprus Expedition.
The department of antiquities, headed by the British official AHS Megaw and assisted by the Cypriot curator of the Cyprus Museum Porphyrios Dikaios, had to bear all the administration of the new department – the preservation of monuments, the creation and maintenance of museums, the organisation of excavations – on a limited budget and with a handful of poorly trained technical staff.
Nevertheless, through their dedication and hard work they helped to keep Cypriot archaeology alive during the period between 1935 and 1960 – including the difficult years of the Second World War – though there was no spectacular growth.
The highlights of this period include: Dikaios’ excavations at Vounous, Choirokoitia, Erimi and other minor prehistoric sites; the French archaeologist Claude Schaeffer’s discovery and excavations at the Late Bronze Age site of Enkomi (near Salamis), joined by Dikaios between 1948 and 1958; and the Australian archaeologist James Stewart’s excavations at Vounous and other prehistoric cemeteries.
These enriched not only the Cyprus Museum, but also many other museums throughout the world because the antiquities law of the time allowed for a division of finds.
Cyprus’ independence in 1960 witnessed dramatic changes, not only in the political and social life of the Cypriots, but also an unprecedented growth of interest in the study of the island’s history and research in all aspects of its culture, no doubt created by a new wind of self confidence and self respect brought about by freedom.
There was a genuine interest in what had happened in the past, which could guide the new republic towards its future.
During these formative years the department of antiquities received much more state attention, both moral and financial, and its role was definitely upgraded.
It became clear that the department, with its excavations, maintenance of monuments and the creation and promotion of archaeological sites and scholarly research into the island’s past, would not only help to develop cultural tourism, underlining UNESCO’s axiom “there is a future in the past”, but also throw new light on dark pages of the island’s history and prehistory.
The department’s objective was to place Cypriot archaeology on the international map of archaeological scholarship.
The omens were good: the new government of the republic, headed by a president with vision and surrounded by young and energetic young ministers, well-educated and eager to serve their country, together with equally energetic and enthusiastic young heads of government departments, who replaced all colonial administrators, had as their only goal to make the new republic a successful state in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The revitalised department of antiquities was embraced with affection, both by the government and by the public. I will mention a few typical cases.
When the ancient theatre of Salamis was discovered in the early 1960s, Famagusta residents demonstrated their interest by donating money, while the merchants of building materials offered their supplies for free to help excavate and restore the theatre.
When we were excavating the tumulus and the funerary monument of the ‘Cenotaph of King Nicocreon’ in the mid-1960s, the minister of finance visited us and asked if we needed more money, a question rarely or never asked, before or since by a finance minister!
I had the privilege and good fortune to serve as a director of the department of antiquities from 1963 to 1989. I do not intend to give here an account of what happened during these years, but I hope I will not be accused of ‘showing off’ if I mention one aspect of policy followed by the department of antiquities at that time which helped Cypriot archaeology to step out of the relative isolation which I mentioned above, and enter the arena of international scholarship with good credentials and pride.
This was the policy of liberalism in archaeological research in Cyprus but accompanied by strict control regarding competence and the full respect of the antiquities law.
It was clear that the department by itself – despite the increased scientific and technical expertise of its staff – could not achieve its goals quickly, without international cooperation.
Thus, the new administration of the department, supported and safeguarded by a newly amended antiquities law, which ensured that all antiquities discovered during an excavation, whether by Cypriot or foreign archaeologists belonged to the state, felt that it had the strength to control effectively archaeological excavations by foreign missions.
These were headed by serious archaeologists from reputable universities whose sole aim was the advancement of scholarship, and not the enrichment of the museums of foreign countries, as had been the custom in the past.
This helped us create new archaeological sites throughout Cyprus by regulating the choice of sites, with regard to their position and their period. We aimed to balance research with touristic development.
At the same time the department of antiquities undertook its own large scale regular excavations, like Salamis, Kition, Amathus, Paphos, complemented by foreign excavations at Enkomi, Salamis, Paphos, Morphou, Agios Epiktitos and Cape Andreas.
These would enrich the Cyprus Museum and provide exhibits for the new district museums, and at the same time promote Cypriot archaeology abroad, by introducing it in universities and other learned institutions through lectures, conferences and publications.
With the approval of the Council of Ministers this new ‘liberal’ policy was put in effect in 1964-65, fifty years ago, and continues to the present day, having been adopted by all my successors at the department of antiquities.
As many as fifteen foreign missions excavated every year throughout Cyprus, and their number did not diminish even after the Turkish invasion of 1974. Those foreign missions which had been excavating sites which were now occupied by the Turkish army were given new areas to excavate.
The objectives I mentioned above were achieved by the department, even after 1974, when many important archaeological sites, monuments and museums became inaccessible to us.
These include Salamis, Engomi, Famagusta, Kyrenia, Morphou which suffer the effects of neglect and destruction to the present day. The young students, who participated in excavations for their universities, are now mature scholars.
They have written their doctoral dissertations on Cypriot archaeology and Cypriot bibliography has increased dramatically. International conferences on Cypriot archaeology are regularly organised both in Cyprus and throughout the world.
The department of antiquities now has an ally in the University of Cyprus following the creation of the Archaeological Research Unit in 1992.
It is gratifying to see how quickly and firmly Cypriot archaeology has made roots in the major universities of Europe, America and Australia. With the generous assistance of the AG Leventis Foundation, which created Cypriot galleries in major museums worldwide, Cypriot art has been upgraded and taken out of dark store-rooms to be exhibited in London, Paris, New York and elsewhere.
With the development of new technologies and the facilities offered by the Cyprus Institute for the application of science to archaeology, there are unlimited opportunities for the younger generation.
I only hope that they will maintain the same energy, tenacity and enthusiasm which helped us, the older generation, to overcome diversity and survive.
We feel that the government, in spite of the present financial crisis, will not allow Cyprus to lose the prestigious place it has enjoyed in international archaeological scholarship over the last fifty years.
But there is one serious shortcoming which must be emphasised: Nicosia desperately needs a new Cyprus Museum to house the treasures which have been brought to light over the years and which continue to be unearthed every year. Back in 1973 we felt this need and tried to remedy it.
Since then, no serious political decision has been taken by any government to build a new museum. If both government and people sincerely feel this is an urgent need, the economic difficulties could be overcome.