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Reinvesting in our past: 80th anniversary of the antiquities department

By Vassos Karageorghis

THIS month the department of antiquities marks its 80th anniversary. It was in January 1935 that the British colonial government enacted the antiquities law and created a department to protect and promote Cyprus’ cultural heritage. The Cyprus Museum in Nicosia became part of this department, which had its own administration and annual budget.

This important anniversary should not pass unnoticed. One way to mark this landmark could be with an exhibition of photographs organised in the Cyprus Museum illustrating its most important achievements since 1985 when the department celebrated another important anniversary, its 50th.

Back then, we celebrated by organising an international conference which hosted eminent scholars from all over the world. They spoke about various aspects of Cypriot archaeology, which had developed in a dramatic way since the island’s independence in 1960.

The proceedings of the conference were published by the AG Leventis Foundation in a large volume, entitled Archaeology in Cyprus 1960-1985.As director of the department, I wrote the introductory remarks to the volume in which I made a short survey of the department’s first 50 years.

“Looking back to 1948, when I was first appointed as a student assistant in the department, I realise on this 50th anniversary how gigantic the achievements of the department have been. The credit goes to all my predecessors and collaborators, from my closest colleagues to the humblest labourers who worked with much devotion and zeal,” I wrote.
That was a time of general optimism and vision enhanced by a creative spirit on behalf of all those in the department. Though I had only four years to serve as director before my retirement at the age of 60 in 1989, I could foresee a bright future for the department, which had gained respectability not only in Cyprus but also internationally, especially during the first 25 years of the Cyprus Republic.

“Looking with confidence ahead,” I wrote in my introduction, “we hope to increase the activities of the department of antiquities. One of our immediate needs is the creation of the new premises of the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia, a scheme which was already in hand in 1973, but which had to be shelved after the Turkish invasion of 1974.”

feature vassos- A find from ancient Idalion

The period between 1965 and 1985 had been marked by extensive archaeological excavations from some of the most renowned universities in the world. They covered the entire chronological span of Cypriot archaeology from the Neolithic period onwards, throughout the island.

A large amount of material had come to light which needed suitable new museums to house them, especially in the national museum in Nicosia, which was the ‘showcase’ of the island’s long cultural heritage.

The extensive excavations, however, were not an end by themselves. They had to be published in scholarly reports. “Another task,” I wrote, “which needs the collaboration of all those who have excavated in Cyprus during the last twenty years or so, is the publication of the results of all excavations so as to ensure that these excavations provide a permanent contribution to Cypriot archaeology.”

Since 1985, the department has met targets of considerable importance under the direction of successive directors who, unfortunately, had only very few years to serve before their retirement and therefore could not plan for long periods ahead. The department’s scientific staff has increased considerably, especially during recent years.

The budget has also been multiplied dramatically. The omens are good for the future, in spite of the temporary recession which has affected all government activities. Young and energetic scholars have been recruited both for Nicosia and the other districts and, together with the well trained technical staff, they will certainly ensure the further development of the department.

I am sure ceremonies this year will enumerate the department’s achievements since 1985. But we could mention a few here, namely the creation of two important site museums at Polis tis Chrysochous (ancient Marion) and Idalion respectively; the commendable effort to refurbish some exhibition galleries in the Cyprus Museum and the district museums; the organisation of special thematic exhibitions in the Cyprus Museum and the Paphos district museum; the participation in exhibitions organised abroad on the occasion of Cyprus’ presidency of the Council of Europe in 2012 and the publication of lavishly illustrated catalogues.

These no doubt have enhanced the archaeological image of Cyprus. Praise is also due to the scientific and technical staff of the department and to the AG Leventis Foundation, which helped to organise permanent Cypriot galleries in a large number of important museums throughout the world to promote effectively and permanently Cyprus’ long history and civilisation.

I hope I will not be misunderstood, however, if I express a few remarks, not of criticism, but of advice, emanating from my long experience in the archaeological affairs of Cyprus.

The failure of successive governments to take the political decision to create new premises for a modern archaeological museum in Nicosia, worthy of the island’s archaeological treasures, cannot be excused.

Lack of funds is not a credible reason (the island has not been in a continuous economic crisis since 1973!). We made a mistake in our priorities and discarded the important contribution of culture in the island’s general development.

Cyprus became known internationally as a result of intensified archaeological activity. The excavation of major sites like Salamis, Enkomi, Kition, Khirokitia, etc and the publications which followed placed Cyprus prominently on the archaeological map of the Mediterranean.

Unlike the archaeology of Greece, Italy, Egypt which is taught regularly in the universities throughout the world, Cyprus’ archaeology can be kept alive only with regular publications.

These have become rather rare in the last decade or so. There are still hundreds of unpublished tomb groups of all periods excavated by the department of antiquities more than 20 years ago which are stored away in the museums of Paphos, Limassol and elsewhere.

Some of the major excavations of the department and of foreign missions again carried out long ago – like the British excavations at Palaepaphos, the excavation of the Kyrenia ship, the American excavations at Kourion and others carried out by the department – have remained unpublished for several decades.

The local members of the department should set a good example to all other foreign missions by publishing promptly their own excavations.

The department of antiquities had two annual journals which had a wide circulation throughout the world and were published at the end of every year since the late 1950s.

These have not been published for several years now. The department and others have lost a valuable “voice”. This should and could be remedied straightaway.

These suggestions are written on the department’s 80th anniversary out of a genuine concern for the archaeological affairs of Cyprus. If there are obstacles of any kind, the ministry of communications and works, which is responsible for the wellbeing of the antiquities department, should intervene.

Up to now, Cyprus has excelled in preserving and promoting its cultural heritage. It could and should continue doing so.

Vassos Karageorghis is a former director of the antiquities department

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