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A case of ‘love at first site’

Professor K Michalowski with Dr K. Nicolaou and his wife Dr I Nicolaou in Nea Paphos 1963 Photo by Z Borkowski

By Agnieszka Rakoczy

SHE is headless, wears no clothes and has lost her sword. She is unique. So much so that many rank the armed Aphrodite of Paphos among the most important women of Cyprus.

Now, for the first time since her discovery, the Paphos’ Venus Victrix has travelled from her ancient home to the capital where she is the star of a new exhibition, entitled ‘Nea Paphos: 50 Years of Polish Excavations, 1965-2015’ which opens tomorrow at the Cyprus Archaeological Museum.

The temporary show, organised within the framework of the celebrations of International Museum Day and the European Night of Museums, will run in Nicosia till November 30. The exhibition will then move to Paphos where it will form part of the permanent display at the local archaeological museum.

Aphrodite, the Cyprus-born goddess of love and fertility, is rarely depicted armed, according to Dr Henryk Meyza of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, who leads the University of Warsaw’s archaeological mission in Cyprus.

It was the Romans who introduced the sword-armed Aphrodite figure into the world of arts. She was usually shown with her sword still in its scabbard, her right hand adjusting its straps over her right arm.

However, the Cyprus version, discovered by Polish archaeologists in the 1970s when excavating the Villa of Theseus in Nea Paphos, the residential centre of the ancient city, is a notable exception.

“It is the only Aphrodite in the world that holds her sword drawn above her head,” says Meyza, who believes the difference in stance and posture can be ascribed to changes made to the original sculpture at some point after it was created. Theoretical perhaps, “but when you examine the position of her arms, you can see that it is quite likely”, he adds.

Meyza, an expert on ancient pottery, who first came to Cyprus almost 40 years ago to work with the Swedish expedition at the excavations at Hala Sultan Tekke, has been a member of the Polish excavation team in Nea Paphos since 1987.

He describes the Paphos Aphrodite as a decorative sculpture. It was found in a part of the villa that was used to store similar statues, which, he theorises, may have been destined for recycling.

‘They were made of marble and as we know marble was a very valuable material at the time. Most likely, they planned to crush them and re-use the material to produce some kind of lime,’ he speculates.

The Villa of Theseus, so named for its mosaics depicting the killing of labyrinth-dwelling half-man, half bull Minotaur by the Athenian hero Theseus, was discovered by a team of Polish archaeologists in 1965, in what was their first summer of excavations in Paphos.

Armed Aphrodite found at the Villa of Theseus Photo by M Jawornicki
Armed Aphrodite found at the Villa of Theseus Photo by M Jawornicki

Commenting on the serendipitous start, a wondrous case of beginner’s luck for the assembled expertise, Dr Efstathios Raptou of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities recalls how the archeological team almost immediately found “what we now know was a huge palatial building — in fact, the largest in Cyprus!” Even at this distance, it is difficult not to call it a case of love at first site!

From the outset, there were clear indications of where to dig. The signs were there. For example, in 1962 well-known Cypriot archaeologist Dr Kyriacos Nicolaou had discovered a prosperous residence of the Roman period. The so-called House of Dionysos (the god of wine features prominently in the villa’s mosaics) was located just next to the Villa of Theseus.

Discovery of a group of marble sculptures in the west wing of the Villa of Theseus Photo WA Daszewski
Discovery of a group of marble sculptures in the west wing of the Villa of Theseus Photo WA Daszewski

The Poles first came to the island at the invitation of Nicolaou and Dr Vassos Karageorghis, then the director of the Department of Antiquities. At the time, the young Republic lacked the means to excavate on a very large scale so it was looking for assistance from well-established, internationally respected institutions, with the right kind of expertise.

By happy coincidence, Warsaw University was interested in establishing a foothold in the Middle East and Mediterranean. Moreover, since the university had been excavating extensively in Egypt at the time, Professor Kazimierz Michalowski, the so-called father of the Polish school of Mediterranean archaeology was very keen to explore provincial towns of the Kingdom of Ptolemies. Nea Paphos, the one-time capital of Cyprus, was a prime example.

So it was that Michalowski became the first director of the Polish archaeological mission in Cyprus. Professor Wiktor Andrzej Daszewski succeeded him in 1966. Meyza has been leading excavations at the area of Paphos known as Maloutena since 2008.

A second archaeological mission from Poland was established in 2011, this time under the direction of Professor Ewdoksia Papuci-Wladyka of Krakow’s Jagiellonian University.

The Krakow team restarted excavations at the site of Paphos’ ancient Roman agora, which, according to Nicolaou (who worked there in the 1970s), functioned from the second to the fourth centuries AD. To date, among other discoveries, the Jagiellonian University group’s efforts have found traces of an earlier agora from the Hellenistic period beneath the Roman one.

West wing of the Hellenic House Roman baths a mosaic of armed Aphrodite with a spear and atrium 2nd century AD Photo by M Jawornicki
West wing of the Hellenic House Roman baths a mosaic of armed Aphrodite with a spear and atrium 2nd century AD Photo by M Jawornicki

Exhibition curator Dr Despo Pilides of the Antiquities Department says excavations by the two Polish teams have significantly enhanced what we know about the archaeology of Nea Paphos as the town that served as the centre of both Ptolemaic and Roman administrations on the island for many centuries.

“Cyprus was a very important island for the Ptolemies,” she explains. “It had natural resources that Egypt lacked. It had timber that they needed to build their warships; it had copper, it had flax. It was also very important because of its geographical position. The Ptolemies at the time lost many of their territorial possessions but they always fought to keep Cyprus because of its economic importance.”

The exhibition’s aim is to portray all these aspects in as much detail as possible. It features an inventory of finds from Nea Paphos’ luxurious villas and public buildings, ranging from household vessels, coins, sculpture and figurines to items and objects related to the planning of the ancient city’s layout and water supply system

“Our intention is to show the public what Paphos was at the time: its wealth and way of life; its religion — how its people related to gods and which gods; its art; its economy and monetary policy; its sophisticated water management system.”

The exhibition is intended as both overview and comprehensive insight, Pilides says.

“Many people don’t know how significant Paphos was at the time. They know about its mosaics but not about anything else. This exhibition will fill in the details and broaden the comprehension and appreciation of the role it played in those flourishing times.”

And recognising the significance of conveying the fullness of this, both Polish teams continue to come to Cyprus every summer for about five to six weeks. They include not only archaeologists and students of archaeology but also architects, geodesists, restorers, numismatists, and representatives of many other interdisciplinary fields.

As noted by Papuci-Wladyka, archaeology has changed significantly nowadays. “It is not just work with a spade and a little mop any more,” she says.

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