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A nose for dirt

An American archaeologist has spent over 40 years excavating at ancient Idalion, uncovering Cypriot treasures to the general indifference of actual Cypriots. THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman charged with energy for our past


It starts, as it must, at ancient Idalion, where Pamela Gaber races up a narrow, winding dirt track, raising clouds of dust, then gets out of the car and leads me to a large municipal water tank at the top of the hill. This used to be the western Acropolis of Idalion, a 207-hectare city which flourished on this site from about 2200BC to 450BC, when it was conquered by the Phoenicians – and from this vantage point you can see the whole place, stretching out to the far bank of the Yialias river.

“You see the little church on the hill there? Looks like a pimple?” says Pamela, pointing out a landmark as a prelude to describing what lies beneath it. Her patter is practised, and no wonder: she’s been doing this, on and off, for 43 years, leading or taking part in excavations here. The path to the ancient Acropolis is steep and rocky but she bounds along easily, reddish-brown hair flying in the wind; I can barely keep up, not to mention that she’s talking non-stop as she strides up the hill. At one point she does pause, to catch her breath – “I’m usually in shorts,” she explains apologetically – then bounds off again. Not bad for a woman of 67.

We start at Idalion, just to have a sense of what we’re talking about. We move on to the modern village of Dhali (more of a suburb nowadays) and sit down at a café opposite a pizza place on the main drag – special offer: XL pizza for €13.50! – which, with symbolic appropriateness, proves to be loud, tacky and generally unsuitable. In the end we get back in our cars and head on down the road to the village of Alambra, and the house she and her husband bought in 2005; the house is small, and the garden’s being choked by the neighbour’s out-of-control fig tree – but they restored it themselves, from a state of near-decrepitude, and besides there’s a middle-Bronze-Age town buried just behind it, where copper used to be processed before being transported to Idalion. The house is “my beloved haven,” says Pamela, surrounded by old photos, wood-carvings, reams of files, notes for unpublished articles, a grandfather clock and textiles she makes herself. “I’m a little crazy about it.”

She doesn’t live here all the year round; indeed, I’ve only just caught her before she sets off for the American half of her annual calendar. She teaches in the autumn, Theory and Method of Archaeology at Lycoming College in rural Pennsylvania – “by percentage, the largest undergraduate Archaeology programme in the country” – then comes back to Cyprus in February; then she works on articles for a few months then, every summer, the college supplies $12,000 for staff and students to carry out seven weeks of excavations at Idalion, led by the indefatigable Pamela. This, incidentally, is no paid vacation: they dig, in the hot summer sun, from six to 11 every morning, then wash pottery, have a light lunch, a siesta, then they’re back in the field from four to seven – then, after dinner, Pamela gives a twice-weekly lecture on Idalion to her dusty, bone-weary troops.

Excavations in Dhali
Excavations in Dhali

Does she still have the energy for such an exhausting schedule? “Apparently so,” she replies, laughing merrily. “I actually had both my knees replaced in December of 2013, and I always say ‘Now I’m bionic!’. But seriously, I lead this tour” – the excavations always kick off with a walking tour of the entire site – “and I always end up turning round and going [she claps her hands sharply] ‘Come on, chop-chop, keep up, what’s the matter with you kids!’.” She works out in the winter months, mostly stretching (“Old muscles tend to be brittle”), and she used to be a dancer in her youth, and she does love hiking and skiing – but mostly, I suspect, her energy during the dig is down to experience: she’s been digging since she was 19 years old.

Then again, it could be a family thing. After all, her paternal grandfather walked across Europe as a young man, trudging from a shtetl in Ukraine to the coast of Spain where he talked his way aboard a ship bound for America. Her family, working-class Jews from Chicago, are “a very odd family”, but a very industrious one. Pamela’s mum worked all through high school, surreptitiously doing her homework while serving customers at the glove counter of a big department store. Her dad, Martin Gaber, was an engineer who designed all the multi-circuit micro-switches in the Apollo space project and was also on the team, during WWII, that invented sonar for submarines (“When I was a kid, in high school, he was in the textbooks,” she recalls proudly). Gabers tend to study on a scholarship – or, like Pamela’s son Zeb, enter college as second-year students because they’ve already passed so many college courses while still in high school.

Zeb, now 25 and working in an “urban kibbutz” in Israel, is her son by her second husband; she also has two daughters, Jordana and Hannah, by her first husband. Photos of the kids come out in due course, one of Pamela’s most endearing traits being her Jewish-mother side; now and then, she sounds exactly like one of those middle-aged matriarchs from Woody Allen movies. “Whatever. He should make a lot of money,” she shrugs philosophically after a dig (no pun intended) at a colleague who’s a bit too fond of self-promotion; “What am I, chopped liver?” she demands, speaking of her – admittedly scandalous – difficulties in securing a residency permit after all these years in Cyprus. She’s actually great fun to talk to, one of those bubbly, indiscreet people who bang the table to make a point and crack themselves up in the middle of telling a story. Her voice is part of the drama, as when she talks about ancient Cypriot, a language we’re unable to decipher (Cypro-Minoan is the oldest legible writing system) – and the voice deepens, as if making some grave pronouncement: “It’s not. Greek. Sorry.”

There’s a serious point behind that, the politically-motivated tendency to define our ancient heritage as Greek rather than Cypriot – and indeed, the most depressing part of Pamela Gaber’s story is perhaps that an American should’ve spent her life uncovering Cypriot treasures to the general indifference of actual Cypriots (more on this later). Oddly enough, despite wanting to be an archaeologist since high school – her family claim she first expressed the desire at the age of seven – she never planned to come here, Mesopotamia (i.e. modern-day Iraq) being her preferred destination; but the plan met with obstacles. For one thing, the only place to study Mesopotamia in the US was Yale – but Yale, like other Ivy League schools, didn’t accept women in the mid-60s. She ended up studying in Israel, following a crash-course in Hebrew (she did receive a PhD from Harvard years later) – then decided to stay on, heeding the general advice that “little Jewish girls from the North Side of Chicago should not go work in Iraq”.

She approached one of the many digs taking place in Israel. “There was this guy called William Dever who was running the excavation.” Her voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper: “The man was CUTE! Had a great voice, too!”. She cracks up laughing, probably at my bewildered expression more than anything: “I’ve now been married to him for 26 years, so I can say all that – but at the time I was just an undergraduate, and I just went [gobsmacked expression] ‘Oh!’. I said, ‘I understand that you have an excavation’ and he said ‘But we only take graduate students’ – and I said ‘I learn fast’. For some reason, it cracked him up”. Like her grandfather and that ship to America, she’d just talked her way into a new life.

The personal stuff was complicated. Pamela was in love with Dever, but Dever was married and she wasn’t in the market to be anyone’s mistress; a few years later, pushing 30, she decided to marry her first husband – a longtime friend who knew all about her infatuation – and that marriage lasted 11 years after which, eventually, she ended up with the man she’d first encountered at that dig in Israel. (William Dever, now 81, also happens to be the world’s foremost Biblical archaeologist.) The professional stuff was simpler. Pamela soon became a “dig nut”, as she puts it, an exacting and meticulous digger – “I have a nose for the dirt. I’m a dirt archaeologist” – and, when the Israel job was over, she followed her new friends to Cyprus where she found herself “completely snowed. I liked the architecture, I liked the pottery. I liked everything about ancient Cypriot stuff”. She’s dug here every season since.

Ancient Idalion hasn’t changed much in those 43 years, its ruins buried snugly as they’ve been for millennia; modern Dhali is a different story. “It was – astounding to live through,” she says. “I mean, you don’t know what it was like in the 70s, it was really primitive. I mean, the women didn’t go outside by themselves. No unmarried girls ever went outside by themselves – period! There was only one telephone in the village, it was a payphone down in the centre. There were only two people who had televisions, and when it was football they’d put them out in the verandah, and everyone would come and stand in the street to watch”. She herself was a young American girl – a little hippie – in the midst of it all. People laughed and pointed when they saw her driving a Land-Rover; “I had a couple of taxi drivers try and put the moves on me” (one actually got in the back seat of the taxi with her, after she’d just flown in from the States; she was so jet-lagged she burst into tears). Yet there was something “delicious” about the culture too. As late as 1993, she recalls, a letter was delivered to her home that was addressed simply: ‘Pamela Gaber, Cyprus’. People knew each other.

Much of that has changed – for the better, when it comes to the women, though only “up to a point,” cautions Pamela, “because they became totally materialistic. Along with the men. I mean, everybody did”. She tells another story, of driving in Nicosia in the late 90s and an impatient male driver – a businessman, by the look of him – who started yelling at her. “Some people have important things to do, you shouldn’t be going so slowly!” yelled the man (she bangs on the table for emphasis). “I said, ‘You should call me Doctor when you speak to me’ – I was so pissed off! But that’s the kind of stuff you NEVER would’ve seen 20 years before.” It’s even more dispiriting in the light of ancient history – because that’s the beauty of our distant past, she says, that the people on this island were producing copper for 1,000 years (even now, the symbol for copper – Cu – stands for Cuprum, or Cyprus), selling it all over the ancient world, yet they didn’t go to war against each other, “didn’t have to fortify themselves against each other”; there was room for everyone.

The contours of today’s Cypriot culture matter in another way as well – which takes us back to the beginning, to that vantage point from the top of the hill in Idalion. I’m not really sure what I expected to see – but surely something more impressive (to a layman) than a series of shallow pits, so overgrown and weed-infested they’re barely visible. Even after all these years, they’ve only excavated about 2 per cent of the total city, says Pamela astonishingly – “Every inch of that area is covered with antiquities” – yet there are no firm plans to exhume the remaining 98 per cent, and what’s there is fenced off (to obstruct animals) but otherwise poorly preserved. It gets worse: half of the city gate was recently bulldozed to build a new sidewalk, the municipal feeling being that a few antiquities shouldn’t stand in the way of beautifying Dhali.

She doesn’t blame the Department of Antiquities, says Pamela: even in the good old days they naturally prioritised Chirokitia, a UNESCO World Heritage site – and now, with the crisis, they’re “a low man on the totem pole” when it comes to funding. But that can’t be the end of it – and she’s determined that it won’t be. Idalion (and Cyprus) is just too important. “Western culture is a blend of the classics and the ancient Near East, through the Bible,” says this ebullient archaeologist. “Where did they meet? Here! They all came for the copper. This is where they met. This is the crucible in which Western culture was formed.”

Wow. That’s a pretty big statement.

“Well, I have no doubt – and I make no apologies. And I think that’s why they invite me to the British Museum and Oxford.”

She has a plan, says Pamela Gaber. A replica of a typical house from the ancient city, so people can see what’s been uncovered. An archaeological park, like they have at other sites. She’ll be digging for a few more years, till she turns 70 – but the park is a long-term project, something she can nurture and develop, a handy précis of four decades excavating for the past in a country that hasn’t always appreciated her. It won’t take much – maybe €20,000. She’ll try to get an embassy involved. She’ll talk to local sponsors. She’ll try to find a grant in the US. “Somebody has to make noise,” says Pamela hotly. She seems like the right person.

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